Summer at the Springs
Exploring Florida's Waterways in High Springs Florida and beyond
As the panhandle state surrounded by water and filled with an abundance of lakes, springs and rivers, Florida is the perfect place to explore waterways and watersports. And while typical tools to check out rivers and inlets have been centered on surfboards, kayaks and canoes, the paddle boarding craze that’s taken the state is worth trying in High Springs Florida in Alachua County.
Paddle boarding has quickly become one of the fasting growing watersports, as it’s an excellent way to explore nature and conquer a full-body work out.
Tessa Skiles, a photographer and nature enthusiast who lives in High Springs Florida, said that paddle boarding is better than other water sports because of the freedom the board allows you. With most other water sports like kayaking or canoeing, you are contained to staying inside the vessel. But paddleboards are versatile and allow you to stand up, sit down, lie down, do yoga or do tricks, all while staying on the board.
Skiles said that paddle boarding started as a popular sport on the coast but then found its way into closed bodies of water like lakes and springs when travel bloggers and outdoor enthusiasts began showcasing their journey. Their photos and videos spread throughout social media and energized young people and families to try the sport.
“Paddle boarding naturally came along with that,” she said. “You can stand up and look down at the springs, which is an angle you just don’t get on a tube or in a kayak. On a board, you’re able to look straight down into clear water and see divers and view a perspective that no other water sport gives you.”
Skiles favorite places to go within Alachua County are Blue Springs, Ginnie Springs and along the Santa Fe River. Out of High Springs Florida, Santa Fe Canoe Outpost and Adventure Outpost offer guided paddleboard tours, which are perfect for beginners.
“I’m really glad paddle boarding was adopted at the springs,” she said. “You meet such great people on the water, and every person has the want and drive to educate everyone about the importance of keeping our waterways preserved. Water connects all of us. It’s an absolute must of a natural resource. Everyone that loves the water knows they need to love and protect it.”
She said that the sport provides this emphasis on environmental protection and fitness, as well as a spiritual component. “Paddle boarding is very, very good exercise because its all about balance and alignment,” she said. “You are conscious of your posture and how far apart your feet are spread and of any sudden movements.”
“It’s therapeutic,” she said. “It’s easy and natural. It’s not challenging like yoga practice, but if you have the strength to get onto a paddle board, then you have the power to stand.”
Lars Andersen, who owns and operates Adventure Outpost in High Springs Florida with his wife, leads guided tours to over 60 different waterways. His company offers two to three trips every week to different locations around the state along with canoe, kayak and paddleboard rentals.
Andersen’s tips for beginners are to start slow and get a feel for the board before planning long trips. “Definitely start with a short trip,” he said. “It can wear out your legs and back because you’re using different muscles when you’re standing up. It’s not terribly hard, but you should have someone come along with you the first time to give you tips.”
Nicole Miller, a 22-year-old member of UF’s surf and wake club and a recent UF graduate with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology, is an avid surfer who has been dabbling in paddle boarding.
Hailing from St. Augustine, Florida, Miller loves the coastal waterways. She said that she sees many people using paddleboards to surf and ride waves on the coast. “But for me, paddle boarding is more for relaxation than for sport,” she said. Miller’s favorite places to paddle board are at Lake Wauberg, which is free for students with a valid Gator1 ID, Vilano Beach, and the intercostal at Whitney Labs, a UF field research station. She likes visiting Lake Wauberg because the water is calm.
“I like paddling out to the middle of the lake and being surrounded by the water and the sky,” she said. “It’s really tranquil, and it distances your self from the shore, classes and stress.” Skiles, Andersen and Miller agree that paddle boarding is a versatile, easy to pick up sport that offers a fun ride through whatever source of water you’re on.
“On a spiritual level, paddle boarding is different depending on what body of water you are on,” Miller said. “But on a physical level, if you can ride one paddleboard, you can ride them all.”
Skiles said that she sees all ages on the water. She sees families, young kids and older adults, with the youngest around 5-years-old and the oldest riders in their 80s. “The kids are usually leading the group and showing their family around the springs,” she said. “Their sense of adventure and flexibility give them the upper hand.”
