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Wakulla Springs isn't as clear as it used to be, but musical tour guides carry on


Don Gavin makes his living showing people the Wakulla River in northwest Florida. He shows them the green herons perched above the cypress knees and the softshell turtles sunning on the cypress logs.

On days when the water is crystal clear — a rarity now — he takes visitors on a bonus tour. He welcomes them into a glass-bottomed boat and shows them Wakulla Springs, the largest, deepest and most powerful spring in North America, where 600,000 gallons of water rise from the earth every minute. He points out the caves, the eel grass, the largemouth bass.

"We haaaaaave 14 different kinds of freshwater fish, but there is basically only two kinds. We got the wiiiiiild ones over heah and the taaaame ones over thah.''

Gavin, 56, is incapable of lecturing like an academic. He more or less sings about what he is seeing. That's the way they have done it here for going on 80 years.

His uncle, the late Tom Gavin, helped start the tradition of the singing tour seven decades ago. Don Gavin has followed the tradition for 34 years. It is a tradition steeped in African-American missionary church choirs, chain gang laborers who sang to make hard toil bearable, and railroad workers who made up rhymes and rhythms as they shifted track.

"Come on, boys!''

Gavin suddenly directs his song toward a school of lethargic catfish.

"Come up to this convention, boys,'' he sings. "I knowwww you hear me when I call. Hey, down thah. Hey down thah. I am calling you to this convention. Come on up, you hear!''

• • •

Don Gavin, a robust man with a playful demeanor, tells people, "I'm part of the history of Wakulla Springs.''

We don't know what the first Floridians called themselves, but we do know they were hunters. Twelve-thousand years ago, they hid in the tall grass next to the crystal clear water and waited for a big animal to arrive for a drink. Then they flung their spears.

When the water is clear at Wakulla Springs — did we tell you that clear water is a rarity in the 21st century? — Don Gavin likes to back the glass-bottomed boat over the white sand.

"I'm going to find you some BONES, y'all! Look at the mastodon down thah.''

Giant ice-age elephants drank here. Prehistoric men, women and children who hunted the elephants drank here, caught fish, paddled canoes.

When the Spaniards arrived, the Apalachees were encamped next to Wakulla Springs. When the millionaire Ed Ball built his lodge in 1934, the water was martini clear. When Creature From the Black Lagoon was filmed at Wakulla Springs in 1953, the beast pursued the beauty in that same pristine water. When Wakulla Springs became a state park in 1986, the clear water was the main attraction.

At first glance it still looks lovely. But look closer and something is off. It is as if someone stirred a teaspoon of milk into a 16-ounce glass of water.

In the last decade, nearby development has taken its toll, an ounce at a time, on a national treasure.

Studies have confirmed that stormwater from Tallahassee, 10 miles north, seeps into sinkholes and into the aquifer. There, nitrate-tainted stormwater flows downhill toward the Gulf of Mexico. Eventually it boils up at Wakulla Springs through a cave 185 feet below the surface.

"This is the first time in a long time, maybe a year, since the water was clear enough for a glass-bottom boat tour,'' Gavin says.

"Now to most folks, the water today looks good enough. I mean, it's pretty good. But me, I got a long memory. Way back when, I could drop a penny in the spring and watch it flip all the way to the bottom. Maybe those days are over.''

• • •

When Gavin was a boy, black folks were prohibited from swimming at the spring. They were allowed to work, they were allowed to entertain, but they were not allowed to swim alongside white people. Gavin often accompanied the older black men who gave tours to white tourists so he could learn the craft.

Luke Smith, now dead, had a knack for describing underwater flora. "All sunken and under water greeeen is growing,'' he sang. Gavin's uncle had a keen eye for vultures. "Way out in the country now,'' he sang, "some people refer to 'em as a country airplane. In some of those other places, they refer to 'em as the undertaker's helper.''

His uncle also enjoyed a special relationship with fish. He talked to them, sang to them, cajoled them, made them bend to his will. He invented Henry the Pole-Vaulting Bass.

Tom Gavin noticed that certain bass rubbed their bellies on a sunken log in a way that conjured up an Olympic jumper leaping a pole. Perhaps the bass were ridding their skin of parasites. Perhaps they were engaged in a spawning ritual. Those questions did not concern Tom Gavin. He was looking for magic.

"Wake up, boy!'' Don Gavin is singing on a warm afternoon in 2009. "Come out and jump the pole! Son, don't let me down. Alll right, Henry. Meet us at the pole.''

A bass emerges, on cue, from the weeds.

"Come on, Henry! You heard what I saaiid. Meet us at the pole.''

Tourists watch breathlessly through the glass as Henry swims a tad closer to the underwater stick.

"Jump IT! Jump IT! Jump THE POLE!''

Henry sniffs the pole, turns and retreats into the eel grass.

"We don't do the glass-bottomed boat tour much anymore,'' Gavin whispers. "Henry, I think he's out of practice. He's got rust on him.''

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8727.

Wakulla Springs isn't as clear as it used to be, but musical tour guides carry on 03/27/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 16, 2009 3:14pm]
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