Swirls of mist rose from the river as we slid our kayaks into the water from the launch site at Silver Springs State Park. Rustling branches, racing bodies and chattering shattered the early morning peace. A family of mischievous rhesus monkeys appeared on the river bank ahead of us. They scrambled through the bushes and hung from the trees, wide-eyed and eager to examine us and our colorful boats. Feral monkeys in the heart of North Central Florida. And so began our introduction to the wild life on the Silver River.
I had kayaked the 2-mile trip on the Fort King Waterway with our kids last year. It had been our first kayak trip, and I confess, the massive alligators made me nervous. Needless to say, with trepidation, I returned with my son on this chilly winter morning to Silver Springs State Park. Our goal: paddle the entire length of the river, from the state park head spring to Ray Wayside Park on Highway 40. But today would be different. This time my son and I would not face the wild on our own- we had company. We had joined a group of paddlers for a guided tour on the Silver River.
Our guide and owner of Silver Springs Kayaking LLC, Mike Sage, started us off with a quick paddle refresher course. He also let me know why I was filling my kayak up with water on my other trips and instructed me on how to prevent it: don’t lift the paddle more than 45° from the water. Who knew it could be that simple? I decided to use his suggestion, but wasn’t 100% sure I’d come out of the day without a soggy bottom, my sloppy paddler status intact.
The Silver River Head Spring
The Silver River begins at the head spring, Mammoth Spring, a 1st magnitude spring spewing out 550 million gallons of fresh water daily. The entire 5.4-miles of the Silver River twists and turns through Silver Springs State Park. The state park status means no fishing, swimming, or hunting. And the critters seem to know this as well, as large schools of mullet happily darted past our kayaks like school kids running after an ice cream truck. Cormorants plunged into the water and surfaced beside us. The fish and birds appeared unafraid. This was their playground and we were temporary shadows in their domain.
We hovered over Mammoth Spring in our kayaks as a historic glass bottom boat slid past. The glass bottom boats have ferried visitors over the springs since the late 1800’s. Mike told us a little history of the area before we began our journey. Seminole Indians to Civil War and beyond. Indians hunted here. Steamboats used to run cargo and passengers up the river. Pieces of the past still remained submerged in the glittering water. Dugout canoes, a boat from Sea Hunt filming, Greek statue movie props, all abandoned and forgotten, now homes to blue gill and garfish.
We paddled over the various springs: Star Spring, Popcorn Spring, and the mysterious Abyss. Cracks, holes, and gashes in the earth that pushed out fresh water with incredible force on a constant basis. The luminous turquoise waters around the springs sparkled. And the water, a constant 72F year-round, was warmer than the 46F morning air, the cause of the rising mist. No wonder Silver Springs has enthralled so many people throughout history.
Good-Bye Civilization- Welcome to the Jungle!
We soon left the soft hum of the glass bottom boat’s electric motor behind and entered the cypress swamp. Patches of sunlight and blue skies filtered through the canopy, at times dark and dense, other times sparse and bright. Sun bleached lofty cypress trees flanked the river like sentinels standing guard. Their intricate root systems revealed by the low water levels. The cypress knees and roots entwined together forming a natural fence barrier as if to say: stick to the river- keep out of our jungle.
More monkeys appeared. They scampered through the trees and swung from branches hanging over the river. Some perched on fallen logs to stare at us in our vivid kayaks with open curiosity. We were the novelty they would be telling their friends about later.
“They can get aggressive,” Mike warned. “Don’t go to close- they’ve been known to jump into kayaks. They’re just looking for food.”
My son and I already had the “respect the gator” mantra down pat from previous adventures, so we added: “respect the monkey” to our list and watched from a distance. Rhesus monkeys are not indigenous to this area. They come from Asia. I’d seen monkeys like these in India and Nepal, hanging out around the monasteries and temples like stray cats.
Mike told us that back in the 1930’s, a boat tour captain brought some rhesus macaque monkeys to the Silver River and put them on an island in the river with the intention of spicing up his tours. (I think there’s still a Monkey Island in Crystal River that started that way as well). The captain didn’t think they could get off the island, but when he came back with his tour, there wasn’t a single monkey in sight. They had all swum to the shore. The monkeys adapted to Florida swamp life and survived. According to a University of Florida census study, there are about 200 rhesus monkeys thriving in the Silver River area, but their recent interactions with humans have put these non-natives under public scrutiny and much debate.
