County unveils $800,000 makeover after Hurricane Michael
“Marco,” the boy with his eyes tightly closed calls out.
“Polo,” another boy, just out of reach, answers.
Another “Marco,” follows, and the youth clambers towards the sound, with both hands outstretched.
Here, in the chilly waters of Jackson County’s Blue Springs Recreational Area, a children’s game of ‘pool tag’ is being played out in a popular summer swimming hole.
Fed by a Floridan aquifer, 70 million gallons daily flow from the Jackson Blue Springs source, surfacing just beneath the soon-to-be-restored diving platform.
Partly due to the aftermath of 2018’s autumn Hurricane Michael and partly due to an ongoing three to four year project, the Florida Springs Protection Funding (sponsored by the Northwest Water Management District), the Jackson Blue Springs Recreational Park has undergone an $800,000 facelift.
“There was never any real closure due to the hurricane,” explains Rett Daniels, Jackson County Public Works Director, in charge of parks, recycling, utilities and animal control. “Mostly because it hit in October, after the season had ended.”
That’s not to downplay the clean-up efforts in any way.
It was a massive undertaking: poplars and shade-trees gnarled and twisted beyond belief by the storm had to be uprooted and removed; flipped docks in the swimming area had to be retrieved; plus, the demolished canoe rental building and fleet of destroyed kayaks had to be replaced. The hiking trail system, having taken a big hit from tree and wind damage, likewise, had to be revived.
On the heels of Hurricane Michael came the completion of Phase I of the springs’ restoration project.
So, what’s new at the park?
“Pretty much everything,” is Daniels’ answer, adding that there has been new construction around the swimming hole, with a large patch of man-made, sandy beachfront, offset by cement tiling that creates an actual edge, not unlike the outer ledge of a concrete swimming pool.
Framing the grassy terrace is a partial retaining wall, with a fenced enclosure wrapping around most of the swimming area.
What’s also new is the noticeable lack of trees – the missing hickories, the oaks draped in Spanish moss, and Southern magnolia forest that surrounded the plantation home built here during the civil war by Florida’s fifth governor, John Milton.
To confront the issue of insufficient vegetation left after Hurricane Michael, the county built individual covered tables, where visitors can enjoy picnic lunches under shelter, protected from the Florida sun.
As for what has stayed the same at Jackson Blue Springs Recreational Park, that answer, too, could be, ‘pretty much everything’ – The spring itself.
Even a category 5 hurricane ripping through the Panhandle couldn’t change the freshwater spring where, 30 feet below the dive arena (which is still awaiting its springboard), an enchanting network of caves attract amateur and professional divers from around the world.
Miles of caverns wind under Jackson Blue, the name scientists who study and explore caves – speleologists – have bestowed upon these frigid founts.
Furthermore, the wildlife here at the park hasn’t changed. Magnificent kingfishers and rough-winged swallows still call this neighborhood home; a year ago, as seen on the hiking trail, even a pair of bald eagles and their chicks had settled in.
What has also remained constant, and it’s the ‘real’ attraction, is the kid-friendly vibe.
It’s a communal hub where moms and dads grill out burgers and hot dogs for lunch and stretch out across beach towels on the hillsides, while watching their children frolic gaily in the crystalline water. Boys and girls by the dozens laze across brightly-colored inner tubes, splashing and back-stroking in the shallows.
“What I like best about this place is the family atmosphere,” said Michelle Thrasher, a visitor from Blountstown.
It seems that ‘family-oriented’ ambiance draws the majority of visitors to Jackson Blue Springs. County locals and tourists alike part with their $4/person ($2 for military personnel and first responders) to dip their toes in the glacial fountainhead, play volleyball, hang out on the playground, or simply tan to perfection on the sand.
The diving board, for its part, just brings out ‘the kid’ in everyone; many come to flaunt their prowess off the platform. Fancy flips, pristine dives, and wild-and-woolly cannonballs.
Directly across from the swimming area and beach is the playground slide. Adults and children both enjoy the park’s classic 1960s American playground.
Going hand-in-hand with the ‘focus on family’, there’s never a fear of alcohol being a problem at the park.
“Guests are allowed to bring in their own food, drinks, grills, even tents,” Rett Daniels says. “Just no alcohol. We train our staff what to look for. They will keep an eye on someone who keeps walking to his/her car a lot.”
So far, the start of the warm-weather season seems to be faring well.
“We were open spring-break week-end and had about 300 [guests],” the director notes. “We’re currently open only on week-ends now, until Memorial Day. Then we’ll be open every day through August 8, when kids in Jackson County return to school.”
For special events, like family reunions and birthday parties, pavilions can be rented for $100.
Also on the list of ‘items available for lease’ are tubes, basketballs and volleyballs, at $5/day. Canoes and kayaks go for $10/hour.
While Florida bodies of water are known for their reptilian inhabitants, Daniels says the spring is usually clear from alligators – but not always.
“Occasionally, you’ll see an alligator,” Daniels cautions, “Though not many.”
The spring water is usually just too nippy for the cold-blooded reptiles, but there are a number of snakes – moccasins and more often, banded water-snakes – that live in the area.
Daniels says the new construction has been planned to allow less places for snakes to hide in the frequently populated areas, another bonus of the new makeover.
Since the county park sprawls over 200 acres, it has a nice trail system that begins at the end of the parking lot, by the #4 pavilion.
Except for the detriment to the tree population from Hurricane Michael – and obvious environmental impact that will be created for decades – the Jackson Blue Springs Recreation Park has rebounded nicely from that storm.
After a healthy injection of county funding, the resources have all been modernized; truly, that $800,000 cosmetic transformation has been nothing short of a miracle.
Those frosty turquoise waters at Jackson County’s favorite fountain are still the perfect retreat from the scorching sun and the sweltering summer heat.
Vickie Lillo – Gadsden County News Service
Photos by Vickie Lillo