Wikiwa Springs: Probably Fun Without Thunderstorms

When you see people set up a complete campsite in their backyard in the middle of a hot summer weekend, this can be an indicator of one of two things: Either they are very bored and/or meticulous in the care of their gear, or they have just returned from a very bad camping trip.

As I write there is a distracting fluttering motion in my peripheral vision — a gray Coleman canopy sits just outside the window to my left, its screened sides billowing in the breeze, mocking me. We set this up yesterday afternoon in the backyard along with our family-size dome tent. Laying out on the grass: two tarps, double and twin inflatable mattresses and two rain ponchos. Airing out in the garage: a bin filled with cooking gear and lanterns. It was a very bad camping trip.

Sunset at Inlet Harbor Restaurant by Laurie Sterbens

This was the sunset view we enjoyed from our table at Inlet Harbor Restaurant on Sunday. We were supposed to be camping about 50 miles away, but this wasn't a bad plan B.

Some people would say that anybody camping in Florida in August shouldn’t expect to have an enjoyable experience; it’s 90-plus degrees and humid, and storm season has arrived. This weekend the usual 30- to 40-percent rain chance was raised to 60, but we set out anyway, lulled into a state of foolish optimism by the fact that it had not rained on our house in months of similar forecasts. In fact, numerous storms have rolled right up to our house and then turned away suddenly, raining all around us, not on us. I believe the scientific phenomenon occurring here is that I have planted the world’s first rain-repellant vegetable garden.

We weren’t afraid of the heat. We were headed to Wekiwa Springs State Park, where we could cool off in a 72-degree spring-fed swimming area and spring run. Of course, in Florida the campsites are usually far from the water. I was annoyed to find this when I first moved here, having grown up camping on the shores of lakes and rivers of Arkansas where, if you needed to cool off in the middle of the night, you could just walk down to the water and wade in. However, I came to appreciate the wisdom of the Florida park planning. Florida lakes and rivers are occupied by large carnivorous wildlife — no place to be wading in the dark.

We prepared for the heat by picking up a battery-operated portable fan before we left. And actually, I don’t mind sweating a bit if it’s surrounded by fun activities. This weekend we planned to swim, snorkel, canoe and hike, and my husband, Scott, and son Trevor planned to get in a little fishing as well. We prepared for possible rain by purchasing a canopy to put over the picnic table, an item we’ve wished we had during past trips. We packed ingredients for S’mores as well as the most basic camping food — hot dogs and hamburgers, since we didn’t want to spend a lot of time cooking in the heat.

The drive to the park from our house is less than an hour, and we didn’t encounter any rain on the way. We unloaded the tent and the canopy only to find that we didn’t have a canopy. We had only bought the screen to put around the sides of the canopy. No wonder it was so inexpensive! We decided we needed to go ahead an invest in a canopy, reasoning that we would be camping our entire lives. Also, it would probably end up being like our portable tables — originally bought for one purpose, they have been in constant use for all kinds of family events.

So Scott and Trevor set off to find a canopy and firewood and I stayed behind to start setting up the tent. The minute they were out of sight, the clouds opened up and a downpour began. Fortunately, we’d taken the bin with most of our gear out of the car, so I pulled out a rain poncho and a tarp to cover what we’d unpacked. And then I sat in the rain and waited. I was not having fun yet.

A Brief Interlude of Happiness

Eventually Scott and Trevor returned, the rain stopped and we set up camp and drove over to the swimming area. Normally I will hesitate before jumping into a 72-degree spring, but after setting up a tent in searing heat and humidity, I would have been happy to see icebergs floating in it. I donned a mask and snorkel and swam around until I began to lose feeling in my extremeties. Then I sat on the side and watched Scott and Trevor hunt for shells in the clear water.

The Wekiwa Springs State Park website had promised lots of wildlife viewing, and it soon became apparent that they weren’t exaggerating, though numerous signs posted throughout the park worked me into full paranoia about bears. Not that I’m overly afraid of black bears, but we already have a raccoon-face-sized hole in one of our tents due to a bagel placement error. I didn’t want to see what a bear could do. We didn’t see or hear any bears, but we did see a raccoon in the swimming area, four white-tailed deer on the way back to the campsite, and the next morning a flock of wild turkeys strolled through the campground.

We returned to the campsite and got a fire going and soon were enjoying delicious hamburgers — lean ground beef flavored with Cajun seasoning and campfire smoke on fresh whole-wheat buns. After the S’mores, we put out the fire, not wanting to add more heat to the area than necessary. Eventually we took our battery-powered lanterns and portable fan into the tent and settled in for the night. Since we were afraid to take the rain canopy off of the top of the tent, we were wishing we had brought two fans, but Trevor, at least, got a good night’s sleep.

