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The Enchanting Arbuckle Creek

What a wonderful St. Patrick’s Day paddle! I kayaked Arbuckle Creek with a friend, Rick Murphy. (Rick paddled Fisheating Creek with me as well.) We paddled from the boat ramp in Avon Park on Arbuckle Road, north to Lake Arbuckle and then back, about five miles total. What a sweet river! I had read that it can get congested with vegetation in a couple spots when the water level is low, but we had no problems getting through.

Arbuckle Creek is a 23-mile blackwater creek that runs from Lake Arbuckle in Avon south to Lake Istokpoga in Sebring. Arbuckle State Park fishing and campgrounds border parts of the upper river with the U.S Airforce Base (which we never saw from the river) along the east side of the river. My guidebooks describe the 2.5-mile stretch from the Avon Park boat ramp to Lake Arbuckle as the most scenic, so I called the Sebring Kayak Tours (the only outpost I could find in the area) and made arrangements to meet up with Nelson. There isn’t an outpost on this creek, and Nelson was nice enough drop two kayaks at the boat ramp, so we didn’t have to pick up the kayaks in Sebring.

For the first two hours, we paddled north on the narrow creek, against a light current. It was a perfect day, sunny and warm but cool in the shade. Spring had sprung on the creek! The Cyprus, dressed once again in their greens (just in time for St. Patty’s), cast beautiful reflections on the water while cypress knees clustered like crowds of little people gathering for a parade. Oaks and red maples seemed to embrace the narrow, twisting creek, with a magical sense of a fairy tale. Lilies and irises were just beginning to bloom.

When we reached Lake Arbuckle, we stretched and snacked on nuts and fruit and watched a silly sandhill crane family grassing. The trip back, a breeze now with the current, treated us to a new perspective of the creek with great herons lifting off from the bushes and lots of baby alligators. These alligators ranged from one to three feet long, and at one point, we passed through a pool where little eyes poked out of the water around us—perhaps eight or ten sets. We kept watch for momma gators, but never spotted any.

The river had a lazy feel. We passed a few men fishing from the shore or from small, quiet boats and watched as one man pulled in a nice-sized catfish. Birds called to each other from the trees: ospreys, great herons, ibises, limpkins, great egrets, kingfishers, and hawks. Beautiful dragonflies and damselflies hitched rides on our yaks as we paddled.

Arbuckle Creek made my list of “awe” some Florida waterways. It captured me from its first twist and turn with its mystical charm; it took my breath away!

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Low Waters on the Little Manatee

The fog had begun to lift, as the sun struggled to peak from the clouds.  A few sprinkles of rain tapped my windshield, as I pulled into the Canoe Outpost.  I didn’t know what to expect from this river, and I realized how much I loved the anticipation and the “not knowing.”

The Little Manatee River starts narrow and twisting somewhere around Fort Lonesome and Wimauma in Hillsborough County and widens as it travels west approximately 40 miles to the Tampa Bay.  A blackwater river, it is designated as an Outstanding Florida River.  The five miles between the Canoe Outpost and Little Manatee State Recreation Area is an official state canoe trail. (Carter et. al)

Rather than paddle from the Outpost to the Little Manatee River State Recreation Area, I chose to paddle the upper river, the 9-mile stretch between CR 579 and the Outpost.  Here, the river is narrow, canopied, less traveled, and wild.  This time of year, the water level is low, and as I gathered my supplies, the folks at the Outpost warned me to expect a portage or two.

I chatted with Mike from the Outpost as he drove me to my drop.  “You probably won’t see many gators, if any,” he said, “the poachers got most of them.”  Mike added that since this section of the river would be quiet (me, being his only drop so far), I may be treated to some wild hogs, deer, and bobcats along the way.  I appreciated the “heads up.”

I began my paddle west, sheltered by steep banks and wooded forest.  I could see the fish scurrying beneath me and could have easily touched the river’s sandy bottom with my hand—the water was that low.   A great blue heron flew up the river toward me, its wing span magnificent—what a sight.

About an hour into my paddle, alone on the river and lulled by the sweet harmony of the birds in the woods, I suddenly became alert when the bushes on both sides of the river came to life.  Wild hogs, first one large black one to my left, then more to my right, and for the next 10 minutes or so I paddled through the land of swine with hogs racing up the banks as I approached.  I spied a couple wild turkeys as they quickly bobbled away, as well.

The poachers had apparently been successful, as I saw only one small alligator.  However, the turtles appeared quite large and healthy!  I spotted ducks, herons, hawks, cardinals, and even a few red-bellied woodpeckers.

