Springs Fever: A Field & Recreation Guide to 500 Florida Springs.
2nd Edition by Joe Follman and Richard Buchanan

The Santa Fe River



 

 


The Santa Fe River (Spanish for "Holy Faith") begins at Santa Fe Lake and Little Santa Fe Lake in NE Alachua County.  Flowing for about 50 miles,it serves as the northern boundary for Alachua and Gilchrist Counties. Hernando DeSoto explored the river in 1539.  According to A Canoeingand Kayaking Guide to the Streams of Florida (Carter & Pearce, 1993,p. 134), the river is too shallow, obstructed, or swampy for good paddlinguntil it crosses State Road 241.  From there one can paddle about 5miles to O’Leno State Park.

Within the state park, the river goes underground to pass through the Cody Scarp (or escarpment), an ancient coast line that divides the Gulf Coast Lowlandsfrom what is optimistically called Florida’s "Northern Highlands" (SRWMD,n.d.).  After flowing underground for three miles, the river rises againjust north of High Springs.  Under new definitions, this river rise isconsidered a spring, adding another substantial first magnitude spring tothe currently recognized total of 33.  Alapaha Rise and Holton CreekRise are similar hydrologic occurrences.

From the River Rise to its conjunction with the Suwannee River, the Santa Fe may be paddled by even the novice canoer.  Its width averages about100 feet, and there are no major obstructions or shoals.  In times oflow water, rocks, fallen trees, and aquatic vegetation can pose a hazardto boat motors.  The current is mild except in times of flood, and thereare about a dozen public or fee-for-use boat ramps on the north and southbanks.  Water in the river can vary from clear to dark, but is generallyclearer in the lower stretches due to the influx of spring water.  Theriver water is dark in times of flood and after heavy rains.

Most boaters enter the river at the U.S. 41/441, U.S. 27, or SR 47 bridges or at Rum Island.  The stretch from the U.S. 41/441 bridge to the Suwannee River is about 28 miles, with the ten-mile stretch from U.S. 27 to SR 47 beingthe most popular.  In general, the river passes through forested lowland, with occasional floodplains and swampy areas.  Banks are moderate andrise to about 15 feet in times of normal river flows.  There are publicparks on both sides of the river, and major campgrounds at Blue and GinnieSprings in the upper section and at Sandy Point and Elly Ray’s in the lowersection.

Below the State Road 47 bridge, there is more development, and a coupleof springs are in the back yards of houses along the river.  Even so,there are still extended stretches that are in a natural state.  BelowWilson Springs, there are a couple of dramatic bends in the river that includesome choppy water and even shoals and rapids during times of low water. A major marker in the lower part of the Santa Fe is the confluence with theIchetucknee River.  Under normal conditions, there is a dramatic differencein the clarity of the two rivers, with the Ichetucknee being much clearer.During the historic drought of 1998-2001, the Santa Fe was much clearer thanusual and sometimes nearly as transparent as the Ichetucknee.

Springs, siphons, and abundant wildlife are defining features of the Santa Fe.  Sixty springs have been classified and measured below WorthingtonSprings, and another 8 named springs feed the Santa Fe from the IchetuckneeRiver.  The springs range dramatically in size, appearance, flow, andpotential for swimming and diving.  In this short stretch, however,lie 8 first-magnitude, and 25 second-magnitude springs (Hornsby & Ceryak,1998).

Most of the larger springs are clear and accessible to the canoer, snorkeler, or wader.  Among the many that may be dived, the Devil’s Complex CaveSystem at Ginnie Springs, a private campground, is an internationally knowndive mecca.  Fissures and shafts are common spring-vent types. The majority of the springs lie alongside the river or just off the riverat the head of short runs.  Some, including first magnitude springs,are in the river and more difficult to spot.  A few others lie welloff the river in runs that may or may not be paddled because of obstructions,shallow water, or because they are on private property.  Water in thesesprings averages about 72 degrees year round.

Because of the unique combination of springs, interconnected springs, and siphons along the Santa Fe, it is likely that at least some of the water inthe river sinks and rises several times in the course of its run to the SuwanneeRiver.  For the spring aficionado, the Santa Fe is superceded only bythe Suwannee.  However, springs are more clustered along the Santa Fe, and the river is more attractive and manageable for visitors in canoes or small boats.

Poe Springs County Park, Ginnie Springs, and Blue Springs all require afee (currently $4-$10 per person) to make landfall.  At Blue Springs,a fence actually blocks boat access to the main spring and some of the smallersprings on the property.  That one spring excepted, however, one mayenter spring runs and the springs themselves from the river as long as nolandfall is made.  At Lily Springs, polite visitors are welcomed byEd the Hermit, who lives in a wood and palm-frond hut and is caretaker ofthe property surrounding the spring.  Ed, a fixture at the spring sincethe mid-1980s, wears only a loincloth, and the owners of nearby Pickard Springoften wear less than that.  There are canoe livery companies in HighSprings to cater to people who wish to canoe the river.  Outfittersinclude Adventure Outpost, phone (386) 454-0611, web site:  http://www.adventureoutpost.net.

Most of the Florida’s major siphons also lie along the Santa Fe.  Likesprings in reverse, siphons are locations where quantities of water flowdirectly from the surface back underground into the aquifer.  The sixidentified siphons along the Santa Fe drain an estimated total of 337 milliongallons of water each day (Hornsby & Ceryak, 1998).  With siphonnames like Big Awesome Suck and Little Awesome Suck, the siphons range fromundramatic pools with gentle swirls to powerful--even dangerous--vortexesthat drain as dramatically as a flushing toilet that is 15 feet across.

For precise GPS coordinates of the springs and siphons on the Santa Fe,obtain a copy of Springs of the Suwannee River Basin in Florida, which is published by the Suwannee River Water Management District, Department ofWater Resources, 9225 County Road 49, Live Oak, FL 386-361-1001 or toll-free(in Florida) 800-226-1066.

Much of the land along the river is managed and protected by the Suwannee River Water Management District.  Because of this protection, canoerswill see an abundance of wildlife, particular in the upper sections. Turtles of all stripes bask on logs and often allow very close approach. All major types of heron and egret will be seen on most days, and owls, hawks,osprey, limkin, and ibis are also common.  Alligators are less frequent,but have been seen by the authors even in areas that are used heavily forrecreation.  Otters, feral hogs, deer, beavers, raccoons, and armadillosmay also be spotted in quiet spots, especially in the mornings and evenings.

In all, the Santa Fe is perhaps the best little stretch in the world for seeing springs.  One can see over 30 springs in a one-day paddle.

On a related note, recent research had shed additional light on the underground flow of the Santa Fe River.  Heck et al., reported on exploration ofnearly 50,000 feet of previously unexplored cave passages that began in 1995. The outflow at the Santa Fe River rise is significantly larger than the amount that goes underground where the river sinks at O'Leno State Park.  Divers and researchers found a series of sinkholes (11 so far) that feed the sub-surface river.  The divers also removed an extensive amount of garbage fromthe sinkholes, including a Harley Davidson motorcycle (in Abstracts of .. . 2003, pp. 22-23).