It's midsummer, and the temperature and humidity are both hovering in the 90s. Here in Central Florida, we experience the opposite of cabin fever, holed up in our air-conditioned caves, dreaming of the few cool months when being outdoors isn't a brutally challenging battle against heat and mosquitoes.
One wonders how humans managed to survive in Florida before the advent of air conditioning. As the Timacuans and other early tourists discovered, there is a foolproof method for getting outdoors in the summer while still avoiding heatstroke and mosquito-induced anemia: get on, in or under the water.
Fortunately, within an hour's drive of the bus fumes of downtown lie several relatively wild areas where it's possible to escape the urban sprawl and cool off. So one morning during the last heat wave, I decided it would be refreshing to revisit some of my favorite watery escapes from the heat.
I began plotting my minivacation by calling Gator Ventures (407-977-8235) of Seminole to commission an airboat ride. The airboat captain, Todd Braden, made me feel like a true Florida native by calling me "Bubba." He suggested we launch in the early morning from the fish camp at Black Hammock, a few minutes from the GreeneWay on the shores of Lake Jessup near Oviedo.
According to local legend, Jessup has the highest alligator population in the world. Captain Todd theorizes that the state has used the lake as a dumping ground for nuisance gators -- the ones that ate the dogs out of Winter Park back yards. The average depth of the 10,000-acre lake is relatively shallow, and it has miles of undeveloped shoreline, for plenty of good breeding, nesting and hunting space.
Also, unlike Lake Monroe in Sanford, Jessup sits off to one side of the St. Johns instead of in the middle of the stream, so its big reptiles tend to stay put instead of wandering off into the river. Whatever the reason, there are a hell of a lot of alligators in Lake Jessup. That became apparent as soon as I reached the fish camp, where the heads a dozen foot-long babies bobbed serenely near the base of the boat ramp. A larger pair -- too small to eat an adult human but big enough to swallow a toy poodle in one gulp -- lay snoozing on the bank.
Captain Todd's airboat is essentially a skiff with an airplane propeller and 425-horsepower engine attached to the back. He claims that, if need be, the powerful engine/prop combination could drive the boat up the ramp and halfway across the parking lot, so getting the boat stuck in the shallows or in the marsh grass wouldn't be a problem.
We sped away from the dock, flying at adrenaline-producing speed across sawgrass and lily pads. The saunalike early-morning atmosphere that had enveloped me when I left the climate-controlled cocoon of my car quickly fell behind us.
A bald eagle escorted us across the lake, flying just above and ahead of our bow. I tried to count alligators but lost track within minutes. I lost count of birds, too, after recognizing blue herons, anhingas, bald eagles, wood storks and dozens of others.
We headed toward "Bird Island," a favorite rookery for area waterfowl. As we approached the island, so many white egrets lined the treetops that it looked as if a light snow had fallen. At the sound of our approach, the "snow" spread its thousand wings and lifted into the sky to swirl around above our heads.
We meandered through shallow trails lined by cattails and exotic marine vegetation, bordered by the dark woods of Black Hammock. Around one bend, the trail turned pink with enormous, hibiscuslike flowers, which Todd called "marsh mallows."
We returned to the dock after about an hour on the water. Somehow, the experience seemed to keep me cooler for the rest of the day. Better still, the brief time spent outdoors helped me shed the sturm und drang of everyday life for the next several days.
Soon, however, the heat again became oppressive. I decided to cure the fever by fleeing to a couple of the springs that flow out of the limestone sponge that underlies the Florida sugar-sand. Kelly Park (407-889-4179) in Apopka and Blue Springs (904-775-3663) in Orange City are my favorites.
Near the entrance to Kelly Park, you can rent a giant inner tube. Carry it up the path to the "boil," and you can drift lazily down the run to the swimming area, your butt dangling in the chilly water as you float slowly under the overhanging oaks. It's much quieter than an airboat ride, especially if you can call in sick at work and go on a quiet weekday.
It's a good idea to visit both Kelly Park and Blue Springs during the week, anyway. Park rangers warn that during the weekends, the parks tend to fill up early, and by midafternoon, they're turning cars away.
Besides, too many humans in the water tends to keep the wildlife away from the water's edge.
After floating down Rock Springs run a few times, I still wasn't cooled off enough, so I decided to drive on to Blue Springs. Walking up the boardwalk from the parking lot to the swimming area, I peered past the glare into the clear water, where a half dozen alligator gar hung suspended like miniature, toothy submarines, waiting to ambush an unwary bluegill.
On the far bank, an otter emerged and skittered into the woods, carrying a mullet in its mouth to its chattering mate. A crab crawled along the bottom, its shell so Day-Glo blue that it looked like a chunk of the sky reflected on the surface had gotten bored, dropped to the bottom, and grown legs and claws.
There are a lot of water-related things to do at Blue Springs, like rent canoes and explore the St. Johns river, a lagoon, and the adjoining marsh and swamp. However, my objective was to get completely submerged, at least for a little while.
I donned mask, fins and snorkel, slipped into the satisfyingly cold water and kicked upstream toward the cave -- the source of the 72-degree spring water. The current flowed strong, so I took my time, studying the fossil shells and sharks-teeth scattered along the sandy bottom and chasing the occasional catfish I startled from beneath fallen logs.
I finally reached the boil and drifted across the opening at the floor of the bowl where the spring originates. The sun, almost directly overhead, shone down to light the gaping maw of the earth as I free-dove between its stony lips and gazed into the black depths of the aquifer. The sight is awe-inspiring; you at once look down into the earth and back in time, glimpsing the era when Florida was a massive structure of coral reef lying beneath the Atlantic.
After an hour or more in the water, I drifted back downstream and pulled myself onto the grassy bank. The sun felt wonderful on my thoroughly chilled skin. It was the first time I'd felt friendly toward the sun in months, and maybe the last time I'd feel that way again until December -- or until my next attack of the summertime blues brings me back.