You’d be hard pressed to find a more scenic river in central Florida than Silver River. The slow, meandering current (2-3 knots, according to the park rangers) makes for an easy paddle in either direction, and because it flows through a state park, there is no development along the riverbank, save for one tattered old cabin.
There’s a kayak launch inside the state park ($6 per car to enter), and from there, you can explore the 5 ½ mile spring run, before the river eventually joins the Ocklawaha.
It’s a bit of a hike from the parking lot to the river, and motorized vehicles aren’t allowed on the trail. If you’re traveling alone, with several kayaks or with a heavy canoe, you’ll need a manual trailer to get your gear down to the water. It’s a long ½ mile with a kayak trailer in tow. Complicating matters further, the trail to the river is mostly soft sand, and while I didn’t have the pleasure of dragging a trailer through it, I’m guessing it’s a less-than-pleasurable experience, particularly in mid summer.
In light of all that, the park offers canoe rentals for $7 an hour on a first-come-first-served basis. They’re locked up down by the water, so a key and a paddle is all you’ll have to lug down the river trail.
I’m told there’s another kayak launch on State Road 40 at the Ocklawaha Bridge, but I didn’t see anyone there when I drove by.
I opted for my inflatable kayak, which was ideal for the slow current and long walk. The river is surprisingly deep with almost no exposed or close-to-the-surface logs to cause you trouble. Better yet, much of the river is shaded or partially shaded, and since you don’t want to get in the water (we’ll talk about that in a minute), the river remains summer-paddling friendly.
Aside from the blue waters and unspoiled surroundings, the real draw to the river is the wildlife. On a Saturday afternoon, with plenty of other kayak traffic around, the sheer abundance of animals was staggering. Every exposed log was covered with sunbathing turtles. Water birds washed themselves mid-river. Garfish, bass and freshwater catfish can all be spotted swimming just a few feet below the surface. Because of the spring-fed clarity of the water and the sheer abundance of marine life, it’s easy to feel like you’re paddling in an aquarium.
Oh, and there’s alligators. Lots and lots of them. In a few short hours, I saw no less that 30 American alligators – some big, some small and all seemingly unafraid of me or my kayak (inflatable, remember). I don’t have a lot of fears about using an inflatable. I don’t ever go far from shore, and I keep electronics in a dry bag. But when you see some of the gators – particularly when you see them swimming next to your kayak – you reevaluate the worst case scenario. With the amount of gators in Silver River, the inflatable kayak worst case scenario is pretty grim. Still, they are majestic creatures and they’re an awful lot of fun to search for while on the water. And you know that for every pair of beady eyes you spot, there are several you don’t.
Without question, the strangest part about kayaking down Silver River is the monkeys.
See, I’m ruining the surprise a bit here, and that’s unfortunate, because when I first saw the tree top shaking violently, I had absolutely no idea what was happening. I first thought it was large, unusually aggressive birds, but the trees were moving far too much. My second thought was alligator traps – I could all but hear the Swamp People yelling, “It’s a tree shaker!” in their distinctive Cajun drawl. There’s no fishing or hunting in the park, so that was out. My third thought was that the tree was literally falling into the river. But it didn’t.
For a native Floridian who didn’t know any better, the possibility of wild monkeys along the river was out of the question. But there they are, swinging from branches, yelling out their monkey calls and walking single file on trails through the forest. Baby monkeys clung to the back of the adults. It was all very Hollywood.
At the time, I guessed they were Rhesus monkeys – simply because that’s really the only monkey name I know. Sure enough, they’re Rhesus Macaques. The troupe I saw had between 20 and 30 members, but a park ranger I asked later said there are likely more than 400 monkeys in the park. Some of them live along Silver River and some along the Ocklawaha, but they aren’t an altogether uncommon sight.
It’s really quite fascinating – monkeys in Florida. As you probably guessed, they aren’t there naturally. A park ranger told me they were brought in to attract tourists in the 1930s by Colonel Tooey, who operated a tour company on the river. He brought the monkeys from Africa and plopped them on a small island for the viewing pleasure of paying customers. He wasn’t aware that Rhesus monkeys can swim, and, showing a complete disregard for his business interests, the monkeys promptly left their island and began repopulating.
Now, all these years later, the river teems with monkeys and gators and turtles, which is something you can’t say about any other river in the state.
And it’s an awfully nice paddle too.
To get to the park, take exit 354 on I-75. Head west on State Road 40. Take a right on State Road 35. The park entrance is on your left.
For more information on the Rhesus monkeys, check out this 1986 article by the Orlando Sentinel. It’s quite lengthy, but it’s a nice retelling of the history and controversy surrounding the monkeys.