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POSTCARDS FROM FLORIDA

Ichetucknee tubing still fun in fall

Jim Abbott on Travel

Postcards from Florida

August 25, 2012

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Even though summer unofficially ends on Labor Day, the hot weather almost certainly will continue into the fall in Florida.

Fortunately, the good news is that there are still relaxing ways to beat the heat, including the option of a tubing excursion along the beautiful Ichetucknee River about an hour northwest of Gainesville.

The Ichetucknee, outside tiny Fort White about an hour northwest of the football-crazed college town on U.S. Highway 27, is a famed summer diversion. A typical weekend afternoon in July can draw close-the-parking-lot crowds that turn the lazy river into a relatively congested waterway.

That popularity eases after Labor Day, when the shallow, ecologically sensitive north section of the river's six-mile run is closed to regrow and recover from the heavy summer traffic. From the south entrance of Ichetucknee Springs State Park (floridastateparks.org/ichetuckneesprings), tubers can embark daily from the river's midpoint dock for stopping points either 30 minutes or 90 minutes down the river.

There's no tram service in the fall, but the walk back to the starting point is only about 15 minutes. Admission for tubing is $5 at the gate. If you need a tube, nearby businesses rent them for about that same amount.

Although it's a shorter excursion than the three hours required to float the full run, a fall tubing trek offers the bonus of a more secluded experience. On a weekday afternoon, it's likely that your only company will be the turtles sunning themselves on one of the tree trunks that extend over the water or the tiny fish darting beneath the mirrorlike surface of the water.

That spring-fed water is a consistent 72 degrees, which makes it mighty refreshing to splash over your face on a sunny afternoon. I recommend a floppy hat for the most effective dipping.

Another word of advice: Don't rent a child's tube, as I mistakenly did on my first visit. Vendors will tie the bigger ones atop your vehicle and you won't face the embarrassment of being stuck inside a small tube, Winnie-the-Pooh style.

There's also history attached to the river. San Martin de Timucua, a Spanish mission site about a mile downstream from the headspring, has been identified as one of the major interior bases once serving the settlement of St. Augustine.

But relaxation is the main attraction.