GASP! Gulf Area Sea Paddlers
The Silver River is one of the prettiest rivers in Florida. It is the spring run that flows out of Silver Springs, the largest volume single-orifice freshwater spring in the world. The put-in is at a public boat ramp just off Highway 40 near Ocala. I have paddled the river several times and by far the best time to paddle is in cold weather and not on a weekend.
Greg called Friday to see when we were going paddling. I was at an Orlando Magic game Friday night so I called him Saturday after I got his message. We made plans to go on Monday since it was a holiday for both of us. I figured that the river would be less crowded than on the weekend. We agreed on 7:00am and I told him to bring lunch sinceit is a pretty long trip.
I got up Monday morning at 6:00 after hitting the snooze twice. It was cold, around 35 degrees and still dark. I turned Willi, my Lab, loose outside with instructions to "hurry up and go potty." I went to the back yard where the boats were stored. No outside lights; they took a hit during a bad thunderstorm along with my answering machine and I hadn't gotten around to fixing them yet. I fumbled around and carried the kayaks out front. I opened the front door to the truck so I could have some light and Willi jumped in. I told her that unfortunately she was not going with me but she refused to get out. I left her in there and gathered up all of my gear from the various places that it was scattered throughout my house. I loaded up everything and went back inside to take a shower. Willi finally got a clue and came back inside with me.
I got to Greg's house at exactly 7:00 and he was ready to go. I had to stop at a gas station/convenience store and I was in desperate need of a large cup of coffee. I filled up the truck and went inside to pay. I looked at the coffee machine with 3 empty pots and NO COFFEE. I went to the counter and paid for the gas and told the clerk that the coffee was empty. She asked me if I wanted to wait and I said yes...(duh)
I walked around the store waiting for the slowest coffee pot on earth. I picked up a few snacks to take on the water. I already had carrots in the truck and Greg had a sandwich. I bought a bag of pretzel/nacho cheese combos and a package of vanilla creme cookies. The brand name on the cookies was "Greg's"... (weird)
By now the coffee was ready and I got the largest cup I could find and dumped 3 creams and 2 equals in and headed out the door. Greg couldn't imagine what I could have possibly been doing in a handy-way for 20 minutes and I was too annoyed to explain. We got on the interstate and headed south. We arrived at the boat ramp at about 8:30 and by the time we got on the water it was almost 9:00. I don't know why it takes so long to get my act together once I get to the put-in. We were one of only 3 vehicles in the parking lot. There was a guy putting his fishing boat in ahead of us so we waited while he backed his trailer down to the water.
The put-in is a man-made channel that is about 300 yards long and provides access to the Ocklawaha and Silver Rivers. At the end of this channel is the confluence of the two rivers. The Ocklawaha flows north northeast to the St. Johns River. By going left at the junction you can enter the dark water of the Ocklawaha. By going right you can enter the clear water of the Silver River. The Silver is a very sinuous stream that varies between 30 to 60 feet across for most of its length. The channel is steep-sided and averages around 10 feet deep but in some places as deep as 30 or 40 feet (near the openings of springs). The bottom is sandy and covered with eel grass and hydrilla and the current is fairly swift most of the time (around 2 or 3 mph). It is fairly easy paddling upstream by using the banks on the inside of the meander bends. There are minimal obstructions in the main channel but close to the banks it can be pretty hazardous since erosion has undermined many trees causing them to fall into the river (hence the no wake zone for the whole river).
There are many springs along the length of the river and some are excellent for swimming in warmer weather. We had no intention of going swimming today though since the air temperature was still only around 40 degrees and the sky, somewhat overcast.
Once we were on our way, we heard the inevitable outboard motor behind us. I was disappointed because I had hoped that by getting to the river early, we could avoid contact with any motorboats for a few hours at least. No such luck. We looked back and saw a small johnboat with about a 10 horsepower motor sputtering upstream with 3 guys in it. Greg and I looked at each other but didn't say anything.
The Silver River lies within a state park and fishing is prohibited. The no wake zone extends from the confluence with the Ocklawaha all the way to the spring head of Silver Springs, a distance of about 6 miles. As the boat went by, I noticed that there were fishing rods on board. These guys had to have passed 3 or 4 signs indicating that fishing was not allowed so I planned to say something if they started to fish. Since they were obeying the posted idle speed limit, they stayed right with us for several minutes. I told Greg to stop so they could get ahead of us since there was about zero chance of seeing any wildlife with that smelly, noisy escort right by us. We stopped and drifted for a few minutes but I could still hear the noise and smell the exhaust of that boat. After about a half mile, they came back by us. I guess they decided not to risk a 50 dollar ticket from the Fish and Game Officer. I was thrilled and Greg and I continued upstream.
