The May 2019 FSI outing explored three distinct and impressive karst features all located within five miles of the Florida Springs Institute High Springs office, including:  the Santa Fe River Rise in O’Leno State Park; Scrubtown Sink, a giant sinkhole used as a dump; and a little known Ichetucknee-like karst valley with an extinct headspring, rocky walls, caves, and park-quality forest.

We started the day at the rather unspectacular River Rise, which is the second largest dark water rise in Florida, only exceeded by the Alapaha Rise, one of the largest tributaries on the upper Suwannee River.  At the time of our hike, the water discharging at the rise was an approximately equal mixture of ground water and river water.  (You can check out the numbers at the USGS Real Time Water Level web site.).


The River Rise

We did a leisurely half-mile stroll through a nearby cypress-gum-ash swamp and flanking mesic forest, where we spent time identifying and discussing interesting  trees including water locust, parsley haw, blue beech, and the rather uncommon spruce pine.  The leaves of the haw really do look like parsley and we learned to identify blue beech by their muscular looking trunks.  Tom speculated that the large spines on the trunk of water locust trees may have discouraged herbivory by giant ground sloths back in their heyday. The giant sloths are gone but trees today are still assaulted by herbivores, as evidenced by several large sweetgums which had been recently chewed on by beavers.  Beavers preferentially seek these trees out, as well as sugarberries, for their sugar rich cambium.

Water locust leaves

Lunch for a beaver

Next, we headed over to Scrubtown Sink, a large deep double sinkhole that has been used as a dump for a long time.  It is adjacent to a graded road, which makes it quite handy for a local landfill.   Recently, several organizations have been cleaning up this mess.  The photo shows a fraction of the stuff that has yet to be carted off, including large bales of wire fencing.  Not surprisingly, people are already dumping fresh trash into the sink.  On a brighter note, we saw two interesting shrubs which occupy the sink walls, namely sweetleaf or horse sugar   (Symplocus tinctoria) and rusty blackhaw (Viburnum rufidulum).

Trash at Scrubtown Sink

After lunch at the FSI headquarters in High Springs we headed up Hwy 27 to Jess’s Hole and its associated karst valley.   Jess’s hole is a round solution chimney that drops vertically for almost 50 feet to a cave full of crystal clear ground water.  Jess’s Hole has a back story.  In 1922 Jess Preston was 34 years old.  He was handicapped, possibly by polio, but frequently went exploring on his horse. Well, one day Jess did not come back home.  A search found his horse tied to a tree near the sinkhole, and it was assumed Jess had fallen in and died.  Fast forward to the 1990’s: divers found Jess’s remains, the cops were notified, and the bones were brought out for identification.  Jess’s remains were later cremated, as per the law, and returned to the sink in 2016.  For details of this remarkable story of the recovery and proper burial of his remains read the articles by Pamela Faith included below.   Scott Butch, the current owner and steward of the property, played a key role in this touching story.

The cave at the bottom of Jess’s Hole has been mapped by divers and is about 900 feet long and, at one time, undoubtedly conveyed groundwater to a spring at the head of the nearby valley.  In fact, the “downstream” arm of the cave ends in a large chamber right below the purported spring.   To see what it looks like down there, check out the videos of Jess’s Hole Cave on You Tube.

Scott Butch at the Top of Jess’s Hole

Pamela Faith 2008 Article

Pamela Faith 2016 Article

Next, we checked out a large sinkhole just to the north of Jess’s Hole.  The sink harbors the uncommon Florida maple (Acer floridanum) and a native sword fern (Nephrolepis exaltata) which is related to the obnoxious and invasive Boston sword fern (which can still be purchased at most floral shops).  The rocks at the bottom are covered with moisture dependent mosses and liverworts.   Joe Hartman found a cool refuge from the heat of the afternoon in the shelter cave shown below.

A view from above of the sinkhole


Joe cooling it in cave at bottom of sinkhole

We finished the day at the nearby relict karst valley, known locally as Paradise Valley.  This remarkable landform runs all the way to the Santa Fe River just above Rum Island Spring and is characterized by park quality woods and geology, including rocky walls, an extinct spring head, and rare plant species.  While the valley at one time probably looked just like Ichetucknee Springs does today, a decline in the artesian (potentiometric) surface has left the valley mostly dry.  However, there are some perched cypress-gum-ash wetlands with large trees as well as some small caves with clear ground water.  It would have made a great linear state park.

Some of the rare plants we saw in the valley included:  wild yam (Dioscorea villosa/floridana), which is related to the notorious air potato; climbing milkweed (Matelea gonocarpa or Gonocarpus suberosus – take your pick); and many native violets, including Walter’s violet (Viola walteri).

Into the relict valley 

Paul at the top of a rocky valley wall

Isolated limestone outcrop

To top off the day, after everyone else headed home, Scott Butch and Tom helped Stacy and Joy, two of our younger members, climb down into Jess’s Hole for a snorkel and a peek at the white, blind crayfish who share their home with the remains of the unfortunate Jess.

Group shot

– Written by Dave Wilson and Tom Morris

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