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Yancey Bridge to Magnolia Bridge

We had not quite reached Yancey Bridge when the first raindrops hit the windshield. Ricky, my ride to the river and Bear Paw owner, glanced at me encouragingly, “Even a bad day on the river is

Raining on the Chipola

better than …” He didn’t need to finish. “Of course,” I agreed.

After paddling Florida rivers for more than five years, I have pretty much exhausted my list of rivers with outfitters located on or near them, leading me to revisit some previously-paddled waterways. This summer, I chose to paddle one of my favorites, the Chipola River in Marianna, Florida. The Chipola originates in Alabama and travels south close to 90 miles—with 51 miles being a designated Florida paddling trail. It passes through the Panhandle and eventually merges with the Apalachicola River which empties into the Gulf. It’s a beautiful river and one of my favorites.

I had paddled the Chipola about five years ago—and what a wonderful experience! I looked forward to paddling it again—rain or shine. My intention was to spend three days paddling different sections of the river. I wanted to re-paddle the Yancey Bridge to Magnolia Bridge trail on the first day (first paddled 7/17/12) and then paddle south of Magnolia Bridge to the Peacock Bridge on the second. On day three, I would paddle Spring Creek which flows into Chipola about two miles above the Magnolia Bridge. (Map, pages 2-3.)

It was spitting rain as Ricky shoved me off– just before 10:00. Twenty minutes later, I heard the first crack of thunder. I decided I would hold off the worry until lightning appeared—but briefly wondered if it would be better to be in the water or under the trees—my only choices—if it did. Heavy rains had turned the aqua blue water into a murky moss-colored waterway coddled by lush green trees. Birds chattered away in the woods as I paddled the dark waterway with no one else in sight; life couldn’t be better! About thirty minutes into my paddle, the steady rain gave way to a brief period of sunshine, giving me time to dry off before it began again.

There is something so peaceful and cleansing about paddling in the rain; there’s no time for other thought, just the mindful experience of listening to the sound of the rain hitting the water and trees. The rain didn’t bother me at all, although I did give myself a mental “high-five” for remembering to bring my rain jacket.

Beautiful Greens Reflect in the Water

Whether the skies are blue or gray, the entire paddle on the Chipola is a calendar-worthy experience.  I passed limestone banks and cypress swamps with various shades of green reflected in the dark water. I spied great herons, ibis, and even a red-tailed hawk.  I made it to the “ovens” (caverns) about an hour and a half into my paddle and stopped for a stretch. I took a peek into the dark caves but did not wander far inside not knowing what creatures might await me there. No doubt this is a common stop-off for many paddlers. I was disappointed to see the litter others had left.

Back on the waterway, I continued my journey. A gentle flow to the water kept me moving, and I came upon the spring to the left. Five years ago the water was clear, and I was able to take pictures of the spring under water. This time, the water was too murky and dark, and I couldn’t even make out the spring. It had begun to rain harder. I exited the spring just as an owl flew overhead.

It did begin to lightning as I neared the end of my trip nearly four hours later. As much as I loved the paddle, I was happy to arrive at my destination.

(Outfitter: Bear Paw Canoe Rentals. 2100 Bear Paw Lane, Marianna, Florida 32448. (850) 482-4948)

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Hello, old friend. Happy New Year!

I paddled my first Florida river in July 2010 and have paddled over forty Florida rivers since. Unquestionably, Fisheating Creek holds a place in my top five. I love this waterway!

Entering the Cypress Swamp

Entering the Cypress Swamp

As I have done in the past (because I have yet to buy my own kayak, and I need a drop anyway), I rented a kayak from the Fisheating Creek Outpost in Palmdale. (The people are great; the kayaks, a bit worn.) They dropped me, along with five others, around 10:00 a.m. at the Burnt Bridge put-in, giving us an eight-mile paddle back to the outpost—about four hours. I waited to put in last, standing on the shore and taking it all in. Fish jumped as if playing a tune on a xylophone, and then, seemingly on cue, an alligator glided slowly along the top of the water in the distance. It all appeared to be an opening number of a musical, a glimpse of something wonderful yet to come.

This would be my third paddle on Fisheating Creek. I paddled it in October 2011 and July 2014—both times with a much higher water level. The level on New Year’s Day was just over three feet. To paddle without portaging requires a minimum of one and a half feet. I would not want to portage on this creek with as many gators as I saw this day.

I paddled away from the shore, feeling somewhat secure that I had remembered to bring my snake knife this time! Tall cypress, turned brown and draped in moss shrouds and air plants, framed the waterway. Twenty minutes into my paddle, I entered the cypress swamp—my favorite part—and paddled among the cypress trees, twisting left, then right, the landscape deserving the front cover of a nature magazine. Paddling this creek for the third time, I have discovered that it’s pretty darn important to watch for the small kayak signs to stay on the trail. More than once I had to turn around and find the trail again.

