Exploring Florida’s Fragile Fountains: Spring-Hopping Near Branford on September 29

Tom Morris led 15 Sierrans on an exquisite Suwannee St Johns (SSJ) outing, where we were introduced to springs near Branford.  John Moran joined us as well.  The stops included Alachua Sink, Little River Spring, Royal Spring, Running Spring, Cow Spring, Church Springs, Orange Grove Sink, Olson Spring, and Peacock Springs.   While some members of our group had heard of a few of these gems, most had never visited any of them.  For example, while you might think you have seen Alachua Sink, you haven’t seen this one.  The Alachua Sink you are thinking of is a part of Paynes Prairie.  The one we visited is adjacent to the Sonny’s BBQ where Route 441 goes underneath I75 near Alachua, Florida.  While you have driven passed it 1000 times, you should check it out some time.  It is similar to the Devil’s Millhopper with steep wooden steps leading down to the bottom of the sink.  The difference is that a beautiful reflective pool awaits you at the bottom.  In one of Tom’s multitude of instant lectures, he remarked that the water in the sink is 190 feet deep.  He added that on occasion visitors have been stricken with the bends ascending the steps after an extended SCUBA dive.  He also reminded us that a memorable scene from Wes Skiles’ movie “Water’s Journey” was filmed at Sonny’s when the geekie physics guy walked through the salad bar while carrying some device to magnetically track Tom SCUBA diving through the cave 190 feet below.  Teenagers love that scene.


The Alachua Sink you have never seen.             Our SSJ Group at Alachua Sink


We found Little River Spring to be large, clear, and perfect for a cool swim and a picnic.  Schools of mullet could be seen milling around, where the water flows into the tannin brown Suwannee River.


Squirtgun at Little River Springs (Photo by John Moran )

At Royal Spring Tom made a valiant but unsuccessful attempt to ascend a 60 foot cypress for a plunge in the pool.  Thankfully, after climbing 15 feet or so up the tree, he decided that (at least at his age) discretion should defeat valor.  While we found Orange Grove Sink blanketed in duck weed, several people dove in anyway.


Tom Contemplating a climb up the cypress           Orange Grove Sink

Peacock was a special visit for me because I have been hearing about it for 40 years.  In her inspirational talk at the last SSJ meeting, Cynthia Barnett was particularly disturbed about the degradation of the water quality.  (In the words of Cris Costello, she labeled it a “slime crime.”)  When we arrived we were surprised to see that the water was quite clear.  John Moran remarked that it was cleaner than he had seen in decades.  While Tom agreed that Tropical Storm Debby and the summer rains had elevated the water level and cleaned out some of the slime, the floor of the springs was carpeted by a thick texture of dark green algae and there was plenty of slime where the water flows out of the sink.  Tom guestimated the nitrate levels would probably be in the range of one part per million, 20 times what it would have been 50 years ago.  In any case, we jumped in and removed the duckweed acquired at Orange Grove Sink.

All in all, we had a great day at the springs.  With Tom you always get some exercise, are constantly updated by a series of mini-lectures on the geology, flora, and fauna of the area, and interact with locals.  Most importantly you are sure to have a good time.  The only downside was a few chigger bites on my butt.