The subject of disconnecting has been on my brain quite a lot lately. Perhaps it’s because this time last year, my coworkers and I were embarking on a disconnect challenge, one that required we each identify a technological vice we could commit to breaking away from for an entire month. I chose Instagram in an effort to get away from constant documentation and return to the idea of recapturing the moment. This year, the group is currently in the midst of a total blackout from all social media channels. Although I considered hopping on board, I realized that professionally, it wasn’t a wise call for me at the moment, and so I opted out. Even though I am not part of the official month long disconnect, I’ve been using this time period to focus on the idea of taking a step back from being over-connected to recapture the details that get regularly overlooked.
Retreating to the Woods
Naturally it seemed like a perfect time to retreat off the grid to stay in a cabin for a few days and spring hop down the Santa Fe River with my counterpart. And so, at the start of last week, we set out for a much needed retreat into the central Florida wilderness near Rum Island in Fort White, not too far from Gainesville. The days immediately before departure, I realized my brain was spinning too fast, and feeling like its wires were totally burnt out. This retreat couldn’t have come at a better time.
Nestled away in the woods several miles from the nearest populated city of High Springs, this AirBnB find was all we could have asked for in a tiny house, and then some. Simple and compact, the cabin came equipped with every basic amenity. Since we are in the throes of a sweltering Florida summer, having a window unit provided added comfort inside the cabin, and a screened-in porch on the exterior allowed us to enjoy the outdoor elements after dusk without getting eaten alive by mosquitos.
Before departing from St. Augustine, we gathered groceries from the fridge, and survived off of a variety of inventive burritos during our three day stay. I consider our most original effort to be this breakfast burrito, complete with peanut butter, granola, spring mix, salsa and Sriracha. These crunchy, creamy burritos kept us going throughout the daylight hours until time to roll up burritos of the dinner variety after sunset.
Swimming Through the Springs
Florida may not have some of the natural wonders that other parts of the country do, but when it comes to springs, our state is one of a kind. The fact that so many of these natural wonders are concentrated within a short paddle of where we were staying made for an accessible, wonderful time of constant discovery. Not only is the area a spring haven (and heaven), just a few hundred feet away from the cabin through the woods was direct access to our own tucked away spring surrounded by magnificent cyprus trees.
First thing in the morning, the sun beams made their way through the trees, hitting the water at just the right angle so that you could see straight to the bottom of this chest deep swimming hole.
The first full day of our cabin stay, we braved the fickle weather and drove up the road about 10-15 minutes to Ichetucknee (or Itch Me Touch Me as some call it) Springs to take a dip and do a bit of exploring. While Blue Hole, the park’s 40-foot swimming hole referred to as “The Jug” was a bit daunting (and especially frigid due to the rainy skies), the head spring offered a clear communal place for us to enjoy a leisurely swim.
On the second full day of our stay, we decided to rent a double kayak just up the road at Rum 138. Doug, the owner, was familiar with our cabin, and came to pick us up and drive us to our drop off point upstream at Alligator Rise. Of course, it was storming until the minute we arrived at the rise. Doug guided us into the river as the rain was still pelting down and there was a chill in the air.
Minutes later the sky cleared and it was nothing but open river and complete isolation. The double kayak’s low sit allowed us to experience minimal separation from the river.
Note: We purchased a couple of plastic cell phone holding bags for $5 bucks at Rum 138 so we were able to take a few iPhone captures while on the water.
During our trek down the river we saw turtle after turtle after turtle sunbathing and swimming. Upwards of 200 throughout the entirety of the day. Also, don’t panic, but we saw a six foot gator having a staring contest with a giant turtle on a fallen tree. Nope, not joking. To my surprise, I went the cool and calm route and simply sat very still and observed these majestic beings in their natural elements. Just as we had been reassured, this gator was far more interested in what he was doing (in this case, staring down a massive turtle) than he was us.
We made multiple spring detours during our journey downstream. One of our first stops was Poe Springs, which we had all to ourselves. A particular spring of interest was Lily Springs, the home of Naked Ed. Ed has attracted quite a bit of attention from river-goers throughout his stint of time living at the spring. He’s even attracted the attention of nearby college students from the University of Florida, who have been drawn to sharing his story.
Although we had intended to stop for the day once we arrived back at our own spring, since we had several hours of daylight left, we decided to keep paddling and visit Blue Springs. This one was my favorite pick. The entrance to the spring leads you off the river alongside a lengthy winding boardwalk, and eventually opens up into a crystal blue swimming hole. We parked the kayak on the bank and swam for an extended period of time. Granted I look quite docile in this picture, just minutes before, I joined a mass of middle school boys and jumped off of a wooden platform that hovered directly over the head spring.
After our time at Blue, we decided we would continue on down to Ginnie Springs. We paddled onward and docked our kayak at the first spring, so we could walk to the others, jumping in with a mask for a swim at each stop.
After Ginnie we made our way back upstream to the cabin, with the sun setting in our rear view. Paddling upstream gave us quite the arm workout to finish off this peaceful spring hopping day.
Opting to take a timeout and stop at every spring we came across allowed us to truly experience the unique atmosphere and geography. Both the temperature of the waters (around 70 degrees) and the individualized beauty of each spring made swimming truly breathtaking. Going for a swim with a mask to visibly see the caves at each spring head allowed us to truly reflect on just how many millions of gallons of water are being pumped out of the earth constantly.
Not surprisingly, when it came time for our midweek departure, It was hard to leave the confines of the cabin to return to civilization. To bridge the gap, we decided to make a pit stop at High Springs Coffee Company on our way out of town. This quaint coffee shop in the heart of the single-street downtown of High Springs fueled us with ice cold coffee, and veggie patch wraps (without cheese). Since we had already been rolling everything into a burrito for three days straight, this meal felt both comforting and fresh.
Looking back at our wilderness retreat, did I do any writing even though I brought an entire tote bag of journals with me? No. Not a single word. Did I do a trail run as I had hoped? Nope. Took a leisurely walk down to the spring with coffee in hand instead and picked up rocks. While part of me was drawn to the idea of a trail run, I used this time in the woods to simply allow my body to rest just as much as my mind and focus on the company of the one I was with and the wonder of our natural environment.
Trust me when I say that allowing several days to escape and simply exist and be present in the moment is far more valuable than crossing something off of your never-ending to do list. Chances are, you’ll come away recharged and ready for whatever awaits you once you reenter civilization.