Friday, March 21, 2008

Silver River State Park, The Big Green Egg Fest & Ocala

Along the Sinkhole Trail
Silver River State Park lies tucked in between the City of Ocala and the old Florida resort of Silver Springs. It is one of the newest parks in the Florida system and shows how it has learned enough from other parks so that now it’s teaching them how to bring themselves up to date. The park’s spacious campground features four loops in two separate sections, each one featuring sites large enough for even the largest RVs while maintaining enough separation to give plenty of privacy. Sites are graded and leveled using gravel and rock fines in such proportion as to give a very solid base, almost appearing like paving while accepting spikes for awnings or tents. All sites have water and electric service, and there are some sites with 50 amp service. Each section has a large rest room complex with a washer and drier. These facilities are kept spotlessly clean by the very pleasant and welcoming staff of work campers. The park lies along the Silver River, the largest artesian fed river in the world and the site of the famous 1930’s resort Silver Springs, where Lloyd Bridges filmed many of his SeaHunt episodes for television.

Our Campsite

Rest Room Facility

The park has about fifteen miles of trails open to hikers and off-road bicyclists. We hike two of these trails and found them to be interesting and enjoyable. The Sinkhole trail leads through a north Florida hammock with mixed vegetation around a sink hole which is difficult to see because of the heavy growth down in it. Interpretive signs introduce hikers to the wildlife and give some understanding of the ecology. There are two River Trails. We took the swamp trail leading down toward the Silver River through a predominantly pine and live oak forest through a cypress swamp where the trail turns into an elevated walkway. Eventually, the walkway leads to an outlook on the Silver River, a beautiful clear water stream fed by artesian water bubbling from the ground. We saw a huge bass and a bowfish, although no alligators. One of the rangers, who regularly comes down to this spot for his lunch, walked us back up the boardwalk to show us a cotton mouth moccasin curled quietly in the notch of a tree. The park claims 5000 acres of viewable habitat and many animals. All this lies within a couple of miles of the bustling city of Ocala.

Silver River Museum Display

The Marion County Board of Education, in close cooperation with Silver River State Park, operates an Environmental Education Center featuring the Silver River Museum and the Cracker Village. The museum is open to the public on weekends for a nominal charge. The buildings of the Cracker Village, demonstrating life in north Florida in the late nineteenth century, are only rarely open to the public, but it’s worth checking to park’s schedule to take the opportunity to view these old and primitive buildings. The museum has a fine collection showing the development of this part of Florida from an environmental and scientific viewpoint for its early development and then tracking the social history of the region from the days of the Seminole Wars through the development of tourist Florida in the 1920’s and 30’s until the present day. The artifacts are very useful. The descriptions are sufficiently detailed to give a good overview of the regions natural and human history without becoming boring or pedantic. This small museum is a special gem.

Sweetwater Bluegrass Band

After we’d been at Silver River a day or so, we put up our Bluegrass Music banner on our awning. Early in the evening there was a knock on the door and one of the rangers stood there asking if we were pickers. As we chatted with Mickey Summers, it developed he had just returned from the ETA Bluegrass Cruise we had enjoyed so much. After much enjoyable reminiscing, Mickey invited us to attend the Big Green Egg Fest on Saturday to hear his band Sweetwater Bluegrass and enjoy the festivities. Around eleven on Saturday morning we wandered over to the pavilion. We could hear the big bass pounding and the banjo leading the way as Sweetwater Bluegrass kept the music coming. Perhaps a couple hundred people milled around as dozens of green, egg-shaped cookers belched smoke and the aroma of cooking meat filled the air. Ostensibly a public event, the hefty$30.00 admission fee made it pretty expensive to attend, so the largest portion of people attending appeared to be Egg enthusiasts appreciating each other’s work. We sat at a picnic table to enjoy the music of Mickey’s band, but soon succumbed to the temptation to sample the productions of the Eggers.

Jeff Houck Live Blogging

Egg Culture

Big Green Eggs are a beautifully designed smoker. cooker, grill shaped like an egg and lined with a heavy ceramic coating that concentrates the heat of natural charcoal and various flavoring additives to allow users to cook either fast or slow and to control cooking time and temperature quite accurately. The results were a variety of smoked and grilled meats as well as quick breads, and even pizza that looked and tasted wonderful. A large regional distributer was very much in evidence as well as several other vendors. People cooked, people ate and milled and chatted and compared recipes and enjoyed themselves. Sweetwater Bluegrass contributed to the generally jovial atmosphere. Tampa Tribune food writer and blogger Jeff Houck had set up his computer at a nearby picnic table and was live-blogging the event, posting commentary and pictures to his blog. Check his work out here, here, here, here, and here. I’ll leave it to his very professional work to portray the event. For us, the food was tasty, the concept of the Big Green Egg intriguing, and the music enjoyable, making a real contribution to the entire event. Silver River State park hosts a variety of events, and it’s worth checking the schedule there if you live close enough to get there easily. There’ll be a bluegrass event there on May 16th.

Vendor Diplay

Rayne Summers Displays Egg
Ocala proved to be a delightful place to visit. We’ve driven around the circumference several times in recent years, but not stopped to spend any time before. A short drive from the quiet and seemingly remote Park, the city offers all the shopping and eating conveniences of a regional center which for years has attracted wealthy horse lovers. We found a delightful Thai restaurant across the street from the Paddock Mall that more than satisfied our taste for this delightful food. Ocala’s real draw is horses. Large horse farms of almost every kind from jumping to racing through cattle herding surround the city. Many of these can be visited. There are also frequent horse shows and other equine events. Driving out of Ocala in almost any direction will yield views of horses and training facilities. Since most of these are working farms, it may be difficult, but worthwhile, to arrange visits. All told, Ocala is worth a visit and Silver River State Park provides a great base for making a grand tour of the region or for enjoying a quiet spot to get away for a weekend or a couple of weeks.

River Trail Cypress Swamp

Silver River

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