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Sandbars on the Perdido River

Vacation time had arrived at last, and this summer, I planned to return to the Panhandle for three paddles. It was long overdue—I had originally scheduled it for July, but I fractured my wrist (handstands) and had to delay my trip. My cast came off Friday, two days before I left for the Panhandle.  I figured a few days of paddling would be good therapy.

I chose the most westerly river I could for my first paddle: the Perdido River. In Spanish, Perdido means, “lost” or “lost river.” If you look at the map, the Perdido River draws the north-south boundary between Florida and Alabama, and there is so much history here as the Spanish, British, French, and of course, United States, struggled to gain possession of these lands. (Boning) The Perdido originates in Alabama and travels about 58 miles from Alabama to Perdido Bay—which is part of the Gulf.  It includes nine miles of Florida Designated Paddling Trail from Barrineau Park to Adventures on Perdido. The Perdido is also an Outstanding Florida Water.

Adventures on Perdido (formerly part of Adventures Unlimited) is the only outfitter on the river.  Linda and Dave are the owners; theirs is a small mom and pop outfitter in the middle of nowhere. They have enough canoes to meet the needs for busloads of vacationers, but I found the choice of kayaks limited. A sit-on-top would have been nice under the hot sun (and Linda’s recommendation), but theirs were too small to hold my cooler and supplies, so I opted for a sit inside. As it turned out, it had wacky tracking, and whenever I stopped paddling, the kayak turned right–a bit like that crazy cart I sometimes get at Publix.

At 9:30 a.m., Dave dropped me at the Perdido River Wildlife Management Area access, just south of Barrineau Park.  From here, I paddled south with Alabama on my right and Florida on my left—how cool is that? I spent the next three hours alone on the tea-colored waterway under the hot August sun.  The wide river (often about 50 feet wide) and tall palms, cedar and cypress offered little shade! I made do with the sit inside kayak and flung my legs over the sides—not very ladylike, but it was very relaxing and much cooler with my feet dipped in the water.

A Peaceful Perdido River

A Peaceful Perdido River

The river was quiet—no people, no animals, no gators or snakes. Three hawks flew overhead and disappeared. I took in the beautiful white sandbars and the high sandy banks while I snacked on trail mix and fruit. However, as beautiful as these all were, the condition of the river was disappointing. Dead wood in the water collected trash all along the river—reminders of inconsiderate humans. Although the Perdido Wildlife Management Area includes 15 miles of frontage on the river, portions are also owned by individuals (evidenced by many plastic chairs on sandbars) and gun clubs. I wondered who was responsible for keeping it clean.  This river had so much potential, but it seemed neglected.

Truthfully, I can’t say that Perdido makes my “top ten” list. However, is there anything better than to paddle down any Florida river in the midst of nature?

(Adventures on Perdido. 160 River Annex Road, Cantonment, Florida. (850) 968-5529 or (888) 863-1364)

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The “Little” Big Withlacoochee

I stood in the close quarters of the tiny outfitter’s office with Jackie, the owner. “We have alligators and snakes here, just so you know,” she warned me, and then she demonstrated how to remove a snake from a paddle. Truthfully, alligators don’t bother me, but I’ve yet to encounter a snake in a Florida river—strange as that might seem after 28 rivers paddled. So, I listened and asked questions (“What kind of snakes?” “How big are they?”), secretly hoping that the cold weather would keep the snakes away.

The Withlacoochee River. It sure is a mouthful to say. It’s a Native American term that means, “little big water” or “crooked river.”  I understood, once I paddled it. During the drier season, when the water is low, the “small” river twists and turns through sometimes high banks. However, when the rains come, the water flows high and into the woods so that the banks disappear and the river appears “big.” Paddling in the dry season, I could see how the high waters had left their marks on the trees.The Withlacoochee originates in the Green Swamp, along with the Peace, Hillsborough, and Ocklawaha rivers—a few of my favorites.  It travels west, then north, then west again, and it finally empties into the Gulf. It is an Outstanding Florida Water and is more than 140 miles long. Eighty-three miles is also a designated Florida Paddling Trail.

To get to the drop off, Jackie and I drove through the Richloam Wildlife Management Area in the Withlacoochee State Forest, scooting over on the dirt road to let hunters pass in their dusty pickups, hound dogs barking in cages in the back. If it had been later in the year, during the rainy season, I would have started my paddle several miles deeper into the Green Swamp at “High Bluff,” welcoming the extra couple hours of serenity and nature.  However, during the dry season, that portion of the river becomes puddles in places and requires a lot of portaging, so Jackie dropped me at the Lacoochee Park put in. From here, I had several miles to paddle back to the outfitter located on SR 575 and another five miles to the Sawmill residences where Jackie would pick me up.

