At the southern tip of Florida's Big Bend is the Chassahowitzka River and National Wildlife Refuge. Halfway between Crystal River and Weeki Wachee, the Refuge is a sprawling 31,000 acres of marshes, swamps, springs, estuaries, islands, and bays.
Imagine Crystal River and Panama City before the people. Imagine springs creating a clear jungle river to the Gulf and hosting bear, eagle, falcon, otter, bobcat, manatee, sea turtles, and gators. Picture multiple inlets feeding the river--each born from a deep-woods spring--and 100 islands in the river delta. This is the Chassahowitzka (pronounced "Chaz-wits'-kuh"), preserved for all and accessible only by boat.
The Chassahowitzka Rive Wildlife Refuge begins about four miles downriver, and this area is exceptionally pristine. The upper and more accessible portion is also beautiful, but has more human traffic. In addition, there is increasing pollution in the springs from nearby septic tanks. There is no public water or sewer system in the area, and so sewage percolates into the aquifer and subsequently flows out of the springs. If the situation worsens, swimming will have to be restricted--the situation needs to be addressed here as well as near the Homosassa and Crystal Rivers.
When a business trip took me from Tallahassee to St. Pete, I decided to leave early, canoe the Chas., then change and make my 2:00 appointment. I departed at 5:30 a.m. and was at the Chassahowitzka River Campground three hours later renting a canoe for four hours.
Armed with a map from the camp store, I pushed off. The main spring is in the river by the ramp, about 30 feet down, and kind of hard to see. Just upriver in a little run, however, is one of the most unique spring groups in Florida. Framed by trees and about 40 by 150 feet, the shallow spring pool reveals a series of interconnected, glowing blue limestone solution holes. Kids were diving into them and swimming underwater from one to another, popping up like that gopher in Caddyshack.
Promising myself I'd come back to the holes, I headed downstream. The foliage is dense and tropical, and wild rice waves in the morning breeze. Three more pretty springs lay at the head of another run 100 yards downriver. There is another just past there, although it is a vigorous paddle in the canopy for 15 minutes through shallow water to reach it.
I was in heaven! In 30 minutes I had photographed 10 springs. I plowed downriver for more, not realizing the easy part was over. The Chas had provided free samples; questing for more would exact a price. Entering a small cove, I ported over a fallen tree blocking a spring run, polling upstream until the water became too shallow. I stepped out; my shins disappeared into mud. The springhead couldn't be far, I figured, and concentrated alternately on placing on my next step and looking far ahead for the spring vent.
In the middle space, a five-foot moccasin was roused. I did not see it rear up a foot above the muck like a cobra, but did see it poised that way from 12 feet. We contemplated each other for a moment, then it broke away and I scrambled for a paddle. I continued forward another 50 feet before giving up and heading back to the river.
The next inlet was more promising. Undulating for 20 minutes through marshes and oak, it led to a 40-foot long spring vent shaped like a lightening bolt. It had the perfect name--"the Crack"--and its pale blueness offered stark contrast to the brown and green around it. I changed film and paddled back to the river and downstream.
Salt Creek inlet promised more springs. The river here--just outside the refuge--is shallow and clear. Fisherman and families relaxed in the spectacular scenery. In fact, everyone was having a good time but me, as I obsessed on finding springs. The creek branched off. I tried one route, but wound up in a bug-filled dead-end.
Then I saw a spring run. More mud, and my previous herpetological encounter made me cautious. But I had to photograph the spring. Spying a topless and leaning sabal palm, I shimmied 10 feet up and tried to see the springhead from altitude. As I stood, I heard "crick-crick." The trunk was about to snap. I tried to back down but was too slow. The trunk broke; the mud beckoned below--full of rotting vegetation and gases. I landed with a flatulent plop. The camera was ruined; nearby birds and bugs were stunned into silence.
I had to hustle back, so I paddled out the creek and the 45 minutes upriver without cleaning off. I looked and smelled like I had rolled in manure. People in other boats looked but made no comment. The tide was now out, and the water was shallow and presented difficult paddling. Now the solution holes became my bathtub, and I scrubbed clean in the upwelling flow. I made the meeting with one minute to spare, and forgot to mention the tree episode. When you visit the Chassahowitzka, relax and enjoy the sights. That's what I'll do, next time.