Unhappy Campers

We awoke to find that it had rained during the night, but the skies appeared to be clearing. After a quick breakfast of bagels and cream cheese, we headed back to the spring, planning to canoe down the spring run until lunchtime and then swim in the afternoon. As we descended down the trail from the parking lot, we noticed dark clouds approaching above. Surely they’ll pass, we thought. The camp concession offers the usual assortment of snack foods and T-shirts along with some snorkeling and swimming gear. After nosing around the store for a bit, we rented a canoe and started back up the trail for our cooler and dry bag. We had time to pull a cooler out of the car and set it on the parking lot before the sky exploded with thunder, lightning and torrential rain. We dove into our cars (two smallish vehicles, too much food and gear) and waited. One burst of thunder was so loud it shook my car.

It kept raining. We had to make a decision. It was a gamble. We still had time to pack up and get a refund on our second night before checkout time, but that meant breaking camp in a full-on thunderstorm, and there was always the chance that it would clear up soon and be sunny and beautiful the rest of the weekend. I had had enough, however. So I headed to the ranger station to check out while Scott went back to the concession to get a refund on our canoe rental. There he learned that lightning had struck so close to a group of swimmers that they had felt the electrical charge. Canoeing had ceased to be an option, at least for the time being, and the swimming area had been closed.

Once again I was glad I always keep some rain ponchos in our gear box. We were already a little damp and muddy, but pouring rain on bare skin is fully outside of my comfort zone. And it kept pouring as we packed up all of the cooking gear, bedding, tarps, canopy and tent. There was no hope of packing things up carefully and neatly. Everything was soaking wet, which meant we would have to unpack it and completely set up camp again at home so everything could dry out. Setting up camp and taking it down again within 24 hours is not the optimal camping experience. Setting up camp, taking it down in the rain, then setting it up again within a day and a half is … well, it’s just really sucky.

By the time we were halfway home we were driving under blue sky. Although the weather report had been exactly the same for Apopka, where the park is located, and the Daytona Beach area, where we live, Daytona was sunny and dry. Obviously my rain-repellant garden was still working. We agreed on a new plan. We’d set up the tents and canopy and lay out everything that needed to be hosed off and dried out. The rest of the plan involved showers and naps, and then we’d put the money we’d been refunded for the canoe and campsite toward a nice dinner on the river.  I didn’t think twice about fat or calories as I sat on the deck at Inlet Harbor Restaurant and devoured fried calamari, crab-stuffed shrimp with a buttery cream sauce and a baked potato smothered in butter and sour cream. We’d earned it.

The Picnic Backpack: Blue Spring State Park

For the first five summers of my son’s life, summer wasn’t much different from the rest of the year. He was dropped off by his father or me at daycare, preschool and then kindergarten for most of the year, and in the summer he was dropped off someplace else; a day camp or daycare.

This year was different. Mommy got downsized. So, while pondering options for a future outside of the downsizing-prone newspaper business, I decided to take full advantage of what could be a one-time opportunity for a summer at home with my son, now 6.

Except we’re not home a lot. As often as possible, we like to fill up the picnic backpack and head out for an “adventure.” Last week we decided to have our picnic lunch at Blue Spring State Park near Orange City, Fla. I’d been to the park twice before, but both times were to see the manatees that spend the winter in the 72-degree spring run. I’d never been to the park in the summer, and snorkeling in the crystal-clear water with some of the fish I’d seen there previously sounded like fun. Trevor had recently learned how to use his new mask, snorkel and fins, so I hoped he’d join me.

Blue Spring State Park by Laurie Sterbens

I snapped this view of the spring run at Blue Spring State Park during our recent summer visit.

We arrived at the park just before lunchtime and it was already filled with families picnicing, swimming, canoeing and floating. We managed to find a picnic table, at Trevor’s request, near the playground, and unpacked our lunch. Trevor devoured his peanut butter and jelly sandwich as quickly as possible and made a new friend on the swings, giving me an opportunity to enjoy my salad slowly and study the map of the park to come up with a plan.

I ruled out canoeing since I’d be doing all the paddling, and Trevor isn’t a kayaker yet. Scenic boat tours on the St. John’s River were available, but we were in budget mode. Though the park’s website listed the short, boarded nature walk as the park’s hiking option, there is also a 4-mile half loop that begins at the main parking lot and ends at a primitive campsite. Hikers have to return by the same route, meaning I could end up having to carry a 50-pound kid for 6 to 8 miles. If that primitive campsite had a real fountain of youth, maybe. Otherwise, we’d pass on the hiking trail. (Incidentally, this trail isn’t mentioned on the park website but is on the map provided by the ranger station.)

