dg00987Silver Glen Springs

Jacques Le Moyne (1591) Floridians Crossing Over to an Island to take their Pleasure. Engravings published by Theodor de Bry in Grand Voyages (1591), after watercolors made by Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, are the earliest known European depictions of Native Americans in what is now known as the United States. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

Silver Glen Springs has been popular for a long, long time.  Archeologists have evidence that the spring attracted human settlement at least 10,000 years ago, and artifacts from every cultural period in northeast Florida have been found around the spring.

During the nineteenth century the spring was surrounded by a large shell mound, referred to as the “amphitheater”.  Sadly, most of the mound was mined away in the 1930’s and 1940’s for road building material, but small remnants of the once great mound still exist near the spring below the office building.  Other even larger shell mounds on the south side of the run near the lake, over twenty-five feet tall, were quarried away during this same period.  Shell from these mounds can still be seen on the road going to the nearby Juniper  Club.

The first recorded descriptions of the springs were made by William Bartram in 1774.  He describes how he (parenthesis mine):

“… padled near a mile up & come to a vast Fountain, almost in every respect like the other great Spring that I visited before  (Salt Springs). I went a shore, mounted very high, hills (shell mounds) very steep next the Creek, but fell away more gradually back, & enterd a beautifull grove of Palm Trees.. mounted a very high ridge, from whence had an almost endless view of a vast bared desart,  (the Big Scrub) although together impenetrable so thickly over grown with short schrubby Oaoks, Bays, Yapon, Prinos & short laurel bushes…”

One hundred and one years later,  Jeffries Wyman, curator of the Harvard Peabody Museum, made the first description of the archeological deposits.  He related how the spring run:

“has upon its banks the most gigantic deposits of shells met with on the waters of the St. John’s.  There are two distinct portions; one forming an amphitheater which surrounds the source or “boil,” …. and the other occupying the right bank of the creek at its mouth, as well as the shore of the lake.  The two together are said to cover an area of twenty acres.”

Try to imagine what Silver Glen Springs looked like before the mining operations.  What a shame that man’s sensibilities are so stunted that these great archeological marvels were seen as nothing more than raw material for roads.

The following report is the best reference I have found regarding the archeological resources of Silver Glen.

The Exploration of Silver Glen Spring

Eric Hutcheson exploring the Boiler room tunnel.  It’s name comes from sand boils in the floor of the cave.  photo by Kristi Bernot

Eric Hutcheson exploring the Boiler room tunnel. It’s name comes from sand boils in the floor of the cave. Photo by Kristi Bernot

SCUBA diving is not normally allowed in Silver Glen Springs, but in 1989 two divers from Ocala, Bill Foote and Eric Hutcheson, were asked by the United States Forest Service (USFS) to map the Silver Glen Springs cave, which had never been explored.  They eventually documented over 2000 linear feet of cave passages and discovered one of the largest underground rooms in Florida.   They also found their diving skills to be tested to the limit in what turned out to be a very sporting cave.  I know this because they later invited me to dive there with them and I found out for myself.

From the very start, nothing was easy.  The gear divers carry creates lots of drag, and just getting into the cave from the basin was a chore because of the strong flow of water at the entrance.  Fortunately there was a strategically placed rock among the loose shells and sand that they could use as a handhold to pull themselves in against the outflow.   Once inside they found that the ceiling of the cave was so low that they could not wear their tanks on their backs in the normal manner.  Instead they had to mount them on their sides to decrease their belly-to-back thickness.

The relentlessly low ceiling and strong flow were not the only problems.  They soon encountered a zigzag in the passage they later named the Z-bend Restriction.  This tight and tortuous obstacle was almost impassable and took over five long minutes of squirming and shifting of gear to negotiate.  There was more than one panicky moment in this process when they felt like they might be permanently stuck.  One might think that after the lead diver got through he would feel a sense of relief, but such was not the case.  He was now on the far side of the restriction, which was the only way back to safety, and with his partner now in the restriction, his escape route was blocked.  Waiting for his buddy to get through must have felt like forever.

Beyond the Z-bend the cave became maze-like, making them choose between several ways to go.  However, some of the tunnels they chose became too small and they would have to retreat by wiggling out backwards. This made for anxious moments because dive gear is streamlined for moving forward, and tends to repeatedly jam up on irregularities on the cave walls and ceiling when backing up.  Think of a porcupine shuffling backwards through brush and you will get the idea.

Eric Hutcheson’s original no mount exploration unit has a permanent resting place at the Silver River museum.

Eric Hutcheson’s original no mount exploration unit has a permanent resting place at the Silver River museum.

Soon they got to a stretch of cave where the passage narrowed to a tube which progressively decreased in diameter. At its smallest spot the current was so concentrated that they could hardly pull themselves forward.  (Imagine climbing a rock wall using only your arms, but weighed down with dive gear.)  But they could look ahead a few feet and see that the tube opened into a room, and this kept them going.  The flow was so intense for these last few feet that their regulators purged air uncontrollably, their face masks filled with water and threatened to dislodge, and their progress became painfully slow.

Finally, almost spent, they pulled themselves into the room, where the insane current abruptly ceased.  Running low on air, and feeling a sense of dread because of the restrictions they would have to pass on their way out, they turned around to leave and immediately experienced another alarming moment.  As they approached the mouth of the tube they had just struggled through, they felt the current begin to intensify.  Almost immediately it had them in its grasp, and they were accelerated into the small hole at incredible speed.  Down the tube they went, like bullets down a gun barrel, praying the gear their lives depended on would not be damaged if it struck the nearby rock.

A few weeks later, the divers, now joined by Lamar Hires and Dan Lins, experienced one of the great moments of their lives.  After working their way through hundreds of feet of small tunnels they unexpectedly swam into a vast room.  Their dive lights, which were so bright in the small passages, now seemed to dim in the immense space.  Exhilarated, they swam around the room, hooting and hollering through their regulators, reveling in the experience until dwindling air supplies forced them to leave.  They could hardly wait to get back to the surface to discuss what they had found.  They later named it Assum Pit, and with the ceiling at 50 feet deep, the floor at 160 feet, and 110 feet across, it is truly awesome.

Aussum Pit, Photo by Tom Morris with assistance from Eric Hutcheson and Jim Brown.

Aussum Pit. Photo by Tom Morris with assistance from Eric Hutcheson and Jim Brown.

Assum Pit is remarkable because of its size, but also because of its extraordinary beauty.  See the photographs below and judge for yourselves. (By the way, the camera, with its super wide angle lens, can only capture a small part of the room.)  Someday, I hope very far in the future, the ceiling of this cavern will collapse and there will be a new sinkhole among the sand pines and xeric oaks of the Big Scrub.

Eric Hutcheson has kicked off a new project.  Follow their progress here.

There is a nearby spring, known as the Natural Well that discharges water from the same source as the water coming out of the main cave.  One part of this cave – the White Tunnel – is remarkable.  The tunnel, named for its creamy white walls and floor, terminates in a room filled with pulsing sand boils.  These small springs are identical in appearance to their surface counterparts, and probably form the same way.  Small vertical vents in the limestone convey water up into a basin filled with sand.  The water follows constantly changing paths up through the sand, creating the shifting boils.  A perfect equilibrium is necessary to create and maintain these features.  If there is too much flow, the sand will be carried away.  If there is too little flow, there will be no boiling sand.