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Weekender: Northern Gulf Coast, Florida

Frédéric Lagrange

Photo: Frédéric Lagrange

ON THE TARZAN TRAIL

People have different reasons for going to Wakulla Springs State Park. For some, it's the eccentric, 1930's marble and masonry lodge tucked beside a cypress swamp, or the prospect of spotting a Suwanee cooter (turtle). Others come to climb the tall dive tower and plunge headlong into a four-acre bowl of clear, anesthetizingly cold spring water.

For me it was the Tarzan Tree—a leafy mastodon of my childhood Saturday mornings. I would sit transfixed by my black-and-white TV screen and watch Johnny Weissmuller seize a vine as big around as an elephant's trunk, belt out his famous howl, and spirit himself into unfathomable forest. I wanted to know if the giant sabal palm tree that he swung from in that film was indeed a portal to the paradise I imagined. The captain of the state park riverboat assures me over the loudspeaker that it will be. The boat we're on is the 30-foot long Wood Duck, which looks like a relic from The African ueen, and I board it with only a dozen other visitors. Tourism isn't highly developed here, which isn't surprising, since the townspeople of Wakulla (pronounced "wah-cull-a") prefer to hide out in 3,000 acres of deep woods 10 miles from the Gulf of Mexico.

"We're gonna get y'all close to some gators, now," the captain says, as we nose up to a 10-footer dozing on a cypress log. His belly is soft and white and bulges with a freshly eaten bird. A few feet away, in a crook of river, the water churns with baby gators exuberant with new life. Around the next bend, eight Suwanee cooters are lined up on a log. The announcer calls it a "shell station." Hearty guffaws all around.

Wakulla is Creek Indian for "strange land and mysterious waters," and no one on board can argue with that. Shards of white clouds race overhead as we coil through cathedrals of cypress trees, with moss shrouding their limbs and yellow-crowned night herons picking through their bony, twisted roots. Hydrilla grass glows neon green, and pickerelweed sprays purple cotton-candy blossoms along the shore. The cypresses have grown here undisturbed for a thousand years, fed by springs from a huge underwater cave, supposedly the world's deepest at three miles. Ribbons of coppery blue are pumped up at the rate of 400,000 gallons per minute. Animal life is richly layered: streaked-neck turtles, tricolor herons, freshwater gars, limpkins, and a barred owl all pass by the boat in the course of two minutes. And though the setting may be extravagantly, unabashedly wild, the wildlife certainly isn't.

Take Henry, the pole-vaulting bass. Every time a glass-bottom boat cruises over the springs, the captain calls down (sings, actually) to the bass, and Henry swims across an old cypress pole some 25 feet beneath the surface. No one's sure why the fish does his dance for the tourists, but gifted Wakulla bass have discoed across the same underwater pole for six decades now.

As we chug along, a purple gallinule lands in a flurry of feathers beside the Wood Duck. The "water chicken" is frantically half-paddling, half-flying, trying to keep up. He detours when we scoot near a banded water snake wound up in damp moss, but the captain welcomes danger, steering the boat so close we stare right into snake eyes.

When we come upon a massive sabal palm, I ask the captain if this is in fact the official Tarzan Tree. He admits that he's not 100 percent positive; it seems a likely enough candidate, given its woolly mammoth trunk, its tangle of fat vines, and the way it fights its way out over the simmering slate river. But I feel a pang of disappointment not knowing if this is the tree. Then it hits me: it was never really about the tree. It was about finding paradise, and I had.

Wakulla Springs State Park, 550 Wakulla Park Dr., Wakulla Springs; 850/224-5950; 40-minute riverboat trips are $4.50 per person.

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