Trevor was ready to swim, but a walk-through of the swimming area revealed that the water was over his head and there was no shallow area near the bank where he could play. Our solution: We rented a small inner tube ($5 the first hour) and I donned a mask, snorkel and fins and pulled him up the spring run. The area in front of the swimming platform was noisy and crowded with people jumping into the water and kicking up sand, but we crossed to the other side and soon I was able to point out a couple of gar and a few smaller fish as we made our way toward the mouth of the spring.

Blue Spring State Park by Laurie Sterbens

A boarded nature walk runs alongside the spring run, from the mouth of Blue Spring to the St. Johns River. This photo was taken during the winter manatee season. In the summer, the boardwalk is filled with swimmers carrying inner tubes.

Fortunately for me, we only made it halfway to the mouth of the spring before Trevor decided it was time to turn around. Floating downstream, as you can imagine, was much easier than going up and the only difficulty was navigating around the other inner tubes and swimmers as we made our way back to the platform. When we got out, Trevor said he wanted to try to get in with his mask and snorkel, but the stairs leading into the water were so crowded with people going in and out that it was impossible for a little guy to get into the water at his own speed, so we gave up and decided to follow the boarded nature walk to the mouth of the spring.

During my winter visits, Blue Spring was peaceful and pristine, with only manatees in the spring run or a couple of scuba divers exploring the bottom of the spring. This time we passed two pairs of divers on the boardwalk, and they were not looking overly cheerful. This could have been partly due to the fact that scuba tanks are heavy and it was a long walk back to the parking lot. But when we got to the spring I could see another reason they may have been dismayed — it was wall-to-wall screaming, splashing swimmers.

Blue Spring State Park by Laurie Sterbens

A manatee makes its way down the spring run at Blue Spring State Park.

On the way back to the car, we decided to explore the Thursby House, a two-story home built in 1872 by settler Louis Thursby. The house is filled with artifacts and displays that describe the life of the Thursby family, who grew vegetables, raised hogs and caught fish, alligators and other animals in the wilderness surrounding their home. This was about the extent of the information I was able to absorb between answering calls of “Mom! Mom! Look at this!” from every other room in the house, but I was fascinated, imagining what it must have been like to live in such spectacular natural beauty when it was still undiscovered and private.

You have to hand it to Florida State Parks. They’ve done a wonderful job of keeping Blue Spring in a mostly natural and fully beautiful state despite herds of trampling visitors year after year.

Blue Spring State Park by Laurie Sterbens

From Nov. 15 to March 1, Blue Spring is closed to swimmers to provide a haven for the West Indian manatee. Park visitors can get a close-up view of the creatures from the steps of the swimming platforms.

I’ll probably visit again in the summer, and maybe will be able to get Trevor all the way up the spring run next time. But if it’s your first visit to Blue Spring, I’d suggest going during the manatee season, Nov. 15 through March 1. Blue Spring is a designated refuge for the West Indian manatee, and swimming, diving and snorkeling aren’t allowed while the manatees are there. This provides a peaceful setting to view the manatees, turtles, numerous fish and even an occasional alligator napping in the Florida sun.

Deleon Springs: A Hike and a Swim in ‘Old Florida’

Being an outdoorsy kind of girl who spent most of my life on lakes, rivers and trails in Arkansas, I enjoy exploring my new environment in Florida and sharing my love of nature with my son. Invariably, when I report one of our adventures to one of my Floridian friends, they’ll sigh wistfully and say something about that particular place being “a bit of ‘Old Florida.’ ” I’m not exactly sure what they mean by “Old Florida,” but I’m guessing it has a lot to do with giant, moss-covered live oaks and not so much to do with condominiums and strip malls. It’s all still fairly new to me, and I’m trying to see as much of it as I can while it’s still here. (Not condos and strip malls, but they cannot be avoided.)

Inspired by my son, who was inspired by a run of hiking- and camping-themed PBS cartoon programming the other day, I dug out one of my hiking books to see if there was a new trail to explore nearby.  “A Hiking Guide to the Trails of Florida” by Elizabeth F. Carter is a trusty old standby that I purchased when I first moved to Florida. I was intrigued by the description of the Wild Persimmon Trail, described as a moderate-difficulty, 4.4-mile trail in Deleon Springs State Park. Over the years I’d heard about the park, which features a large spring-fed swimming area and picnic tables under big live oaks. A morning hike followed by a picnic lunch and a swim in the spring sounded like the perfect day trip for Trevor and me.