The Withlacoochee Dressed in Browns and Grays

The Withlacoochee Dressed in Browns and Grays

I had layered up for a cool day of paddling—in the 60s when I began—brrr!  I had added the “required” orange vest (to ensure I would not be mistaken for a deer or hog by the hunters). The crisp air felt good as I paddled the quiet river. For nearly two hours, only the screeches of the occasional red-shoulder hawk broke the silence.

Earlier, Jackie had described the beautiful colors of the river in the springtime; however, even in its neutral shades of brown and gray, the river was beautiful—like an old photograph. Naked brown cypress clung to the banks while live oaks and red maples added bits of green and red to the landscape. Cypress knees stretched to the sky as if in prayer—how appropriate for this ethereal habitat!  Young ibis in various shades of white and brown, stood sentinel atop of the brown river banks while vultures cast ominous shadows on the river, perhaps circling a carcass hunters left behind.  Black-crowned night herons, great herons, anhingas and egrets seemed to enjoy the river’s tranquility, watching quietly as I passed.

Shortly before I paddled under SR 575, I saw the first house.  After that, old wooden framed houses popped up on the banks here and there, and folks were out fishing. The low water created light turbulence in the water in some areas which made paddling fun.  In one spot, I struggled to get my kayak through overgrown vegetation and fallen trees, but I managed to do it without stepping into the dark water and muck.

Indeed, the cool weather had kept the critters away—no snakes or alligators on this trip!  However, the Withlacoochee is definitely a river I’ll return to when the water is higher and the banks are green. I imagine I will see an entirely different river at that time.

(Outfitter: Withlacoochee River Canoe Rental. 39847 SR 575, Dade City/Lacoochee, Florida. (352) 583-4778)

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The Wakulla River surprised me—in a nice way. I knew enough about the river to know that it is wider and busier than

Places to Explore on the Wakulla River

most rivers I paddle, and I expected to see summer homes along the banks and boats in the water.  However, I did not expect the Wakulla to be charming and picturesque, with images that reminded me of a Highwaymen painting.

The Wakulla River, both an Official Florida Canoe Trail and an Outstanding Florida Water, begins at the Wakulla Springs, one of the largest springs in the world.  It travels about nine miles until it meets up with St. Marks River, and then, just a few miles further downstream, it flows into the Gulf.  It’s not possible to paddle all the way up to the springs, as the river is fenced off at SR 365, three miles south of the springs.

Once privately owned, the land around the springs is now the site of a state-owned hotel and resort—the Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park and Lodge. Financier Edward Ball constructed the resort in 1937; the state purchased it in 1986.  (Florida State Parks)

I put in at the US 98 bridge at 10:45 a.m., renting a kayak from TnT Hide-a-Way. It was Thursday, and I hoped for a quiet morning on the river.  I paddled north against a light current, toward the spring.  This was an out-and-back paddle, my turnaround point being the bridge at SR 365, about a four- mile paddle each way.

Shortly into my trip up the river, I met Josh, a local out for a quick paddle before going to work.  Josh, with a passion for Florida outdoors, was scouting out landscapes to photograph.  We chatted for a bit, and then he paddled ahead while I continued to discover the river.

Tall, old cypress dripping with long tresses of Spanish moss graced the edges of the wide river.  The water spread deeply into marshy woodlands creating small waterways to explore.  Below me, hydrilla and eel grass swayed with the current. Locals dropped fishing lines from small boats and leaned back to wait.

As I paddled further, I passed small cypress islands that divided the wide river.  I spotted wood ducks in flight and wood duck boxes mounted on trees. Outside one of these islands I paused and watched three playful manatees as they surrounded me, blowing bubbles in the water like children in a bathtub.  After all the rivers I’ve paddled, this was my first manatee sighting!

After the Rain

I made it to the bridge by noon, greeted by loud rumbles and ominous skies to the north.  When it began to rain on my return, I took comfort in seeing other paddlers on the river with me, and when the skies opened up, I was happy to see Josh tucked away under a wooden dock. I joined him, and we lingered together for awhile like two kids huddled in a tiny tent, watching the rain. Then after donning my disposal raincoat—we made a Butch Cassidy break for it and paddled out into the downpour. I couldn’t see far, but how beautiful the river looked in the rain! As we neared the bridge, the rain slowed.  I looked back and took a picture just as the rain ended, and we paddled the last stretch.

