Rivers of my Youth: Ichetucknee

When I was young, I dreamed of a river. A river as clear and cool as ice-water, reflecting blue as a bright summer sky, white sandy bottom for barefoot toes and current carrying me along in a lazy effortless drift.

And when I dreamed, I dreamed it was the Broward River, right behind my house, the first in this series of the Rivers of my Youth.

Unfortunately, I’d awaken to the disappointing reality that the Broward remained the black-ish, brackish mud-filled tidal backwater it always was.

Turns out, the river of my dreams was actually Florida’s Ichetucknee River, about an hour and a half west of where I grew up.

The Ichetucknee is a magical, crystal clear, pristine river that runs through the North Florida palmetto forest where live oaks, pines and cypresses hang thick with Spanish moss.

At its headspring, tens of millions of gallons of cool, fresh and pure spring water usher forth every day at precisely 72 degrees year-round from deep within limestone caves and flow about six miles downstream before merging with the tannin-stained Santa Fe River.

My family and I first started going over to the Ichetucknee sometime in the mid-70’s; I was probably around 12 years old. Back then it was just a spot in the remote North Florida piney woodlands.

You knew you were getting close when the yards along the rural highway became filled with large shiny black truck tire inner tubes for rent. The Ichetucknee was (and remains) the region’s premier tubing river!

On most summer weekends the headspring was surrounded by families and other happy partiers with their shiny black innertubes and munchies and beer coolers. All were anxious to set off downstream, but still just a bit apprehensive.

While 72 degrees may not sound cold (except for in some parts of South Florida), on a 95 degree Florida summer day, 72 degree spring water may as well be a freezing cold glass of ice-water. Immersing oneself in it is an instantly breathtaking, heart-stopping experience.

Tomorrow morning, just flip your shower lever all the way over to cold and you begin to get the idea.

There are a few different approaches to going from 95 degree air temperature into freezing cold ice-water.

The first is the ‘chicken’ (aka “Mom”) method. This method involves sticking your toes in and saying “b-r-r-r-r”. Then, after slowly and gradually “getting used to” the freezing ice-water, you carefully and delicately settle on top of your inner tube, trying mightily to keep as few body parts as possible from touching it; not so easy on an innertube.

Then there’s the ‘instant-immersion’ (aka “12 year-old son”) method.

Being certain not to sample the water temperature in any way with any body part (which carries the risk of involuntarily invoking the ‘chicken’ method), you find a convenient limestone rock perched over a deep spot in the headspring, jump high off the launching rock, forming either a cannon-ball or a jackknife as you enter the water, and soaking as many surrounding dry bathers as possible with freezing cold ice-water.

Jarring? You bet! But the reaction of the crowd more than makes up for that.

Typically, this method would be followed by swimming up underneath the innertube of anyone previously using the “Mom” method (for example, “Mom”, but this also works quite well for “little sister”) and flipping it over with her in it, thereby involuntarily invoking the immersion method for her as well.

Don’t worry, she’ll thank you later for helping her ‘get used to it’ more quickly.

Some years later, I was to find out that this method doesn’t work nearly so well with one’s “wife” unless one enjoys sleeping with the puppies, if you catch my drift.

In any case, once all involved get used to drifting downstream in ice-water in an innertube, the Ichetucknee amazes.

Where the bottom of the Ichetucknee isn’t covered in bright green eelgrass waving back and forth in the current like a breezy summer wheatfield, the limestone and pure white sand on the bottom reflect sunlight making the water appear a deep, intense shade of blue.

In a blissful state of awareness somewhere between ‘summer daydream’ and ‘zombie’, you lie back on your innertube with your feet and posterior in that clear, cold water, gazing up at the pines and cypresses drifting lazily by as your face and the rest of your body soak up that warm North Florida sunshine.

Gradually, you recover fully from the ‘immersion method’ experience. We all loved this part, especially Mom.

Of course, so as not to get too relaxed and be sure we were all still having fun, I’d occasionally drop down quietly through the center of my tube, swim underwater over to Mom’s tube and flip her over, just to be sure she didn’t get too warm and dry in that blazing North Florida sunshine.

Mom also loved lying facedown across her innertube wearing a mask and snorkel with her head hanging off the ‘front’. Filled with bream, bluegill, largemouth bass and catfish, she’d stare down, mesmerized by the stunning fish aquarium scene slowly passing by underneath as her tube drifted along.

Just over half-way downriver we’d all clamor ashore on a deeply shaded, rocky ‘beach’ area beside the river and have a (usually soggy) ham sandwich and Ruffles lunch.

Unfortunately, deep shade is not really ideal for taking a break from an ice-water cold river and this break usually resulted in lots of shivering and blue lips (despite temps in the 90’s) and nobody wanting to get back in the river.

But we always did and continued our journey down to the County highway bridge that marked the endpoint of a tubing adventure down the Ichetucknee River.

Like similar natural spots in Florida, the Ichetucknee is now a full-fledged state park with all the rules and regulations that go along with it. But the site is also protected in perpetuity for future generations to form their own river memories. And in my mind, that’s what it’s all about.

The rivers of my youth are an integral, joyous, adventurous part of my growing up; they are who I am and are an unforgettable part of my own journey and my memory.

Writing these few columns has given me great pleasure by rekindling these river memories and many more. Thanks for the indulgence.

And now my family and I live on the banks of the Mahomet area’s own Sangamon River, creating new memories for me, my friends and my family.

Hopefully, you can get out on the Sangamon this year when the weather warms up and join the Upper Sangamon River Conservancy for one of our many free (!) float trips down the Sangamon. Keep up with us at www.sangamonriver.org or on our Facebook page.

Your own river dreams may be right here in your own backyard!

Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, January 14, 2016, by Scott Hays


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