A Walk in the Park: Silver Springs State Park

One day, there were two people who wanted to ride on the boat. Their names were Melani and Jillian. When they were rowing everywhere, they saw two baby alligators. One of the mothers of the babies came out with its whole body and it attacked the little girl’s brother. Her friends were up by the bridge, and they saw everything.
— Jillian, age 5

Part of an occasional series exploring North America’s national, provincial and state parks.

OCALA, Fla.
We were in that part of Florida because I was researching the post-sideshow lives of carnival workers. So it was kind of fitting that we stumbled on this old Hollywood starlet, Silver Springs State Park, who has starred in the Creature From the Black Lagoon, and James Bond, and Sea Hunt.

These artesian springs provide fresh water to more than half of Florida. But also, because they are exceptionally clear — you cannot tell whether you are looking six feet down or 65, they are the perfect backdrop for filmmakers who need an underwater stage.

We took the glass-bottom boat tour — designed starting in the 1870s to show off this wonder — and then rented kayaks. 

The wildlife warning “if you see the baby, the momma is nearby” had been impressed upon us by the good folks over at Wildlife Inc. the day before, so we responsibly kept our distance when we twice paddled past young napping gators.

“There’s a big one down there!” hollered someone from the bridge as Melani and 5-year-old Jilly headed toward home base to return their tandem kayak. Twenty-one-year-old Trevor was close behind them, having sped away from me when I told him he looked very redneck-y with his ball cap and a snoozing gator over his left shoulder.

Melani eased the kayak to a safe space to take a look at the sunning eight-footer, and Jilly dropped her paddle into the water to help out. The sound and the sudden jerking motion of the boat made the gator open her eyes and lift her head, which made Jilly scream, which made the gator say, “Nope nope nope damn humans” and slither away through the water, cutting off Trevor’s kayak and slapping the tip of it with her tail.

The little audience at the top of the bridge hollered their approval.

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We’re awarding Silver Springs State Park the ever-elusive yet completely arbitrary five out of five stroller wheels, and not just for alligator sightings. We can’t name all the birds we saw, and there were dozens of turtles and hundreds of fish. The park is rich with history going back thousands of years to when indigenous peoples used this water and harvested the land. The paths are wide and clear — though we only got to walk a bit of them because of time constraints.

The food at the canteen is very well priced, and there are many tables throughout the park to picnic instead. Entrance to the park is only $2. The glass-bottom boat and kayak cost extra (you can launch your own kayak for $4), but the price is reasonable and the experience well worth it. We were on the water for a total of three hours and retreated to our Airbnb exhausted and happy.

Things that slink and swing in the night

Margaree Harbour Cape BretonMARGAREE HARBOUR, N.S. — It was the dark side of twilight when I spotted it, a ways down the beach.

The silhouette had a hump almost like a raccoon, only its legs were longer and it didn’t waddle. It slinked.

“Trevor, go get the baby right now,” I said softly but firmly. “Give her to her mother.”

Our shallow beach on the Gulf side of Cape Breton is sheltered on three sides by deep cliffs. The day before we got here there was a bear sighting up at the Dumpster, but the creature on the beach seemed to small to be bear. Too big for a fox, though. Coyote, then. It slithered down to the water, across to the cliffs, criss-crossed back closer to us. He paused, seemed to be sizing us up.

We knew he wasn’t comfortable with us, either. We were pretty loud and scary in front of our beach fire. But we were on his land and he’s got big teeth and an instinct to survive.

Our survival instincts are dull enough that not one of us thought to bring a flashlight. So there we were, full of hot dogs and marshmallows on a deserted beach under cloud cover as the last vestiges of sunlight spilled over the edge of the earth. There was a wild animal right there and no one had a personal light source.

Brave Trevor volunteered for the black, half-kilometre hike back to the cabin for gear. We sent the food with him.

The creature had disappeared into the tall grass at the side of the cliff. It was full dark and we felt very alone. It seemed Trev had been gone for a very long time. My watchdog was firmly asleep in my lap.

There were no stars; we could no longer see shadows. There was no way to track our silent creature friend. And where the hell was Trevor, anyway?

Then! On the horizon! Two spinning, glowing orbs appeared on the horizon. Blue and red, then gold, then purple, the unmistakable pattern of Trevor’s poi. Our boy was returned, and with him flashlights for everyone. We laughed, and relaxed and contemplated what to do with our embers while he spun poi in front of the ocean for us.

If the evening had ended there, all would have been right with the world. But it was about to get better.

 

There was a bit of a commotion at the top of the cliff as a car was relieved of its passengers. Their flashlights bobbed down the path, paused a moment at the top of the wooden stairs. As they became human forms, we welcomed them and offered them our coals. They set up their chairs on the cliff side of the embers and added their wood, building the fire up. There were three women in their party, two with sparkling silver hair, and two men—the companion of one of the silver-haired ladies, and the son of another. They brought their own firewood, their own wine and their own laughing sense of adventure.

They had clapped when they’d seen Trevor spinning poi and soon we realized why, when young Ian put on music and began to spin poi himself. The two played side by side for a while, till Trev moved away to watch instead, and to learn a few more moves. This new young man had spent some time learning how to craft a show and we sat mostly quietly while he danced and spun to his trancy music.

“I could dance,” said one of the ladies. It might have sounded like she was joking. “I could get up there and do my ’60s dance.”

She was, of course, encouraged, and up she got, hands twisting toward the sky, stepping in circles on tiptoe, face tipped star-ward. She danced toward and behind the poi, a firefly at the edge of the flame. When she vanished toward the ocean, we fell silent and waited. And waited. Eventually: “Suzie? Suzie?”

“I’m okay,” she called, not from the place we’d expected her to turn up. Then she was back in the circle of light, arms extended, joined by another lady. Their poi artist never missed a beat.

The gentleman among them got out the marshmallows and fixed them to sticks with the concentration and precision some might associate with rolling a joint. Crouched closer to the fire to get the perfect roast, one of the ladies—a fellow editor!—gave me a little history of the area, told me tales I can keep in my story bank, and made suggestions for our next few days of adventuring. Then the tales turned to the stars: Cassiopeia, Hercules, Draco …

The gods were among us. The magic was all around us. But the fire hadn’t been fed in some time and was reduced to hot, glowing coals. The brutal Cape Breton winds were chilly without the fire to counteract them. It was time to call it a night.

And a night it certainly was.