Hog-Wild Ichetucknee, Roaming Buffalo, and Sleeping Manatees
Question: What do buffalo, manatees, wild hogs, bald eagles, goosebumps, sunning alligators, beaver lodges, sandhill cranes, deer, and wild horses have in common? Answer: These are all things you can see near Payne’s Prairie State Park, just south of Gainesville, FL. And, yes, we did, in fact, see all of these things, and more, during a family outing to Payne’s Prairie State Park over the long President’s Day weekend.
Friday night seven of us gathered around the campfire for hobo dinners, oversized toasted marshmallows, and Mardis Gras king cake. As I’m writing this, I wonder whether or not it is politically correct to use the term “hobo dinners,” but that’s what we’ve always called them. So, no offense to hobos – er, traveling workers. To make “traveling worker dinners”, start with a big sheet of heavy duty aluminum foil, use some non-stick spray, then add a burger (or healthier turkey burger), sliced potatoes, onions, carrots, celery, mushrooms, and / or whatever else you want. Top your traveling worker dinner off with some butter and seasoning, close the foil tightly, and toss on the coals until the potatoes cook – 40 minutes or so. Okay, full disclosure: our fire master Scott didn’t have the fire up to speed quick enough, so our dinners went in the oven in the camper instead of the coals. Despite missing the traditional ash flavoring, they were quite tasty.
Swimming with the manatees at Crystal River
On Saturday morning, we got up before daybreak and headed to Adventure Diving on the Crystal River to go swimming with manatees. Our meeting time at Adventure Diving was 7:00 a.m., and it was about 90 minutes away. I wasn’t kidding when I said we were up before daybreak. Deer were still grazing along the highway as we drove through the early morning countryside. Once at Adventure Diving, we were outfitted with wetsuits and then watched a video on manatee manners. The video was actually a little disturbing because it demonstrated everything NOT to do. For example, the rule “don’t poke the manatees” was accompanied with video of someone poking a manatee.
After the disturbing video, we drove to a nearby marina. Our group of seven ended up being split because only six passengers were allowed per boat, but that wasn’t a big deal. Once you get in the water with masks and snorkels, everyone looks alike. I couldn’t recognize my wife from ten feet away. Our boat took a short, leisurely trip to a small nearby spring. I was a bit nervous about getting in the water because, despite paddling year round, I tend to sink rather than float. I thought about taking a life jacket, but I was told the wetsuit would help me float, and we were all given noodles to hold on to. I actually did fine, but next time I think I might want the life jacket anyway.
The swimming with the manatees was nice, but it wasn’t as much fun as my daughter had had before. When Riley and her boyfriend Scott went swimming with the manatees a year ago, they had manatees come up to them for one-on-one visits. That day was unusually cold with temperatures in the 20s, so there were no people and the manatees weren’t roaming as much. We did see manatees at the spring this day, but they were all sleeping. By the time we left, there may have been 50 people, all dressed in black neoprene, floating around in a spring that was maybe 100 feet across, watching the 5 snoozing manatees. We had an enjoyable hour or so and then headed back to our boat. (Scott got the manatee under water picture with his Go Pro.)
My family was all wearing full wetsuits, but two people we didn’t know, who were also in our boat, were just wearing shorty wetsuits. We were cold when we got out of the water; those two guys were really cold. Goosebumps. Lots of goosebumps. My wife Susan is nicer to strangers than I am, and she lent one of them a large blanket. He thanked her practically the whole ride back to the marina. My sister Catherine commented that on some of her fancier scuba diving trips, they were given heated robes when you got back on the boat. Our boat captain then pointed to one of the other nearby boats and said that they might have fancier trappings because they charged $80 per person, whereas our boat was just $20 per person to go to the same place. His quote was, “It all comes down to whether you want good taste or good grammar.” Catherine said, “I’d really like the heated bathrobe.” We saw several more manatees that were on the move on our ride back. It was a nice trip, but I think I would try to find a really cold spell to scare some of the people off if I went again. Oh, and we even had Groupons, so our “good taste” trip was an even better bargain. Wetsuits were extra.
Here's a link to Adventure Diving.
La Chua Trail with Gators and Buffalo
By Saturday afternoon, we were back in the Payne’s Prairie area, and we took a hike on the La Chua Trail that goes past the Alachua Sink. If you are checking things off against my master list of sightings, we saw bald eagles on the ride to the trail. Up in the western end of the Panhandle, our gators don’t like to be seen, but that’s not the case here. This is the most gators I’ve seen since my visit to the Okefenokee Swamp. Gators were sunning everywhere. I counted more than 20 along the bank of a small pond. Most were modest size gators, but there were some BIG ones, too.
We were treated to several creature sightings, in addition to the gators, along our 3-mile out-and-back trip, but the most impressive was the buffalo. I’ve heard for years that the state of Florida was trying to reestablish a buffalo herd at Payne’s Prairie, and we’d come here on several occasions hoping to see them. We’d seen signs of them, and I mean big piles of signs of them, but we’d never seen the actual buffalo. Let me pause here and say that I know I’m supposed to call them bison, but you have to draw the line somewhere. I’ll accept the “traveling worker dinners,” but that’s it. I grew up hearing about Buffalo Bill and buffalo roaming on the open plain. Has anyone ever heard of Bison Bill? I rest my case. So back to the buffalo. There is a nice observation tower at the end of the trail that gives you a good view of the prairie. We saw a large herd of buffalo off in the distance. Yes! I was glad to finally see them. Unfortunately, my iPhone pictures didn’t come out good enough to include because of the distance. We did see many, many piles of buffalo sign up close, but I’m not including any pictures of those because I have such good taste.
