Taking the waters at Warm Mineral Springs

NORTHPORT

Aging men and women in robes and floppy hats moved purposefully past the ticket gate, through a tunnel that smelled of sulphur, down a path where New Age music piped from speakers hidden in the bougainvillea beds.

The dark spring, surrounded by live oaks and palm trees and a long row of purple chairs, glistened before them in the bright sunlight.

Men in Speedos with protruding bellies disrobed to reveal fading bypass surgery scars — testament, they said, to the water's healing properties. Women in fancy hats with bows and feathers flexed their arthritis-free fingers.

They were all eager to plunge into the mineral-rich water, to steep their bodies for hours in the precious elixir, to extract every ounce of rejuvenating strength from the Fountain of Youth before time runs out.

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The spring formed tens of thousands of years ago, a sinkhole collapse that left an hourglass fissure stretching 240 feet into Florida's limestone bedrock. At some point, half of it filled with water. When the glaciers receded, the melting ice topped it off.

More than 1,000 springs dot Florida, but none quite like Warm Mineral Springs, says Harley Means, assistant state geologist. Its name says it all. At about 87 degrees, Warm Mineral Springs is the warmest and southernmost spring in the state. It also boasts the largest number of different minerals — calcium, magnesium, strontium, sodium, potassium, phosphorus, iron, silica, sulphur, nitrogen, fluoride and chlorides — at least 51 in all.

Ancient hot seawater rushes from a vent several thousand feet below ground and then mixes with cooler freshwater in the overlying aquifer, geologists believe, creating the spring's unique brew. Every day, as much as 9 million gallons pushes to the surface. Every two hours, the water replaces itself entirely.

Sometime in the 1940s, the spring opened as another of Florida's quirky roadside attractions, claiming to be the "original Fountain of Youth" sought 500 years ago by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León. Historically debatable, but clever marketing.

The real story is just as interesting. Plumbing the inky depths, cave divers have found a debris pile in the center as wide as a football field and as tall as a 10-story building. Close to the bottom are bones of extinct saber-toothed tigers and giant sloths. Closer to the top: Model T tires, a Coke bottle from the 1930s and deck chairs.

The spring was not as popular with Americans who liked their vacations to smell of saltwater, not sulphur. But that reek of rotten eggs beckoned the Eastern Europeans who discovered it in the '70s and '80s. Today, visiting the spring feels, in some ways, like a visiting the set of Cocoon — with an all-Russian cast.

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Gregory Bard, 63, and his wife were the first in the water. Bard paddled toward the center and began swimming laps. He wore a desert flap hat and webbed gloves. A tiny square of paper protected his nose, and a thick layer of sunscreen on his face made him look like a clown.

"It's like a second religion for us," said the Ukrainian-born pediatrician, who lives in New York.

The lake began to fill with women, who trudged inside around the outer edge of the water in groups of twos and threes. Soon, a fitness instructor with a boom box arrived and turned on a country song. A cluster of sturdy women in one-pieces and bright lipstick materialized in front of her and began whipping their arms up and down to the beat.

"Yeehaw," the instructor yelled.

"There is no lake like this in the world," said Victor Selyutin, 73. "None in the world."

In the area reserved for children, a frail, crumpled Polish woman who'd had four back surgeries was making her way into the water with the help of a friend.

Despite all the anecdotal stories — a paralyzed child who'd arrived in a wheelchair and left a few weeks later walking, and a man who had supposedly opened his eyes underwater in one corner of the lake and emerged cataract-free — the Polish woman did not believe in the curative powers of the water.

"Well, first of all you have to believe," said her friend, Ela Konieczny, 51, with a smile. "If you don't, forget it."

But even among the faithful, doubt has begun to seep in of late.

Surrounded by all the beauty of the spring — the glossy water, the soothing music, the bright red hibiscus and the towering Australian pines — the worriers fretted openly over the spring's future.

"I've been coming here since 1980, and they are ruining the nature here," said Bella Kinkov, a retired Ukrainian nurse who lives in New York. "It's unbelievable."

The women worried that sand dumped into the spring to create a sandy bottom was blocking the precious vent. They worried that a tarp left behind from an archaeologist's excavation inside the spring might be leaching chemicals. They worried about the disappearance of the tiny fish that used to "kiss the skin." They worried that the spring didn't smell as bad as it used to.

"There is a lot of gossip," interjected Faina Ridgway, a Russian-born woman wearing a sequined cap. "Some people are afraid of this. Some have even stopped coming."

"Nobody knows the truth," Ridgway said, "and it would be nice to know the truth about the lake."

The worriers nodded.

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For years, people have been talking about protecting the spring, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 2010, Sarasota County and the city of North Port — seeking to do just that — bought it for $5.5 million. Two weeks ago, Sarasota County tested the water to see if the archaeologist's tarp was leaching chemicals and found none. Attempts are being made to understand the mineral content of the water and how it may have changed.

"We're working on that," said Sarasota County hydrogeologist Cliff Harrison.

A lending company has been managing it while the governments try to figure out what's next — keep it low-key or promote it for tourism and economic development.

It may be that the real risk to the spring is not the vitality its devotees fear may be ebbing but the chance that it might become too successful.

The lending company, which offers massages, facials and exercise classes, has doubled the number of annual visitors to more than 100,000. An investment group, said to be made up of Russian doctors, has purchased property on the edge of the spring and may build a rehab facility for patients recovering from surgery.

"Our management company sees it as America's wellness destination with strong lodging components, including hotels, RV parks and campgrounds," said Gene Vaccaro, who works for the springs' temporary manager, Cypress Lending of Naples.

"North Port needs an image and economic development. This is its answer … because of the power of the water."

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As the day came to a close, everyone packed up and headed home. Many have bought or rented homes nearby to be close to the "magic water."

Bella Kinkov slipped out of the water and into her sandals. She headed for the showers to wash off the stink of the sulphur — if only for a few hours.

Times staffers Natalie Watson and Melissa Lyttle contributed to this report.

Strange discovery: Before the spring filled completely with water, a ledge deep inside the spring was used as a burial ground by ancient Indians. Archaeologists have unearthed everything from the 10,000-year-old skeleton of an adult male to an equally old human skull with intact brain matter — all freakishly well preserved in the low-oxygen water.

Taking the waters at Warm Mineral Springs 01/05/13 [Last modified: Friday, December 28, 2012 2:55pm]

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