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Stepping Back in Time on the Ichetucknee

The expedition team travels down the Ichetucknee River, a spring protection success story.

Image of On cool fall mornings, mist shrouds the team of explorers as they head down the Ichetucknee.On cool fall mornings, mist shrouds the team of explorers as they head down the Ichetucknee. © Russell Sparkman

By Peter Lane Taylor

For as long as humans have wandered the earth, we've altered the natural world around us. More than any other species, humans have a knack for being bullish. We take what we want, consume more than we need, and live for the present with little regard for future generations or the animals and plants with whom we share the planet.

Image of Flowing forth from this first magnitude headspring, as well as seven other springs, the Ichetucknee river system is one of the most pristine in the state of Florida.Zoom+ Flowing forth from this first magnitude headspring, as well as seven other springs, the Ichetucknee river system is one of the most pristine in the state of Florida. © Russell Sparkman

Yet, one of the great awakenings during the past couple of decades has been the realization that we can reverse environmental damage inflicted on fragile environments by humans. Ichetucknee Springs located just northwest of Gainesvilleis a great example of how we can heal damaged spring ecosystems.

Over the past few days, our quest to understand the journey of water through the Floridan aquifer, up through the springs, and to the sea has been a vicarious one, experienced through the eyes of cave divers. Today, however, we've joined Jim Stevenson, former chair of the Florida Springs Task Force, and Sam Cole, Ichetucknee Springs State Park biologist, to canoe back in time and explore the primeval magic of Florida's springs for ourselves.

“The Ichetucknee is the most pristine spring ecosystem in the state. It doesn't get any better than this.”
-- Jim Stevenson

Image of During the canoe trip down the Ichetucknee River, Jim Stephenson pointed out wildlife and other interesting features along one of his favorite waterways.Zoom+ During the canoe trip down the Ichetucknee River, Jim Stephenson pointed out wildlife and other interesting features along one of his favorite waterways. © Russell Sparkman

Our journey of discovery begins before sunrise at the Ichetucknee headspring , the largest of eight named springs which feeds the Ichetucknee river along its six and a half mile run to its confluence with the Santa Fe. With temperatures in the 30s and the summer crowds gone for the season, the conditions couldn't be better to capture this magical spring river as it might have looked ten thousand years ago. Steam rises from the surface of the head spring in spectral wisps into a bright, blue sky, while overhead, the rising sun penetrates the thick hardwood hammock, backlighting drapes of Spanish moss like ancient spider webs. Yet, what sunrise reveals is only a small part of what we've come here to document today. The story of the Ichetucknee, as Jim explains, is a story of ecosystem restoration.

"Over the past 40 years, I've explored almost every spring in the state of Florida," he tells me as we launch our canoes and begin our downstream journey, "and the Ichetucknee is the most pristine spring ecosystem there is. It doesn't get any better than this."

Image of The spring basins and ecosystems supports a wide variety of flowering plants, including this Cardinal flower.Zoom+ The spring basins and ecosystems supports a wide variety of flowering plants, including this Cardinal flower. © Russell Sparkman

Within minutes of hitting the current, it's clear that Jim is not given to exaggeration. As the sun burns the fog from the water, the upper Ichetucknee ecosystem bares its primordial soul, giving Jim and Sam an ideal wilderness classroom to explain to us the remarkable communities of plants and animals native to the upper section of the river. While we are within a 45 minute drive of sprawling Gainesville, we might as well be in the middle of the Amazon .

An hour later, along the middle portion of the river, the Ichetucknee has transformed itself into a wide, aquatic savanna lush with wild rice and eel grass. What we quickly learn is that nature's marvel here is a matter of scale. Though this area was once home to such colossal megafauna as the mastodon, the saber-toothed tiger, and the American bison, the Ichetucknee's magic today is in nature's small details-tri-colored caterpillars, blood-red holly berries, duck weed, and the tiny endemic Ichetucknee Silt Snail, whose entire range is confined to a tiny cul-de-sac at the river's edge.

Yet, Ichetucknee Springs didn't always look as pristine as it does today. For more than 12,000 years, the greater Ichetucknee ecosystem, and specifically the area around Mission Spring half way down the river, was a place of endless human industry, supporting Archaic, Paleo, and Timucuan Indians, as well as one of the largest Spanish missionary settlements between Tallahassee and St. Augustine. Humanity's impact on the Ichetucknee, however, didn't end with Spanish colonization. With the introduction of large-scale grazing and agriculture, the Ichetucknee springshed was almost completely deforested by the early 1900s, and as recently as 1960, cows still grazed in the river itself, trampling whatever native vegetation they didn't directly consume.

Thanks to people like Jim, however, humanity's relationship with the Ichetucknee is now one of reparation. In 1970, Ichetucknee Springs was officially designated a State Park, beginning what is now a 32-year effort to resuscitate the river system through targeted restoration programs including land acquisition in the springshed, implementation of a recreational "carrying capacity," prescribed burns in the surrounding sandhill regions, and the manual removal of invasive plant species like water lettuce by a corps of dedicated volunteers. According to Sam, the effect of these measures has been greater than anyone ever imagined.

"I don't know of any other spring-fed river in the state that's bounced back like the Ichetucknee," he tells me. "Once we established a carrying capacity to limit the number of people on the river and began protecting the Ichetucknee's springshed, nature has healed its own scars. We're canoeing through a success story."

Image of For much of the journey along the river, the team floated beneath a canopy formed by a wide variety of new and old growth trees.Zoom+ For much of the journey along the river, the team floated beneath a canopy formed by a wide variety of new and old growth trees. © Russell Sparkman

As we near the end of our journey on this spring run, the Ichetucknee has transformed itself once again-this time into broad floodplain forest shaded by a tangled canopy of tupulo, ash, and massive old growth cypress trees. Since our departure early this morning, we've traveled almost four miles of crystal clear river and, with the exception of a jet contrail overhead, seen not a single artifact of civilization. As we pull our canoes from the water at the park's final landing just upstream from Santa Fe river, it's as if we've emerged from a time warp.

Not surprisingly, we're not the only ones who have been moved by a trip down the Ichetucknee. It was a trip along this same stretch of river in 1999 that inspired former Governor Jeb Bush and past DEP Secretary David Struhs to move forward with a long-term protection plan for Florida's springs; this has included the formation of the Florida Springs Task Force and a major commitment of resources to identify priorities for spring and aquifer protection.

"Once they saw the Ichetucknee for themselves," says Jim, "The decision to protect and restore springs through the Springs Initiative was a done deal."

With any luck, these protections will extend to every springshed feature which affects water's journey through the Floridan aquifer to springs and down river to the sea.

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Image of During the canoe trip down the Ichetucknee River, Jim Stephenson pointed out wildlife and other interesting features along one of his favorite waterways.

Jim Stevenson describes the creation of the Florida Springs Task Force

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Image of On the Ichetucknee River near High Springs, tubers love the spring to death. The river has become so popular that limits had to be placed on number of tubers allowed each day.

Jim Stevenson explains the decision to establish a carrying capacity for the river

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Image of Spring country is also cow country with numerous ranches spreading across the landscape. Large livestock operations can contribute pollutants to the springshed.

JIm Stevenson explains the history of land use at Ichetucknee

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Image of Florida Cooters basking in the sun on logs are a common site along spring runs.

Park ranger Sam Cole describes wildlife seen at Ichetucknee

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