Eco-tours offer an immersive experience

Guide Linda Morrison, right, of the Village of St. James, paddles out with members of The Villages Canoe and Kayak Club during a moonlight paddle tour at Lake Griffin State Park.

While Florida may be best known for its theme parks, sunny beaches and citrus fruits, it also offers lush ecosystems for visitors and residents to explore. Potential explorers can participate in eco-tours in The Villages and surrounding area to learn more about the state’s plants and wildlife. “It’s a lot of fun and an enjoyable day,” said Lynda Feustel, a facilities manager for The Villages Recreation and Parks Department. The Friends of Lake Griffin State Park in Fruitland Park recently added three new eco-guides to its team of volunteers.   Heather Murphy, Anne McIntyre and Audrey Wheeler completed their rescue training at the end of June and are available to guide kayakers through the Dead River Marsh and Lake Griffin. 

Since the addition of more certified kayak guides, staff are seeing more people sign up to paddle through the marsh while learning the ins and outs of the wetland ecosystem.

“It’s quiet water, so we can get a closer look at birds, plants, water lilies, gators and turtles,” said Linda Morrison, a Friends of Lake Griffin State Park board member and volunteer kayak eco-guide. “Our guides talk about how all of these live together in the ecosystem, how the plants were used throughout history and the importance of the wetlands.”

With a full staff of 14 trained volunteers, the group now offers tours at 9 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays that last from 90 minutes to two hours.

The tours were put on hiatus at the beginning of the pandemic but resumed in spring 2021. Friends of Lake Griffin State Park volunteers guided around 330 paddlers in 2021.

Beginners can take Kayak 101 classes before going on a tour to learn basic kayaking techniques and safety.

“We teach people how to interact with wildlife and boat traffic,” Morrison said. “It’s an introduction so people can paddle confidently and safely.”

More experienced paddlers can try the moonlight tours offered once a month during the full moon.

“We watch the sun set and watch nature prepare for night as it gradually gets dark,” Morrison said. “Then we turn on our lamps and look for the red reflection of the gator eyes. It’s really awesome.”

Anyone interested in participating in a tour or class can visit the website at flgsp.org and register under “tours.” Eco-tours cost $30, Kayak 101 classes are $35 and moonlight tours are $40, and the fees cover all equipment needed.

If paddlers want to share the eco-tour experience with others, they can email friendsoflgsp@gmail.com to arrange a private tour for six to 12 paddlers.

Closer to home, The Villages Recreation and Parks Department offers two-hour guided kayak tours on Lake Sumter, allowing residents to observe local wildlife.

“We encourage people to bring a nonalcoholic drink to stay hydrated,” Feustel said. “It’s not just sit and glide — it’s a workout. You use your muscles, but it’s really enjoyable too, especially if you love the water. They tour a large portion of the lake.”

 Feustel said many people enjoy the tours so much they bring back friends and family to experience it with them.

“My advice is to try to just take in the whole experience,” she said. “We want to have oohs and aahs — that is what we’re all about.”

Beginner kayakers enjoy the tour as well, and the guides show them how to get started.

Safety is a priority for Feustel and her team. They instruct participants on the best safety practices and have a boat trail behind them, so if someone does tip over, people are close by to help.

She said some people are worried about alligators, but they never have had any issues.

Mary Lynn, a facilities specialist for The Villages Recreation and Parks, said the number of people interested in the tours has increased since they started in 2018.

“Once the excursions open for sign-ups, we are usually booked up,” she said. “Each kayak tour can take about eight people in a group and we have been offering them more frequently to meet the demand.”

Nature pontoon tours also are an option for those who want to view the wildlife but aren’t comfortable on a kayak.

The boat takes up to four participants at a time, and just like the kayak tours, guests hear information about the Lake Sumter ecosystem.

“If people want to learn about the wildlife at Lake Sumter Landing, this is where they’ll hear it,”  Feustel said. “It’s nice for residents to take grandkids while they’re here. It’s a great way to build memories.”

 Feustel recommends that guests bring  binoculars or a camera on the pontoon boat.

Sign-ups for nature pontoon tours in September will open at 8:30 a.m. Aug. 25. To sign up for kayak or pontoon tours, visit districtgov.org/departments/recreation/outdoorexcursions.

Another way to explore the wetland ecosystems is on a glass-bottom boat tour at Silver Springs State Park in Ocala.

The park began offering these tours in the 1870s. Each boat can hold around 30 people and spots sell out quickly.

Guests see beautiful views of underwater life and the springs that feed Silver River.

“It’s amazing because you get to see so much wildlife,” said Emily Ramsay, events manager at the park. “You get to see why it’s called Silver River. When you look at it, the springs have so much lime rock that it looks silver.”

Native American and Spanish artifacts, shipwrecks and Greek statue props from the 1960s TV series “I Spy” also are visible from the boats.

“You see everything; you see the eel grass, gators, the different things sunken here,” Ramsay said.

The tour covers the park’s history as well as the ecosystem. Guests can chose a 30-minute tour for $12 to $13 or a 90-minute extended tour for $20 to $25, which covers more of the river and its springs.

Guided paddling adventures also are offered at the park from 8 to 10 a.m. every Saturday. The two-hour tour goes more in-depth into the river’s ecosystem and park history.

Guides lead paddlers down the Fort King Paddling Trail and up the Silver River.

“The tour gives you options to see more,” Ramsay said. “You can see the Fort King replica.”

Prices for the paddling adventures range from $30 to $70, depending on if guests choose a single kayak, tandem kayak or canoe.

To book a tour, visit silversprings.com or call 352-261-5840 for more information.

Staff writer Leah Shewmaker can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5228, or leah.shewmaker@thevillagesmedia.com.