When I was 7, they wouldn’t let me drive the glass-bottom boat at San Marcos’ Aquarena Springs. But when I returned some 40 years later to what is now called the Aquarena Center, I was the captain of my own vessel: a glass-bottom kayak that gracefully sliced through the cool, clear water of Spring Lake.
Aquarena Springs, the wildly popular theme park that entertained millions of visitors from 1950 through 1996, no longer exists. Gone is Ralph the swimming pig and his elegant swine dive. Gone are the beautiful Aqua Maids and their breathtaking, underwater shows.
But the ghosts of Aquarena Springs are everywhere: Look up, and you’ll see a single cable, wheels still attached, strung between the steel poles that once supported sky ride gondolas. The 200-foot-tall tower that carried a doughnut-shaped car to the top, giving its riders a 360-degree-rotating view, still looms over the lake. Even the bones of the two old submarine theaters—one sunken, the other partially sitting above water with a chain blocking its steel entrance ramp—are preserved here.
When the wind moans through the top of the old tower, this place can really feel haunted. But it’s far from dead. There is life here—precious, fragile life as monitored by the Aquarena Center, a nonprofit environmental education center operated by Texas State University (TSU), which bought the 90-acre Aquarena Springs property in 1994.
Clearly, as seen through the bottom of a glass-bottom kayak—or the timeless glass-bottom boats that still cruise the lake—the focus is on the San Marcos springs that bubble up out of the Edwards Aquifer, forming Spring Lake and the headwaters of the San Marcos River in this beautiful city south of Austin.
A federally declared critical habitat, the San Marcos springs ecosystem is home to eight federally listed endangered or threatened species, including the San Marcos salamander, a Spring Lake inhabitant found nowhere else in the world, and Texas wild rice, found only in a short stretch of the San Marcos River.
You won’t see tiny critters such as the salamander on a guided kayak tour. But, as you paddle your own kayak, you will see birds, fish, turtles and aquatic plants. And, because recreational activity is restricted in Spring Lake, a protected archaeological site under state law, you’ll practically have the place to yourself.
Sure, tubing the San Marcos River is great fun. But you have to wait for warm weather. On Spring Lake, you can paddle year-round. Tours, including full-moon (12 and older) and children’s scavenger-hunt outings, cost $20 or $40 per person with options to tour the aquarium and endangered species exhibit, the indoor archaeological exhibit and the floating wetlands boardwalk.
On an overcast afternoon in late April, I clumsily climbed into a sleek, 12-foot-long glass-bottom kayak at Spring Lake. My companion and I digested the good news from Justin Payne, our lead guide and environmental interpreter: We’d be safe in the sit-on-top kayaks.
“If we tip over, we’ll just roll out,” he said.
Payne and fellow environmental interpreter Cordelia Keith-Verfaillia pushed us off, launched their kayaks and paddled up beside us. I grinned. I, the woman who can’t steer a canoe to save her life, was almost paddling like a pro.
With each dip of the paddle blades, I felt myself relax. My shoulders dropped, my brow smoothed.
Colors collided in my head: the turquoise water, the gray-blue sky, the green trees and plants, our blue life jackets, the orange kayaks.
Soon, we were all striking the glass-bottom kayak pose: paddle laid across thighs, chin tucked, head down, eyes glued to the bottom of the lake where we saw high-pressure springs that looked like boiling oatmeal. We studied underwater plants, including the white-blooming cacomba—think toilet-bowl cleaner bristles—and arrowhead, which resembles French fries. I whooped upon spotting the yellow on the head of a Texas River Cooter turtle.
We paddled over the original submarine theater, constructed in 1950, and an underwater archaeological site where roughly 12,000-year-old mastodon bones have been found.
As dusk descended, we explored the lily-padded wetlands. Cormorants and night herons hunkered down on scraggly branches. Egrets flew home for the night, so many that they looked like cotton covering the branches of a bald cypress.
Camille Wheeler is staff writer for Texas Co-op Power.