It was a Second Saturday, and time for another Lowcountry Unfiltered trip. However, there was a problem. I wasn’t anywhere within range of my fellow paddlers. Even so, fellow paddler Craig Lee and I were able to do an LCU trip…sort of. We spent a spectacular day paddling the wilds of Ocala National Forest on the Juniper Springs Run.
On our tentative trip calendar for our group we had June listed for a possible Florida springs trip. When I found out that we would be in Florida for this trip, I was happy. I’d be within range. As it turns out, most of our group wouldn’t be able to make a trip that far. Our group decided to divide and conquer. The rest of the LCU group would do a section of the Edisto River. Craig and I would do the Juniper Springs Run as the ELCU – the Even Lower Country Unfiltered.
I had done the Juniper Run once before. Over Christmas holidays of 2005 we camped in Ocala and ran the river. My only memories were of a very tricky river with strong current and twists and turns. Back then we were in a rented canoe. I was looking forward to running it with a more maneuverable kayak.
…but which kayak?
I didn’t haul an additional boat down to Florida. I had my tandem, and had originally planned to use it. It’s fairly maneuverable, despite its length, yet it is a long boat. Instead, Amy loaned me her kayak – a 10 ft sit-on-top. It’s similar to my whitewater boats, but with a keel for straight tracking. It would do nicely.
With borrowed boat loaded, I headed out early Saturday morning for my rendezvous with Craig. It was a three-hour drive from Fort Pierce to the venue, with stops for gas, breakfast, etc. That’s no worse than when I drive down to the Lowcountry of South Carolina from Greenville.
Craig was waiting for me at the take out. We put my boat on his vehicle and drove on over to the put-in, leaving my car at the take out.
The Juniper Springs Recreation Area is a popular place. There is a swimming area with a replica water wheel and a concession stand/canoe rental area. We found a place to park, unloaded the boats, then took advantage of their carts to haul the kayaks down the long boardwalk to the put-in.
One thing I’d forgotten about the Juniper Run was how strict they are about contaminating the waterway. Absolutely no disposable products are allowed – no candy bars with wrappers, no cans or bottles, and definitely no alcohol. At the launch everyone must go through a cooler/bag inspection. They even had me open all of my dry bags to make sure I had no contraband. Anything that might possibly become litter is forbidden.
We struck up a conversation with the bag inspector, who introduced herself as “MarshaMarshaMarsha, the Launch Nazi.” She was anything but a Nazi. She was actually a very pleasant volunteer, despite the fact that she probably does get lots of grief from people who want to challenge their strict rules.
Craig returned our carts while I watched over the now inspected gear. Marsha told me that the recent droughts in Florida had made the creek too low to run, but it had come back up so that it was now passable. As we launched I spotted some of the springs bubbling up through the sand right at the put-in.
When we started the creek was VERY low. I scrubbed across the bottom several times and had to use my split paddle technique to pull myself forward. It was hard to find a route, and my thoughts were that seven miles of this would get very old very quickly. The creek was narrow and overhung with vegetation. At least the scenery was incredible.
After about a half mile of this slog a tributary entered from creek north and nearly doubled the volume of water. The current was just as swift as I remembered from my previous trip in 2005, but at least now we had enough draught to maneuver. There were overhanging branches, but none of these seemed to be a problem. That makes sense. Park officials don’t want anyone getting out of their boats, so they would ensure that there was a path through, even though negotiating that path might be a challenge.
The creek had a swift current and just about as many twists and turns as the South Edisto. There was no time to relax. If I paused a moment to take a photo at the wrong time I could hit a submerged limb or wind up where I didn’t want to go. Subsequently I didn’t take many photos with my Fuji, but relied heavily on the GoPro. I had to dispose of lots of photos taken too quickly, that were blurred or covered with water droplets.
We were not alone on the creek. Several rental canoes passed us. There was one group of three canoes with twenty-somethings that paced us just about the entire way. They were pleasant folks, although I believe one boyfriend-girlfriend pair will probably not remain so after this trip. There’s a reason we call these things “divorce boats.”
As more water fed into the creek from tributaries and submerged springs the current picked up. The beauty was almost surreal. With the narrow, swift channel, ultra-clean environment, and astounding scenery, Craig and I both came to the conclusion that this must be a Disney ride. Or, at least, it reminded us of such.
I did manage to get some video. These really show just how fast the current was flowing. You will need to click on the images below to get to the clips on Flickr.
And so we continued. We saw surprisingly little wildlife on this trip. There were a few turtles and one small alligator. We heard birds off in the distance, but didn’t see any.
The miles flew by. We only stopped a very few times, usually just to change camera batteries or to take a sip of water. I’d brought a sandwich, but there was really no place to stop for a picnic. Actually, there were lots of places to stop – sandy beaches with crystal clear water that would have been ideal for just chilling. However, in order to preserve the pristine nature of the creek the park rangers don’t allow stopping and swimming. We pressed onward.
About 2/3 of the way the route opens up. I remember last time that there was a grassy area with braided channels. We had to pick our way through, and we were unclear as to the path. With lower water levels there wasn’t a choice. There was only one channel. This is what it looked like in 2005…
…and this is the same area on Saturday:
Just beyond this stretch we came upon a surprise. The river dropped down a short, but fun rapid. The canoe in front of us flipped, but Craig and I made it through with no problem. We stopped to help them recover their gear and get their boat righted and emptied.
Here’s a a video clip of me running the little rapid, followed by a clip of me trying to surf one of the little standing waves:
The creek picked up more volume and continued on its swift course. This time, though, the current was welcome. We were trying to outrun a storm that was coming up from the south.
The rain was faster than the current. It started dumping at one point, and we got soaked. We pressed on, and soon came to the Highway 19 bridge at the take out. Rather than head straight to the take out we took shelter under the bridge with several of our fellow paddlers.
The rain let up enough that we felt comfortable paddling on over to the take out. We pulled out our boats and loaded up, then made the trek back to the recreation area.
We got our gear sorted out and the boats loaded onto our own vehicles just as another storm was approaching. Park rangers had closed the swimming area because of lightening. Craig and I said our goodbyes and vowed to paddle some more of these Florida waterways.
Speaking of Craig, he had his GoPro running on a 2 second time-lapse interval. Here’s our entire trip compressed into eight minutes.
The trip was 7.12 miles, which brings my yearly total to nearly 128 miles.
As for Lowcountry Unfiltered, I’m not so sure this would have been a great venue for them. There was no place to stop and cook brats and beer is not permitted. With the restrictions for paddling Juniper Springs, I’m not so sure some of our guys would have liked it. Even so, Craig told me about several over similar venues that would be better.
It was a great day on the Juniper, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Here’s a link to all of my photos and video clips in album form.