Friday, September 19, 2014

One of Florida's Hidden Must-See Jewels

The turquoise waters of the aquifer at the Devil's Den

Florida has a soul that you might never feel if you stick to the retirement homes, amusement parks and tourist beaches. Off of Interstate 75 and down the historic Route 27 is the town of Williston and the mysterious cave called “Devil’s Den.” After traveling thirty countries and countless cities throughout the world, I find one of the most extraordinary places I’ve ever been right in my old back yard.
The Florida live oaks--picture by Delal
You drive over through classic Cracker landscape—neon green pasture land filled with stately live oaks, churches and wooden houses choked with kudzu or muscadine vine. The oaks are enormous; they look like giant squid bursting out of the grass, their branches dripping with thick curtains of Spanish moss. The horizon astounds with towering thunderclouds that sail like galleons across the startlingly blue sky. My wife said it reminded here of the bayou country in “True Detective.” My mom couldn’t stop talking about how much she missed this place.

You pass through Williston, a quaint Old Florida town with traditional cracker houses and Southern mansions and a downtown that is not quite dead. Then, you turn down a small road lined with horse farms. More live oaks, pines, pecan trees and horses.

The galleons of clouds...

The Den is a break in the surface of the skin of Florida itself. The whole state is a roof of limestone over the aquifer—a (dwindling) reserve of water that feeds Florida’s springs and lakes and keeps the state alive. Sometimes rain dissolves the limestone and creates either sink holes (These things swallow houses), springs, or in this case a break into the maze of caves that wind deep into the earth. This particular cave has been here a long time. You enter through a steep stairway that plunges straight down into the ground and emerge in room filled with bright turquoise water. Giant bream and bluegill, bigger than my head, swim lazily in schools. If you are a swimmer, you are required to have a snorkel and mask. Divers can explore the labyrinth of caves that start from the pool.
The break in the surface

There’s something almost mystical about this place. It’s over nine thousand years old. This puncture in the world has been trapping animals and humans for thousands of years. The remains of a man from 7500 years before were found among the stalactites at the bottom. He was probably a Timacuan, the local Indian tribe who were killed off by the Spanish before the English even arrived.  Fossils of a dire wolf, mastodon and sabretooths were found as well as lots of deer, bats, sloths and rats. It’s a record of all the living things that have lived in the state for the past nine millennia—all of them pulled out of the surface world and plunged into this darkness where they awaited discovery together.

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