It was just about this time of year, back in the day, that my parents decided that my brother and I needed to learn how to swim. And with good reason too; Jacksonville is a coastal town and there was water everywhere. There was a river or a creek within a mile of our house in three of the four points of the compass. Most of our family outings were to water destinations. So, it was time to pack up the swim suites and slip up to Lakawanna Pool at Lenox and Day Streets where the Red Cross was holding a 6 weeks beginning swimmer course.
We both passed the beginning and intermediate swimming courses and that put our parents’ minds at ease. For the rest of the time that I lived in Jacksonville, I spent at least one day a week from spring until fall in one of the many nearby bodies of water. Northern Florida is dotted with many lakes, rivers ponds and swimming pools, not to mention the 500 pound gorilla of swimming locations, the Atlantic Ocean. Mom and Dad never worried because all the kids in my family became strong and experienced swimmers.
Even my very first "date" date was taking Carolyn Head, now Carolyn Helquist, to Gold Head Branch State Park to go swimming in Lake Johnson. Water was integral to my teenage social life. All through high school there were pool and beach parties. I can still smell the hot dogs and hamburgers cooking, depending on where we were, the food smells mixing with that of chlorine from the swimming pool, the salt air from the beach or the woodsy smell at one of the fresh water lakes we frequented.
For me, swimming took on a new dimension at a family outing to Lake Brooklyn in Keystone Heights. At the public beach there, I ran into a guy with an aqualung, an early version of SCUBA gear. He let me try diving with his gear and I fell in love with being underwater. It was complete freedom; soaring over the sandy bottom of the lake, flipping over and tumbling in circles amongst the sunlight and swirls of shimmering bubbles glistening in the water filtered sunlight. I knew then and there that I had to get my own gear.
Ichetucknee Springs is it was in the early days. Untouched and pristine.
In the flash of an eye, I was diving in the lakes all over northern Florida. We didn’t dive in the ocean too much because the visibility was not nearly as good as it was in the spring fed lakes. A couple of places that stand out in my mind are Jennings Springs and The Blue Hole (Ichetucknee Springs). Both of these locations held access to crystal clear water leading down to the Florida Aquifer.
Blue Hole courtesy of National Geographic
There is some spectacular cave diving there and my buddies and I explored many of the shallower caves in the area. Of course, we were safety conscious, being sure to watch the time and bring along safety lines to find our way back to the entrance of the caves and the surface. Back in those days, the area was completely unexploited and if the rumors I heard where true, there was a time when diving was prohibited in the caves for a time before the area became commercialized and dive shops were established. They offer a much safer approach to cave diving than we had in the wild and wooly days where we were all immortal.
All of this grew out of those first hesitant strokes across Lakawanna pool in west Jacksonville. The old pool is no longer there but the visions of the cool water glistening under the live oak trees laden with Spanish moss will live on in my memory forever. Oh MY!