Tuesday morning dawned gray and gloomy. People think of Florida as perpetually sunny, but the reality is more complex. Having lived there for nearly three years, I know that Florida experiences winter just like everywhere else, but in its own way. So I wasn’t surprised by the overcast gloom, but I was disappointed by it. We had enough money in the kitty for one long day in a canoe on the river, and I wanted to make it count. The light was so flat and the air so temperate that I knew our chances of seeing monkeys, let alone catching decent photographs of them, would be poor that day. So we decided to stay on the east side of the National Forest and visit some spring areas. We drove over to Silver Glen springs to start. I’d visited this spring on a photography trip a few years earlier, and I knew it was beautiful and rich in life.
Silver Glen Springs is a first-magnitude freshwater spring. The spring waters bubble up from the ground at the rate of 70 million gallons per day, and form a crystal clear pool in the heart of the scrub forest. From there the waters flow into the spring run and out into Lake George, a large, brackish lake to the east of the spring pool.
I’d heard on my previous visit that river otters lived in the spring basin at Silver Glen, but although I looked, I didn’t see them on that trip. This time, as soon as I began wading into the sky blue spring pool, I saw one. You can tell an otter from a muskrat or a beaver by its curved back, which lends a distinctive appearance to its dive; the otter always looks like it’s diving over something.
I’ve loved otters for a long time, but have never encountered them in the wild beyond just a flash. I waded out a little farther into the pool. This was undeniably exciting. Travis had gone back to the car to get something, and I felt he needed to be enlightened at once. I waded back to the edge, where I saw him coming toward me. We beckoned urgently at each other at the same time, in the way of people who are certain that what they have to communicate is far more important than what the other is trying to say. Finally, I yelled at him: “OTTER! There’s an otter in the spring!”
“I know! And the ranger told me they’re getting really close to canoes today! Which are really cheap, so I got one for two hours! Let’s go! Get your gear!”
This sort of thing isn’t uncommon. We are often both on different trails to the same exciting prospect, each of us in our own way ahead of the other. Then we converge and do our thing: He spots wildlife and I photograph it.
Travis motioned to a canoe being pulled to the water’s edge further down on the shoreline. I carefully placed my camera gear in my dry bag and slung it into the canoe before we shoved off. For the next two hours, the otters led us all over the spring run and out toward Lake George. There were several of them, not just the one I had seen while wading, and they were all over the spring run. Still, they’re tremendously coy, and they don’t spend a lot of time on the surface when there are canoes about. I’m glad I had no pressure to get a decent photo of them, because two hours in low light wasn’t enough time to get used to their habits and figure out the best way to capture them.
About halfway down the three-quarter mile spring run, we began to notice openings in the trees large enough to navigate through, so we turned the boat toward one. As we did, Travis spotted movement in the trees, and we saw – for just a moment, and too quickly for a photograph – an otter carrying its pup, disappearing rapidly into the brush.
This is the sort of thing that sends me into transcendental orbit. Some people meditate, some people use LSD, some people feel it when they’re standing on a mountain, or skiing down a slope. Some people can feel it in their living room. I feel it when I’m privy to a moment like this. Wild animals are the “other”, a thing apart, and they keep themselves separate from human beings for very good reasons. When I’m able to cross that boundary and peer into their world, even for a second, I step outside myself. I know that science has a lot of explanations for feelings of transcendence, but that doesn’t make me feel any less mystical about them.
What a thing to be wired for transcendence.
The night after we left the otters, the temperature dropped, and I wrapped my bandana around my head for extra warmth after installing myself in my winter sleeping bag. Our neighbors two sites down, however, took a different approach to the cold: egregious quantities of liquor. You can always tell when someone is getting drunk in a campground. The laughter gets louder and more frequent, people stumble over things and yelp in pain, which makes their companions laugh even louder than the time before. Sometimes there is off-key singing. But this time brought a new experience.
I had dropped off to sleep about ten. I awoke about four hours later, not to the melodious, natural-world sound of hooting owls or howling coyotes, but to the decidedly human sound of retching. Most everyone in the campground had retired to their tents at that hour, and the place was quiet – at least it was until the silence was torn apart by what sounded like a giant cat trying to expel a log-sized hairball. Each time success was achieved, the resulting splat pinged off the palm trees and palmettoes, the echo bouncing around the campground loop and into my slumbering ears.
It often happens that when I’m half asleep, the most hilariously ridiculous fears will bubble up from my subconscious – last October when I returned from a drive across New York State, I woke up in the middle of the night concerned that I might have been exposed to Ebola from touching the faucets at one of the Thruway rest areas. These sleep-addled notions are always good for a snort the following morning, but they are embarrassingly adept at harnessing my mind at 3 a.m.
So as I lay listening to the Campground Barfer, my first thought was What if this dude’s vomit draws the Resident Bear? Bears will eat anything, and this jackhole is two sites away from us. And what if the bear eats it and gets drunk? That’s the last thing we need, a drunk marauding bear. Would a drunk bear be more or less dangerous?
The second thing I thought was that maybe I would steal the bullhorn and blow it next to their campsite at 6 a.m.
The third thing I thought was no wonder the goddamn wildlife wants nothing to do with us. We’re idiots.
And then I fell back to sleep.