Dark tannin leaked into the crystal clear water, turning the creek an antique inky brown. Overhead the trees leaned in and the thick shrubbery on the banks reached out across the run to join together- blotting out the blue skies and snuffing the rays of sun.
The paradise paddle from the Juniper Springs paddle launch turned dark and jungly, but only those who have tackled the intermediate paddle run truly know the true extent of what exists on Juniper Run beyond the Juniper Springs Recreation Area.
Juniper Run is an intermediate paddle trail in the Ocala National Forest from the launch site at the head springs in Juniper Springs Recreation Area, through the Juniper Prairie Wilderness and to the take-out at the Highway 19 Bridge. This 7-mile one-way trip can take from 3.5 to 5 hours to complete.
10 Things You Know if You've CONQUERED Juniper Run
1. You Can Only Take Non-Disposables
This paddle trail has a strict non-disposable policy. There's a park ranger stationed at the paddle launch who will enforce this 100% (even during the government shut-down!). You've probably seen the uninitiated throw away their granola bar wrappers, paper-wrapped sandwiches, bags of chips and plastic water bottles at the trash bin conveniently located by the launch dock.
But as a Juniper Run veteran, you'll come prepared, bringing an aluminum water bottle and storing your lunch- sans wrapping- in a Tupperware container for your trip. And with 4-5 hours in the wilderness, you know you'll be eating and drinking everything you brought. It's a trash-less paddle trail and worth the extra effort to keep this piece of wild Florida clean.
2. It's A Real Jungle Out There
The water at the launch site is crystal clear and inviting, just like the springs in the nearby swimming area. You can even see boils pulsating with clean, fresh water, bubbling in the white sandy creek bed. So anyone who does not venture beyond the recreation area will probably assume the entire 7-mile paddle is a park-like picnic.
If you've paddled the run, you're in the club- and you know better. That pretty park-like scenery is like the Stepford Wives- and once you pass the Rec area marker, you'll see the dark side. Tannin-stained water, sometimes so inky it looks black and thick canopy in areas so dark you probably thought-' hey- who turned out the lights'! It's jungly and wild. If you've paddled the Silver River, you might even think a monkey or two would look perfect swinging from the trees.
3. It's All About Navigation
You would think that with a 4-5 hour paddle ahead of you, if you paddled faster you could cut that time in half. Hahaha. If you've paddled the Run you've just fallen over laughing. Admit it, you've tried it too- but with all the tight turns and twists, the trees and logs, the only thing paddling faster does is get you caught up in the obstacles.
Those very water obstacles give Juniper Run its' 'intermediate' rating. This paddle run is not for beginners.
- It requires navigational skills- to guide your craft around the obstacles, twists and turns on the run.
- Paddle prowess- back paddling for those sharpest curves in the creek and to stop you from bumping into the craft ahead, accidentally send them off into the bushes. Also quick paddle maneuvers to fit you, your craft, and your paddle successfully between two trees.
- Timing & mathematical feats- to determine how much time you have and how long of a sip of water you can take before the current takes you crashing into the trees ahead.
- And even some Indiana Jones-like quick reflexes- for that quick low duck into your kayak when the mathematical calculations were incorrect and you're headed for those trees and see a snake in one of the branches.
Most of the time you are concentrated on steering your craft in a sometimes very swift current, using the paddle as a rudder to take those 45-degree angle turns or avoid the logs and overhanging bushes.
4. You Need To Lean Forward or Back or You'll Tip
One of the top reasons people are afraid to kayak is they fear tipping over- and the top reason why they tip is they lean over to one side. The rangers at the Juniper Rec area will honestly tell you that many paddlers tip over on their trip. One of the reasons is because there are low lying trees across the run, and people duck to the side and fall out.
If you've paddled the run, you know the best way to stay in your craft is to either lean forward, with your face near your knees, or do a limbo dance and lean back if you can, to float under these unavoidable trees.
