Florida is actually several states in one, and the difference between the interior and coast, north and south, panhandle and everything else is so great you should be aware of that when you come here. In other words: You can spend your vacation in Florida drinking martinis in a Philippe Starck bar in South Beach or canoeing down a river in North Florida.
While South Florida is surely the Florida most people imagine—Miami, South Beach, Key West, the Everglades—when I have visitors, I always take them down a magical river up north called the Ichetucknee.
The Ichetucknee runs through a state park near the university town of Gainesville. In summer they limit access to the river to the first 750 people, to protect the plant life and maintain the clarity of the water. Because it’s spring-fed, the water is a constant temperature (73 degrees), so you can go down it in winter as well, but for some people the summer crowd is part of the spectacle. This past July, for instance, while waiting for my friend to return from parking our car at the other end of the river, I passed the time regarding a pair of young men walking around the spring who stayed so close to one another it made me wonder why so often in adolescent friendships there is one shy one and one outgoing.
We were privileged to see an extraordinary number of birds: herons and egrets that have accommodated themselves to the people floating by in inner tubes and rafts and remain perched on their islands of floating grass, stalking and swallowing fish as you pass—what the park brochures call “real Florida” at its best.
The problem with the Sunshine State is that it has become so urban, so developed, that its great glory—nature—is now confined to disconnected patches. Everywhere you go now, you will find the “real Florida” preserved mostly in state and national parks; there are springs in the Ocala National Forest, for instance, and more northwest of Gainesville. Yet I can’t think of one that combines a spring and a river the way the Ichetucknee does. The Ichetucknee begins in the Blue Hole, a cavern of turquoise and gin-colored water, and then meanders past grasses and snails and turtles and trees, through tunnels of green, past cliffs of sand, to join the Santa Fe River and finally the Gulf of Mexico, outside the state park. Whenever I am on the Ichetucknee I think of Lewis Carroll or a painting by Watteau or a landscape by Asher B. Durand as I float equipoised between the enormous sky and crystalline water below.
It’s the last that distinguishes the Ichetucknee from ordinary streams. There are other gin-clear rivers in Florida (the Rainbow near Silver Springs, the Homosassa in Crystal River), but none as beautiful—though be sure to go on a sunny day, because, as anyone who has snorkeled in the Caribbean knows, the colors of what’s underneath the water depend entirely on the sunlight above.
I’ve gone down the Ichetucknee in many circumstances over the years: I’ve gone down with a beautiful young Berliner just diagnosed with HIV, hiked the woods around it with a dear positive friend who would not go in because he was afraid of germs. I’ve floated down with just one person and in a group, camping it up and falling utterly silent. In fact, one’s mood almost always changes as you go, starting out chatty, ending up contemplative, as your tube or raft or canoe takes you down like Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott. You need not make a move; the current will carry you. The Ichetucknee always takes you out of your life, your problems, your self, and if by the time you get out, you’re wet, cold, hungry and want a shower, you’re still changed—no matter what your motive for going.
The day I went down with my friend from New York this July we passed a cohort of loud young men climbing out on a tree limb to jump into the river, and when we got on the little train that takes you back to your car, the handsomest sat down behind us and started engaging us in conversation while complaining of a headache, and pretty soon I realized he was drunk. Moments later a park ranger came up to his group and said they’d inspired 15 complaints that afternoon, and suddenly one was reminded how complex the transition to manhood is—though why anyone would get drunk to go down the Ichetucknee is beyond me. The Ichetucknee is a return to innocence, to Arcadia, which may have been, I think, what was bothering the handsome young man with the headache.