-A river is like a life: once taken, it cannot be brought back-
Ichetucknee paddlers worried about access
By Cindy Swirko
In 2016, when Cape Leisure Corp. of Brevard County was given the concession contract at Ichetucknee Springs State Park, local tube vendors who had formed a partnership to try to get the contract felt as if they got a shoulder as cold as the spring’s water.
The next year, when the Florida Park Service changed the contract to allow Cape Leisure to rent tubes inside the park — a practice initially forbidden — the locals were as steamed as a summer day.
Now, paddlers may get splashed. Paddlers said they have heard talk about the possible permanent closure of the south take-out spot to canoers and kayakers. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection said the spot is not going to be permanently closed.
Whether or not it happens, the talk of the possibility has added to the fracturing of the relationship between the park and local residents who use the river system and the businesses that rely on it.
The south take-out has a circular driveway that allowed paddlers to pick up their craft. If it is closed for good, they will have to pay Cape Leisure for a shuttle to the parking lot or carry their boats.
“They are kind of, in essence, trying to turn the park over to private vendors,” said Lars Anderson of Adventure Outpost, a paddling outfitter and guide. “If they close it off permanently it’s going to deeply impact my business.”
The Sun for several days this week requested an interview with park officials to discuss the matter, but the DEP press office said no one was available.
Instead, press officer Weesam Khoury sent an email that said the south take-out ramp has eight parking spots and is closed to paddlers in the summer months because of heavy use by
Khoury replied to one follow-up question by saying the park has no plans to permanently close the take-out. Asked then whether it has been discussed, Khoury replied, “As stated previously, there are no plans to close the takeout permanently.”
The best time for paddling on the river is during the fall and winter when the chilly — or downright cold — air temperature keeps the hordes of tubers away.
Generally, paddlers get off the river at the south take-out ramp near U.S. 27, fetch a car from the main parking lot and drive to the ramp to load up their boats or paddleboards.
Over the past year the park has been closing the lower site to paddlers more often and for longer periods of time, Anderson said.
“In discussions with the park manager, it sounds like they are working toward closing it off completely,” Anderson said.
Tube vendors and other businesses in the Fort White area were rankled when the park first awarded the concession contract to Cape Leisure and, especially, when the contract was later changed to allow Cape Leisure to rent tubes inside the park.
Stopping for tubes at vendors along U.S. 27 near Fort White has been a right of passage for area residents and for visitors from throughout Florida and the country. Tube vendors, convenience stores and restaurants rely on the heavy summer tubing season for the bulk of their income.
Several vendors told The Sun at the time that the decision to allow Cape Leisure to rent tubes in the park has cut into their business and damaged the relationship between the park and the Fort White community.
Closing the south take-out permanently to paddlers would be another breach.
Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson is active in regional river advocacy groups and is co-owner of Rum 138, an art gallery, cafe and paddling outfitter.
Malwitz-Jipson said she also has been hearing about the possibility of a permanent closure.
“I told the DEP people how problematic that is — you sign a contract with an outside vendor and now you are reducing public use in a state park,” Malwitz-Jipson said. “They have privatized something that traditionally had been a mainstay of our community and in doing so have ghosted Fort White.”