The low waters had created high steep banks in some places and low sandy beaches in others.  I scooted over sandbars and logs and under overhanging branches trying to avoid all the obstacles.  My mantra became, “I ain’t ‘fraid of no bugs” as I checked my hair and body each time I emerged from the branches.  (I read that during the rainy season, this water rises rapidly, and with all the obstructions in the water, one must be quick to make it through without mishap!)  Grapefruits, oranges and tangerines added a splash of unexpected color against the green and brown backdrop of oaks, willows, pines and cabbage palms.

For nearly four hours, I paddled past undeveloped landscape—with few reminders of civilization except the Florida Power plant just about halfway and the abandoned railroad trestle further along. Oh, and then, of course, there was the small group of four-wheeling, beer-drinking rednecks who greeted me just past the trestle.  Other than that, it was a fabulous, peaceful day on the river.

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Even the name sounds intriguing—Fisheating Creek.  The Seminoles called it

The Shimmering Fisheating Creek

Thlothlopopka-Hatchee, “the creek where fish are eaten” (Boning) long before it  was paddled for recreation.  I’ve wanted to kayak this creek for some time.  After  all, Carter et al. gives it an A+ for scenery; I knew it would be amazing.  However, I found that during the dry season, the water level was too low for paddling—unless of course, I didn’t mind carrying my kayak for much of the trip!  So, I waited for the rain, and then, I waited for the rain to stop. Finally, I decided to paddle Fisheating Creek, rain or shine.

Originating in a swamp in Highlands County, Fisheating Creek flows south, then east, for 48 miles.  It passes through the cypress swamps, much within the state-owned Fisheating Creek Fish and Wildlife Management Area, and then this tea-colored creek eventually empties into Lake Okeechobee (Boning).

On this Sunday morning, I paddled with a new friend, Rick Murphy, who hails from the Hendry County area.  We rented kayaks from Fisheating Creek Outpost, and they dropped us at Burnt Bridge about 11:00.  We would have an 8-mile paddle downstream to the Outpost in Palmdale which would take us about four hours.

The sun had just peaked from beneath the clouds, promising us a good paddle.  The creek was wide at the put-in.  Tall cypress trimmed its edges—brown and bare this time of year—but cloaked in air plants and Spanish moss which shimmered silver in the sunlight.  During the four-hour trip, the sun was in and out as were our rain covers.  During the last 30 minutes of our paddle, the rain drenched us!

The creek and surrounding scenery awed us.   One moment we paddled in open waters, the creek, 40 feet or wider, and in the next moment, the dark waters took us swiftly, twisting and turning through the cypress swamp.

Wood storks and ibis dominated this Florida wonderland, but we also spotted various herons, blackbirds, vultures, anhingas, egrets, and even a turkey. We became accustomed to the alligators that often crossed in front of us or that sunned on the sand banks as we passed.

Cypress Reflections on Fisheating Creek

We owned the creek for nearly the entire paddle, and neither the occasional rain nor the humongous spider that slipped down my shirt as we put in dampened our spirits.  Fisheating Creek is an amazingly authentic, awe-inspiring Florida wilderness experience.

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The Wild Hillsborough River

The rain came in torrents the night before, and I woke to partly cloudy skies and a chance of more rain.    I called Canoe Escape in
Thonotosassa for a weather report, and I was a bit surprised when the guy on
the other end chirped, “Skies are clear here!”  So, off I went to discover the Hillsborough
River.

Originating in the Green Swamp, the Hillsborough is a blackwater river and largely spring fed by the waters of Crystal Springs (south of Zephyrhills), accounting for its clarity—even after a hard rain.  Along its 54-mile journey, several tributaries feed into it before it empties into the Tampa Bay.  Throughout the years, this river has had  several names, but it was finally named Hillsborough River by the British in 1769 after the Earl of Hillsborough who served as colonial secretary of state (Boning).

On this Sunday morning, I rented a sit-inside kayak from the Canoe Escape outfitters and was dropped at Sargeant Park, where I had an option of paddling two hours downstream to Morris Bridge Park or four hours to Trout Creek Park.  I opted for the four-hour paddle, and was rewarded with a journey through a river wonderland.  This river was absolutely beautiful—an A+–with water often clear enough for me to see not only the eel grass swaying along the sandy bottom, but many bass, gar, and sucker fish as well.

