UPDATE: 9-19-09. Word to the wise.. The Florida sink hole is now owned by an angry man with a large rifle and dog. DON’T GO THERE! Trust me.. Just don’t want fellow adventure seekers getting shot.
SFCC student Joe Farmer came up gasping for air. His arcing plunge from a wooden platform nailed to the branch of an oak had taken his breath away. The chilly spring water hadn’t helped. As he climbed a homemade ladder out of the water, ripples from his splash still echoed off the slanted stonefaced walls. Farmer heard the cheers of his on-looking friends that verified he had indeed survived and gleaned warming satisfaction from his 42-foot dive. It is a jump not everyone at the Devil’s Hole is willing to dare.
It is a jump some people shirk on a regular basis. Because one has to be a little daring to even find this picturesque sinkhole. While normally the drive out to nowhere, the trek through the forest and the 80-foot descent down woody, clay cliffs keep the crowds at Devil’s Hole low, sweltering summer heat and a building reputation recently have packed this gully’s collection of homemade jumps, slides and swings to full capacity. It turns out Devil’s Hole is a lot less of a secret than people thought. James Masters, who remembers besting Farmer’s dive back in 1974, now owns the closest home to Devil’s Hole. He says the sinkhole is occupied 24 hours a day. The sinkhole will be even more packed during the upcoming July 4 weekend. In fact, most first-time swimmers are so impressed with Devil’s Hole, they return to show their friends, and like Farmer, almost everyone swimming that weekend had brought a friend or had been brought by one. And while the sinkhole may be on private property, according to Captain Steve Rose, assistant chief of patrol in Putnam County, sinkhole owner Norman Knight, who could not be reached for comment, ceased any trespassing prevention when he purchased Devil’s Hole four years ago. “In times past we’d done a pretty good job of keeping people out,” Rose says. “But since then it’s become very popular in the summer months.The sinkhole is so public it is registered online at several scuba diving sites as Devil’s Sink – but no one who has ever been there calls it that. Besides, Masters says Devil’s Hole is a death trap for scuba divers. All the good action happens in the first 15 feet. Or maybe 20 feet, if you jump from really, really high. And people do. With one jump’s height comparable to an Olympic diving platform, another towering above it and two fearsome rope swings, Devil’s Hole provides high-flying acrobatics above all others in the area. I had avoided doing [the dive] until last time I saw a little 8-year-old girl climb up there and jump off like it was her job,” Farmer says.
No matter how many people frequent Devil’s Hole, it’s still not easy to find. Like some secret hideout from some fantastical film, the best way to get to Devil’s Hole is to have been there already.
The second-best way to get to there is to have friends who already have been, which turns out more likely than you might think.
And the third-best way to get there is to load cars with swim trunks and junked shoes, caravan east on state road 20 running adjacent to eternal road construction, pass the lonely barber-pole gas station, over the sleepy town of Hawthorne – note the Burger Barn for the return trip – persevere toward Interlachen, into Putnam County, cruise just a touch farther than you’d expect, pass the “Famous for Chicken and Fritters” billboard half obscured by wild Florida foliage, cross the intersection with CR 21, trudge another 1.8 miles beyond that with shallow Cowpen Lake rolling by on the right, swerve left onto Lake Galilee Drive – not Galilee Shore Drive – creep 150 yards past the facing pair of mobile homes and finally stop when you see the pickup trucks of those who already knew the way. Got that? Just do yourself a favor: do not get stuck in the dirt.
By Memorial Day this year, local Billy Johnson, who’d been to Devil’s Hole almost every day for two weeks, was getting mighty sick of helping Gainesville kids out of the dirt. On that day, Johnson didn’t even swim. He just watched the display of backflips to belly flops, sipped his Budweiser and indulged the interests of almost 40 “hole rookies” who’d traveled from Waldo, Gainesville and as far as Jacksonville.
Since the summer heat began, Johnson has seen more and more people flock to Devil’s Hole every day, and a collection of beer bottles fill trash bags far too heavy to haul up the sinkhole slopes. He has seen summer rains flood the bottom five rungs of the homemade ladder and raise the water up so high, the 54-foot platform yields a mere 42-foot jump. He has seen waters from crystal clear to crystal blue, and this year stained dark cyan by the limerock bled from rain-beaten stone. He has seen girls afraid to jump, rope swings released too early and heard drunken legends of Devil’s Hole and met them with a few exceptional stories of his own. Most common is the story of a curious man with a truck wench, a cinder block and 1,000 feet of cable, who tested the depths of the sinkhole and found it beyond his reach. Regulars all tell similar stories of stripped cars roaring down 80 feet into the sinkhole to plunge in the spring water and sink immeasurably farther. Other individuals recount tales of a frustrating motorcycle that wouldn’t start, a short bus taken on a country joyride, 37 kilos of cocaine that had to disappear and dozens of cell phones with no service – all sent to the same infinite watery grave. “That’s why they call it Devil’s Hole. It goes all the way down,” Johnson says. “It’s bottomless.”