Friday, October 23, 2020

The State of Florida


RVs and trailers were backed up on the entrance road waiting to register as we pulled into Silver Springs State Park Campground this past Sunday afternoon. The earliest check-in time for Florida campgrounds is 3 o’clock in the afternoon, which compresses the check-in window considerably, but check-in went quickly with a mask-wearing ranger checking with drivers as we approached the gate. We were on our way to our spotlessly clean campsite in less than ten minutes.

Site 37, Silver Springs State Park 

Our campsite is wide with a picnic table, a fire pit and barbecue and plenty of privacy as the sites are spread apart with at least fifty feet of woods separating the sites. Several of the campsites have full sewer hookups, but ours has only water and electricity. I have no doubt commercial camp sites would jam three more units into the space between campsites. Another reason to love Florida State Parks! Silver Springs now competes in our book with Anastasia in St Augustine. This is our 41st time at a Florida State Park Campground, even though I admit we have several repeat stays at our favorites.

The campground facilities are spotless and modern. The campground is almost full but you would never know. It is quiet and we are stunned by the darkness of the first night. If you’ve been camping in an RV in the last several years you know there has been an explosion of gimmicky RV and trailer lighting options guaranteed to keep anyone within 200 feet or so awake all night. Most campgrounds at night now look like UFO landing zones. We think these people are obviously afraid of the dark, but thankfully they aren’t here! At least not this week. All three loops are dark by nine pm with only a few porch lights glowing in the woods. Within a few minutes, the whole campground is dark.

We spent the first day scouring the area for replacement RV parts so we really didn’t start the vacation until the second morning which broke with a high, overcast cloud covering. By 9 am we were on our way to the main park to rent kayaks as we hadn’t brought ours with us. The main spring head and the campground are a few miles apart on State Road 35 and all a camper needs is the access tag given to each camper as an entry pass to the main park.

As we pulled into the iconic Silver Springs State Park parking lot, I was unexpectedly overcome with disappointment. What happened to our showcase? The once pristine, shining beacon of Florida’s unique beauty, once the hallmark of our tourist industry, looks like an abandoned Stuckeys roadside pecan stand. While not yet completely fallen into disrepair, the entrance to the once famous Florida landmark appears only a few steps away from being trash.

The driveway into the park from Highway 40 looks like a sub-standard, pot-holed road from up north somewhere and the parking lot itself looks like a paved-over oil field. As you look around to see where to park, it appears the buildings to the entrance haven’t been cleaned or painted in years. The roofs of the entrance buildings look like an abandoned Pecan stand except they are gray. Well, grayish. I think that is the color under the mold and dirt. 

The first impression is unfortunately the one that always comes back when you reminisce about a location, and right now, this isn’t the image Florida needs. While the appearance of the park when you arrive doesn’t reflect the interior of the park, especially the garden paths and the rebuilt elevated Ross Allen Island Walk, I was still disappointed with my first impression. The recent COVID pandemic has nothing to do with what I saw pulling into the parking lot. It is a fiscal attitude prevalent in Florida for the last several years that I don’t care for.

We walked in after showing our campground pass and were saddened to see the heart of the attraction is indeed closed because of the virus. That didn’t prepare us for the lack of masks as most visitors we met acted as if everything was normal. The entire park is in dire need of not only money, but attention from more than just volunteers. Financial times not withstanding due to the 9-month COVID shut-down, Silver Spring’s problems are far older and deeper than our current pandemic. Only a few of the workers at the kayak rental wore masks.

We came back two days later to walk the garden paths and were pleased to find volunteers are indeed the heart of the park. We met several who acted as information centers and guides through the well-kept paths and interior of the park. The inside gardens and grounds are as well-kept as ever, but again, the glass bottom boats look like they were brought up second hand from the jungles of Central America.

We decided to arrive early and rent a canoe instead of kayaks to paddle the beautiful river. My wife and I filled out the forms, paid our $30 for two hours use of an old Old Town fiberglass canoe, and after surrendering my car keys as collateral, shoved off in a rental canoe that wanted to go anywhere but where we wanted it to go. I had forgotten why we switched to kayaks, but it came rushing back to me after only a few strokes. Next time, our Pungo kayaks will come with us. So will hand sanitizer as there was none to be found at the rental concession.

We glided along, watching the mullet and shad, turtles and two small alligators which were impervious to the incessant highway noise from State Road 40 just beyond the border of the park. The river is as beautiful as always, but I could not help but think David Attenborough is right about planet earth cleaning itself after we have inadvertently removed all human life from the planet. The beauty of the river rises above our callous human ignorance. The anhingas and ospreys still hunt the ever swirling, constantly flowing, crystal clear water.

Those of us who occasionally turn off the television and tepidly see if old, natural Florida still exists, are both happy and sad. I’m happy the pristine water still flows. I’m sad the State of Florida has lost interest. Oh, there are those who do care, and you can thank them for what little we have left. The interior of the park and grounds are still lovingly cared for, mainly due to the effort of volunteers and friends of the park.

I first boated on the Silver River with my mom and dad in 1956 when I was thirteen years old. We came up from the Oklawaha River, and I’ll always remember the drastic change of water color as we entered the Silver River. In those days, my family was thrilled watching for large-mouth Black Bass. We were told of the Rhesus monkeys left to roam the river banks after they were released during filming of Tarzan movies back in the 1930’s, but we we never saw the elusive monkeys.

The Silver River is still as crystal clear as ever, it is everything else that has changed. My daughter will never experience what I experienced in Silver Springs only one short lifetime ago. Our granddaughter may be so removed from my experience then she will wonder what I am talking about.

We didn’t see the monkeys this time either, although one of the Florida Rangers told us the monkeys had been spotted a few minutes before we arrived. They did, however, leave their scat along the handrail in the beautifully rebuilt Ross Allen Island Elevated Trail for all to see. We apparently missed them by only several minutes. A symbol of our environmental ignorance that have become a financially acceptable tourist attraction, at least the monkeys have enough sense to avoid tourists who aren’t wearing face masks.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Featured Post

The Waterfalls Trail

After several days of hiking and walking shorter trails to build up our stamina, we decided today was the day to descend the Waterfall T...