We arrived at Manatee Springs State Park just after noon one warm spring day in April.
We didn’t know much about the park or about manatees, just that the park was six miles off the highway we were on, headed southeast around the Big Bend coastline of Florida, and it seemed a good place to stop for a picnic lunch.
The joys of serendipity – and wildflowers.
We didn’t see any manatees. It turns out they’re only in the park when it’s cold. They like the constant 72-degree temperature of the spring water during the winter months. Once it warms up – it was nearly 80 degrees on this day – they return to the rivers and bays in this portion of southwestern Florida they call home.
But we did see a lovely spring of crystal clear, turquoise-blue water, sparkling in the flashes of sunlight through the cypress trees and Spanish moss. This is a “first-magnitude spring,” which means it produces 100 million gallons of freshwater a day from underground.
That’s a lot of water. The spring forms several very large pools, one of them reportedly 90 feet deep. The day we were there a handful of young campers and their parents were swimming and floating on rafts in the liquid aquamarine.
We’d driven 128 miles that morning and stopped to picnic in the shade, enjoying three kinds of cheese, an apple, a spinach salad with fresh tomato and a Fat Tire beer.
Then we walked to the spring maybe a hundred yards from the parking lot and the quarter-mile boardwalk from the spring to the river. The area is what I imagine Caddo Lake in far northeast Texas looking like – the only natural lake in Texas and one G and I have long aspired to visit.
This spring is heavily shaded by large, gangly trees and curtains of Spanish moss, giving the area a haunted, other-worldly feel. There are hundreds “Cypress knees” protruding upward from the still waters, breathing for the host trees. They remind me of stalagmites growing from the bottom of a wet bat cave.
The water drifts lazily – there is no visible current – to the Suwannee River, a wild backwater that begins in South Georgia and empties into the Gulf of Mexico about 150 miles north of St. Petersburg. So clear was the river water that we could spy on several schools of fish, probably catfish or sand seatrout, from the boardwalk 20 or 30 yards away.
The colors are right out of a rich Monet painting. A sign said water from the spring was generally eight years old before it reached the river. The catfish shared this portion of the river with a handful of teenage girl campers in canoes.
Another sign warned against swimming with alligators (really!) but we didn’t see any.
After about an hour, we walked back to our Casita. We double checked the trailer hitch, secured our bike rack and grabbed a club soda from the fridge for the road. We had another 129 miles to go before we’d bunk down in the urban St. Petersburg area.
Our impromptu lunch at Manatee Springs State Park was a wonderful interlude, the last time we’d spend in rural Florida for several days.