Wikiwa Springs: Probably Fun Without Thunderstorms

When you see people set up a complete campsite in their backyard in the middle of a hot summer weekend, this can be an indicator of one of two things: Either they are very bored and/or meticulous in the care of their gear, or they have just returned from a very bad camping trip.

As I write there is a distracting fluttering motion in my peripheral vision — a gray Coleman canopy sits just outside the window to my left, its screened sides billowing in the breeze, mocking me. We set this up yesterday afternoon in the backyard along with our family-size dome tent. Laying out on the grass: two tarps, double and twin inflatable mattresses and two rain ponchos. Airing out in the garage: a bin filled with cooking gear and lanterns. It was a very bad camping trip.

Sunset at Inlet Harbor Restaurant by Laurie Sterbens

This was the sunset view we enjoyed from our table at Inlet Harbor Restaurant on Sunday. We were supposed to be camping about 50 miles away, but this wasn't a bad plan B.

Some people would say that anybody camping in Florida in August shouldn’t expect to have an enjoyable experience; it’s 90-plus degrees and humid, and storm season has arrived. This weekend the usual 30- to 40-percent rain chance was raised to 60, but we set out anyway, lulled into a state of foolish optimism by the fact that it had not rained on our house in months of similar forecasts. In fact, numerous storms have rolled right up to our house and then turned away suddenly, raining all around us, not on us. I believe the scientific phenomenon occurring here is that I have planted the world’s first rain-repellant vegetable garden.

We weren’t afraid of the heat. We were headed to Wekiwa Springs State Park, where we could cool off in a 72-degree spring-fed swimming area and spring run. Of course, in Florida the campsites are usually far from the water. I was annoyed to find this when I first moved here, having grown up camping on the shores of lakes and rivers of Arkansas where, if you needed to cool off in the middle of the night, you could just walk down to the water and wade in. However, I came to appreciate the wisdom of the Florida park planning. Florida lakes and rivers are occupied by large carnivorous wildlife — no place to be wading in the dark.

We prepared for the heat by picking up a battery-operated portable fan before we left. And actually, I don’t mind sweating a bit if it’s surrounded by fun activities. This weekend we planned to swim, snorkel, canoe and hike, and my husband, Scott, and son Trevor planned to get in a little fishing as well. We prepared for possible rain by purchasing a canopy to put over the picnic table, an item we’ve wished we had during past trips. We packed ingredients for S’mores as well as the most basic camping food — hot dogs and hamburgers, since we didn’t want to spend a lot of time cooking in the heat.

The drive to the park from our house is less than an hour, and we didn’t encounter any rain on the way. We unloaded the tent and the canopy only to find that we didn’t have a canopy. We had only bought the screen to put around the sides of the canopy. No wonder it was so inexpensive! We decided we needed to go ahead an invest in a canopy, reasoning that we would be camping our entire lives. Also, it would probably end up being like our portable tables — originally bought for one purpose, they have been in constant use for all kinds of family events.

So Scott and Trevor set off to find a canopy and firewood and I stayed behind to start setting up the tent. The minute they were out of sight, the clouds opened up and a downpour began. Fortunately, we’d taken the bin with most of our gear out of the car, so I pulled out a rain poncho and a tarp to cover what we’d unpacked. And then I sat in the rain and waited. I was not having fun yet.

A Brief Interlude of Happiness

Eventually Scott and Trevor returned, the rain stopped and we set up camp and drove over to the swimming area. Normally I will hesitate before jumping into a 72-degree spring, but after setting up a tent in searing heat and humidity, I would have been happy to see icebergs floating in it. I donned a mask and snorkel and swam around until I began to lose feeling in my extremeties. Then I sat on the side and watched Scott and Trevor hunt for shells in the clear water.

The Wekiwa Springs State Park website had promised lots of wildlife viewing, and it soon became apparent that they weren’t exaggerating, though numerous signs posted throughout the park worked me into full paranoia about bears. Not that I’m overly afraid of black bears, but we already have a raccoon-face-sized hole in one of our tents due to a bagel placement error. I didn’t want to see what a bear could do. We didn’t see or hear any bears, but we did see a raccoon in the swimming area, four white-tailed deer on the way back to the campsite, and the next morning a flock of wild turkeys strolled through the campground.

We returned to the campsite and got a fire going and soon were enjoying delicious hamburgers — lean ground beef flavored with Cajun seasoning and campfire smoke on fresh whole-wheat buns. After the S’mores, we put out the fire, not wanting to add more heat to the area than necessary. Eventually we took our battery-powered lanterns and portable fan into the tent and settled in for the night. Since we were afraid to take the rain canopy off of the top of the tent, we were wishing we had brought two fans, but Trevor, at least, got a good night’s sleep.

Unhappy Campers

We awoke to find that it had rained during the night, but the skies appeared to be clearing. After a quick breakfast of bagels and cream cheese, we headed back to the spring, planning to canoe down the spring run until lunchtime and then swim in the afternoon. As we descended down the trail from the parking lot, we noticed dark clouds approaching above. Surely they’ll pass, we thought. The camp concession offers the usual assortment of snack foods and T-shirts along with some snorkeling and swimming gear. After nosing around the store for a bit, we rented a canoe and started back up the trail for our cooler and dry bag. We had time to pull a cooler out of the car and set it on the parking lot before the sky exploded with thunder, lightning and torrential rain. We dove into our cars (two smallish vehicles, too much food and gear) and waited. One burst of thunder was so loud it shook my car.

It kept raining. We had to make a decision. It was a gamble. We still had time to pack up and get a refund on our second night before checkout time, but that meant breaking camp in a full-on thunderstorm, and there was always the chance that it would clear up soon and be sunny and beautiful the rest of the weekend. I had had enough, however. So I headed to the ranger station to check out while Scott went back to the concession to get a refund on our canoe rental. There he learned that lightning had struck so close to a group of swimmers that they had felt the electrical charge. Canoeing had ceased to be an option, at least for the time being, and the swimming area had been closed.

Once again I was glad I always keep some rain ponchos in our gear box. We were already a little damp and muddy, but pouring rain on bare skin is fully outside of my comfort zone. And it kept pouring as we packed up all of the cooking gear, bedding, tarps, canopy and tent. There was no hope of packing things up carefully and neatly. Everything was soaking wet, which meant we would have to unpack it and completely set up camp again at home so everything could dry out. Setting up camp and taking it down again within 24 hours is not the optimal camping experience. Setting up camp, taking it down in the rain, then setting it up again within a day and a half is … well, it’s just really sucky.

By the time we were halfway home we were driving under blue sky. Although the weather report had been exactly the same for Apopka, where the park is located, and the Daytona Beach area, where we live, Daytona was sunny and dry. Obviously my rain-repellant garden was still working. We agreed on a new plan. We’d set up the tents and canopy and lay out everything that needed to be hosed off and dried out. The rest of the plan involved showers and naps, and then we’d put the money we’d been refunded for the canoe and campsite toward a nice dinner on the river.  I didn’t think twice about fat or calories as I sat on the deck at Inlet Harbor Restaurant and devoured fried calamari, crab-stuffed shrimp with a buttery cream sauce and a baked potato smothered in butter and sour cream. We’d earned it.