November 14, Manatee Springs to Ichetucknee Springs, 70ish miles.
Manatee Springs State Park is on the east bank of the Suwannee River. In the Winter, Manatees swim up the Suwannee and into the springs to hang out in the relatively warm water. I woke up early and went straight for the springs to look for manatees. Instead I found buzzards everywhere. They flew away in giant flocks as I wandered the boardwalk next to the springs. I took some photos and looked around, but couldn’t find any manatees. I took a seat at one end of the boardwalk and enjoyed the morning sunshine rising over the cypress trees and shining on the clear blue water.
I was coming to terms with the lack of manatees when I heard a spout of water. Over the edge of the boardwalk I could see two manatees floating through the water, leaving a wake of ovular ripples. I watched them swim towards the springs until I could no longer see them. I ran back down the boardwalk back towards the springs hoping to see them at the next viewpoint, but I couldn’t find them. After a few minutes of waiting I went back towards the spring’s main pools, where a couple people were looking excited and pointing at something.
When I got to them I saw a single manatee floating through the water. It didn’t move a muscle, just drifted along in the warm water.
In case anyone is wondering, I didn’t see a gator on the whole trip. But seeing manatees more than made up for that. Before I got to Manatee Springs State Park, I didn’t know it was possible to see manatees so far inland. I actually didn’t think anyone ever saw manatees, I thought they were too rare.
After eating my own breakfast of oatmeal and peanut butter, Rusty and his wife once again invited me over for a feast. This time it was potatoes, bacon, and eggs in a scramble with a bucket of orange juice on the side. They cooked all the food they had left and made me finish it, which worked out to about seven scrambled eggs worth. Rusty started giving me advice for the road ahead. He said not to trust anyone once I got out of Florida. He also told me that he works for Homeland Security and he gave me names of a some agents in Alabama and Mississippi that work under him. If I have any trouble, he said they would be able to help me.
Rusty was a nice guy, but I tried my best to stay on his good side. I got the feeling that I shouldn’t make him mad. I’m not used to hanging out with Homeland Security Officers.
I found a paved bike path a few miles outside of the State Park going in my direction. I was headed for Ichetucknee Springs State Park and I wasn’t sure how to get there. I had gotten used to double-checking with the sun to make sure I was going the right way. If it was on my left in the middle of the day I knew I was going roughly towards Austin. The paved path went for 20 or so miles in the right direction, but eventually it ran out and I had to get on a highway. Since being off the Adventure Cycling route, I hadn’t picked the best roads and I was starting to get frustrated with the fast cars and small shoulders. At Ichetucknee, I would be back on the route.
In the town of Fort White I called one of the campgrounds in Ichetucknee for directions. It was only five miles away. I bought some food before leaving town and pedaled off. The sun was starting to go down. I pedaled for what seemed like five miles when I saw a sign that said Ichetucknee Springs State Park was up ahead. I kept going for a few more miles, but there were no other signs and the only road I passed was unmarked. A few miles later it was almost dark and I gave up on finding the campground.
I was about to push my bike into a patch of trees when I noticed a bunch of people standing around in a field holding signs. It turned out to be a group of mostly military veterans collecting signatures for a medical marijuana initiative. Their rally was just ending. I’m not sure how many signatures they collected. They were standing on the corner of two roads that, at least by dusk, didn’t have any traffic. A pastor named John said I could put my bike in his truck and he’d take me to the campground.
John told me about all the veterans he knew in the county who couldn’t afford medicine. Most of them used marijuana instead, but they had a hard time getting it. I met one veteran in a neck brace who could no longer afford his medicine, so he started growing two marijuana plants in his house. A month later, the SWAT team broke into his house and took him to jail. They had seen his plants while helicoptering over his neighborhood in search of a much larger marijuana operation.
John also told me about the state of the economy in his part of the world. He said there were no jobs anywhere and most people ate a lot of deer, but even the deer were getting scarce.
John knew the caretaker of the Ichitucknee campground, so they made some jokes at my expense as he dropped me off. The first thing the caretaker said to me when we pulled up was “St. Augustine to Californy, or Californy to St. Augustine?” I was back on the Adventure Cycling route and no longer a novelty. In fact, I was the third bike tourer to camp there that week. I knew the caretaker thought of me as a kook on a bike, not unlike the rest of the legion of bicycle geeks with bright clothing and spandex that come through his campground every week of the year.
Of course, I considered myself a unique and slightly less geeky geek in bicycle shorts but that may just be wishful thinking.
The campground was more of an entertainment center than a standard campground. There were volleyball nets, canoes and rafts for rent, and a store at the office that sold all kinds of junk food and camping supplies. I bought a beer and went to find a site. It wasn’t hard to find a good campsite because I was the only person in the whole campground. The caretaker had to unlock the bathroom for me. I took a hot shower and washed my clothes in the sink. They hung in the bathroom all night and were dry by morning.