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April at the Rainbow River, Florida

Day 1 – Crystal clear persuasion…

We pulled into Rainbow Springs State Park hours behind our expected arrival time. Two hours of stop-and-go traffic near Springfield, VA at dusk and a mysterious closing of I-95 in Georgia for 45 minutes in the middle of the night had prolonged the drudgery of driving almost to the point of insanity. Still, we ultimately arrived…

The orientation of the park had totally changed since our last visit in 2005. The camp sites down by the river were no longer there. Walk-in tent sites had been established farther away in a relatively more secluded area. These had a nice, tucked-away kind of feeling. I suspect, although don’t really know, that the proximity of the tubing concession and river visitation may have been a large factor in the camp redesign.

Camp set up at Site 60 was quick and a stiff breeze kept the mosquitoes mostly at bay. After organizing our camp stuff (chucking things into the tent), we grabbed our snorkels and headed down to the river.

The river was as we had left it years ago; cool (72F), clear, and refreshing. We started our swim with the delight one can only have after being cooped up in a breathing-room only CRV for 16 hours. Coming from muddy river Maryland, we also marveled at our new ability to clearly watch the fish, turtles, and other people sharing the river. Kayakers floated past as we swam, strangely respectful of the required dive flag and our little nucleus of puddle jumpers.

Up the river, E, J and I diverted from snorkeling to explore the Gissy springs feeder stream. We waded and swam upstream to a “No Trespassers” fence and then turned around, more from the onslaught of mossies than the threats of legal action. Even though the diversion was brief, it evoked memories of Indiana Jones slogging through jungles down south of the border. Once back in the river, we swam left around a small island, dove on a bubbling spring vent, and drifted back to camp.

On shore, J discovered the first of many caterpillars in the camp. It was borrowed for a quick portrait and then let go to resume foraging.


Day 2 – Family fish fest…

J and I woke up rested and excited to start river adventuring. In a brief distraction from packing for a Wacasassa river kayak trip, he called me over to see a troupe of multicolor grasshoppers resting on some park plantings. Morning sun reflected off of misty dew beaded up on the hoppers backs. Following our photo-digression, J and I continued to prepare for our Wacasassa river trip later in the day.

It was a long drive back from the Wacasassa river. Even so, we arrived back at camp while the sun was still high in the sky. We unanimously decided that a swim in the Rainbow would put everything right after an sweltering afternoon in the hot sun.

We snorkeled upriver to the first small midstream island, the crystal clear water washing off sweat and other mucky Wacasassa residues. A green carpet of aquatic vegetation waved as we passed above. Underwater flowers launched a continuous stream of bubbles into the current.

I dove down to investigate one of the myriad of underwater mini-vents gushing water into the river bottom, carefully placed our camera deep into the mouth of the spring, and took a photo in-the-blind. Once back at camp we were surprised to see a relic soda bottle in the photo, the likes of which haven’t been allowed on the river since it was designated an Aquatic Underwater Preserve in 1986.

On the upstream side of the island, two bass had cleared a hole in the turtle grass and were romantically gesturing to each other. E swam down to get a better look and photo the largish female and her smaller mate. They continued posturing even as E shot up to the surface and started pursuing a larger long-nose gar.

J joined in the photo action and led us across the river to a tree snag where half a dozen other long-nose gar were hanging motionless in the water column. The pod of fish allowed us to get close and take a few photographs before slipping away into the deeper parts of the river.

We continued our snorkel back to the concrete entry platform. On the way, E coaxed an ancient painted turtle out of the aquatic vegetation with her child-like allure.


Day 3 – Dry on the inside…

J joined me at the Rainbow this morning with his new NRS paddling drysuit and snorkel gear. Our idea was to try out our drysuits under controlled ‘worst-case” submersion conditions before bringing them to Iceland later in the summer. We’d be kayaking in some of the more remote cold water locations so wanted to make sure we’d have a plan B.

The life and death struggle to get the neck seal over J’s head suggested that we should have stretched it out more at home with the giant pretzel jar. J was a trooper and bore the squeeze with minimal complaint. Once zipped, he jumped into the water and was amazed at the suits buoyancy, even with minimal clothing on underneath.