White Ibis on Fisheating Creek

White Ibis on Fisheating Creek

The other paddlers had gone ahead, so I was alone in the swamp, enjoying the sweet melody of bird sounds—such as the honking of the ibis and croaking of the great blue herons. (I know, melodious, right?) I paddled past wood storks—happy to see them amongst the others, and lots of vultures, egrets, anhinga and cormorants. Gators sun bathed on the shore, not bothered when I paused to take a picture–while others bobbed in the water as I floated by. I spotted more gators than ever—perhaps due to the low water level forcing them closer to the trail. At times, I had to choose my path—to the left or right—based on gator sightings.

About three hours into my paddle, I spotted a patch of sand on the side of the creek and pulled up for a quick stretch before paddling the last hour on this beautiful waterway. (Sigh) What a great way to begin the New Year!

(Fisheating Creek Outpost. 7555 US Highway 27 North. Palmdale, FL 33944. (863) 675-5999)

 

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Olli and Robert pulled my kayak to the edge of the creek at Cotton Landing, just north of Cypress Springs. I looked to the south, at the winding waterway, shaded by cypress and oaks.

A Beautiful Paddle on Holmes Creek

A Beautiful Paddle on Holmes Creek

“Is the entire paddle like this?” I asked. Beautiful.

I’m not sure why it surprised me, but it did. And now, knowing that this would be a great paddle helped make up for the port-a-potty, my only restroom option. A quick stop, and I finished packing my gear into the kayak, secured my cooler, and climbed in. Olli gave me a shove into the water, and I paddled away, smile on my face.

I had almost missed this one, Holmes Creek. For some reason, it seemed insignificant on the map. It originates a few miles north of the Florida- Alabama border. Its length includes about 20 miles of State Designated Paddling Trail between Cotton Landing and Live Oak Landing before it flows into the Choctawhatchee River. I’m not even certain that the portion I paddled from Cotton Landing is part of the official paddling trail. I often see paddles beginning a few miles south, around Vernon.

I paddled, taking in the beautiful forest of cypress, oak, tupelo, and sweet gum which seemed to snuggle and curve around the river. I had seen the water described as “emerald green,” but today it was cloudy and murky; I could not see the bottom of the creek. Robert had explained that recent rains had churned it up. The trees around me were…noisy! The sounds of the birds grew louder as I paddled. “She’s coming! She’s coming!” they seemed to scream.

Ten minutes into my paddle, I spotted the orange dot painted on a tree and paddled to the right towards Cypress Springs (as instructed). Beautiful clear blue-green water and a white sandy beach greeted me. People swam about in the springs, and kids swung from a rope tied to a tree. Others sat atop of a kayak or small boat enjoying the sun. I chatted with some of the locals. Bud and Missy sat in low chairs in the sand, bratwurst cooking in a smoker at the end of their small boat. They let me use a raft, flippers, and homemade viewer to paddle over the vent and get a better look at the

Cooling Off at Cypress Springs

Cooling Off at Cypress Springs

springs. Missy and Larry talked about the history of the springs. Larry said that it is a manmade springs, dynamited and then connected to the creek. (I need to check this out.) I paddled around the springs for a bit, a perfect spot on a hot day.

From the springs, I had about a 3-mile paddle back to the outfitter—1.5 hours. I passed an occasional kayaker or small boat, but the creek remained peaceful. Although the current was light, it required little effort to paddle. My paddle was scenic and lovely. I attempted to find Becton Springs and paddled up another small waterway. Somehow, I managed to miss the orange dot and lost my way for a bit, never seeing the springs. Oh well, a good reason to return someday!

(Old Cypress Canoe Rentals. 2728 Traverse Drive, Vernon, FL 32462. (850) 388-2072. Dana/Olli/Robert)

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For the New Year, I chose Withlacoochee River South as my “old”

Bare Cypress Adorned with Moss

Bare Cypress Adorned with Moss

river—one which I had previously paddled. Coincidentally, I had paddled this river for the first time two years ago on the same day—December 28. I love, love, love this river; this is a “must paddle” river for anyone who enjoys nature, peaceful serenity, and paddling.

Withlacoochee is a Native American term that means, “little big water” or “crooked river.” When I paddled the “With” two years ago, the water level was low—a “little water.” Although Jacqui, operator of the RV

Water Like Glass on the "With"

Water Like Glass on the “With”

Park, dropped me as close as she could to the river’s source, the Lacoochee Park put-in, I had wanted to be closer. This time, with the water level higher, a “big water,” she dropped me deeper into the forest, at the High Bluff put in—closer to the river’s source but still about a two-hour paddle away. From High Bluff, I expected at least a 3-hour paddle back to the RV Park, so I decided not to paddle deeper into the swamp before heading west and back to the outfitter.

