June 14, 2019

Exploring Our Backyard Waterways Series – Ocklawaha & Silver Rivers to Silver Springs

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Ocklawaha & Silver Rivers to Silver Springs

Early European settlers hunted the Ocklawaha River’s dense swamp forests, fished its pristine waters and used the waterway as a major thoroughfare into central Florida. The 1860s brought the tourism trade to the river and steamboat “jungle cruises” to Silver Springs were a common sight from 1868 until the 1920s. Before Disney World, Silver Springs, in Central Florida, was for decades one of the state’s most popular tourist destinations. Today this destination is a three hour boat ride from our docks here at Mount Dora Boating Center.

We got our start about 9AM on a Tuesday morning. With Silver Springs as our destination, an early start is important since it’s about a 50 mile boat ride navigating through two locks to get there. A short ride across Lake Dora, to the Dora Canal, into Lake Eustis, then heading north west to Haynes Creek put us in the Burrell Lock inside an hour.

The Burrell Lock is one of three in the Ocklawaha River Basin. Their primary function is controlling the water levels on the Harris Chain of Lakes, and flood control. They also serve lifting and lowering boats to different water bodies elevations. Burrell is 28 feet wide and 66 feet long. It lowers boats coming from Lake Eustis down approximately 4 feet to the water level of Lake Griffin. It’s the middle size of the three and smaller of the two on the way to Silver Springs.

After a 15 minute cycle, which is all done by opening valves, letting gravity do its thing, the north gates opened and we were on our way to Lake Griffin and the Ocklawaha River. Depending on the time of year Lake Griffin can run on the shallow side. If you have a draft over two feet, best to head for the western shore a bit before turning north. Before long, the lake narrows and you’ll be entering the mouth of the river.

The name Ocklawaha, meaning dark water, is appropriate. As you continue north the river gets tighter as you enter the section known as the “ditch”. As the name implies, it’s straight, narrow, but plenty deep. We were marking depths of 12’ to 16’ feet. This isn’t the most exciting part of the trip but running along at 30 to 40 MPH will get you to the next lock in short order.

The Moss Bluff lock is the largest on the trip. It measures 30 feet wide and 139 feet in length. It doesn’t look like much as you approach from the south but looks are definitely deceiving. If the gates are closed, as they were when we arrived, a quick tug in the rope will sound a siren alerting the operator. Once your inside and the gate closes the 44” north valves will let water out, dropping you 24’ in less than 20 minutes. The concrete walls around you get taller. The steel gates behind you holding back millions of gallons of water come into full view. Now you have a better sense about the size of this lock. It will definitely leave an impression. Once the north gates opened, we got under way for the last 20 miles or so of the Ocklawaha.

Just north of the loch the water depth dropped down to 2 feet for a short distance, 75 yards or so. Afterwards we were in 5 to 6 feet of water which is typical for February. Depth of the river here is largely controlled by the amount of water flowing from the dam. Not much water is discharged during the drier winter months. The river starts off very straight but as you get farther north it begins to meander ever so slightly. On the eastern shore is the Ocala National Forest. On the west is a sizable reservoir. You can’t see because of the tall dike wall. A few sizable drain pipes that discharge overflow are noticeable. Once you pass the northern end of the reservoir you’ll see more trees on both sides of the river. Keep a sharp lookout. We saw some turkey and an otter running along the bank. Another thing that was visible, because of the lower water levels, were the intricate root systems of the cypress trees. When you look closely the patterns and maze they create are interesting.

We were able to stay on plane running 25 to 30 MPH almost the whole way to the Silver River. We did slow down to idle once or twice as a courtesy to some folks fishing. It would have been rude to throw a full plane wake their way. Once we were a mile or two from Silver River we did have to drop to slow speed. The water got shallow and there were some trees in the water to navigate around. Once we rounded a bend to the right, the water turned crystal clear. After 3 and a half hours into our trip and a sharp left, we were on the Silver River.

The river is a short 4.5 miles fed by Silver Springs passing through a pristine woodland environment. The river was probably named for its silvery appearance. From this point it’s strictly slow speed, no wake to the springs which works well, because there’s so much to see. Fish, Turtles, gators, birds and if you’re lucky monkeys are all around. Depending how fast the current is flowing the trip to the spring boil will take 45 minutes to an hour. It took us closer to an hour and a half because of stopping to observe all the wildlife. We even saw three manatees.

Even if you’ve never visited Silver Springs, you might have seen it. The 1960s television show Sea Hunt was filmed here. So were countless movies, including Tarzan and Creature From the Black Lagoon, as well as a few scenes from the James Bond movie “For Your Eyes Only.” The crystal clear water of Silver Springs made it invaluable to Hollywood. It’s estimated, during its heyday, Silver Springs drew more than 1 million visitors a year. No wonder. This is natural Florida, in all is beauty right here in our backyard and a great boating day trip destination.

As the clock said 1:30 PM we knew it was time to start making our way back to Mount Dora. The Burrell Loch closes at 6 PM during the winter months, 7 PM during the summer. Once we made our way back to the Ocklawaha we made pretty good time getting back to the marina. Running 40 MPH everywhere we could, making it through the locks wasn’t a problem. We arrived back at MDBC at 5:00pm on the dot.

If you’ve never made the trip we highly recommended it. It’s a long day, without many places to stop along the way, but well worth your time. Remember we’re here every day but Tuesday’s from 8AM to 5PM and happy to answer questions or help you plan your trip.


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