Today is Friday, August 18, 2017

Trip to North Florida avoids cold

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Thinking that there might be still some bite to winter, we arranged a trip to Lake City, Fla. with Road Scholar for a cultural exchange coupled with a kayaking experience. Even before the formal beginning of the course, Linda and I arrived early at Big Shoals State Park for bicycling on a nice asphalt trail through the scrub forest. When the paved surface ended, we went another couple of miles on the off-road path toward the Suwanee River. Birds seen in this short excursion included dozens of yellow-rumped warblers and two red-headed woodpeckers. We heard the pileated woodpecker as well, but he stayed out of sight. The carefree flight of the zebra swallowtail butterfly lifted our spirits as we thought about him flying up in warmer weather in Tennessee.

After our refreshing bike ride, I loaded them into the car and headed a few miles further south for our rendezvous with the rest of the participants. We crossed the Suwanee River, a slow-flowing stream of black water we would later kayak. The dark color of the water, I would learn, was due to tannin leached out of the numerous Cypress trees lining its course, plus all the decaying vegetation of the Okefenokee Swamp that made up the headwaters of this famous river.

Over the next few days, we would be hosted to dinners in small black community churches where members would tell us of their lives growing up in the South. One lady, who for 30 years had been a choral director, gave us a concert of spiritual hymns. Another evening's entertainment with a banjo-picking quartet got us on the dance floor to the pattern of the Virginia reel that proved to be too strenuous for one of the participants.

Florida sunshine seemed especially inviting as we exited our hotel room for the 30-minute drive to the Ichetucknee River Park. The staff welcomed us to the environmental center where we reviewed the model of the unique topography giving rise to a Class I springs pumping out over 65,000 gallons of crystal-clear, 72-degree water an hour. After the ranger talk telling us about the history of the area, we walked one mile through swamplands of Cyprus trees and Palmetto palms to the head springs of the river. A couple of hundred yards from this was the Blue Hole which made up the bulk of the water flow of the Ichetucknee. On the trail, we heard the northern parula, which is seldom seen but this time could be picked out on the bare branches singing and showing off its beautiful yellow throat.

There was an especially constructed wooden pavilion around the springs with balconies and steps leading into the water, which allowed some of the participants to jump in for a chilling swim. I had come south to warm up, so this was not for me. After the walk, we had a picnic in the park and then walked down the trail past the Blue Hole to board our kayaks where we were launched into the one-mile-an-hour current. A couple of two-foot-diameter black turtles stood much like sentries on an old log jutting out over the water. They were not the least bit interrupted by our close passage in the bright red watercrafts. I saw one later, its back leg stretched out parallel to the sun's rays as a sort of solar panel to help him warm up.

We saw great egrets and great blue herons, manatee and raptors in our course along the beautiful green clear water stream. On another day, we would make a similar trip down the Suwanee River to float silently through the Florida swampland. We thoroughly enjoyed the hospitality of the people of the area and the camaraderie of all those in the group.

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Florida, George Robertson, guest column, opinion, winter
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