Today I fulfilled a dream I have had since 2000 when I first started visiting Bel in Florida and saw the Silver River. I wanted to float my kayak down that river in the midst of the wonderful sights and smells of Old Florida. Of course, I didn’t even have a boat at that time, so it was only a dream. I remember one day hiking out the ¾ mile trail from the Silver River State Park one afternoon and seeing an old woman come floating down the river. It’s a 10 mile paddle with no place to put in except that one spot and she laughingly said she had to pee so bad she thought she would die. I talked a bit with her and listened to her stories of traveling alone in her motorhome with her kayak, and how much she loved the Silver. I’m not sure when that was, but it’s been awhile, before I got the kayaks, at least.
Today we paddled the Silver River. It was still a bit cool for December in Florida, but I knew that I didn’t want to miss the chance to do the thing I had dreamed of doing for so long, no matter how cool it was.
I guess I always get a little bit worried before we start down a new river or a new place we haven’t paddled before, something about the unknown part of it, and especially here in florida with alligators and strange water and such. It’s certainly an unknown, and that adds a bit to the allure of it all.
By the time I was in the water it was noon, and the sky was still overcast, but not too chilly at all, maybe in the mid 60’s. The put-in place is at the Row Park off HWY 40 not to far from Silver Springs. The launch area is rather simple, with cement boat ramps that pour into a quiet pool lined with willows. It was still and quiet and Mo managed to get in her boat without too much trouble, although we weren’t sure how the getting out would be. Her rib is healing slowly.
Once you put in, there is a narrow canal lined with lily pads and overhanging trees that leads to the confluence of the Oklawaha and the Silver Rivers. I used the GPS because it would be easy to miss that canal on the return trip, everything blends together.
Once we turned up the Silver River the water showed that legendary clarity. There are springs all along the entire reach, not just the big Mammoth Spring at the headwaters of the river. Some of them are 30 feet deep, some of them are 80 feet deep, and as you float over them you feel the boiling churn of the waters and can see huge fish, including the prehistoric looking alligator gars that are 6 to 8 feet long.
The river winds and turns through what feels like a tropical jungle, with a 5 mile per hour current that didn’t feel as difficult to paddle as I thought it might. I knew that we would make the return trip a lot quicker than going upriver, so wasn’t too worried about our time. We planned 3 hours to the spring, and originally didn’t think we would necessarily go all the way, but once we went a few miles it just seemed silly to not actually go all the way.
The last mile or so of the river is amazing because it seems to get bigger instead of smaller with more and more springs. Some of that water must be going underground again, because downriver has quite a bit less volume. The most amazing part of the paddle though was the wildlife. Every bend would reveal dozens of water birds, not just a single bird here and there, but cypress trees on either side of the river filled with white Ibis by the hundreds, that would take off ahead of us in clouds. Sometimes they just stayed in the trees and it was a bit disconcerting to see the huge plops of bird poop that were falling in the river under those trees, and sometimes you just had to take your chances and hope you wouldn’t get bombed.
In the midst of the Ibis were Great Egrets by the dozen and Great Blue Herons, and they would fly in front of our boats 2 or 3 at a time. Rounding one curve I remember the spectacular vision of 3 Great Blue Herons, at least 6 Great Egrets or white herons, not sure which,, several hundred Ibis, a dozen annihingas and 5 turtles on a log. It was overwhelming to see so much at the same time. Another bend revealed our only alligator, a 6 foot baby, dark chocolaty gray, sunning on a log. He didn’t move at all while I took his photo from a healthy distance. About midway along we saw the monkeys that are wild now in the Silver River State Park, released either from some concession in the 30’s or from the Johnny Weismuller Tarzan movies that were filmed there about the same time.
When we finally began the approach to the Silver Springs Park, it was surreal. The Jungle Boats and Glass Bottom Boats were coming down the river with the captains telling the stories of the springs on the microphones, the train ride in the forest was hooting the horns while the conductors called all aboard, and Christmas music was wafting through the trees. After so many miles on this seemingly wild river I felt as though I was in some kind of strange Disney ride. We paddled all the way into the main area of the springs, looking deep into that chasm of blue and boiling white water. I have been to Silver Springs several times, but on this day I saw it from a completely different perspective. I can only imagine how the Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto felt back in the 1500’s as he paddled up this magic place for the first time.
The Indians of course, used the river for hundreds of years and considered it sacred. Mammath Spring is called just that because the mammoth bones that have been found there also showed spear marks, and they believe that the springs have been inhabited by humans for more than 10,000 years. Silver Springs is a magical place, a piece of old Florida with a beautiful ecology and a campy recent history of movies and theme parks that makes it unique in the world. I loved it, and I loved being there in my kayak.
Reluctantly we turned back downriver, realizing suddenly that we were looking at nightfall and darkness and that we needed to get moving along. The ride back downriver was twice as fast at least, with the 5 mph current gliding us along effortlessly. It was difficult to keep from just letting the boat glide along listening to the silence, but we managed to get back up the canal, out of the boats and get them loaded onto the top of the Geo just a bit before dark. A perfect paddle, a perfect day, a perfect dream. I felt like it was some kind of jungle ride, but because of the frost the night before, we didn’t even have a single bug to worry about. Maybe green trees in the summer would have been a bit more colorful, but I’m not sure the price of bugs would have been worth it.
Ahh. Another reason for the trip.