But with that all said and done, there are still many paddlers that end up in the water anyway. Keep your valuables in a dry bag- next time it may be you 😉
5. You'll See At Least One Gator
On a 7-mile trek through the wet wilderness, spotting some wildlife is expected. You'll often see turtles sunning themselves on the logs. You may even spot an otter or two. There's usually a heron or anhinga as well, but as a veteran, you know you will see at least one alligator- and it will be a big one!
Alligators are territorial critters, and as you paddle along the creek, you'll spot the places where they usually sun themselves. When you do another paddle trip, chances are good that they'll be sunning themselves in those same exact spots too. There's a huge alligator that loves a muddy grassy patch along the creek. Give him the wide berth and respect he deserves. You are but a brief visitor in his wilderness.
If you've paddled the Run before, you also know that the best time to see any wildlife is early mornings on a weekday, when there are the fewest other paddlers around 😉
6. You Know the Best Pit Stop Places
There used to be a dock with picnic tables at the halfway point on the run. It was a great place to stretch your legs, eat lunch and have a pee. The dock has long since disintegrated into memory, and the National Forest folks don't want you stopping on the run at all- but with that swift current, you need a place for a sandwich break.
If you've paddled the Run before, you know there are perfect places for that badly needed pit stop. Trees worn smooth tell the tales of picnic lunches. You probably even have your favorite one! There may be even a sandbar where you've stretched your legs and bailed out the water from your kayak 😉 right?
7. Out of Darkness Will Come Light
After hours of navigating the narrow confines and dark canopy, the creek runs through the open wetland prairie. Suddenly it's all sunshine and blue skies overhead. The water clears up and you're floating past sandy banks, cattails, sunning turtles and what smells like a wild hog mud-rooting playground- or is it deer? Who cares- it's daylight!
If you've paddled the Run before, you know once you get tired of the enclosed canopy, it will get brighter. You also know something else....
8. There's Rapids in the Ocala National Forest!
Say what?! Yes! Just as you are lulled into a 'is that all there is' mentality, you hear the roar of water ahead- then the current gets faster, plunging you towards the churning white-water and down the rapids. Okay, so they aren't North Carolina rapids, but for being in the middle of the Ocala National Forest, they do just fine.
If you've paddled the Run before, you know to keep to the right going down the rapids. You also know there's a handy sand bank right at the bottom on the right to stop and empty any excess water from your craft, if need be.
9. You'll Have Mixed Feelings When You See the Highway 19 Bridge
When the takeout point- the bridge comes into sight, you feel relieved- 4-5 hours is a long time to be in a small craft. But the sound of the cars rumbling over the bridge may also give you pangs of sadness. After being so long immersed in the wildnerness with no sign of civilization, it's only natural to feeling out-of-sorts.
However you are feeling, when you slide your kayak or canoe into the take out slip, you know you'll need someone to help you out. Can you say 'stiff legs'! And if you've tackled this trip before, you know there's a toilet up by the parking lot. It's certainly not the best smelling toilet- but it's a toilet!
10. You Won't Have Many Photos of Your Trip
You're taking a camera- heck a waterproof camera maybe, you say- of course you'll take lots of photos of this cool day out. If you've paddled the Run before, you know the moment you whip out your camera or phone for a shot, your kayak will go careening into a mangle of brush...every...single...time. It's the current. It's the turns in the creek. Eventually you give up and enjoy the journey.
Next time you'll tell yourself you'll mount a go-pro to your kayak and try to take pictures that way. Or you'll go-doubles and get a friend or partner to paddle on a tandam kayak or canoe. Maybe you will- maybe you won't. That's okay, you may not have snapped hundreds of photos, but you have made memories- and that's what counts in the long run (unless you're doing a photo feature for NatGeo or Paddle Life of course 😉
About the Author: Sally White first paddled Juniper Run as a teenager. She now returns for an annual kayak trip there with her teenage son. If you happen to see them- she's the one headed for the bushes, while trying to capture the perfect shot. Some adventurers never learn 🙂 Happy Paddling!