We stopped at the halfway point on the river. There were other paddlers gathered on the dock by the launch ramp. I immediately recognized it as the end of the River Walk from the Silver River side of Silver Springs State Park. I hiked there with our daughter a couple of years ago.
We pulled our kayaks onto the small boat ramp and stretched our achy legs. After a quick riverside lunch and a much needed break, we headed deeper into the river jungle.
We’re Just Visitors in an Animal Paradise
Mike pointed out a variety of birds and plants along the way- Kingfisher, Great Blue Heron, Ibis, Limpkin, Pickerel-weed and more- a lot of names I had never heard before. He told my son there’d be a test at the end. My spring break teen cringed at the reminder of school, or perhaps it was the thought of being trapped behind four walls after the freedom of the great outdoors.
The canopy grew thicker and the river serpentined around tight bends. I wondered how on earth a steamboat could have made the journey to the head springs. The pristine water became so shallow in places we could see the eel grass slide beneath our kayaks before the depth dropped off into fathomless pits of sparkling blue.
As the day rolled on, the sun warmed us and we all peeled off layers, littering our kayaks with coats and sweatshirts. It was a typical Florida winter day – freezing in the morning and swim-worthy weather by the afternoon. We floated with the current, so the paddling was not strenuous. Countless times we let the river carry us, while we admired the sunbathing turtles and snapped photos of the birds. Alligators lounged on the riverbanks and hid within the Pickerel weeds, watching as our kayaks slid past. There were a couple of big ones- one 11-feet long. A 4-foot gator draped across a log, too lazy to lift his head as we floated past.
Manatee Sighting on the River
A lone manatee emerged in the river ahead. Though my son and I had seen manatees before, it was a novelty for the others in our group, and this sea cow was gigantic. She floated between our kayaks, heading upriver, slow, steady, unafraid, and well-traveled. A manatee sighting on the river is a rare treat, as the Silver River is located so far inland they have to come through the lock at Rodman Dam and travel the Ocklawaha River to reach the Silver River. That’s a lot of work for a manatee!
Our manatee sighting topped off a perfect day of kayaking through natural Florida. We turned to paddle up the canal to Ray Wayside Park, leaving the Silver River in our wake. The sounds of cars crossing the bridge over the Ocklawaha River grew louder. I wondered how many of them realized the jungle was only a short paddle away.
I was happy to announce that for the first time in all my kayaking adventures, I had absolutely NO water in my kayak. Woohoo! Thanks, Mike. It looks like my sloppy paddling days are behind me!
The Welcome to the Jungle tour was a 4.5 to 5-hour tour. We were shuttled back to Silver Springs State Park from the endpoint at Ray Wayside Park. They also offer a 2-hour tour on the Fort King Waterway.
My son and I took the “Welcome to the Jungle” guided tour courtesy Silver Springs Kayaking LLC, but all thoughts and opinions expressed in this article are our own.
Things to Know Before You Go
- Bring a camera. There is so much wildlife on this river. Mike, a professional photographer, does take a lot of photos on the tour and shares them afterward too, but that IG shot of a monkey swinging on a tree looks awfully good!
- Bring a lunch for the halfway point & water.
- Pee before you launch- the halfway point is 2 hours away and there are no places to get out before then.
- There IS a porta-potty at the half-way point- but no place to wash your hands- (except in the river, of course).
- There are toilets at the take-out at Ray Wayside Park (with running water).
- Trash cans are located at the kayak launch site, the half-way point and also the take out. This is a clean river. Don’t trash where you splash!
- Motorboats ARE allowed on the Silver River, but like the Rainbow River, the entire river is a no wake zone. Move to the side when a boat comes, but avoid the weeds, as there can be unsuspecting alligators lingering there.
- Don’t feed the wildlife- that includes the monkeys. They all live off the land. And it is illegal to feed alligators in the state of Florida.
- Don’t approach the wildlife. This includes the rhesus monkeys. They may look cute, but they are wild and can bite.
- Want a DIY a trip down the river? Silver Springs Kayaking also rents kayaks out for a day with a shuttle back to the park from the takeout.
Other Posts That May Interest You:
- Family Kayaking Adventures on the Chassahowitzka River
- Paddling Juniper Run in the Ocala National Forest
- Kayaking on the Rainbow River
- Exploring the Waccasassa River