(Outfitter: TnT Hide-a-Way. 6527 Coastal Highway, Crawfordville, Florida. (850) 925-6412)

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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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Dark Waters of Spruce Creek

The more time I spend on Florida rivers, the more I’ve come to feel that the river cannot be rushed, that the longer the paddle, the better.  However, with this paddle, I discovered that when time does not allow for a long, leisurely paddle, a “quickie” paddle can still satisfy the senses—at least for the moment. 

My sister, Missy, and I paddled Spruce Creek in Port Orange on a Sunday morning in May.  Now, although my guidebooks recommend putting in at the eastern end of the creek, near Strickland Bay and Spruce Creek Park, we opted for a location closer to us, and we put in on the upper, western end, renting our tandem kayak from Cracker Creek Canoes in the privately-owned Spruce Creek Preserve.

Spruce Creek originates not far from this point, in the freshwaters of the cypress swamps.  To the west, there is less than a mile of waterway that can be navigated.  To the east, it’s less than 8 miles to Strickland Bay.  We didn’t want to miss the wild section of the river, so we began our paddle by heading west on the narrow, winding blackwater stream.   

It didn’t take long to realize why this little creek is both an Outstanding Florida Waterway and a Florida Designated Paddling Trail.  We gazed upon the picturesque creek, shaded by overhanging oaks, maples and cypress reflecting in the dark water.  On the left, high banks led up to wooded areas and one, maybe two homes tucked away.  To the right, the water spread out, seeping into the low cypress wetlands.  Deep in the woods, the birds called to each other from the trees.  

The further west we paddled, the more we had to skirt around or duck under fallen trees.  It took us less than 30 minutes to reach a point where the narrowing creek and downed trees forced us to turn around and paddle back east.  

Now, heading east, past our put in, the creek widened.   Two great blue herons greeted us, flying up the river.  A cormorant sat atop of a pole in the water, seemingly unbothered by the company.  Woodpeckers tapped away, busy at work on an overhanging tree.  We could see and hear the mullet jumping around us, close enough to get us wet as they flopped gracelessly out of the water.  We saw schools of them below us, swimming in the dark water.

If we had paddled further, we would have noticed even more of a change in the creek.  As it nears Strickland Bay, the creek and its surroundings become more estuarine with grass flats, salt marshes, and mangrove forests.  But, alas, our time was up!  We turned around and headed back to our put in.

(Outfitters: Cracker Creek Canoes, Port Orange, Florida, 386-304-0778)

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The Tomoka River

The Tomoka River

On Monday morning, I headed to the Tomoka State Park in Ormond Beach to paddle the Tomoka River.  I had attempted to paddle this river twice before, but I could never find the outfitter in—the drats for not bringing my own kayak with me.  This time, I spoke to Billy by phone, and he was meeting me there.

The Tomoka, a state-designated Outstanding Florida Water, originates in a swampy area just southwest of Daytona.  It runs north, picking up waters from the Little Manatee River, Strickland Creek, and Thompson Creek, until it eventually merges with the Halifax River.  As it nears the Halifax, it becomes tidally influenced and takes on more estuarine characteristics.  (Boning)

I wasn’t certain that I would like the Tomoka. The state park “put in” sits at the northern end of the river, at the basin, right where the Tomoka connects to the Halifax River. The river is very wide here, so I knew it wasn’t going to be a sweet, canopied paddle.  However, even with the cool winds on this morning, I could feel the sun warm me through my jacket.  It was a beautiful day to paddle.

From the put in, I had a choice to either paddle south, make a loop that would include Strickland and Thompson Creeks, and return, or to paddle north toward the Halifax.  Although I liked the loop option (the river would be narrower), Billy suggested that with the winds and the movement of the current, I head north toward the Halifax.  So, I took his advice, and I put in, staying close to the shore, and after about 15 minutes of paddling, I took a couple smaller waterways that headed back into the state park.  These were both still pretty wide—60 feet or so—but I was sheltered some from the winds and could see both sides of the river.

It turned out to be a lovely day on the river.  Being Tuesday, the boat traffic was light; I saw only a couple small motorboats on the river.  Within the first five minutes of my paddle, a dolphin graced the water a short distance in front of me.  Fish jumped around me, taunting the few people casting lines from the shore.

The state park brags a bird paradise, and I did see quite a few: herons (great, green, blue, and tri-colored), egrets, osprey, pelicans, kingfishers, and black-necked stilts.  Heading into the waterways, tall salt grasses with a backdrop of cabbage palms and pines trimmed short sandy beaches.  It turned out to be a quiet, lazy day on the river.

I would return to the Tomoka, but I would paddle south and complete the loop to include Strickland and Thompson Creeks as well, or I might even try to put in at the FL 40 bridge and paddle north, provided, of course, I bring my own kayak.  Either way, it’s bound to be a great paddle!

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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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