The Silver River is famous for its population of rhesus monkeys that escaped into the woods following the filming of a bunch of Tarzan movies at Silver Springs. They have established a colony and can usually be seen somewhere along the river. There are signs on the river clearly stating that the monkeys are wild and WILL BITE so don't feed them. It is illegal to feed them and I have heard stories of the monkeys getting on boats and biting people dumb enough to ignore the signs. They have become rather controversial in the last few years and the Fish and Game Commission is considering an eradication program. There have been several incidents where people have been bitten(no surprise there...) and since the monkeys are not indigenous to Florida, Wildlife Biologists feel that they are having a detrimental impact on native species of plants and animals. The concerns are certainly valid but the monkeys have been in the forest for close to 50 years so maybe their environmental impact has already occurred. There is a grass-roots effort underway to protect the monkeys so a confrontation is sure to develop.
The only other time I had paddled the Silver with Greg, we only saw one monkey way off in the woods. This trip, I hoped that we would get to see them before some boneheads came along and caused them to freak out again. We continued paddling up toward the springs. So far, we had not seen the monkeys but we saw lots of Anhingas, Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets, White Herons, Mud Hens, White and Brown Ibis, King Fishers, Ospreys, and one big hawk (species unknown). No gators yet either but we were keeping an eye along the banks for them as well as otters which are common on this river.
We did not encounter another boat the whole way up to the springs. The sun came out for a while and the fog, caused by the warm water surface coming in contact with the cold air, started to dissipate. The water level was way above normal and the cypress forest along the banks was flooded with at least a foot of water. This allowed us to see way into the woods on both sides of the river. It was really quiet and the only sound was the swish and drip of our paddles. Several times we saw an Alligator Gar stick its long skinny head above the water surface to gulp air. I don't know why they do this but it might have something to do with inflating their swim bladder. These fish grow as long as four feet and look very scary and primitive and I'm not sure if they would bite you or not. We could look down and see them under the boat since the water is crystal clear.
Greg was starting to get hot so we stopped for him to take off his jacket. I was near the left bank when I saw something brown moving around in the bushes. I was trying to get a picture of a Brown Ibis that was standing on a log when a light tan monkey climbed up a tree right in front of me. I backed off and watched him nonchalantly munching on leaves and staring at me. Greg came up and I pointed the monkey out to him. We both snapped a few pictures and watched the monkey jump from one tree to another. I wondered why he was alone. Usually when I encounter the monkeys, they have been in a big group interacting with each other. I wondered if this monkey was exiled or just choosing to do his own thing. We saw no sign of the other monkeys.
We finally reached the boundary to the Silver Springs Park. It is a privately owned tourist attraction. You can't land there but you can paddle over the springs. When I paddle this river, I usually break out lunch when I get to the spring and munch while I float over the spring, that I reached for free while others paid twenty-something dollars to see through the bottom of a glass boat. You have to watch out for these boats because they WILL run you over.
Just past a sign that reads "Feeding and Molesting of Monkeys Prohibited" we saw the first alligator of the day. He was laying up on top of some dead hyacinths catching some rays. He was about 7 feet long and didn't move an inch as we glided by. "Nice gator... you just stay right where you are." A couple of minutes later, we saw the monkey clan on the left bank. The adults were sitting on branches or the ground while the youngsters chased each other up and down trees screeching and playing with each other. Out came the cameras. We snapped a bunch of pictures and sat around watching them play for a few minutes. It looked like they were trying to push each other off the branches into the water. I wondered if any of them ever ended up in an alligator's stomach...
We continued up to the main spring head. The place is kind of surreal. There is strange New Age music piped throughout the park. Most of the people are tourists and just walking around checkin' out the spring, checkin' out the gardens, checkin' out the shops etc... We paddled over the spring and drifted to the sandy bank. We broke out lunch just as a flock of about 10 White Ibis's flew up and landed not 20 feet away from us. We kicked back and watched the tourists watching us back. Greg declined my offer of baby carrots but dug into the "GREG'S" vanilla cremes. We took some more pictures and started back after about a 45 minute break. We managed not to get run down by the Jungle Cruise Boats carrying people around on the river. We floated with the current for about 15 minutes. A Mud Hen (?) with a bright red bill paddled right up to Greg's boat. It followed us for a while and we took its picture. I think maybe it was attracted to the red kayak. We didn't feed it. It looked like it wanted to come home with us so we started paddling faster and it finally turned back.
We passed a few more small gators along the banks. Greg tried to get a picture of one but it disappeared beneath the weeds. We kept paddling and were only about a mile from the boat ramp when we encountered another motor boat. Back to civilization I guess. It went by us headed for the springs. A few minutes later, another boat came by going much faster than he should have been. He came around a bend and quickly cut his engine back when he saw us but not before I gave him a cold, hard, thousand yard stare. Greg and I just kept paddling and counted ourselves lucky that we had had the river to ourselves all morning.
When we got back to the boat ramp, the place was crowded and we had to wait for one trailer to move before we could land. We loaded up and got back on the road as fast as we could and were back in Gainesville by 3:00. Our trip up to the springs took almost exactly 2 hours and the trip back a little less than 1 and a half.
I don't think there is a prettier river in the whole state. This trip is a must for anyone with a canoe or kayak, and a camera in Central Florida.
"I prefer to learn hard lessons through the misadventures of others."
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