It is a slow and sinuous dance we take, drifting through a corridor of green. First I twirl, then he twirls, and I end up stuck against a wall of grass along the riverbank. John starts a modified backstroke as I hang on, and we twirl back into the flow of the Ichetucknee River.
I’ve never tubed before. I’ve played in pools and water parks on inner tubes, but the idea of using one as a watercraft to propel you down a waterway? Um, that’s what kayaks are for. The nice thing at Ichetucknee Springs State Park is that there is a tubing season. It’s a summer thing. It ends next weekend, after Labor Day. Only then can the paddlers take to the river.
The Ichetucknee River is full of surprises. I’d had it in my mind that it was a narrow stream akin to Juniper Run, since that’s all you can see from the hiking trails. For the first half mile or so, it was. We bounced like pinballs from one shore to the other, not so much due to the current but that we were trying to stay together.
The idea with tubing, of course, is to go with the flow. Relax and enjoy. But we found ourselves distracted by trying to float as a duo. Here’s a hint for couples: rent a double. We each had individual tubes, and we found out quickly how awkward it was to stay together. At first John grabbed my foot so I wouldn’t float off. But then we took turns holding on to the hand-hold of the other’s tube. Which meant we kept spinning around every time we tried to get into the current. And when we got stuck against a log? That was tricky to get out of.
Here’s a hint for everyone: a headrest and a paddle or two will make the journey more enjoyable. I had to hold my neck up with one hand after a while, and with juggling a camera (my first try using our GoPro) and hanging on to the other tube now and again, it was awkward. When a fellow floater passed by in an inflatable raft with two paddles, I was envious. He could go where he wanted to go!
And that was important as the river widened dramatically after the waters of Blue Hole rushed into it. Braided channels drifted off in several directions, and we fought to stay in the main flow of the river. Twirling and twirling in a river dance.
Several friends had fins and snorkels so they could browse around underwater in the deeper sections. After I saw the underwater photos I’d taken, I could understand why. From above, we could spot the bright blues and white sand around springs as we approached them. But with no way to manuever ourselves (see: bring a paddle) it was tough to take good photos. We grabbed what we could.
At times, it was a very Zen experience. On a Friday, there weren’t a lot of people on the river, and most of them were friends of ours. There was very little noise. We drifted past hundreds of turtles on logs, who seemed oblivious that we were only a few feet away.
When the character of the river changed again, it felt like a cathedral. We drifted beneath ancient cypress under a dense canopy of floodplain forest. It was time to think like paddlers, as we had to manuever around submerged logs. And it’s almost impossible to manuever two tubes. Still, there were more moments of stillness than on the upper river, as our group had spread out dramatically over the two and a half hour trip.
Our take out was at Dampier’s Landing. It was not a graceful exit. I saw friends beaching themselves at the rocky beach, but they’d been swimming in their tubes for the last mile or more. The folks on the platform yelled for us to aim for them instead, that the beach was too slippery. Even with help, it was tough getting out because of the strong current. I got my right heel on the ladder and used it to leverage me out of the tube. I found out later that it wasn’t the best way to get out of the water. I injured my Achilles’ tendon on that awkward dismount, and am still nursing it back to health.
I came back the next day, a Saturday, and found things had changed. The park had opened a different entrance, the better to handle the massive load of visitors who come on weekends to go tubing. As I hiked down the Trestle Trail -- the first part of which you have to walk down through the woods to get to the tubing put-in -- I could hear the echo of noise from the river along its entire length.
I found short side trails where I could take photos of the conga line of tubers passing by. You could tell this wasn’t as much of a nature experience for most of them. Laughing, yelling, screaming -- it was a floating party, minus the drinks. A ranger was on patrol at the beginning of the trail, checking people’s dry bags and informing them that they couldn’t take plastic water bottles along. Or food. Only non-disposable containers are allowed on the river, the better to minimize trash with so many people. We used our water bottles from our bikes.
Would I do it again? Yes, but with a paddle and a double tube to see if it would make a difference. We’re both eager to return during paddling season to explore the river more thoroughly. It’s one of Florida’s most beautiful spring-fed waterways.
If you go
Summer season on the Ichetucknee River runs from the weekend before Memorial Day to the weekend after Labor Day. That’s your window of opportunity for a 2.5-3 hour tubing trip. The tubing put-in closes at 2 PM or when a maximum of 750 people is reached.
The rest of the year, paddlers must put in downriver (south of the South entrance off US 27) to paddle upstream; you cannot launch at the tubing entrances.
While the park has no tube rentals or camping facilities, there are many nearby. Ichetucknee Family Canoe and Cabins kindly provided the tubes for our float trip. Ichetucknee Springs State Park charges a $5 per person tubing fee. If you’re visiting the park and not tubing, you can use your Florida State Parks pass or pay $4-6 per vehicle.