Deleon Springs State Park nature trail by Laurie Sterbens

Tall oaks, palms and ferns line the nature trail at Deleon Springs State Park.

Despite the planned hike, I woke up early and went to the gym while Trevor and his dad were still sleeping. In my former life, hiking could be a vigorous workout. Hiking with a 6-year-old boy is more of an exercise in patience: Walk six feet, see a bug. Agree this is a cool bug. Repeat.

One of the highlights, for me, of our planned outing was that it provided a perfect opportunity to use our picnic backpack. I love the picnic backpack. It opens up to reveal everything you need for a lovely romantic wine-and-cheese picnic, with insulated storage and even a wine-bottle-sized pocket on the side. Trouble is, most of the places where you might go to have a picnic in Florida are run by the state and alcohol is prohibited. And of course I’m not going to head out in the early morning to chug wine with a small child anyway. But my water bottle fits in that side pocket, and the picnic backpack suited our purpose perfectly, filled with sandwiches, snacks and juice box drinks for Trevor.

There is a restaurant right next to the swimming area at Deleon Springs State Park, the Old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant, and I’d heard for years about the wonderful pancakes that diners can make themselves on griddles at each table. Lunch is also served there, but since I was in both money- and calorie-conserving mode, I opted to pack lunch for this trip. Also, we just wanted to have a picnic. We have the backpack.

When we arrived at the park I requested a map from the park attendant and was dismayed to find that the small map in the brochure didn’t indicate specifically where the Wild Persimmon Trail was located. A quick drive through the park revealed only entrances to the park’s shorter, paved nature trail. Since we had arrived a little later than anticipated and not seeing a choice, we decided we’d just walk the nature trail before lunch and swimming.

We eventually found an unpaved path when we attempted to avoid a large group of teenage boys from a youth group picnic who’d decided to explore the nature trail at the same time. Nothing can destroy a peaceful nature stroll like a stampeding herd of teenage boys. We ducked onto a trail beyond a sign that said it led to a place once known as “Monkey Island.” (I later learned that back in the 1950s the park had a “jungle cruise” that led past an area where several monkeys were kept. I believe this is an example of that “Old Florida” people keep talking about.)

We followed the trail to its apparent end and found, oddly, some sort of wooden table or bench, and large fallen trees blocking the road. No island, no monkeys. Disappointment. But we did enjoy the trail along the way, with its tall oaks, twisting palms and huge, brilliant green ferns. It felt like a giant Jurassic-sized dragonfly might buzz by at any moment. Trevor happily spotted large spiderwebs every 10 feet or so, and I agreed that the spiders were cool.

By this time we realized I’d forgotten a crucial step in Florida wetland hiking procedure: I’d left the bug spray in the car. Our casual stroll under the palms became an urgent speed walk back to the car before insects devoured my child. It was then that we found the entrance to the Wild Persimmon Trail. A sign posted at the trailhead stated that this hike would take about three hours, so it would have to wait for another day, and probably for a companion older than 6.

We chose a picnic table in the shade of the park’s many massive, ancient live oak trees, with a view of the swimming area, which, despite it being a weekday, was lively and noisy with group picnics and families. Beyond the swimming area, canoers paddled in the Spring Garden Run. Canoe, kayak and paddleboat rentals are available at the park for exploring the Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge. For us, canoe rental was also an option for another day, when two sets of adult arms would be available.

The spring-fed swimming area at Deleon Springs State Park has a year-round temperature of 72 degrees.

After lunch I chose a shady spot near the steps leading into the spring and set up a folding lounge chair, which was fortunately left in my trunk from a recent beach trip. Many visitors brought chairs or lounged on towels or blankets on the grassy area surrounding the spring. Meanwhile, Trevor grabbed his mask and quickly made his way down the steps into the crystal-clear water, which ranges from 18 to 30 inches in depth and is 72 degrees year-round. Seventy-two degrees sounds very pleasant when you’re talking about the temperature outside. Seventy-two degrees when you’re talking about water is cold. There were lots of people bobbing around above the sandy bottom of the spring during our visit. I was not one of them. Trevor, however, swam for hours and had a blast. We’d brought his snorkeling gear, but he also enjoyed playing on his boogie board, another beach-day leftover in my trunk.

Our day trip ended predictably around three in the afternoon, when the thunderstorm clouds began rolling in. But with fishing, canoeing and the famed pancake restaurant still to be experienced at Deleon Springs, we’ll be back soon.