A nine mile tour around Hontoon Island provides the paddler with a historical, archaeological, and natural journey on five separate waterways, the St. Johns River, Lake Beresford, the Hontoon Dead River, Snake Creek and, a canal linking Hontoon Dead River with the St. Johns. In the summer, a sixth waterway can be added, Blue Springs Run.
The trip begins at the French Avenue Boat Ramp, located down a dirt road a half mile past the entrance to Blue Springs State Park. Dirt parking lot and dirt ramp at the end of the dirt road. A short upstream paddle on the St. Johns leads to Blue Springs Run. Two barriers block the entrance to the Run, the first for powerboats, the second for all other watercraft. Blue Springs Run is a manatee refuge. In the winter, hundreds of the creatures seek the 72 degree water of the Run. I crossed the first barrier, then drifted just outside the second. I soon began to see, and hear manatees. Easily visible in the clear spring water, several came right up to my kayak.
After the manatee encounter, I paddled downstream on the St. Johns, headed to Hontoon Island State Park. Hontoon Island was on my left as I paddled north. The section of the St Johns from Blue Spring to Lake Beresford, just before the Hontoon Island State Park docks, is undeveloped. Varying vegetation, marsh, cypress swamp and hardwood hammock line the banks. Turtles sun on logs as ibis forage amongst cypress knees. Less then an hour of paddling brought me into Lake Beresford, which is just a wide section of the River, then a turn west to the State Park docks. A sign on a kiosk stated it was 3.5 miles from Blue Spring State Park to the Hontoon docks.
To stretch my legs, I intended to take a walk on the nature trail that traverses the length of the Island. A ranger informed me parts of it were underwater, but I could still hike on the Park's "roads", which are no more than paths were the grass is cut and brush cleared. So I did, walking through flatwoods, to the Hontoon Dead River, then accessing the southern end of the Nature Trail, where, rare for Central Florida, the trail begins to ascend. I look at the ground showed I was walking up an Indian shell mound, as I stepped on ancient snail shells, Timucuan trash. An immense moss covered live oak grows at the top of the mound at the trail end, and indication of how long the Island has been inhabited. I saw vultures, cardinals, and red shouldered hawks. On past visits I have seen deer and heard numerous barred owls. None today, nor was I fortunate enough to see the small bear that the ranger told me had been seen eating acorns near the trail in recent days. Several times I heard rustling on the forest floor, likely armadillos.
After a one hour hike (the park brochure says two hours) I was back near the docks. A picnic area has two replica totems, one, an owl, is the largest found in Florida. The originals, now in museums were found nearby in the 1950's. The Park itself has a nice small museum with information on the animals, history and artifacts on the Island.
After lunch on a picnic table overlooking the St Johns, I was back in the yak, paddling a short distance west to the Hontoon Dead River, then headed south, against the slight current. Every log in the river had turtles basking in the afternoon sun. Woodstorks and great egrets roosted higher up and king fishers darted about. Blue herons stood in water grasses, eyeing prey. A few large splashes, to big for turtles sliding into the river, alligators unseen. I was paddling along the east side of Hontoon Island. After about an hour I came to the entrance to Snake Creek. This is an interesting paddle, but I did not do it on this trip as I knew I could not get all the way through due to masses of hyacinths blocking passage, and did not want to double back. I continued on to the northernmost of three old logging canals that link the Hontoon with the St.Johns.
But for the straight line aspect of the canal, you would not know they are man made. Large trees line both banks, bird flit about. Soon after I entered, a huge gator. perhaps 12 feet, slid down the bank and slowly submerged. I've seen a lot of alligators while kayaking all over Florida, this one was impressive. The canal I was in is great for the paddler. It has areas were logs and other obstructions make it to narrow for powerboats. There are three sections when muscling through mats of hyacinths is required. After the final blockage, I was back in the St. Johns, south of Blue Spring. I took a short paddle up the south entrance of Snake Creek, only to be blocked by more hyacinths. Back to the St Johns, and to the rental canoe launch area of Blue Springs State Park. The 5.5 mile trip took a bit over 2 hours.
In the summer, one can paddle the length of Blue Springs Run to Blue Spring. In the winter, as the manatees arrive, no boating is permitted. You can, however swim a short portion of the run to the Spring. So I did, first squeezing the dozen people standing on the steps to the Run, then avoiding the manatee that had drawn their attention. The short swim against the 100 million gallons of water coming from the Spring is a good workout, as is diving down as far as I could into the spring cavern. Three foot long gar accompanied me in the clear water. Imitating their sleek profile I put my hands in front of me like a snout, and sliced through the water. As kayakers know, narrower is faster.
As at Hontoon Island, there is an Indian Mound at Blue Spring Park. This one is topped not by a ancient oak, but by a large frame house built in the 1870's. The house is open to visitors.
I got back in the kayak and watched the manatees some more. Flukes rising, rolling over, flippers flapping. Saw a mother nursing its calf and backed away. Plenty of other non-nursing creatures to observe. The time was getting late. Made the short paddle back to the French Avenue ramp in time to see a beautiful sunset over the St Johns as I secured by kayak to the car.
Both State Parks have camping.
Voluntary donation at Hontoon. I did not see a place to pay at Hontoon for those arriving by boat. Usual Florida State Park fee for boat arrival is $1 per person
From Orlando. I-4 to Saxon Blvd exit west to Enerprise Road, north to 17-92 to French Ave, west past Blue Springs State Park entrance down dirt road to St. Johns RIver