APOPKA, Fla. — It’s a warm Thursday morning in June as cicadas belt out their summer anthem, woodpeckers tattoo the trees and frogs join forces in what can only be considered a welcome chorus. The cacophony of sounds surrounding us combined with the swiftly moving 70-degree water – which, in some spots, looks quite turquoise – triggers an instant calming effect. As our paddles slice through the water, I have high hopes of spotting otters today. 

Kayaking down a narrow canal, we set out for Emerald Cut, Bonsai Bend and a place that one of the guides has dubbed Jurassic Park. As the names indicate, these are all scenic spots worth exploring at Rock Springs Run State Reserve.

The cure for theme park overexposure

As I drag my fingers over the surface of the water, it hits me: this is the exact opposite of my previous day spent riding roller coasters at a local theme park. Located about 40 minutes from Orlando, these natural, free-flowing springs are a welcome respite for the theme-park weary.

And because the water is so stunning, a clear kayak is one of the best ways to explore. It acts as a gigantic magnifying glass and makes for a fun way to catch a glimpse of otters and fish as they swim by. But don’t forget to glance at the surrounding forest where it’s not uncommon to spot deer, herons and egrets and the occasional black bear. 

When central Floridians need to escape the heat, they head for the area's natural springs near Orlando to paddle, cool off, kick back and spot otters.

“If you’re lucky, you’ll see three or four otters swimming together alongside or even under the kayak,” says Justin Buzzi, owner of Get up and Go Kayaking and one of my guides for the day. “One time I was out here, and I actually had a family of otters follow me the entire tour which was about two hours. And they swam about five to 10 feet behind me the whole time, just enjoying the wake I was putting off behind.”

In the summertime, it’s also common to see deer throughout the day. “When the temperatures rise, they like to get a refreshing drink or swim in the cool springs,” Buzzi says.

Otter spotters

By now, we’re at the entry point to Rock Springs Run, where a rope swing hangs from a massive oak tree and the water becomes a lot more clear.

As we paddle along, Buzzi and sidekick Austin Stoner fill me in on the natural surroundings and give me tips on paddling. It’s all upstream at first, so it makes for a great workout. 

It’s not too long before we find a kayaker who is quite giddy; he’s just spotted otters up ahead, “right past the 90-degree bend.”

You clicked on this story expecting to see photos of cute little otters. Although Seukula did not spot any on her kayak trip, we would hate to deprive you. So please enjoy a photo of one swimming in a German zoo. (Photo: RONALD WITTEK/EPA-EFE)

We’re all on high alert, even though there are lots of 90-degree bends out here. Since I’m in the front seat of the kayak with Buzzi, I dub myself the chief otter spotter.

And soon we do, indeed, come across a splish-splash to the right near some lily pads that could very well be otter-generated. We quietly inch a bit closer, but no dice. Said otter has left the premises. 

In lieu of otters, we snap photos of Bonsai Bend, where a majestic oak curves just above the water. Stoner amuses himself by climbing to a platform at Jacob’s Island and cannon ball into the water below – twice. 

En lieu of otter spotting, Austin Stoner amuses himself by doing cannonballs from a low-hanging tree branch. (Photo: Sarah Sekula/Special to USA TODAY)

About those alligators 

“We do see a few gators on our tour out here,” Buzzi says. “I think a lot of people have a misconception that gators are just going to approach them and that’s not the case out here. Often when we do see them they are on the shoreline trying to get some sun.” 

But he says that when reptilian sunbathers hear or see humans coming, they usually head in opposite direction. 

Although Rock Springs Run State Reserve is only about 40 miles from Orlando, the tranquility will make you feel like you're in the Amazon instead of central Florida. (Photo: Courtesy of Justin Buzzi)

“They’re usually just as afraid of us as we are of them,” he adds. “We usually know what areas they like to hang out in, and we make sure our guest know where they are.”

As the rain clouds roll in, we quickly paddle back to our starting point. The breeze picks up and sky darkens making the tree canopy overhead and surrounding forest look rather foreboding. But it’s eerily majestic and I love it. I imagine that I’m somewhere in the Amazon jungle. 

Worth it even if if you don’t spot otters

A day at the springs is proof that the Central Florida area is much more than just roller coasters and Disney princesses. (The best part: This isn’t the only natural spring in Florida. There are many scattered throughout the Sunshine State.)

“When I’m done paddling out here or swimming in the waterway, I feel rejuvenated,” Buzzi says.

Rock Springs is quietest and and least crowded before 10:30 a.m. on weekdays. The waterway is definitely busier on weekends. (Photo: Courtesy of Justin Buzzi)

What you need to know

When to go: My best advice is to hit Rock Springs on a weekday morning. It’s quieter and  and less crowded before 10:30 a.m. The waterway is definitely busier on weekends.

Where to show up: If you go on the guided tour with Get Up and Go Kayaking, the launch point is at King’s Landing (5722 Baptist Camp Road, Apopka). Tours run from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Cost: The tour is $55 per person, and is limited to 10 people at a time. It averages between two and two-and-a-half hours and is suitable for all skill levels.

Dogs welcome! Get Up and Go Kayaking allows dogs on its tours. Check with the company for details.

Other locations: The company also offers tours of Rainbow Springs, Winter Park, Crystal River, Jupiter and Tampa Bay.

Bring your sunscreen and bug spray: Thanks to the tree canopy, there is a lot of shade along the way, But don’t forget your sunscreen. You may also want to bring a change of clothes in case you decide to take a dip. Bug spray and a towel are also a good idea.

For more information, visit getupandgokayaking.com or call (407) 212-7306.

Sarah Sekula is a journalist and video host who tells stories about travel, health, wellness, fitness and extraordinary people. Follow her adventures on all seven continents @sarahsomewhere on Instagram and @wordzilla on Twitter.

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