And there were many, many alligators.  Within my first 30 minutes on the river, I  had already sighted 20 gators.  It appears that alligators are to the Hillsborough what turtles are to the Santa Fe.  By the end of my paddle, I had seen somewhere between 50 and 100.  It was obvious that these gators were at home in their habitat, and although they were not aggressive, they weren’t moving from their favorite spot just because I was there, either.

Beautiful, serene, and wild.  My paddle was—AWEsome.  I was in the midst of a bird paradise with a sweet symphony playing in the trees as the water pulled me gently along like a ride at Disney.  A great egret turned toward me, looking silly with white sand on the end of his bill, having just dug for some treasure.  A momma limpkin enjoyed a day at the river with her two young ones. Anhingas spread their wings to dry them in the sun.  Egrets, herons, limpkins, roseate spoonbills, woodpeckers, wood storks, and ibis were plentiful.  At one point in the journey, I passed Nature’s Classroom, and hundreds of vultures, seemingly wicked as they flapped their wings and congregated along the bank, took it all in.

The river was shaded, canopied for much of the trip by oaks, red maples, cypress, and an occasional sweetgum.  At times, the river was narrow and twisted and turned.  (I thought I had made a wrong turn at one point.)  When the river widened, water lilies and hyacinths decorated its edges.

It was impossible to see it all.  Watching a gator slither into the water to my left, I heard a huge splash to my right and turned just as an osprey lifted himself from the water.  An otter frolicked in the water, finally emerging with his hair slicked back, looking ready to don his smoking jacket.  The harmony and balance of nature amazed me.

I paddled just two small sections of this river, but there is so much more to it.  Other sections include a six-mile run from Crystal Springs to Hillsborough State Park (not for the beginner; there are three Class II drops/rapids and many portages in this section.)  The section from Hillsborough State Park to Sargeant Part where I put in, contains the Seventeen Runs with numerous deadfalls and carryovers. At this time of year with the low water levels, the Seventeen Runs section is closed.  However, for anyone interested, Canoe Escape takes a group out once a year in September.

Another beautiful Florida river, the Hillsborough is a wonderfully and surprisingly scenic and serene escape.

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Alafia River (10/10/10)

Taking advantage of a work-related trip to St. Petersburg, I stopped in Venrico on my return

The Twisting, Winding Alafia River

to  paddle a stretch of the Alafia River—from Alderman Ford Park to the Alafia River Canoe Rentals—about a 10 mile paddle.  Carter et al rated the scenery on this section of the Alafia a mere “B,” and Ohr and Carmicheal emphasized the phosphate pollution of the late 1900s, so I wasn’t expecting much.  However, this river had me at the first twist and turn.

The water level of the Alafia can range greatly.  Too low, and a kayaker would not be able to paddle through.  Too high, and the water would be into the trees, and one better have the skills to maneuver!  On this day, the water level was on the low side, but high enough for me (and others) to get through. 

As the waters of the Alafia twist and wind, they pass over limestone shoals, creating short white water rapids that hurried me along.  I was glad to be traveling down river and not up!  I found the downed trees and logs in the water a bit challenging as I was forced to choose between either scooting under a fallen tree or paddling over a fallen log, and risk getting stuck.  (I suspect this may be why this river received a B rating, but I found it added to the charm and adventure of the river.)  It occurred to me more than once that a companion would have been nice, if only to survey my hair for bugs and snakes after ducking under a fallen tree.

The Alafia is narrow compared to rivers such as the Santa Fe and Suwannee.  Cypress knees, like miniature fortresses, guard its banks, while giant roots cling to the sides.  Oak, cypress, and cabbage palms decorate the banks and often canopy the river.  With the water level quite low, the banks ranged from just a few feet to five and even ten feet high at times.  The woods were alive with sounds, although I saw only a few birds. 

As I paddled along this Sunday afternoon, vivid reflections in the river tricked me to believing that I was paddling into the river rather than on the river.  I wondered why anyone would every choose Disney over this.  The water cleared at times, and I could see the weeds waving below me.  I felt as if I could have kayaked this river forever.

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Morning on the Ocklawaha River

What a fabulously serene paddle.  I spent over three hours on the Ocklawaha River, and I was the only person on the river the entire time.  I paddled eight miles, from Gores Landing to the Ocklawaha Outpost, a paddle Ohr and Carmicheal describe as a “twisty, naturally gorgeous side trip to the northeast.”   It was an easy paddle; I was paddling with the current and had a strange sense of floating downwards the entire trip.  The gradient on this river is 1.4—meaning it drops 1.4 feet per mile—just slightly higher than that of the Silver River which is 1.0. This river flows north, and it eventually flows into the St. Johns River which also flows north.  The water seemed high and spread into the trees on the banks.  It was a beautiful, mirror-like, flooded river.

