Vacation Special, August 1997
Blissful Indolence Made Simple
A Florida stream, an inner tube, and no ambition in sight.
By Bucky McMahon
There are two ways to tube down north-central Florida's Ichetucknee River: the easy way and the easier. Let's examine the easier first, assuming it's a radiant midsummer day, air temperature about 95, humid enough to confuse a frog.
Lie on your back, hindquarters submerged in the 72-degree water, gazing drowsily up through the overarching canopy of Spanish moss. Recall the First Law of tubing physics: The chill of the booty is directly proportional to the circumference of the vulcanized vessel. Fail to think of a Second Law. As the black rubber heats up, regulate body temperature by idly flicking water onto your belly and sighing.
Among Florida's many artesian springs, famous for their mermaids and manatees, none is more beloved by inner tubers than this perfect conduit for the indolent. Though parts of the Ichetucknee are narrow and serpentine, its banks are buffered by a luxuriance of eelgrass that will gently catch and release your tube with a soft, whispering sound. Do not attempt to steer the tube, except in slow circles to rotate the sky and invite musings on the immensity of the ether, which is frankly miraculous and ultimately exhausting. It's possible at any moment to be struck by a falling stinkpot, a turtle known to climb high into the canopy and leap into the water when startled. Possible, but unlikely. Disregard the threat, or think to yourself, If the blow must come, let it be fatal. Drifting, drifting, you've made your peace.
With the easier path, it's more likely you'll fall asleep, only to be wakened by the laughter of other tubers. You've gone aground in a shaded eddy, your mouth comically gaping. Sit up, blinking and grinning sheepishly. Now is a good time to tackle the easy way.
This way is more gear-oriented (a mask and snorkel). Flop onto your belly and, chin resting on rubber or head slightly elevated, survey the banks for stalking egrets, sunning Suwanee cooters, or periscope-nosed softshell turtles. You might see otters and beavers, but by and large this is wilderness writ small, though with startling clarity. Because many springs feed the Ichetucknee as it winds through pines, hardwood hammocks, and swampland, visibility is forever. It opens wee mysteries like a microscope slide.
Plunge your mask into the stream. Now you see the spring's power, pumping an average of 233 million gallons a day. The fish, you see, the bream and bass and little sailfin mollies, are working hard not to drift. The eelgrass is waving as if in a gale. You see breaks in the streambed, phosphate pits and sudden overhanging caverns. Unable to resist, you slither from the tube like a gator and dive deep, and are rewarded by a chance meeting with a siren, a three-foot-long legless salamander. Which is thrilling and, ultimately, quite chilling.
You'll need to get warm again. Clamber back aboard the tube like a cooter (from kuta, an African word for "turtle"), and take it easier.