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How to Wrestle a 'Gator...and Other Fun at Florida's Silver Springs


Floating on a pontoon boat at dawn on Florida's Silver River, I'm silenced by a kaleidoscope world of emerald mangroves, alligators basking in the yellow sun, and black cormorants silhouetted like question marks against a pearl sky.

 

Peace and quiet on the Silver River is enjoyed by visitors and white egrets. Courtesy of Silver Springs"This artesian spring water is 10,000 years old," Leon Cheatom, Director of Natural Resources, Silver Springs, tells me. "More than 550 million gallons flow from headwaters of Silver Springs every day. It's the world's largest natural artesian spring formation."

Peering into the clear-as-glass spring water, I see thick forests of eel grass undulating on the bottom. Largemouth bass hover in ghostly schools beneath, water spiders tap dancing on the surface. A great blue heron flaps slowly toward the horizon.

It feels wild enough that I must be far far from civilization... on the Amazon River perhaps, or some African jungle river. In fact, I'm one mile east of Ocala, Florida and just 72 miles northwest of Orlando. Who would imagine this pristine wilderness could exist just a short distance from Mickey Mouse and Goofy? "The Indians called this river "Sua-ille-aha," - Land of Sun Glinting Waters," Leon smiles. "See why?"

HISTORY OF SILVER SPRINGS

Leon explains that the Timucuan Indians settled this area in the early 1500's, but were invaded by Spaniard Hernando de Soto and his soldiers in 1539. After countless battles, the Timucuans won over the Spaniards, but later were succeeded by another Indian tribe, the Seminoles. By 1935, the United States Government had moved most of the Seminoles to reservations in the western U.S. In the 1850's, the Silver River became a thriving commercial hub, transporting barges of cotton, lumber, and household goods to families settling in and around Ocala. Business tycoon Hubbard H. Hart founded a stagecoach line, and in 1860 his associate James Burt created steamboats for cruising the Silver River and Silver Springs.

"In 1878, a genius named Hullam Jones invented glass bottom boats," laughs Leon. "When folks could see clear to the spring bottom-watching those mullet, bass, and turtles- well, that was the tourism boom. They've been coming from all over since."

Glass bottom boats cruise the Silver River, home to birds, fish and deer. Courtesy of Silver Springs. SILVER SPRINGS STARS ON THE SILVER SCREEN

Filmmakers soon discovered that Silver Springs' transparent waters were ideal for creating underwater movie magic. Six original "Tarzan" movies starring Johnny Weissmuller, were shot here in the 1930's and 1940's; Marjorie Kinnan Rawling's The Yearling, starring Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman was filmed in 1946. The Black Lagoon was created at Silver Springs in 1954; and more than 100 episodes of the "Sea Hunt" TV series put Silver Springs on the Hollywood map. Recent productions include Sean Connery's Never Say Never Again, Tom Cruise in Legend, and National Geographic's Night Creatures.

HOW TO WRESTLE A 'GATOR

Access to the Silver River is easiest by visiting Silver Springs Nature Park, a 350-acre wildlife park surrounding the River headwaters. Glass bottom boats tour the 74 degree, 99.8 percent pure springs, as travelers ohh and ahh over the fish, fossils and bubbles. Meeting nature lovers like Leon Cheatom, who was born on the river, makes the tour even more special. "Out here, it is some kind of nice," he says. Though Leon has worked at Silver Springs since 1951, it's clear there's nowhere else he'd rather be.

Hundreds of ‘gators snooze in the Big Gator Lagoon. Courtesy of Silver Springs. "Look at that big ol 'gator," he points. "Did you know they're actually pretty shy?" Undulating alongside our boat, the toothy prehistoric monster doesn't look shy, he looks hungry. "Ever wrestle a 'gator Sharon?" Leon grins. "Uh, not that I remember, Leon." "I probably caught and wrestled a 'hunerd 'gators in my time," he grins. "Make sure you're wearin' fins. Swim up behind 'im, grab his neck. Wrap your legs 'round his body and hang on. Roll some. After 'bout 5 minutes, he'll tire out, you can swim him right up." "Thanks for the tip Leon. I'll keep it mind."

'GATORS, PANTHERS AND BEARS

 

If you're more interested in photographing alligators than wrestling them, the park has recently opened "Big Gator Lagoon," a one-acre cypress swamp where two dozen American alligators snooze, writhe and hiss in familial contempt. Say hello to "Big Al", the 14-footer, and "Sobek," who is so big and mean, they call him "largest American crocodile in captivity" but no one dares to get close enough toA new exhibit at Silver Springs features the endangered Florida Panther. Courtesy of Silver Springs. measure. "Panther Prowl" is a showcase of rare Florida panthers and western cougars, living in trees and caves. Visitors can use radio telemetry units to locate and track the collared western cougars roaming inside their habitats.

"World of Bears" is billed as "the largest bear exhibit in the world." Kodiaks, grizzlies, North American black bears, South American spectacled bears and a polar bear live and play in a huge outdoor habitat. You'll get excellent close up photographs and lots of laughs over their antics.