For adults with less mobility, she said that the buoyancy and flexibility of the board allows for it to carry practically anything. She said many people put chairs or coolers on top of their boards so they can sit and paddle through the water with relative ease.
For those more adventurous, specialty paddle boarding activities like full moon trips and yoga offer the perfect escape. You can take paddleboard yoga classes with an instructor and small class that focus on balance and relaxation or try some yoga poses on your own.
Santa Fe Canoe Outpost offers full moon trips every month. “Full moon paddles are so relaxing,” Skiles said. “The river isn’t that calm during the day or in more popular places. A full moon paddle is an experience unlike any other. It’s serenity you won’t experience unless you’re on the river at night with the freedom of a paddle board.”
But through whatever paddle boarding experience you decide to take, it’s important to know the basics of the board and about the location you’re visiting. Especially on the Santa Fe River, you should be aware of alligators and other wildlife that you may see on your trip. If you’re not comfortable enough on your board yet, try more tourist friendly areas like Ginnie or Blue Springs in High Springs Florida.
Paddle Boarding 101
When first entering the water, it may be easier for beginners to start on their knees or sitting with their legs crossed on the board. Once you find some balance, you can try standing up. As for your stance, you’ll need to find what works for you and keep your feet parallel and about hip-width distance apart. Your toes should be pointed forward, your knees should be slightly bent and your back should be straight. Once you’re balanced, you’re ready to start paddling forward. And in case you fall off, the buoyant board allows you to get on and off without too much effort.
What to Bring
- Life jacket. If you’re renting, it will be provided, and you’ll be required to keep it with you while you’re on the board.
- Camera. There’s always something new to see and plenty of social media worthy moments to share with friends and family.
- Water shoes/Sandals. Along most rivers and springs there are dirt and rock paths that you may not want to walk barefoot on. And if you fall or hop off your paddleboard in shallow water, you’ll feel more comfortable wearing shoes.
- Mask and fins. If you jump into the water, these will make it easier to explore and see the great sights lingering underneath.
- Water. With any sport or outdoor venture, you need to stay hydrated.
- Food. Especially for longer trips, you’ll need to keep your energy up. “Bring a peanut butter and jelly,” Skiles said. “I’m serious! I take one or two sandwiches on every trip I go on in the river.”
- Cooler. Especially if you’re bringing the whole family, you need to keep all your food and drinks away from the Florida heat. And the added benefit of having a seat isn’t so bad.
- Waterproof case/container and/or dry bag. If you’re bringing any electronics or materials that you don’t want wet, it’s smart to have a place to put them in.
If you’re looking to buy
Most Stand Up Paddle Boards (SUP) are made of EPS or polyurethane foam and are wrapped in fiberglass and epoxy resins. This material makeup make paddle boards light weight, buoyant and sleek. The fin or fins located on the bottom of the board help with tracking and stabilizing the board. But, the board is pretty much just a large surfboard without the paddle. Stand up paddles have an angle in the shaft for maximum efficiency. When selecting a paddle, make sure you find the appropriate one for your height.
REI, Recreational Equipment, Inc., recommends you choose a paddle that’s roughly 6 to 8 inches taller than you are, while some manufacturers suggest an 8 to 10 inches difference. The bottom line is find one that feels right and doesn’t make you do extra work.
You can purchase paddleboards at most watersport and surf shops and online. FreeRide Surf and Skate Shop in Gainesville and the St. Augustine Surf Station offer a selection of different SUP boards. Prices range from $400 to over $1000, depending on the style and brand. Paddles are usually around $100.
While the board and paddle are technically the only things you need, you should also invest in a personal flotation device (PFD) and a leash. Since the U.S. Coast Guard classifies paddleboards as vessels, PFDs are required. If you’re renting, these will be provided. Leashes are important so that you stay connected to your board in case you fall off. Life vests usually range from $30-$70 and leashes from $30-$50.