Spring Break with the manatees

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By Jenna McKenna

Guess who visited Manatee Springs and wrote the following report:

"Having borrowed a canoe from some indians, I visited a very grat and most beautiful fountain or spring which boils up from between the hills about 300 yards from the river, throwing up great quantities of white small pieces of shells and white shell rock which, glittering through the limped eliment as they rise to the surface, subside and fall again round about on every side."

With FCAT just behind us and spring break coming up, you might think the above is part of a well thought-out, uncorrected first draft of an essay by a student visiting or living in Chiefland. You'd be wrong, though. It was written by American naturalist William Bartram, who explored the Southeastern United States in the 1770s, the years leading up to the American Revolutionary War.

The book he wrote, whose 50-word title is generally abbreviated to “Bartram's Travels,” contains the first written description of many historic sites in Florida and the Southeast. Bartram's footprints are all over the Nature Coast area, informing much of what we know today about the natural features of our area. Manatee Springs gathers water from about a fifth of Levy County, over 200 square miles. If you dump out a warm Mountain Dew in the parking lot of the Dollar General in Bronson, sooner or later it'll emerge in that bowl of blue water west of Chiefland. Bartram didn't know that, but he suspected the springshed was far-ranging, noting in his report that, “the indians and traders say this fountain vents the waters of the great Alatchua savannah.”

Vacationers, anglers and kids on spring break might not know who Bartram was, but his expressions of wonder at the beauty of the springs make it possible for us to enjoy the park today.

Brian Maxwell, Assistant Park Manager at Manatee Springs State Park, said state parks all over Florida, and Manatee Springs in particular, are having a banner year in visitors.

“This January we had record numbers of park guests,” he said.

“The most we've had since 2003.”

Many visitors are Northerners, caravaning through Chiefland on their way home from South Florida.

“A lot of them are from around here, though,” he said.

No wonder. Manatee Springs offers a whole vacation, right in town. The spring itself, a first magnitude producer that discharges between 35 million and 150 million gallons per day, fills a beautiful round blue bowl where swimmers can see silvery catfish and carp zigzagging across the limestone bottom, 25 feet down. The spring run, which connects the spring bowl with the Suwannee River, is open for the year for canoeing and kayaking.

“We had enough warm weather the last couple weeks for the river to warm up to 68 degrees,” Maxwell explains, warm enough for manatees to leave the comfort of the spring run and return to open water.

The park also has 92 improved campsites, as well as a small amount of primitive tent camping areas for youth groups. You can also enter the park from the floating dock on the river, and come in by the boardwalk. People who like a little deeper swim than the 25-foot depth of the spring bowl may like to scuba dive in the 90-foot-deep, narrow, duckweed-covered sink known as Catfish Hotel.

Besides the boardwalk, there are more than eight miles of trails for hiking and biking, and wildlife observation.

“We have several different habitats in the park, and so many different species of plants that you couldn't even list them all,” says Maxwell.

Inside the park for less than an hour, we saw two different kinds of tortoises, grey squirrels, deer, turkey vultures, an early monarch butterfly, egrets, herons and mullet – fish, that is. A more patient observer would see much more.

Spring break starts next weekend for Levy County schools, a great time to hike, camp, fish and swim. Maxwell reminds prospective visitors to visit www.reserveamerica.com or call 1-800-326-3521 for campground reservations during this busy season. Unlike in the 18th century, there's no guarantee a campsite will be available for roving naturalists who just show up.

Manatee Springs is located at the west end of State Road 320, about six miles west of Chiefland. For more information about the park, call 352-493-6072.