RIVER REVERIE

After a morning of animal encounters, I spend the rest of my day peacefully floating on the Silver River. No billboards, cars, shops or boom boxes. Just bird chatter and leaping fish. Maybe this is what the world was like before it was born.

Fast Facts

Silver Springs Park is located off interstate 75, one mile east of Ocala, Florida, on State Road 40.

5656 East Silver Springs Boulevard, Silver Springs, Florida 34488. Tel: 352-236-2121;
website: www.silversprings.com
Admission: Adults, $29.95, children 3-10, $20.95; two and under free.
Parking, $3.
Hours: Year round 9-5:30pm

Where to Stay and Dine

Bed & Breakfast Inns on the National Register of Historic Places:
Clauser's Bed & Breakfast Inn, an inviting 1890's mansion
with 8 elegantly decorated rooms. Themes vary from English garden decor, to the Old West, to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' Cross
Creek
. Rooms feature claw foot tubs, English antiques, jacuzzis,
fireplaces, screened porches. Relax in the courtyard
hammock or hot tub. Cocktails served nightly at Sherlock's Pub, dinners Friday and Saturday evening family style. Close to antique shops and art galleries in historic DeLand. Ask Innkeeper Marge Clauser to autograph her new cookbook, Cooking Inn Style.

201 East Kicklighter Road, Lake Helen, Florida 32744
Tel 800/220-0310; Fax 904-228-2337;
website: www.ClauserInn.com
45 minutes from Silver Springs.

Seven Sisters Bed & Breakfast Inn, built in 1888, features
8 ornately decorated rooms. Four poster beds, skylights, plush fabrics, Victorian soaking tubs, fireplaces. Special amenities include morning newspapers, afternoon tea, gift baskets. Candlelight dinners, gourmet cooking classes, chocolate lovers weekends, hayrides.

820 S.E. Fort King Street, Ocala, Florida 34471
Tel 800-250-3496; Fax 352-867-5266
5 minutes from Silver Springs.

Sharon Lloyd Spence is author of "1998 Adventure Guide to
Southeast Florida" (Hunter Publishing) and 7 other travel guides.

'GATORS, PANTHERS AND BEARS

If you're more interested in photographing alligators than wrestling them, the park has recently opened "Big Gator Lagoon," a one-acre cypress swamp where two dozen American alligators snooze, writhe and hiss in familial contempt. Say hello to "Big Al", the 14-footer, and "Sobek," who is so big and mean, they call him "largest American crocodile in captivity" but no one dares to get close enough toA new exhibit at Silver Springs features the endangered Florida Panther. Courtesy of Silver Springs. measure. "Panther Prowl" is a showcase of rare Florida panthers and western cougars, living in trees and caves. Visitors can use radio telemetry units to locate and track the collared western cougars roaming inside their habitats.

"World of Bears" is billed as "the largest bear exhibit in the world." Kodiaks, grizzlies, North American black bears, South American spectacled bears and a polar bear live and play in a huge outdoor habitat. You'll get excellent close up photographs and lots of laughs over their antics.

RIVER REVERIE

After a morning of animal encounters, I spend the rest of my day peacefully floating on the Silver River. No billboards, cars, shops or boom boxes. Just bird chatter and leaping fish. Maybe this is what the world was like before it was born.

Fast Facts

Silver Springs Park is located off interstate 75, one mile east of Ocala, Florida, on State Road 40.

5656 East Silver Springs Boulevard, Silver Springs, Florida 34488. Tel: 352-236-2121;
website: www.silversprings.com
Admission: Adults, $29.95, children 3-10, $20.95; two and under free.
Parking, $3.
Hours: Year round 9-5:30pm

Where to Stay and Dine

Bed & Breakfast Inns on the National Register of Historic Places:
Clauser's Bed & Breakfast Inn, an inviting 1890's mansion
with 8 elegantly decorated rooms. Themes vary from English garden decor, to the Old West, to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' Cross
Creek
. Rooms feature claw foot tubs, English antiques, jacuzzis,
fireplaces, screened porches. Relax in the courtyard
hammock or hot tub. Cocktails served nightly at Sherlock's Pub, dinners Friday and Saturday evening family style. Close to antique shops and art galleries in historic DeLand. Ask Innkeeper Marge Clauser to autograph her new cookbook, Cooking Inn Style.

201 East Kicklighter Road, Lake Helen, Florida 32744
Tel 800/220-0310; Fax 904-228-2337;
website: www.ClauserInn.com
45 minutes from Silver Springs.

Seven Sisters Bed & Breakfast Inn, built in 1888, features
8 ornately decorated rooms. Four poster beds, skylights, plush fabrics, Victorian soaking tubs, fireplaces. Special amenities include morning newspapers, afternoon tea, gift baskets. Candlelight dinners, gourmet cooking classes, chocolate lovers weekends, hayrides.

820 S.E. Fort King Street, Ocala, Florida 34471
Tel 800-250-3496; Fax 352-867-5266
5 minutes from Silver Springs.

Sharon Lloyd Spence is author of "1998 Adventure Guide to
Southeast Florida" (Hunter Publishing) and 7 other travel guides.