In Salt Springs, tranquility is the way of life
Published: Thursday, August 15, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, August 13, 2013 at 4:14 p.m.
To the typical driver zipping along State Road 19 between Eustis and Palatka, “Salt Springs” is but one in a handful of community signs along the way.
Some may notice the imposing entrance to Salt Springs Recreation Area or pull into the Pit Stop Sunoco station across the road. Then they continue on their way.
And that's just fine for most folk in this community on the eastern edge of Marion County at the end of an over-the-river-and-through-the-woods trek from Gainesville. Once past the greensward that's County Road 314 and the iconic VFW missile, you're here.
And “here,” in Salt Springs, tranquility is the way of life.
There's no bank or fast food, but there is a new Dollar General. There are no roadside motels, but there is a possibility of a romantic bed and breakfast in the future.
Mostly, Salt Springs is an eastern gateway to the Ocala National Forest, an outdoorsman's paradise for hunting, fishing, boating, canoeing, camping and hiking. And it boasts swimming in one of Florida's most picturesque springs, a second-magnitude oasis named for the minerals seeping up from below that gives the water a mild “salt” taste.
A handful of miles south on State Road 19 is Silver Glen Springs, another second-magnitude spring emptying into Lake George. Paired with Salt Springs, the two are some of the best swimming sites in the eastern side of Marion County.
But there's more to Salt Springs than swimming. The area's website, www.saltspringsfl.com lists 18 attractions, including the Ocala National Forest, the free Ocala Shooting Range, Rodman Recreation Area, Fort Gates Ferry, Salt Springs Community Park and the Florida Trail. Notice a common thread?
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Here, there are no traffic signals.
“It's nice to be able to drive 25 miles and not see a traffic light,” said Frank Lucius, a full-time resident of Kerr Key since 2006 — though he and his brother, Johnny, and cousins spent weekends in the '50s swimming in Salt Springs Run and crabbing for blue crabs while visiting their grandparents' home overlooking the run.
“We laugh about a sign on County Road 314 as it approaches 19,” added Pat Jankowski, who lives in Salt Springs Village. “It says ‘Congested Area.' During the week, if we see four cars, it's congested.”
Hemmed in as it is by Lake George to the east and the Ocala National Forest on the other three compass points, Salt Springs is about as big as it'll ever be. And that, too, seems just fine with locals.
“There's a small-town camaraderie here,” said Karen McKeever, a resident since 1999. “Everybody knows everybody else. It's just a laid-back life here.”
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Not that the population doesn't ebb and flow with the seasons.
On weekends and holidays, the Salt Springs Recreation Area swells with campers, as does the Elite Resorts RV complex on County Road 316 behind the Salt Springs Square fronting State Road 19; in cooler months, winter residents return to their Florida homes in Salt Springs Village.
The park allows day swimming at the spring head.
“It draws people all year,” said Rosemary Harnage, the area manager at the recreation area.
Paul and Tammy Green stock sundries that campers might need — bug spray, batteries, snacks, DVDs, even DVD players — in their Salty's Country Store and Pizza in Salt Springs Square. They also host karaoke on weekends and boast a beer garden out back.
One of four Salt Springs eateries, here they offer a variety of subs and pizza.
The Greens moved from Ocala three years ago to run the place.
“It's a vacation getaway in the woods,” Paul Green said. “All good things happen in the woods.”
Kelsey Jenkins, his son Kyle's girlfriend, said she loves the isolation.
“You're out in the middle of nowhere,” she said. “At night you can look up and see every star in the sky.”
Many who visit come back — among them guests of the Amrit Yoga Institute, established five years ago on the southwestern shore of Lake Kerr. The secluded, six-acre campus offers yoga studies and meditation, to some the ultimate in peace and quiet.
“The lake and the natural beauty of the springs in the area” is conducive to the weekend and weeklong study programs offered, said Kenyon Gatlin, an admissions coordinator. “And then there's just the nature of being in the forest.”
The institute draws students from all around the world.
“We're unique here,” said Walt Seiler, operator of the Pit Stop and Salt Springs resident since 1957. “We're a vacation-retirement area, though we're changing from weekenders to more permanent residents.
“Naturally we're getting more people here. They found what we have here.”
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A sign on the wall in the Square Meal, a café in Salt Springs Square, reads: “The Gathering Place.”
Shortly after noon, residents trickle in for the eatery's hand-pressed hamburgers or daily specials such as meatloaf until every table is occupied.
Bill Barnes, a decades-long resident, eats lunch here every day, he said. Born in New Jersey and raised in St. Johns County, he worked in Palatka before retiring to Salt Springs.
“It's a nice feeling here, comfortable and easy,” he said.
On a recent Monday, he shared a table with Kay Auringer and her husband. They discovered Salt Springs nine years ago while passing through in their recreational vehicle.
“There were tornado warnings for North Florida and Georgia,” she said. “We found Elite Resorts here, pulled in and loved it. We've been here ever since.”
A table over, Lynn Wiseman — owner of Cactus Jack's, another eatery in town — waited for her lunch. Her father was “Cactus Jack; that was his CB handle,” she said. An assistant school principal in the Florida Keys, she moved to Salt Springs when Cactus Jack died in 2008.
“I would come up to visit dad,” she said. “I love it here. This is truly home.”
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Many visitors planning an outdoors adventure first drop into the Buck N Bass Outfitters in Salt Springs Square. That's where Stacy Weeks, who was born in the area 40 years ago, offers advice and sells gear.
“It's mainly fishing” they want to know about, he said.
He used to skateboard and ride his bicycle in the area where the square stands today. “That was big,” he said. And he has no interest in leaving. “You don't hear sirens up and down the road every day.”
And he added: “This is a lot of getaway for a lot of people.”
Contact Rick Allen at email@example.com or 867-4154.
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