Chapter One: The Drive… -or- “The Fellowship of the Spring (Fever)”
One particularly bitter January day, I was struck with a thought. A voice in my head shouted, “Go South, My Son!”
I knew that a mission like this would take planning and teamwork. I turned to the people I can trust more than anyone, at least when it comes to taking time off on short notice.
Our equation has always been “drive time must be equal to or less than ‘fun’ time, whatever the ‘fun’ may be.” With Canoecopia fast approaching, none of us could afford more than a few precious days away from Rutabaga, so anything beyond fourteen hours of driving was eliminated. We finally settled on the Jean Le Fitte National Forest and Refuse in southern Louisiana.
Imagine our dismay when the forecast predicted record cold temperatures across the nation for the weekend of our trip. In a last-minute attempt to escape the icy clutches of Old Man Winter, we decided to drive a few extra hours to Florida Caverns State Park near Marianna, Florida (it’s always warm in FLA, right?).
We gathered our marbles and headed out of town at 9pm on Thursday (1.23.03), hoping to be in Florida by lunch on Friday. The drive was pleasantly uneventful, highlighted by a gorgeous sunrise in northwestern Kentucky. Strangely, there seemed to be more snow the further south we went. After a taste of rush-hour traffic in Nashville and a nice cruise through northern Alabama, the snow finally disappeared from the roadside. We arrived in Marianna around 3pm. The weather was sunny, and temperatures in the 50s provided an instant boost to our spirits. This was momentarily crushed by the ranger telling us that the water was off (and with it all the toilets, showers, etc…), but we figured we could make do with some water from the Winn-Dixie, and a couple days without showers never killed anyone. We decided to stay. Finally, after shopping for last minute supplies and touring the park by car, we arrived at our campsite.
Chapter II*: Spelunking with Dwayne and Paddling the Chipola — or — The Two Holes
Ahhhh, our first morning in Florida: sun shining, birds chirping, thermometer… stuck below zero?!? What the heck? We had fully expected chilly nights, but waking up to 20-degree air was a shock. I cleared the cobwebs from my head, donned some fleece, and started in on breakfast. We discussed our options over oatmeal and settled on a guided cave tour to start the day, followed by lunch and a nice paddle down the Chipola River to finish out the afternoon.
The tour was a 45-minute trip through the “Florida Caverns” cave system, led by Dwayne, the shortest non-midget adult I’d ever seen. I don’t think you could have found a better cave guide; besides having a definite size advantage, his sharp wit and great knowledge of the caves make for a very entertaining tour. There were only six people on this particular tour, so Dwayne took time to point out everything worth mentioning, as well as providing some color-commentary on Florida-panhandle living. “Redneck Riviera” was his exact term, I think. As far as the cave itself, there’s a great collection of rooms with various features highlighted by colored lights, water dripping from the walls, pitch black darkness – all the usual cave stuff. I’ve been to several caves before, but always in the summer (when they’re cooler than the surrounding air), so it was interesting to feel the air get warmer as we descended into the cave and cooler as we resurfaced.
After the tour, we headed off to the campsite for a quick lunch before paddling the Chipola River. We chose a relatively flat section of river to help facilitate a shuttle-free trip, headed a few miles down the road, and before long we were dropping Canadian gear into Florida water. The river was delightful to paddle, as there was lots of wildlife and no other people. Fortunately, due to the cold snap, all the gators we had been warned about lay half-frozen in the mud below, too lethargic to eat us even if they wanted to. The banks were lined with Spanish moss-covered trees and other swampy, fern-like plants, giving rise to a couple renditions of “Dueling Banjos” and some awkward laughter. The other curiosity was the large number of tire swings we encountered. They seemed very incongruous to the alligator warning signs everywhere. We contemplated this while paddling upstream for a couple of hours, then stopped to rest on a sandbar before turning back. We turned around at the perfect time, arriving back at our car as twilight hit with just enough light to see while loading up the boat.
After a quick jaunt to the grocery store, we returned to the campsite for dinner and relaxation, satisfied with all that the day had given us. We also had to solve the eternal riddle that haunts all road-trippers: “What are we going to do tomorrow?”