We also saw impressively large sandhill cranes and wild horses on our hike. My daughter Riley thought we should be more impressed by the wild horses, but they looked a lot like regular horses to me. In their defense, the horses were a lot less stingy with the photo ops than the buffalo. I was very impressed by the buffalo and gators, and Riley said that they sometimes close the trail in the summer when too many gators decide that they want to sun on the trail itself. I can live with that.
The La Chua Trail is a side trail of the 16-mile Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail, which is open for hiking and biking. I highly recommend both of them.
If you are a paddler and you haven’t seen the Ichetucknee River, you really need to put this on your list. If you’ve already paddled the Ichetucknee, odds are you want to return. It is a spring-fed wonder. The first three miles of its five-mile path flow entirely through Ichetucknee Springs State Park, so they are protected from development. You can find more info and photos of the river on the website.
We decided to skip the shuttle and do an out-and-back trip to maximize our group’s time together and time on the water. We launched from Dampiers Landing because we like the upper section the most. I didn’t particularly like the quarter mile hike to the water, though. We had brought our tandem canoe, which is a bit heavy, so I was really glad I had also brought the wheels for it. In retrospect, if I was going to do the out-and-back at this time of year again, I’d go down to the lower takeout because it is just a short walk to the water.
One of our group wasn’t thrilled with paddling upstream, and I have to admit the strong current makes it a little bit like work. Paddling upstream is entirely doable, but it is not for everyone. I needed to burn off a few calories anyway, so I was happy soaking up the scenery while doing so. I definitely wasn’t able to take many pictures on the upstream run, though. Almost all of my pictures are from when we floated back down. One last comment about paddling upstream: we thought paddling upstream was an accomplishment, but later in the day, we passed someone who was swimming upstream with a snorkel and mask. Now that guy was tough.
Not too far upstream we met up with a nice fellow on a stand-up paddleboard pulled off to the side of the river and holding his camera. He told us that we’d just missed a group of wild hogs that went scampering into the woods. As we were talking we heard a loud squeal in the distance downstream. Bummer -- that’s been my luck with hog sightings.
When you are looking at the views of the Ichetucknee, you have to remember to look down in the water and to be alert for sounds. I was keeping a watchful eye in the water with the help of my polarized sunglasses, but I didn’t spot the three manatees. It was Susan who heard them. She voiced a quick, “Did you hear that?” I didn’t, but she said we should wait. Then it came again. The distinctive expelling of air from a surfacing manatee. There was a mother and two babies. As manatees go, the mother wasn’t particularly big, maybe eight or nine feet. The smallest baby was less than three feet, definitely tiny. All three were asleep, so we stayed off to the side watching them for a good while before we moved on.
Once we completed our hard-earned trip to the top of the river, we turned around and just floated. We only paddled to stay on track or slow down because the current really is nice. There were lots of interesting birds to see. Several anhingas (aka snake birds) were hanging out in one tree leaning over the water. I’d be willing to bet that they saw us as target practice. We’d heard one loud fellow from another group complaining about getting a splat, so I skirted the edge of the anhinga bombing range as we went by. Sure enough, there was a white splat in the water just to our right. Tragedy averted.
You never know what you’ll see on the river. We didn’t see or hear beavers on this trip, but we did see two beaver lodges, so they are definitely there. One thing to add to the list of sounds to listen for is a loud “smack.” A startled beaver will slap its tail, and it is loud enough to scare you back.
Ever have the feeling that someone’s watching you? If you were a manatee, you’d probably be right most of the time. The sleeping manatees still slept an hour or so after our first encounter with them. We watched them snooze a second time before floating on.
Susan and I were actively looking and listening as we floated our way down the river. We were both really hoping that we might be lucky enough to see the hogs. Having hogs along the Ichetucknee is definitely not a good thing because they are extremely destructive, but if they were there anyway, we really wanted to see them. Unfortunately, listening was a little problematic because of people. The weather was quite comfortable for February, so there were a lot of people, including one group that thought everyone would enjoy their music.
We saw a black shape about thirty feet from the shore move. Then there were more. We called the rest of our group to come back upstream. There was a lot of scampering, so I don’t know for sure how many wild hogs there were, but I’d say at least seven. There were at least three bigger hogs, maybe eighty pounds each, and four piglets. I heard a couple of comments about how cute the piglets were, but all I could think about was barbecue.
My sister seemed to be a magnet for errant kayakers on this trip. When we were in the upper, more narrow section of the river, she had to coach a girl with back paddling techniques to keep from getting rammed. Later on Susan and I watched from the shore at the takeout as a girl of maybe thirteen who was trying to paddle upstream ended up knocking into the side of Catherine’s kayak. The girl tried leaning away and whoosh, she was in the water and floating downstream with her kayak. The girl was laughing cheerfully and was collected by some other people on the river.
Another good day on the river!
Want to see more photos? Go here.
Want to plan a trip? Go here.
Itchetucknee River trip February 19, 2017