So, it was just me and the river…and the critters around me.  I could hear the birds calling to each other in the trees.  Later, I discovered that some of those sounds may have been monkeys.  I saw five alligators along the way, but they didn’t care much about me.  It was easy to imagine that I was in a Tarzan movie or on the Jungle Queen; this was the wilderness.  I just floated and paddled with the current and listened to nature around me.  What a life! 

I saw only a few birds; perhaps because the water was so high they stayed deeper in the woods.  The trunks of the trees on the banks were weathered.  The vegetation was much like that on the Spring River including cow lilies, water hemlock and water hyacinths.

I spoke with two women on the Spring River the day before, and they referred to the Ocklawaha as “sweet tea” because of its dark color.  I would add “very strong” to that.  The water was caramel-colored, and I couldn’t see through it.  It was probably a good thing.  The young girl at Ocklawaha Outfitters said that the gar fish are typically four to six feet long.  Yikes! 

The Ocklawaha is another “must paddle again” river.  Mike O’Neal, the owner of the Outpost, suggested that next time I paddle , I should paddle from Ray Wayside Park on Highway 40 and end at Gore’s Landing (where I began today).  He said that besides being a lovely, scenic trip, the monkey sightings are frequent. 

By the way, the Ocklawaha Outpost was the friendliest outfitter so far.  It is family-owned;  the O’Neils have owned it for just over a year.  I met Mike and his daughter, Cassie.  Cassie showed me a couple of the cabins they rent—just in case I come back for the other run.  They were cute and very clean.  Malin, one of the employees who drove me to Gore’s Landing, told me all about the alligators and snakes in the river.  The Outpost rents sit inside kayaks—Loons, and this was the first time I had used this type of kayak.  Once I got use to it—and after hearing the alligator and snake stories from Malin—I felt much more secure!

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The Scenic Silver River

Orh lists the Silver River as one of the top five “must paddle” rivers in Florida.  I put in at the Wilderness Campgrounds on Highway 40 and paddled a short distance on the Ocklawaha River until it met the Silver River.  (The Silver River pours into the Ocklawaha River here.  It was easy to distinguish the Ocklawaha River and the Silver River by the color of the water.)  From this point, the 4.5 miles to Silver Springs was against the current—a laborious paddle to the Springs but a breeze of a return trip.  The entire 10-mile trip took me seven hours to paddle!  Of course, I stopped on a couple river banks to wade in the clear spring water and cool off, and I slowed down to take a picture or two and to watch the wildlife.  It was a lovely day; I wanted to stay forever.  What a beautiful river!

The Silver River is wider than the Wekiva, but not by much.  It doesn’t have the overgrowth of lilies as the Wekiva does, so there is plenty of room for small boats, canoes, and kayaks to share the river.  If you look at it on the map, you see how it continuously turns.  What you don’t see is that around every turn is a beautiful picture.  That added to the time it took me to reach the Springs.  I often kayaked with my feet in the water to keep cool, but I was not tempted to jump in. The fast moving water and the deep holes with long eel grass did not tempt me.

The first glass-bottomed boat appeared on the Silver River in the late 1800s, and for those of you who don’t know or remember, the old black and white Tarzan movies were filmed there.  Seriously, I’m not sure it has changed much; at times, I could squint and picture Tarzan swinging from the trees; I felt that back to nature.  And who needs glass-bottomed boats? I could see the bottom through the crystal clear water.  Petrified, fallen trees like relics from sunken ships decorated the bottom of the river.  The eel grass and other water grasses clung, moving with the water and giving it an eerie appearance.

My paddle was quiet.  A few small motor boats passed me during the day, and only a few other kayakers and canoers appeared.  For awhile, I paddled with two women from Gainesville.  A common greeting among kayakers seemed to be, “Good morning.  Have you seen any monkeys?”  Everyone seemed to be looking for the rhesus monkeys that inhabit the area.  (I never did see one.)

The scenic trip included plentiful bird wildlife: ibis, cormorants, anhingas, egrets, and herons.  Turtles sunned on the logs, and cow lilies and water hemlock outlined the river along with cypress and cabbage palms.  Occasionally, a large fish jumped.  I saw only one small alligator on my way back.  I had to spin around to get a picture of him.  He was sunning on a log and wasn’t moving for anyone.

I agree with Ohr.  Silver River is, without a doubt, a “must paddle” river!

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