We slowly kicked up river watching the early morning fish activities. A tiny musk turtle kicked by and was detained for a brief portrait before being released. We made it up to the “gar-tree” without seeing anyone. Two longnose gar awaited us at the tree today, relatively empty when compared to the half-dozen or more we had seen yesterday. I ducked under, grabbed a tree limb, and hand over handed down to photo their silent wait.

After watching the gar depart, we stopped for a breather on a nearby sandbar and listened to a black bird call out into the morning. J remarked emphatically that he did not like the leg squeeze his suit was giving him and suggested we head back. We turned and swam to the opposite shore to start our downriver float. J kicked here and there in the current chasing turtles while I buoyantly shot over-under” photos. A few turned out moderately well with water foreground, reflection, and background separated cleanly.

J continued his swim to the take-out and exited quickly. I was out shortly after him, with only the slightest bit of dampness on material under the 19 year old, never-lubricated, chest zipper. Seems like staying dry will be no problem when kayaking in Iceland!


Day 4 – A Change of Character…

J woke me early today. He seemed excited about something, so I rolled quickly out of my sleeping bag and joined him outside with the mossies. Jared pointed out that a cold front had moved through during the night, cooling the air and setting us up for a thick blanket of morning fog.

We ambled down to the river watching the fog roll through, periodically clear, and then close in on us as we strolled. Down at the river the fog cast a blur over the crisp and bright surroundings turning the surrounding forest into the pterodactyl scene from Jurassic Park. Palm trees materialized out of the fog as we turned and walked back to camp to start breakfast.


Day 5 – Up the Lazy River…

The morning passed without any of us noticing the time. J and I finally grew tired of being camp dwellers and decided to kayak-fish up the Rainbow river.

The kayak and other paddling gear was dragged out of the CRV after gently moving Steinhatchee river fossils collected the previous day. A short while later we had things loaded on the haul cart and were on our way to the put-in. It was midmorning and the sun had already warmed everything considerably, so our barefoot steps were quick on the pavement. J pumped up the kayak and assembled the gear while I returned the cart.

We paddled slowly up river right stopping occasionally at snags so J could try his luck fishing. The water was crystal clear and we could see sunfish circling and nibbling on his shrimp-mallow bait. None were brave enough to bite with force, however, until the bait was free of the hook. After noticing this, J became the fish enabler and threw bunches of the pink mallows into the water for the fish to feed on.

Farther up river we paddled past a sunning anhinga. It eyed us warily and tried to creep higher up a branch to escape our approach. A double crested cormorant swam by us with impunity, occasionally ducking under to catch a fish.

J lost interest in fishing and we turned the kayak around at the Rainbow Springs park border. We changed our fishing plans and slipped into the water to snorkel as the kayak drifted downriver. The monoculture of turtle grass was interrupted by an occasional clump of red algae and bedrock on the river bottom.

J grew tired of snorkeling, hopped back onto the nose of the kayak, and paddled slowly on. He signaled me to check out a white ibis feeding on the shoreline for crustaceans. The ibis was oblivious to our approach until we were very close. The birds light blue eyes starkly contrasted the red of its face and pink beak.

We passed by a snag that had accumulated a floating vegetation mat. A school of 20+ bass hung limply below in the shade. A sizeable softshell and other painted turtles kept the bass company. I dove under the mat and kicked towards an opening in the vegetation 20 feet away. As I passed, the turtles ducked under and buried themselves in muck on the river bottom. The fish slowly parted to let me swim through and then closed up again when I was past.

Farther downriver a mother wood duck sat high on another vegetation mat diligently watching over its remaining baby. A painted turtle blending into the turtle grass, started at our nearness and bolted, ultimately careening into another turtle onlooker.

The trip ended without any drama and we hauled the kayak and paddles up to a sunny place on the grass. While it was drying we sat on the nearby dock watching tiny mud turtles converse underwater. After a few minutes, the turtles grew tired of blowing bubbles at each other and swam into the vegetation. We retrieved the cart from the park office and hauled the gear back to camp.

Our night was interrupted by a sizeable wolf spider crawling inside the tent. The spider claimed E’s sleeping bag and posed for pictures, much to her consternation. Eventually the spider was placed outside to continue its creep into the night. Opening up the tent allowed a female mossie to fly in unnoticed. Bloated from a bedtime blood snack, she couldn’t fly away quickly enough and was squished by J onto the tent floor. Sometime in the night an inquisitive raccoon climbed up on our cooler and peered into the tent window. It left a sole paw print as a sign of its trespass.

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