As an adventurous Florida native who has traveled to every part of the state, I'm constantly surprised to discover a beautiful gem I've never visited (or, in some cases, never heard of). Some of us take so much for granted.
Most recently, I visited Silver River State Park in Marion County for the first time. Sure, I had been to Silver Springs Nature Park, and I had ridden in the glass bottom boats there with my children. But I had never ventured into the state park, which encompasses 5,000 acres of woodlands.
I have been there twice this year, each time canoeing the Silver River that meanders for 6 miles through some of the most stunning cypress stands in the Southeast. All along the way, the transparent water teems with fish and insects that miraculously live on the surface. Birds are everywhere, and turtles sun on fallen branches, many of them tumbling into the water as I approach.
My last time there, I saw the biggest alligator I had ever seen in the wild. I estimated that the animal was as long as my canoe. A park ranger assured me that I was not exaggerating, that the gator had recently entered the park from either the St. Johns River or the Oklawaha River. He said that an equally large gator had taken up residence at the other end of the river.
"Good grief," I said, imagining my canoe capsizing just as the gator slid into the water.
The park is perfect for a family vacation, complete with well-appointed cabins that sleep up to six people, a campground with 59 large sites, each with water, electricity and public toilets nearby. There are 14 miles of hiking and bike trails, and you can see deer grazing in open patches before they dash for cover.
I lived near Crystal River for more than seven years without ever fishing or kayaking or canoeing on it. Instead, I spent a lot of time on the Withlacoochee River. Last month, I decided to kayak on part of Crystal River near Three Sisters Springs. This trip proved to be one of the best I have made in recent years. Not since I was a child had I seen so many manatees in one place.
As I paddled on the clear water, these endangered, gentle giants surfaced inches from my craft. I could have touched many of them. This was an ironic scene, at least for me, because expensive houses were everywhere, and yet the manatees seemed right at home. Clearly, they had adapted to the presence of humans and were thriving. I could see, though, that many of them had boat propeller scars on their backs and sides.
All along the way, I saw signs reading "Save Three Sisters Springs!" I had no idea what this was about. Back at my motel, I learned that the owners of the area around the springs plan to develop the 57 acres of land adjacent to Three Sisters. The development would include multifamily residences and shops and a facility for bottling "spring water" taken from the springs themselves.
The owners have said they would sell the property for the right price, and they have shown interest in having the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manage the area as part of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, which was established to protect the manatee.
Paddling away from the springs, I wondered how private individuals had the power to hold hostage one of the state's most beautiful natural resources.
Closer to home, I visited Brooker Creek Preserve for the first time last week. As I walked through the preserve, where I saw deer, armadillo and other wildlife, I wanted to kick myself for having taken for granted yet another natural treasure right in my back yard. Brooker Creek is a soothing place, its stately cypress, towering pines and sprawling oaks reminding you of the time before people came here with their greed and machines and pollution.
Many parts of Florida remain paradisiacal, and many are within a few hours from where we live. We should not take these places for granted. We should visit them, enjoy them and protect them.