There were a couple of things we did do in the Forest before leaving though. One of them is a park I have very vivid memories of from early childhood. Mind you, these are not full memories, just snippets of things I remember clearly, and from talking with my parents, I know where they happened. I remember watching a man milk a rattlesnake of its venom (opening its mouth and pressing its fangs over the lip of a special cup) and marveling at the beautiful fish that we watched through the bottom of a boat. I wasn't school aged yet, but I can still picture those two things vividly in my memories. As far as I know, there weren't any pictures of that trip, though I'm sure Daddy had slides of it somewhere. (For you youngsters, those were kind of like individual negatives that you projected onto a screen.) Some of you may have guessed, these memories were from Silver Springs State Park in Silver Springs, Florida. Silver Springs just happens to be right outside of the Ocala National Forest and is the western gateway to the Forest. The State of Florida has taken over the park in an effort to preserve the springs that apparently got pretty dingy from commercial use. They no longer have rattlesnake milking or 'gator wrestling, but the glass bottom boats are still running. We took the 90 minute ride and got to see plenty of 'gators and lots of other critters. Here are a few.
The springs and river itself is much different than I remembered, and consistent with why the state has taken over. There was algae everywhere. I hear it has been worse, to the point that you could barely see anything, but I remember seeing the white limestone on the bottom when I was little. My memory of that white bottom is one thing I've been searching for in adulthood. I can't tell you why it took me so long to return to Silver Springs to look for it. I could see it peeking out in some places, but the springs really do seem to be choked with algae. Don't get that confused with all of the lush sea grass, though. We still saw a few turtles, gar, and other fishes in the water, and even got to see an anhinga catch a fish and eat it.
There were no good pictures through the boat bottom, and that wasn't just because the glass was cloudy. In this picture, you can see some fish, a little bit of sea grass, little bits of limestone peeking out, and lots of algae!
They say it's improving and that it was much worse a couple of years ago. I guess we'll just have to check back again when we come back and see if it continues to improve! Maybe next time, we'll get a guide that talks more about the old TV shows and movies that were filmed around here. Bruce would have liked to hear more about that. If we hadn't gone through the museum or read about it elsewhere, you almost wouldn't have known that Tarzan, Creature of the Black Lagoon, and other shows were filmed here. There were some nice, healthy spots with hardly any algae clinging to the limestone. This is the mouth of one of the springs.
Unfortunately, we didn't see any monkeys, though rhesus monkeys do live along the Silver River. Hiking this park and searching for the rhesus monkeys is another thing I wanted to do this past winter, but again ... walking and breathing seemed to be issues. It is a lovely park, and I would recommend visiting often, and taking the glass bottom boat ride.
Later, we made a drive up the Black Bear Scenic Byway, past Salt Springs, and to the tiny community of Fort Gates. This is the main road to get there.
Almost reminded me of Ecuador, except there were no monster speed bumps on it. Could have been Mexico, except it has been well graded and we weren't bounced all over the place. The road comes to a dead end at the St. John's River, and Fort Gates is nothing more than a few cabins or trailers with boat/fishing docks attached -
- or not.
There's a sign (if you look hard enough) telling you to turn on your headlights to signal for the ferry if it's not on this side of the river.
So, we pulled up and turned on our lights.
Soon afterward, we saw the ferry coming across the river with another car coming this direction.
As you can see, this is not your average ferry. The Fort Gates Ferry is the oldest ferry in Florida, and it has a maximum capacity of two cars (and some motorcycles). It's been running since the 1850s. Currently, it's an old barge that is pushed by an old, retrofitted sailboat named the Too Wendy. The way the Too Wendy is hooked up to the barge is sooooo cool. When Dale pulled up to our ramp, he flipped a switch on the Too Wendy. The boat then started swinging around on a trailer hitch that had been welded to the side of the barge. By the time our new Geezermobile, (affectionately called the Incognito Cruiser) finished boarding the ferry, the Too Wendy was turned around and ready to head back to the Gateway Fish Camp on the other side of the river!
Once we got loaded on and stabilized by wood blocks, Dale just unhooked the rope tying the barge to the dock, and off we went. Eventually, he went down into the Too Wendy to steer her specifically into the dock. The whole thing was slicker than owl droppings! It was just too cool!
It was a good thing we waited until there was a good rain before trying to take this ferry. Dale said he had been grounded for several weeks because the river was so low, the barge was stuck in the mud. Dale said he asked, but the county wouldn't come dig him out. The ferry had only been running again for 3 days before the day we showed up. He was doing a brisk business, though, between 10 and 15 fares each day. The Too Wendy pulled expertly to the dock at the fish camp, and it was the best ferry ride I've taken yet!
Soon after leaving the Gateway Fish Camp, we found paved roads again and an actual little town. As you pull into Crescent City, Florida, it feels like a step back in time. There are gazebos by the river, and the old buildings are somewhat preserved.
The old fire truck is even out back!
As you move into the more modern section of town, it appears that someone has freshly carved out some catfish by the tennis courts.
Soon after passing this carving, the rain started coming down in sheets, so there are no more pictures of this trip.
After several fits and starts, though, we are finally packed up and ready to head to cooler climates. We're running a bit behind, though. Businesses here, especially restaurants, are closing up for the season every day. If you come to Silver Springs be aware. This is an older community. The only restaurant that is ever open after 9:00 p.m. on the weekend is the Steak and Shake. Also, since it does tend to be a snowbird community, the sidewalks pretty much roll up when it gets hot. As the building in Crescent City (above) and REO Speedwagon said, "I believe it's time for me to fly!" See you all in cooler weather!