Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Salt Springs – "A Magical Place Forever"?

My favorite memory of Salt Springs in the Ocala National Forest is when I camped there with my high school soccer coach and his son, who was my teammate. Coach Young was from Jamaica and he had a diving light and a spear gun (which I never got to use.😢) It was winter and the water felt comfortably warm compared to the thirty-some degree air temperatures. We swam in the spring at night and the dive light would catch streaking flashes of mullet – fleeting explosions of mercury through the water. It was creepy swimming through large swathes of eel grass to get to where the spring boils were – they were the only relief from the submerged underwater vegetation because they were surrounded by limestone. 

My Dad and I also fished Salt Run for bass using special floating plastic worms that we purchased from my favorite tackle store in Welaka. I had a tackle box full of these brightly colored lures that I only used a handful of times. I don't remember catching anything there but my I'm sure Dad did. He always did.

My excuse for checking in on the spring this year was avoiding holiday traffic on the interstate. Truth is I've been itching to go back to experience the spring as an adult. It's just under $13 for a day use pass to enter the Salt Springs Recreational Area. There are campgrounds and a short loop trail through a swamp in addition to the facilities at the spring head. On this overcast December day there was only one other car in the parking lot and only two other individuals at the spring. Beautiful live oaks surround the institutional-looking buildings that front the spring – one a store (closed), the other a bathhouse. The spring basin itself, which is quite large, is enclosed by a large manila-colored wall. 

Another reason for visiting was to take look at the manmade infrastructure there. One of my interests is how our culture treats manmade wonders like Salt Springs. I once did a talk called "Piped, Pooled, and Protected" on the topic. In my estimation the Park Service's "enhancements" such as the wall around the basin made undoubtedly function well by preventing erosion around the spring head, but they don't foster a feeling of connection to nature. 

As I remembered the spring was full of interesting aquatic life – schools of mullet, blue crab, what appeared to be Jacks(?), as well as the occasional bass and bream. New to the spring was the invasive armored catfish that seem to be the scourge of any spring I visit in Central Florida. I call them Plecos, short for Hypostomus plecostomus. 

There were also at least a half dozen manatees just outside the spring head near the start of the run, hovering near the bottom of the shallow water just beneath the surface of the water. I have been told that the numbers of wintering manatees at the springs along the St. Johns River is increasing due to the degregation of Indian River Lagoon. One obvious change is the lack of submerged aquatic growth– all that pesky eel grass I hated as a kid. There was no visible eel grass or any plant life beneath the surface. I wondered what the manatees found there for substance.

I didn't bring my swimming gear so I was envious of the one lone snorkeler who floated among the manatees all by himself. The water felt warm, like it did when I was a kid, and I was filled with remorse for not schlepping my swim trunks, mask, and fins. 

If I remember my research correctly, early owners of the spring, including the Townsend family who owned Orange Spring, saw the potential of the unique saline characteristics of the springs there, but no one developed a spa on the property to my knowledge. In the 1970s the campground facilities between the spring and Lake Kerr were developed by one of the owners of Silver Springs. An interesting community still exists outside the Park Service's recreational area and it appears to be mostly retirees living the good life in Florida.

This 1925 article from a Miami newspaper suggests that Salt Springs did in fact have perceived "curative" properties and developers Glenn Curtiss and James Bright were considering building a spa there. The two would eventually sell their Miami Springs Hotel to John Harvey Kellogg as the Florida site for his Battle Creek Sanitarium.

I have often claimed that every spring in Florida that was developed commercially in Florida would at some point be touted as the Fountain of Youth. The claim is made in this 1970 article when it was owned by the Ray family who also owned Silver Springs.  

Vintage postcard of Salt Springs from an internet auction site

My favorite historical image of Salt Springs is author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings standing in a row boat with a blue crab dangling in the air at the end of a stick. Whether this was a posed publicity photo or just a moment of Old Florida loving captured on film, I'll never know. The photo captures what Rawlings' life in the area seemed to have been like or at least my perception of that ideal.

I loved to write "compare and contrast" papers in school, I think it appeals to the analytical side of my brain I seemed to have inherited from my father. In comparing the Salt Springs of my childhood memories with the spring of the present day, there were some elements of consistency that were reassuring and nostalgic. It was an unexpected thrill to see the colony of manatees. But it was disappointing to see the lack of submerged aquatic vegetation that placed me as a kid. There is limited interpretation of the history and environment of the spring, just handful of panels in the breezeway of the bathhouse. The panels are well done, but very dated.  One panel dubs the spring a "Magical Place Forever." The lack of imagination in the built environment around around the spring, however, is anything but magical today. It's park-like setting doesn't enhance the natural features but rather simply contain them. I've often said that all Florida's springs are magical places and that is certainly true at Salt Springs. But we could do a better job of allowing that magic really shine with better curation of this marvelous place. 

Archival photo from the State Archives of Florida

Archival photo from the State Archives of Florida

Apparently no martini drinking allowed at Salt Springs

Is that a Jack swimming in the spring boil?

Design looks to be done in the 1980s based on the typography.

Lovely illustration of one of the spring's early inhabitants.

1 comment:

  1. I have lived near and been well acquainted with and loved Salt Springs for more than 50 years. As recently as 10 years ago the eel grass was lush and abundant - the sign of a spring-fed ecosystem that has been healthy for eons. Never saw a manatee in the springs or the run during all those years. Now, the manatees have arrived - they eat eel grass - the eel grass is gone...the sign of an unhealthy ecosystem.