Get scorching workout in Florida's scenic, cool-water venues

With temperatures in the 90s, the heat index over 100 and the air thick enough to cut with a butter knife, it's hard to generate enthusiasm for an outdoor workout.

It's hot, and likely to remain so for weeks to come. But there are plenty of places to alternately cool off — and work up a sweat — during these dog days of summer.

Juniper Springs, Ocala National Forest

After a long, cold winter staring at the black line on the bottom of the pool, many swimmers can't wait until it's warm enough for an open-water workout. But now, with gulf temperatures in the upper 80s, swimming in the saltwater feels like soaking in a hot tub.

For a change of pace, find some cold, clear water for your next swimming workout. The cooler the water, the harder your body will work to keep operating at its optimal temperature. As a veteran of open-water swimming in summer and winter, I can say that I get a much tougher workout in cold water.

Ocala National Forest, located about two hours north of Tampa, has several great spring-fed swimming holes, but Juniper Springs is perhaps the best of the bunch.

Bring your goggles and a set of swim fins. Don't worry about distance, just set your watch and start kicking. When your legs feel like they are about to fall off, drop the fins and start swimming. Chances are you'll be tuckered out before you reach the 30-minute mark.

Afterward, head out on a hike or rent a canoe for the 7-mile run down Juniper Creek. If you can, spend the night in the 79-unit campground and then get up and do it again.

For information, call (352) 625-3147; canoe rentals, (352) 625-2808; camping reservations, toll-free 1-877-444-6777. On the Web, go to www.fs.fed.us/r8/florida/ocala/attractions/JuniperSpringsRecArea.php.

Rainbow River, Dunnellon

This well-known tubing and kayaking destination 100 miles north of Tampa Bay can get crowded on weekends, but go early on a weekday and you might have the 5.6-mile run all to yourself.

Rainbow Springs pumps out about 461 million gallons of cool water every day, so the current moves a steady 1 to 2 miles per hour, depending on where you are on the river. The water is exceptionally clear, the color aqua, which is why the early settlers called it Blue Run.

While most folks opt for some type of watercraft to propel them downstream, the best way to see the Rainbow is floating facedown, with mask and snorkel. Start off slow, and let the river carry you along. Once you feel comfortable, start exploring.

Before you know it, an hour will have passed, and you will be ready for a hot shower and a big lunch, to replace all those calories you burned.

Rainbow Springs State Park provides transportation upriver and also rents tubes and dive flags, a must-have piece of equipment for snorkelers. Call (352) 465-4035 for reservations, or go to www.floridastateparks.org/rainbowsprings.

Ichetucknee River, Fort White

Floating down a spring-fed river can be as easy or as hard as you make it. Most folks who tube down this 6-mile-long river just kick back, relax and let the current do all the work. But if you want to burn some calories, you've got to "power tube."

Don't Google the term, because you won't find it on Wikipedia. It's a new sport, recently created when a certain writer grew bored on what was supposed to be a leisurely float down Florida's most famous tubing creek.

Most folks sit back in the tube like an easy chair, but if you want a great arm and abdominal workout, lie facedown on the tube and paddle as if you are on a surfboard. Take a break when you can't do any more, then start again.

It takes the average tuber about 3 1/2 hours to float downriver from the North Ranger Station, but power tubers will get it done faster. This route is the longer of two possible trips and ideal for the more actively inclined. Don't worry about transportation; the park has a shuttle service that will take you back to your car.

There are several vendors who rent tubes just outside the park entrance. Please note, no food, drink, tobacco or disposable items are allowed on the river. Get there early, because the park allows only a limited number of tubers on the river each day.

Call (386) 497-4690 or go to http://www.floridastateparks.org/ichetuckneesprings.

Silver River, Ocala

Most paddlers like to go with the flow. But if you want to hit your target heart rate in a sea kayak, you are going to have to go against the current.

Ocala's Silver River, the filming location of several Tarzan movies, is the perfect place to perfect your paddling prowess.

From the headspring, famous for its glass-bottom boat tours, the river runs about 5 miles at 2 to 3 miles an hour and then empties into the Ocklawaha River. Do the math or just take my word for it: If you want to paddle upstream, you will have your work cut out for you.

Silver River State Park, downstream from the famous Silver Springs tourist attraction, rents canoes, but if you want to make it all the way to the headspring, bring a kayak. You can launch at the state park (after a 0.6-mile portage) or put in at Marion County's Ray Wayside Park, on the south side of State Road 40.

It will take several hours to battle your way upstream, where swimming is prohibited. But you can still scoop up a hat-full of water to cool yourself off for the relatively quick trip downstream.

Call (352) 236-7148 or go to www.floridastateparks.org/silverriver.

Santa Fe River

The 26-mile Santa Fe River Paddling Trail is a favorite haunt of canoeists and kayakers, but if you want to turn some heads, show up on a standup paddleboard.

These oversized surfboards are all the rage in the coastal areas, but they have yet to be found in any numbers on the state's rivers. That's because most paddleboarders don't like to share the water with Florida's favorite reptile, Alligator mississippiensis.

But don't worry about the gators; they're plenty used to human company traveling the river. In the 1600s, Franciscan priests set up a series of missions across north Florida, including the Santa Fe de Teleco, along the river that would one day bear its name.

At O'Leno State Park the river disappears, runs for 3 miles underground, and emerges at River Rise Preserve. But it's the dozens of springs — including Ginnie, Blue, Poe and Ichetucknee, to name a few — that make this river so special.

There are several outfitters, including the Santa Fe Canoe Outpost in High Springs, to help you plan your paddle. Call (386) 454-2050 or go to www.santaferiver.com.

Terry Tomalin can be reached at tomalin@sptimes.com.

Get scorching workout in Florida's scenic, cool-water venues 08/12/10 [Last modified: Friday, August 13, 2010 3:04pm]

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