On the drive to High Bluff, Jacqui pointed out the site where the Cummer Sons Cypress Company sawmill once stood. The Cummer brothers built the mill in 1922, and for nearly four decades until the mill closed in 1959, Lacoochee prospered and grew (East Pasco Historical Society) —at the expense of the cypress, of course.

So, I paddled away from the High Bluff put-in. I wore an orange vest as I did two years earlier; it was hunting season (hogs and deer). It felt like winter on the river. Tall cypress, now bare except for moss that hung like tinsel on last year’s Christmas trees, surrounded me. I felt grateful that the Cummer brothers had left some cypress for me to enjoy. What a beautiful river!

Lost in the river’s magic and to the outside world, I moved with the swift, gentle current. The high waters had flooded over many banks and into the trees, leaving me to wonder, at times, whether I was still on the river or had floated into the watery forest. Dark bands around tree trunks revealed to me that this “little big river” could get bigger

An Occasional Bird Appears

An Occasional Bird Appears

still. High waters had forced the wading birds (cormorants, egrets, and ibis) deeper into the woods, and the river remained quiet with the exception of the occasional splash of a gator’s belly flop.

The river was awesome, and I was awestruck. Old wood-framed houses began to pop up as I neared the outfitter—way earlier than I expected. I arrived at the outfitters in less than two hours from my put-in.

(Withlacoochee RV Park and Canoe Rental. 39847 State Road 575, Lacoochee, FL. (352) 583-4778)

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I’ve been paddling Florida rivers about four years now, and there’s no question that I would give Fisheating Creek four stars as

Beautiful Cypress on Fisheating Creek

Beautiful Cypress on Fisheating Creek

one of my favorite paddles. I first paddled Fisheating in October 2011 with a friend—and what an awesome experience! Only a two-hour drive from home, I chose this as my next “re-paddle destination.”

I rented my kayak from Fisheating Creek Outpost in Palmdale, and Mike dropped me—along with eight others—at the Burnt Bridge put-in around 9:30. This is the same paddle I did three years earlier, about 8 miles, 4 hours. On the way to the put-in, we passed through two locked gates and over the Lykes Brothers’ property. Mike pointed out a crested caracara sitting atop an old tree. He told us to watch for panthers in the fields as several had been spotted recently. I listened to the folks traveling with me as they chatted about snakes they’ve encountered on their paddles, and I cursed that I had left my snake knife in the car. We arrived at the put-in and piled out of the van, but stood aside while Mike first scooted a couple small gators away from the beach!

Fisheating Creek flows into Lake Okeechobee, apparently the only free-flowing tributary that does. Paddling it, it seemed three different waterways to me. At the Burnt Bridge put-in, the creek was wide, tall cypress dripping with Spanish moss and air plants on each side. Within 30 minutes, I paddled into the cypress swamp and twisted and turned around the cypress and their knobby knees, trying to follow the swift tannin-colored flow. When I emerged from the swamp, I entered a creek, smaller than the original but with a more definite path than the swamp trail. Now, I paddled around grass islands. For the next few hours, my paddle continued in this manner with the ever-changing waterway.

Entering the Cypress Wonderland

Entering the Cypress Wonderland

I love that Fisheating feels so wild! There are no homes along the banks, just beautiful tall cypress. Much of the creek lies within the Fisheating Creek Wildlife Management Area, purchased from the Lykes Brothers years ago. I heard few sounds other than the ibis honking loudly from the swamp floor. I paddled under the hot sun, appreciating the occasional cloud that gave me shade. A crested caracara flew overhead; a few small gators bobbed in the water as I passed; an anhinga stood on a log, scouting for lunch. Life was good.

I just love Fisheating Creek—still an awesome paddle!

(Fisheating Creek Outpost. 7555 US Highway 27 North. Palmdale, FL 33944. (863) 675-5999)

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I stood at the water’s edge of Katie’s Landing State Park with my paddle buddy, Bill Belleville, looking across the

Splashes of Color on the Wekiva

Splashes of Color on the Wekiva

Wekiva River, so glad I had remembered to bring my rain jacket. The wind had picked up, and the cloudy sky promised rain sometime soon. For the first time this season, I felt a chill in the air—the kind that nips your nose and makes you think about hot cocoa and fireplaces. Brrr…

The Wekiva is one of only two National Wild and Scenic Rivers in Florida. (Loxahatchee is the other.)  Twenty-seven miles of this waterway is also a Florida Designated Paddling Trail. Three years ago, I paddled the Upper Wekiva with my sister, Michele.  On this day, Bill and I planned to paddle the Lower Wekiva.

