Lake George and the surrounding forest offer such a wide variety of things to do and places to explore, and when we weren’t mowing or weed whacking or working on the property, we were out and about.
Within a few miles of Lake George are four major fresh water springs and public access recreation areas, and more than a handful of springs on private land. The springs feed into fresh water river systems which, in many cases, feed into the system of interconnected lakes throughout central Florida. And of course Lake George itself is an oxbow lake of the St. John’s river, which flows northward to the Atlantic Ocean at the port of Jacksonville.
All this to set the scene for my personal idea of heaven– being on the water, in the water, under the water, or beside the water. Having spent my teenage years growing up in Ocala, I considered myself fairly acquainted with the many springs and rivers in north central Florida, where I’d canoed, camped, hiked, SCUBA dived, and snorkeled. So I typically jumped at the chance to share this water wonderland with anyone vaguely interested.
My friend Ann from Maine was visiting, and a canoeing trip was planned for the nearby Juniper River. Early one morning we shoved a canoe into the upper reaches of Juniper Creek, very near where it flows from the main spring. The creek flowed fast, clear and shallow over a sandy bottom, and before long it became deep enough to allow us to sit in the boat and paddle, carefully guiding the canoe around hairpin turns and under fallen trees that straddled the ever-widening stream.
Both of us were avid photographers, birders and wildlife spotters, and our aim this morning was to move as quietly downstream as possible and keep our eyes peeled and our cameras ready for the first otter we might spot.
We were quietly floating with the current and sweeping our eyes along the banks of the stream when I saw Ann motion to me from her seat in the bow to look. Ahead of us, on the right bank of the river I spotted an otter’s back as it rolled and broke the surface of the water.
While we back-paddled quietly and got our cameras up and ready to go, we watched the spot and soon an otter’s head popped up out of the water. Next thing I know I heard a low growl and a hiss, even as I spotted two otter kits crawling out of the water behind Momma.
The current was pushing us too quickly into the area near the otter family, and I had to back-paddle quickly to hold us off long enough to get a shot. “I’ll paddle while you shoot!” I whispered to Ann, who put her paddle in the boat quietly and snatched up her camera.
Ann clicked away and momma otter hissed and growled as we slowly drifted closer. I did my best to hold us in place, but the current was too strong to manage with quiet sculling. At least Ann snapped off a few shots and I kept an eye on momma as we drifted on past her and her kits. She was clearly angry and for just a moment I wondered if we were so close that she would come after us. It’s the first time I’d ever felt such anger and fear from an otter. But this one wasn’t the same momma otter that lived at the lake house, who had become somewhat used to us coming close to watch her and her kits play on the old log next to the dock. She had never hissed or growled at us, but then again she wasn’t up against the bank of a river!
It’s neither typical nor easy to spot otters on the waterways in Florida, so we reckoned that was the highlight of our day, and we were very pleased with even a slightly blurry shot of angry momma otter!
The fact that critters such as bob cats, black bear, and river otters can be seen along these ancient waterways are a testament to the importance of protecting such areas from development and human encroachment. “Juniper run”, as we called it, was and is still as wild as it can be, for most of its length. Across 30 years I’ve paddled, swam, snorkeled, fished and SCUBA dived sections of that river, the Alexander River which flows from Alexander Springs, the Silver Glen River which flows from Silver Glen Springs, Salt Springs run, which flows from Salt Springs, and the Silver River and the Oklawaha River, which the mighty Silver Springs feed.
These and other rivers throughout central Florida are birthed from the Floridan Aquifer, which underlies all of the state. The springs and surrounds are some of the most scenic, amazing and critical environments you will find in the state. Florida has more first-magnitude springs than any other state or any other nation in the world. A first magnitude spring is one that discharges about 64.6 million gallons per day, and 33 first-magnitude springs have been identified and recognized in Florida. Three of those in the forest are Silver Springs, Alexander Springs and Silver Glen Springs.
Looking at the photos, I’m sure you can understand why, as a child, I was entranced upon my first introduction to this part of the state. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture yourself in these environments 200 or 500 or 1100 years ago. They are truly unique and, to me, some of the most restful and soothing places I’ve ever spent time. I try to return, to share these magical places with friends and family, as often as I possibly can.