|Swimming area of Juniper Springs|
OCALA — As a kid, my family used to go on a weeklong camp trip during spring break. Every year, we’d pack up the RV, pop-up or whatever camping vessel my parents had purchased at that time and head to Ocala National Forest for a little R and R.
We would always start the journey off by trying a campground we had never been to before, but the one we kept coming back to was Juniper Springs Recreational Area.
Juniper Springs is one of the oldest and best-known recreation areas on the East Coast. Located between Ocala and Ormond Beach along SR 40, it features a swimming and picnic area, campground, and trails that were constructed in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
What really sets Juniper apart from other places is the hundreds of tiny bubbling springs that feed into a creek, which meanders around the whole campground.
The water is about one or two feet deep, so you can see the small springs stirring up the sandy bottom as they pump water from their source, a giant underground aquifer.
While you are not allowed to wade in the small springs, there is a designated swimming area that looks like a pool, but holds fresh spring water and a variety of wildlife hidden within the rocks and grasses.
Don’t believe me? My brother, Elan Favorite, and I decided one night we’d go for a refreshing swim in the dark. We were on a small inflatable boat that we paddled into the middle of the natural pool. We were daring each other to take the first dip when a variety of flashlights started blinking from every direction.
“I think you guys better come see this,” my parents called from shore.
As we paddled over to the side we could see what the spectators were looking at: hundreds of freshwater eels had emerged from the rocks and were swimming all over! Yuck!
Needless to say, we didn’t take any more night swims.
|A line of kayaks wait to embark on Juniper Run|
Besides those slippery eels, we saw all types of wildlife while camping in Juniper; deer, otters, raccoons, albino squirrels (yes, there is such as thing) and tons of exotic birds and butterflies.
But the absolute best thing I remembered about Juniper Recreational Area was Juniper Run, a seven-mile canoe route into Juniper Prairie Wilderness Preserve, the heart of Ocala.
Rated as one of the top ten canoe runs in the country by Outdoor Magazine, Juniper Run is not for beginners. It is filled with sharp turns, overhanging trees, underwater obstacles and poisonous snakes.
There was no turning back or calling for help if something terrible were to happen on the trip. You were in the middle of nowhere and the only way out was the exit point at the U.S. 19 Bridge where the creek ran into Lake George.
The first time I canoed the run with my parents, I must have been about seven (children must be more than 40 pounds to participate).
We were ducking under one of the many overhanging trees when a pigmy rattlesnake landed in the boat. It was only about five inches long, but it was coming right for my mother and I!
My parents lifted me up and set me in the reeds while they attempted to kill the snake. By the time it was out of the boat, I had sank about a foot into the muck. I was fine, but missing a shoe that could never be recovered.
My mom canoed the run a few more times, but when I got to be about 10 years old, it was something my Dad and I did together.
One year, we were paddling along when we came upon an alligator sunning on the bank. Now Juniper Creek, is only about 14 feet wide, so when we crept up on the reptile he startled, and slithered into the water right in front of our canoe.
His giant head reached the opposite embankment, but his tail was still lying on the shore! That’s how we knew he was over 14 feet long!
|A couple prepares to enter the Run.|
The gator still hadn’t submerged himself when we almost hit him.
I looked back at my dad with a look of sheer terror on my face.
“What do I do?” I said.
“BACK PADDLE!” he screamed.
The water was only about three feet deep at that point, so even when the alligator was no longer visible, we were still weary of his presence.
That is still one of my dad’s favorite stories to tell. Although, every time he tells it, the gator seems to get bigger and bigger.
To me, the near-death experiences just make the run more of an adventure. The last time I’d attempted it, I was around 19 years old.
Last weekend, I revisited my old stomping ground with my boyfriend Drew.
It was too hot to camp, so we showed up early in the morning and rented a canoe for the day, $35.
The way the run starts off is something from a fairy tale. It reminds me of the scene in the Never Ending Story when Atreyu and Artax first begin their journey and they stop at the crystal clear creek, spend the night and have breakfast the next morning.
Juniper Run starts out like that, serene, beautiful and calming. You feel as if you are in the rainforest it’s so gorgeous.
That’s how it starts out.
|Drew taking a rest while on Juniper Run.|
Soon sulfur clouds the clear blue spring water with a yellow-orange color and the landscaping gets more lush, the creek deepens and the current begins to rip.
There is really no room for error. It’s like the park ranger at the rental shop told us, “The run has broken up marriages and caused divorces.”
Once you are in the middle, there is nowhere to stop and nowhere to take a break without running into a spider’s web or getting the boat tangled in the roots of a rotting tree, probably filled with snakes!
I thought we did quite well. Other than some curse words flying and a few digs at paddle experience, we made it to the end still smiling.
Although it was very apparent I wasn’t 19 anymore (I was sore the next day) we had a great time and I can’t wait to take my boyfriend on a spring break extravaganza camping trip, which will definitely include the Juniper Run.
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