Florida is one giant strip mall in many respects and you never have to go more than 2 miles in any direction to find a Panera Bread. It’s also oddly like God’s waiting room, full of old people on their last leg. Surprisingly, it also has some outstanding natural areas that are truly wild, even in urban areas. Exhibit A: Orlando. Nothing is worse than Orlando. Tons of tourists spending their last dollar to entertain their hopeful children whose fantasies will be crashed on the shores of reality. (Note: my parents never took me to Disney World, so I am still bitter about this). Endless shopping malls and outlets where you can buy crap you never knew existed or that anyone would ever want. Concrete, traffic, noise and people everywhere. It’s loud and there’s no headset in the world that can drown out the incessant hum of tourist noise. All this is to say I was shocked by Wekiwa Springs.
The main pool of Wekiwa Springs.
Wekiwa Springs State Park is located smack in the middle of Apopka, Florida, a northern suburb of Orlando. On hot days, the spring fed pool is packed with screaming children splashing everywhere. We arrived on a Tuesday and stared at what seemed at first to be our worst nightmare come true. We hate crowds and we hate noise and there was a lot of both on display. I had heard of the fabled clear waters of Wekiwa Springs which hook up to St. John’s River and I had always wanted to kayak the area. On arrival, we parked in an asphalt parking lot and looked down on this pool which the State of Florida has thoughtfully rocked in around the sides. The manicured feel to the main attraction did not engender much hope in me that this was going to be something I wanted to do after all the hype. There is nothing natural about this pool. It’s nature that’s been made safe for the masses. It is of course, beautiful. The water is crystal clear and the scenery is drop dead gorgeous.
The water is really this clear.
As luck would have it, the launch for kayaking the river is at the bottom of about a 1/4 mile fairly steep trail. There is zero car access so this means kayaks and gear have to be carried down and what goes down, must come back up later. The State of Florida has a park concession here that rents cheap kayaks, canoes and these ridiculous “exercise” boats you pedal and sit up in. It didn’t seem to be very expensive for those so inclined, and I confess part of me wanted to just rent gear rather than haul it down and back up. This is because I am a whining sissy.
The majority of people who hit the river stick pretty close to the launch area. About a mile down the river is a commercial marina/bar just outside the park boundaries where drunk college students lay in the sun and occasionally, launch boats to go into the park to annoy older, more sober people. Once you get past this, it’s pretty quiet and you won’t see much except a lot of wildlife in the form of birds, fish, turtles, and the occasional alligator. The current is moderately strong going down the river which makes the paddle seem much easier than it will be on return. The water is very clear. You will see tons of dead trees in the water which I hope were left there to capsize drunken morons who high center their canoes on them. It pays to paddle in the middle of the river to avoid all the deadfall in the water, but you will have to work hard to avoid the incompetent masses paddling out of control.
Taking a left about 2/3 of mile down stream will take you to the Rock Springs Run, which is an 8-mile, narrow, winding and fast-flowing, spring-fed stream with amazing scenery. It is very frequently impassable after 2 -3 miles upriver as the water is very, very shallow. The current is strong and you will be fighting to go upstream against it. On the plus side, you will make record time on the return. Most of the crowds will disappear after a quarter-mile in and if you are quiet, you will see amazing amounts of wildlife.
Rock Springs Run in Wekiwa Springs State Park
This is the very best part of the park. Because I am lazy and wanted to turn around 1 1/2 miles in (paddling against the current is hard, kids), I sent Troy onward and told him I would meet him at the launch. Three minutes later, I got the absolute thrill of a lifetime. Because the current was strong, I was able to practically just rudder to get back without paddling and I was making no noise. With no one near and the only sound being the water and birds calling, I rounded a bend and came face to face with a beautiful cinnamon bear who was at the water’s edge. The moment was surreal and I paddled back to keep myself stationary in the water which was no more than 12 inches deep. We sat there, the bear and I, five feet apart for five minutes or so, just watching each other. He was curious, but wary and I was mesmerized. Finally, something startled him and he ambled off into the forest and I watched the sun sparkle on his wet fur. Naturally, the moment was rapidly ruined by drunken frat boys who saw him heading into the forest, but I got my golden moment with just me and the bear and it was fucking awesome. Suck it Disney World. You can’t compete with a bear.
Troy went on to this campsite on Rock Springs run about 2 miles upriver. Sadly, he had the camera when I had my magic bear moment. It's lovely, but it's no cinnamon bear picture.
Also, just because it amuses me, I snapped this quick shot of an actual douche canoe on the river. Seriously, the people in the canoe were BOTH on their cell phones.
Hang up your fucking cell phone. I did not come out here to say "Can you hear me, now? Good."