Inner tubing to inner peace
A float down the Rainbow River means spiritual renewal to some;
to others, it's just a relaxing getaway from life's stresses.
Published August 5, 2004
The antidote to a steamy Florida afternoon is a cool river, a
flotation device and the willingness to leave all cares on the
It is pretty
difficult to fret about office politics, money woes or world events
from an inner tube. With shade trees overhead, a lazy current
gently nudging you along and only the squawk of assorted waterfowl
to fill your ears, you have to work pretty hard to resist a Zen-like
state of peace.
for water sport in Florida are plentiful, one of the best places
to indulge in the quintessential summer ritual of tubing is the
5.8-mile Rainbow River, about two hours north of Tampa. This pristine
river system discharges nearly 500-million gallons of cool, clear
water a day, making it the fourth largest freshwater spring in
Florida and the eighth largest in the world.
With a year-round
temperature of 72 degrees, the river is a haven for city dwellers
looking to beat the heat in a kayak, canoe or tube. Because the
headwaters of the river, located in Rainbow Springs State Park,
are protected, tubers must put in south of the park entrance,
at KP Hole Park in Dunnellon.
On a typical
summer weekend, as many as 1,000 swimmers, snorkelers and tubers
hit the river. So the best time to visit is early in the morning
or on a weekday. But whenever you go, be prepared to take your
time. The river experience shouldn't be rushed. The 31/2-mile
float can take from four to five hours to complete. Besides, isn't
slowing down the point?
* * *
Marion County's KP Hole Park offers a sandy beach, a protected
swimming hole and picnic benches, but the biggest draw is the
tubing. Though simple inner tubes are available for rent, many
veterans of the river prefer to bring their own - multicolored
blowup bubbles that more closely resemble Barcaloungers and sofa
beds than the classic black tube. Families often tie their tubes
together, creating floating living rooms complete with headrests,
cup holders and coolers filled with food and drink in the required
But the easiest
way to traverse this slow-moving river is in a round black tube,
arms and legs draped across either side, toes dipped in the heavenly
cool of a spring-fed river. Just 14 feet at its deepest, the Rainbow
River is so clear you can see its bottom, waves of grass swaying
below in some spots, craggy rock formations filled with silvery
bursts of tiny fish in others.
snorkelers sometimes catch a glimpse of fossils or stone tools
left by the area's first inhabitants, but such relics are protected
by law and must be left alone. Anyway, some of the best sights
are above the surface - the many creatures that make their homes
in and around the river. Families of turtles can be seen sunning
themselves on fallen cypress stumps, lined up in neat rows, largest
to smallest. Red-tailed hawks and the occasional bald eagle soar
overhead. Great blue herons and snowy egrets tiptoe along the
shore, scanning for lunch.
the so-called snake birds, skim along just below the surface,
propelled by rudderlike tails, rising only to guzzle their prey
whole. And the stunning view of the sleek black cormorant, wings
spread wide, drying itself in the sun is unforgettable.
One of the
biggest treats for the watchful tube rider is the playful romp
of an otter family, leaping in and out of the water, their sleek
bodies forming half-circles above the surface as they dive down,
seemingly for the sheer joy of it. Poking tiny heads above the
surface, they chatter with one another, barely noticing the delighted
humans floating past, waterproof cameras snapping wildly.
sightings are rare in the Rainbow River, unlike the nearby Withlacoochee.
The only real danger is the Florida sun, at its most intense between
noon and 2 p.m. The park opens at 8 a.m., so it is a good idea
to get there early and be off the river by noon. Cypress trees
offer limited shade closer to shore, and some stretches of the
river are mercifully shielded from direct sunlight. But much of
it is unprotected from the sun, so be sure to slather on the (waterproof,
shuttle service to take you back to your car at the end of the
float, so no worries about paddling back.
peaceful serenity, some newcomers to tubing can find the experience
On one recent
trip, a friend cautiously dipped a toe into the water and recoiled
from the chill. Then she saw that the tubes had no centers, meaning
most of her body would be in that water, vulnerable, she feared,
to nibbles from tiny critters as she floated along. Assured that
the river dwellers had far tastier food available, she bravely
waded in. By the end of the trip, she was planning another, describing
her river ride as a spiritual experience.
is a word not infrequently used by tubers who come back to the
Rainbow River year after year, seeking a sense of peace they rarely
find elsewhere. But whether it offers a spiritual journey or merely
a chance to unwind, the Rainbow River never fails to reward those
who enter it with contentment and a sense that, at least for this
day and on this river, all is well.
If you go
The Rainbow River is just north of Dunnellon, off U.S. 41. From
Tampa, take Interstate 75 north to Exit 341 (County Road 484).
Head west until you get to the town of Dunnellon (you'll cross
the river just before the town limits). Go north on U.S. 41 for
3 miles. After the Winn-Dixie shopping center on the right, turn
right and travel for 2 miles until you reach the railroad tracks.
Immediately past the tracks take a left onto the frontage road
and travel half a mile to KP Hole County Park.
KP Hole has
restrooms, a snack bar, swimming beach and boat ramp. Alcoholic
beverages and disposable items are not allowed on the river. Snacks
and drinks in nondisposable containers are permitted.
The park entrance
fee is $3 per person. Canoes are $5 an hour. Tubes are $9 for
the day. For more information, call (352) 489-3055.
State Park is just north of KP Hole and includes the headwaters
of the Rainbow River. The circular springhead, hundreds of yards
wide with an underwater visibility of 150 feet, offers an unforgettable
swimming or snorkeling experience. Tubing is not allowed within
the park but canoe and kayak rentals are available. The 1,000-acre
park also offers swimming, camping, numerous trails, three artificial
waterfalls and 11 gardens. Facilities include a visitors' center,
gift shop, restrooms, pavilions and snack bar.
For park information,
call (352) 465-8555. For camping information, call (352) 465-8550.
The park is open daily from sunrise to sunset and admission is
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