Step into Adventure
Troy Springs is a first-magnitude spring located on Florida's historic Suwannee River. It is now located within a relatively new State Park, and can be easily accessed by road.
If your experiences are like mine, you're likely to have a great day's adventure here. Whether you're SCUBA diving or snorkeling, you never know what you might find here on the Suwanee River.
Memories of a Grand Adventure
My favorite memory of this place is a night dive done years ago before it was a state park. A friend and I had driven over and hired a boat and captain to take us up the Suwannee River to the spring. We left the dock around dusk and got to the spring at about dark-thirty. We donned SCUBA gear and hit the water, ready to explore. After a time, we made the descent to the bottom of the spring, where we turned off our flashlights. Waiting a few minutes for our eyes to adjust, we looked up and through 70 feet of crystal clear waters and could actually see the stars in the night sky! It was an amazing memory I'll never forget.
Time to Go Back
Not having been back to here in a while, I decided it was high time for a return trip. The weather man predicted mild temperatures, and mostly sunny with only a 20 percent chance of rain. "That's it," I thought. "I'm outta here."
Strange Encounters of the Garfish Kind
When I got to the State Park this February day, I checked out the spring and the spring run. Water levels in the Suwannee River fluctuate a lot. Consequently so does the water's depth in the spring run. On this day, the water was up and conditions looked right for snorkeling. Before entering the water, I was talking with Park Ranger Rick Hammers who pointed out quite a few large garfish in the Spring Run, which you see in the photo below.
Looking Like a Fleet of Submarines, Garfish Gather in the Spring Run
I devised a plan to snorkel carefully up to them and photograph one or two if they weren't too skittish. Slipping quietly into the water, I stealthily made my way up the spring run to where the gar were.
Before I knew it, I was in the middle of dozens of large Florida gar. They were everywhere, swimming continous circlesaround me. They reminded me of barracudas, and seemed to show a curiosity similar to that of large barracudas.
Surrounded by Florida Gar in the Troy Spring Run
Far from being skittish, several larger ones came right up to me to have a look. Those long, sharp teeth mean they're carnivores, and I felt like a big piece of fresh meat in the water.
Face to Face with a Florida Gar
My good sense told me I had never heard of gar attacking a human, so I just kept taking photos and filming the encounter, and enjoying the heck out of this wild-Florida opportunity.
An Encounter with Dozens of Florida Gar at Troy Springs
Actually, gar do pose one big potential danger to humans: Their eggs are poisonous. Just ask the members of this Arkansas family who ate gar roe and ended up in the ER and sick for days.
What Kind of Gar Are These?
These are not alligator gars, which can grow up to 10 feet long and weigh in excess of 300 pounds. But these fish--to the best of my knowledge--are Florida gars.
According to my research, the alligator gar is found in the Florida panhandle, but not in the Suwannee River part of the state, nor any other part of this state, for that matter.
Florida gar are similar to another species--the spotted gar. Here's how to tell them apart:
On the Florida gar, the distance from the anterior part of the eye to the posterior part of the gill cover is less than two-thirds the length of the snout. In the spotted gar, that measurement is more than two-thirds the length of the snout.
Based on that distinction, these seem to me to be Florida gar. Do you agree?
I'll have to think about it a while, but this experience may surpass my night-dive memories I talked about above.
Wreck of the Madison
Lying on the sandy bottom of the spring run a few yards from my gar encounter is the wreck of the Confederate Steamship Madison, a civil-war era vessel scuttled in 1863 to keep it from falling into Union hands.
The Wreck of the Steamship Madison
If only this ship's soggy, wooden ribs could talk. What a story they could tell.
Why, I'll bet they could tell us all about the their former owner, Captain James Felix Tucker, who in the 1850s and early 1860s used the Madison to haul mail, goods, and passengers up and down the river.
Well, obviously boards can't talk, but I found an expert local Pasco County historian--Jeff Cannon--who can. Jeff knows a lot about Captain Tucker and the Madison. He and I had a great phone conversation, in which he filled me in on the details of the Madison and Captain Tucker.
Jeff said according to a sworn statement from Confederate pension records, James Felix Tucker was born on December 2, 1840. His birthplace is said to be near Louisville, Kentucky.
When young James' father died, he ran away to go steamboating on the Mississippi--sort of a Huck Finn type, I suppose. In 1852, at the tender age of 12, he made his way to Florida, settling in Madison (hence the ship's name) in what was then JeffersonCounty.
According to the numbers in years, in 1855 when Tucker was 14 or 15 years old, he got a mail-route contract to ferry mail from the convergence of the Suwannee and Withlacoochee Rivers all the way to Bayport--a 360-mile round trip he made twice a month when the water was high enough.
When the War Between the States broke out in 1861, Tucker went to Jacksonville where he enlisted in the Confederate Army. He must have distinguished himself because just two years later he rose to the rankof Captain.
At about that time, the war effort wasn't going so well for the young Confederacy. To shut off delivery of goods, the Union had blockaded both of Florida's coasts, and were seizing Confederate vessels, which is what the Madison was by now. To make matters worse, Union forces had even shelled Bayport, the far end of Tucker's run.
Rather than let the Yankees get it, Captain Tucker figured he'd scuttle the Madison, then go back and raise her again after the war. I'm not sure why he picked the Troy Springs run, but it makes sense. It's a clear, shallow backwater off the main Suwannee River.
A year or so later, on June 2 of 1864 Captain Tucker was wounded in battle--shot in the thigh, and was consequently discharged from the Confederate Army.
He spent more than a year hobbling around on crutches, during which time he married Virginia H. Bailey, daughter of the prominent Colonel William J. Bailey.
Unfortunately, Tucker never did get to raise his boat after the war. She had been too badly picked over by people looking to take whatever they could use--boiler tubes, smokestacks, and lumber.
According to history, things didn't go too badly for Tucker after that. He and Virginia had at least one son--James F. Tucker, Jr.
Captain Tucker ended up inheriting more than 800 acres--apparently subject to estate debt--from his wife's side of the family. He eventually got some more property and settled in Brooksville, where he worked for the government and became a well-known resident.
Then, on July 9, 1913, in Pinellas County, Captain Tucker left this earth at the age of 72.
Looking at the remains of that ship's frame, I can't help but see the visible evidence of the dreams and aspirations of one young boy forced prematurely into manhood by his circumstances.
The war may have stolen his dreams, but he went on to fulfill others. May you rest in peace, Captain Tucker. The Florida Park Service will look after what's left of your boat.
How to Get There
By land, follow US 27 North five miles out of Branford to County Road 425. It gets a little tricky to find it, but the exact GPS coordinates of the spring are 30 degrees, 00 minutes, 22 seconds North and 082 degrees 59 minutes and 51 seconds West. Troy Spring State Park is about 1.3 miles north of US 27. By river, the springs are located between mile markers 82 and 83.