Airboat Ride in De Leon Springs, Florida
A buzzing rang through the air, rising in a crescendo as the flat-bottomed boat flew towards us. Propelled by a huge fan attached to the back- the fan literally pushed it across the top of the water. The airboat slid onto the grassy embankment before us with ease.
We were outfitted with a snazzy pair of noise-cancelling headphones to blot out the constant buzz of the boat’s fan motor. Microphones attached to the headphones- like a pilot would wear, would help us communicate with each other and our captain, who told us he would be pointing out landmarks and any animal sightings during our airboat ride.
Once aboard, the fan motor roared to life and we slid off of the grass to begin our journey.
The first time I ever rode in an airboat was in the Big Cypress Swamp. Our daughter, a baby, fell asleep in my arms when the fan started up and didn’t wake up until we docked. Our son, a toddler, loved every minute- though he did not love the earplugs and kept taking them out. Unless you’re used to wearing earbuds, ear plugs are a nuisance, but those noise cancelling headphones- a parent’s dream!
How an Airboat Works
An airboat can travel over water and level land- like a low flying hover-craft. This can be handy in areas with underwater obstacles, like water vegetation, trees and rocks- one of the reasons why airboats are a popular form of travel on the challenging Withlacoochee River.
The giant fan motor rotates and the force propels the the boat forward. A pair of rudders in the rear control the air current to steer the airboat direction.
In our 6-person airboat, Captain Joshua took us on a tour from De Leon Springs State Park through Spring Garden Lake and the winding Spring Garden Creek to Lake Woodruff. There was no jostle and bump like you’d feel in a regular motor boat, no this airboat glided smoothly across the water, like an airplane without the outer shell.
Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge
The morning breeze tickled the tall yellowing grasses flanking the west side of Spring Garden Lake and the Lake Woodruff National Wilderness Refuge.
Lake Woodruff NWR is a 22,000 acre wildlife refuge. It’s a haven for fish, birds, and mammals. In the colder months, the area becomes a traveler’s refuge for migratory birds heading south for the winter. Over 230 different species of birds have been spotted in the area.
Capt. Joshua pointed out a bald eagle watching us from a tree.
Other birds swooped by, chasing each other across the deep blue lake.
An alligator spotted us and ducked beneath the surface as we rounded a bend and gracefully curved onto the Spring Garden Creek. The airboat skimmed neatly over the weeds and water plants along the narrowing channel to Lake Woodruff.
Fly was the word. We were flying. That’s how it felt. Like when Rose stood on the front (bow) of the Titanic in that movie to feel the wind on her face and the freedom of flying. Though I suspected if I had thrown out my arms in a ‘Rose’ moment, my fellow airboat companions would have just thought me loopy.
Autumn in Florida
The trees along the banks of the creek blazed with autumn colors. Reds, yellows. Orange. All mingling with Florida’s everlasting greens. The state of Florida is known to skip seasons- like fall, winter, and spring, but this creek didn’t get the memo, and we were treated to a brilliant autumn display.
Capt. Joshua slowed down for the manatee wake zone in the creek, and as soon as he did, the water swirled in the creek ahead, where a manatee cow submerged. Her snout appeared minutes later as she snorted out some water and took a breath before disappearing again.
Alligators in Lake Woodruff
Lake Woodruff yawned out before us- looking alarmingly large in comparison to our boat. Lake Woodruff connects to Lake Dexter and the St. John’s River, but we wouldn’t be exploring that far today. The Captain kept us nearer to shore to spot alligators, instead of tackling the winds on the open expanse of the lake.
We saw a gator beneath a palm jutting over the water, but he was not willing to sit for a picture, and sunk beneath the surface in hiding. The captain told us Lake Woodruff had good number of alligators- and it was logical to see, as it is linked to Lake George, the second largest and most gator-populated lake in Florida.
Our time passed too quickly, and the bow of the boat lifted as we sped back up the creek to Spring Garden Lake and De Leon Springs State Park.
As the airboat slid onto the embankment by the Old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant, smells of fresh bacon and coffee permeated through the early morning air. It was breakfast time.
Airboat & Gator Charters is a family run and operated business in De Leon Springs, Florida.
This airboat ride was made possible through a partnership with Airboat and Gator Charters and the West Volusia Tourism Board.
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