HIKE AND SWIM
Thursday's original plan was to paddle 5 miles upstream on the Silver River to Silver Springs. Silver Springs is a theme park, which normally costs somewhere around $35 per person to get in. Paddling in is free, though you can't get out of your boat. After some debate we decided against the upstream paddle. 5 miles is a long way to go against the current. Instead, we decided to spend the day further exploring the Juniper Springs area.
After an omelet breakfast we hiked the trail that starts just behind our campsite. We followed it a short distance to Fern Hammock Springs. This is a good size spring in a natural setting. It is especially colorful, with a blue bottom wherever vegetation isn't growing. At the far end, the trail crossed a bridge over the spring. Just below the bridge we spotted a vent, where sand was boiling up to the surface.
We left the spring and followed the path along the outlet stream. Soon it joined Juniper Creek, and we hiked along where we had paddled the previous day. We continued upstream to Juniper Springs. Here we found an old millhouse and waterwheel, which is situated at the outlet of the spring. Juniper Springs is also pretty, and is probably a little bigger than Fern Hammock Spring. It is surrounded by a swimming area though, so it didn't quite have the natural beauty of the other one.
From there, we walked the road out past the entrance gate to a crossing of the Florida Trail. The trail is still a work in progress, but it's now possible to hike from Big Cypress Preserve in south Florida all the way to the panhandle. We opted for a shorter version. We had asked one of the security guys (who patrol the campground on golf carts) for a recommendation. He had suggested heading north on the Florida Trail, and that is what we did.
Initially the hike was disappointing. We hiked through a dry pine forest and then entered a shrubby area that had been logged fairly recently. A mile later though, we reached the boundary of the Juniper Prairie Wilderness, and things improved immediately. Soon we were in a thick jungle of a forest that would have seemed more appropriate in Central America. Afterwards, we passed through a series of grassy wetlands. Then we stopped for lunch by a small pond. I searched the pond for alligators, but came up empty.
I hiked ahead a little further, and reached a huge grassy lake. Out in the middle were several Great Blue Herons, which were only mildly disturbed by my presence. I watched them for a few minutes before returning to our lunch spot.
We hiked back quickly. The hiking is easy, on flat, sandy footpath. We returned to Juniper Springs and had a swim. The water there stays at a constant temperature year-round. In the summer it is probably quite refreshing. In January it's a bit on the cold side of pleasant. That didn't stop us though. It was a thrill to swim above the blue floor of the spring, with nothing but 20 feet of clear water below. Fish were abundant, and it was interesting to share the swimming hole with them. Some eels were also spotted. After our swim, and a couple of jumps off of a large rock, we returned to camp. We had hot dogs and mac-n-cheese for dinner, and enjoyed a campfire. Afterwards we did battle with the campground raccoons. We could observe their beady little eyes as the watched us from the woods surrounding camp. It was amusing to turn off our lights, because every time we did, they seemed to think that we had left. They would approach the picnic table, only to have us turn our lights back on and chase them through the campground. Occasionally, we resorted to throwing things. When we finally went to bed, we made sure there was nothing edible out where they could get it.
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