Fate—or is it karma?—sends me from high school to university in an area of Florida that is home to the largest concentration of freshwater springs on the planet. The first spring that I visit is Poe Spring on the Santa Fe River where a thick, knotted rope hangs from a tree that stands sentinel on the bank. I grab the cable, pull it a few steps backward, then run forward to swing out over the spring, let go and hang suspended for a split-second before plunging into the cool water. This, I think, must be what it’s like to fall into love.
My creative writing teacher and I have a conversation about my experience at Poe Spring. She tells me about a larger spring, Ginnie, off the same road in the northwestern part of the county. I write down her directions: Pass a set of large power transmission lines and then a smaller set of lines. Turn right onto a dirt road that’s bounded by a line of trees along the west side of a pasture. Follow the dirt road as it rounds downhill through the woods toward the river. There I find the most beautiful spring I’ve ever seen, a pool of translucent water edged with a lush growth of underwater plants. The water shimmers as it deepens from pale aquamarine over a limestone shelf to deep turquoise blue over the spring vent. And there is a rope swing here, too!
Ginnie Spring becomes my happy place. Before I leave work at 4:30 p.m., I change into my bathing suit and drive out to the spring on long summer afternoons that seem to last forever. I drop into the spring from the rope swing and swim laps around the perimeter, then take breaks and rest by floating above the vent, aware of the afternoon sunlight as it dapples through the trees surrounding the spring onto my closed eyelids. On many afternoons, I am the only person there. This, I think, must be Paradise.
|Ginnie Spring, Gilchrist County, Florida|
One afternoon, someone brings his Irish setter to the water. I watch as the dog does interminable laps around the spring. Finally, the owner goes into the spring and fishes his tired dog out.
On another afternoon, my friend brings her Afghan hound. Eager to teach the dog to swim, she supports the Afghan with her arms under its chest as they wade into the water. When they reach deeper water, she lets go and the Afghan sinks to the bottom! My friend dives underwater and quickly retrieves her dog.
When I start seeing more and more SCUBA divers at Ginnie, I learn that there is an underwater cavern and cave beneath the spring vent. One day, I’m happily floating on my back above the vent when I’m tipped over by a hard bump. I roll around to see a SCUBA diver, who has just surfaced from the cave, shoot me a nasty look before he swims away. I start to notice that the two groups—swimmers and SCUBA divers—don’t interact much and tend to give each other a wide berth.
I fall into conversation with a woman who is sitting on the underwater log that crosses the spring run as it flows out toward the river. She tells me that she and her family have purchased the property and have plans to construct restrooms and other facilities. The restrooms, at least, are needed and will be welcome.
There are other springs on the property and I like to take my first dip of the day at Ginnie, then hike upriver past an old hollow cypress tree to Devil’s Ear and Devil’s Eye springs. I swim from there at an angle across the river to July Spring, then back across the river at another angle to Ginnie, then hike downriver to Dogwood Spring and Twin Spring. I marvel at this oasis of beauty and clarity.
|Devil's Eye Spring, Gilchrist County, Florida|
|Dogwood Spring, Gilchrist County, Florida|
A friend and I visit Ginnie Spring in the winter, when the 72-degree, constant-temperature water is warmer than the air. We decide it will be fun to tell people about skinny-dipping in the cold weather, so we strip off our clothes and jump in. We swim around until—much to our dismay!—two vanloads of SCUBA divers arrive out of nowhere. Embarrassed, we slither back into our clothes and escape as fast as we can.
My college geology class takes a field trip to Ginnie Spring. While other class members explore the area around us, I stand on the bank of the spring with my instructor, Jean Klein. We are silent, looking into the depths of the spring, when Jean says, “If these springs ever get polluted, it will take hundreds of years for Nature to clean them up.” This moment burns like a brand into the deepest cells of my memory.
Chad, one of my roommates who meets many people when he delivers pizza for a local shop, tells me he has learned about a spring I’ve never heard of—Ichetucknee. With our other roommate, Pam, we make a longer than usual drive northwest of town, then out a two-lane blacktop to a dirt road that leads back into the woods. It’s a beautiful autumn afternoon and the three of us are the only people at the spring. When we’ve been swimming for a while, Chad climbs up onto a rock, produces a bar of soap that he has hidden, and begins singing and lathering up in a mock soap commercial. After laughing so hard my sides hurt, I climb out of the spring and walk up a little hill where I can spread out my towel and lie in the late afternoon sunlight. All around me, trees are beginning to turn gold, russet and crimson. A gentle breeze stirs the leaves and I lie back, closing my eyes. I can hear Pam and Chad laughing from the spring. As I rest, the rustling leaves begin to sound like whispered voices. The murmuring gradually gets louder and louder until it resolves into words—but these are words in a language I’ve never heard. There must be other people in the woods, I think, foreigners of some sort. I rub my eyes, stand up, and slowly turn in a full circle, looking for the people I can now hear speaking clearly. But there is no one else there.
|Ichetucknee Spring, Columbia County, Florida|
Many years later, I visit Wakulla Springs for the first time with a friend who is working on a book. We are waiting to take the river tour and curious about why the glass-bottom boats aren’t running. A park ranger explains to us that the spring is too dark, too polluted, so the glass-bottom boat rides have been halted. We talk for a while about the pollution that plagues the springs. After a moment of silence the ranger says, “That’s all right. Mother Nature will eventually take care of it.” What rings like a clear bell in the silent air between us is the rest of his thought: “But we won’t be here to see it.”