So, we put in, trying to keep our feet dry, and paddled away from the shore, crossing the river. Bill wanted to show me around a little island in the river, but we had to push and pull our way through the thick pennywort to get there.  Amazing how the winter brings a completely different kind of beauty to the rivers.  The gray sky darkened the water, creating an eeriness as I looked at the eel grass waving from the river bed below us.  The cypress, bared of their foliage, draped themselves in silvery moss shawls.  Green ferns and tall grasses, along with yellow-flowered spadderdock lilies, added splashes of color to the wintry brown and gray landscape.

We didn’t really believe we would make it the eight miles to the St. Johns and eight miles back, but we did think we might make it to the point where the Blackwater Creek empties into the Wekiva.  We paddled northward to the Lower Wekiva (the Wekiva flows north, so the lower is the north and the upper is the south), enjoying the scenic shoreline and feeling blessed to be there.

A Posturing Wood Stork

A Wood Stork Poses for Us

Of all the rivers I’ve paddled, the Hillsborough River gets the prize for having the most birds.  However, after this paddle, I would give Wekiva the prize for the most variety.  Great blue herons waded through the tall grasses, little disturbed by our presence. A wood stork seemed as curious about us as we were about him, turning on his branch, moving this way and that, so we could see him from various angles.  We spied egrets, ibis, anhingas, moorhens, and even a red shouldered hawk and a pileated woodpecker.  Tiny warblers filled the trees as we paddled beneath them. I felt a bit like a “nature voyeur,” peeking in Mother Nature’s windows, quietly watching her do those things she does when we humans aren’t around.

Of course, we didn’t make it to the St. Johns—or the Blackwater for that matter.  And the rain did come (thank you, handy rain jacket).  So, we turned around after a couple of hours and headed back to Katie’s Landing, still chatting about all we had seen.

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From the Caverns on the Chipola River

Summer vacation, here at last!  I headed to the Panhandle to paddle a few rivers.  These would be my first in this area, and first up—the Chipola River.

I rented a kayak from Bear Paw Canoe Rental in Marianna—a local outfitter with a good selection of kayaks. The owner, Ricky, drove me just north of Marianna, to the put in at Yancy Bridge on FL 166. I began my peaceful paddle (9.8 miles) at 9:30 a.m., the only person on the river—what could be better?

The Chipola River, located in the Central Panhandle, starts north of the Alabama border.  It runs 80 plus miles to eventually merge with the Apalachicola River, close to the Gulf.  As it passes through the Florida Caverns State Park, the Chipola goes underground for awhile and then re-emerges.  Along its journey, various springs (over 60!) and creeks flow into it. (Boning) The Chipola is an Outstanding Florida Water, and 51 miles of it is a Florida Designated Paddling Trail.

Indeed outstanding, the Chipola did not disappoint me!  Almost immediately, a great horned owl flew over the river in front of me, landed on an overhanging branch, and watched as I floated beneath him.  Belted kingfishers and warblers darted here and there as ibis and herons chilled on the riverside.

Even with the recent rains, I could see the sandy bottom through the beautiful milky blue-green water, thick reeds and eel grass moving with the current.  I paddled the cool waterway shaded by thick foliage of oak (several varieties), cypress (draped in long tresses of moss), maple, magnolia, and dogwood, plus many others that I could not begin to identify. How strange not to spot a single cabbage palm!  The landscape varied with low swampy woodlands on the east side and limestone banks, bluffs, and caves on the west.

I did encounter one strange phenomenon—a constant humming coming from the woods for much of my paddle, perhaps some kind of insect. Ricky later suggested locusts.  (I believe the Florida version is called cicadas.)  Regardless, I imagined that a magical wood nymph, attempting to keep the river serene and peaceful, placed them there to help cover the sound of distant traffic sometimes present.

I stopped to climb and play when I reached the limestone caverns on the west bank—what a great spot for a picnic! However, I stayed close to the entrance of the caves, not wandering into the dark depths.  Further downriver, I followed a short spring run to my left and paddled around Dykes Springs, trying to capture the swirling blues and greens with my camera.  Back on the river, I paddled further and passed Spring Creek.

Just Along for the Ride

The thunder had already started, but I made it back to the outfitter at 1:30 p.m., just before the skies opened up and the thunder, lightning, hail, and rain began.

(Outfitter: Bear Paw Canoe Rentals. 2100 Bear Paw Lane, Marianna, Florida 32448. (850) 482-4948)

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