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Seeking a little nature and serenity and needing a bit of exercise after the Christmas holiday, my sister, Missy, and I grabbed a quick paddle at De Leon Springs. De Leon Springs forms the

Old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant at De Leon Springs

Old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant at De Leon Springs

headwaters of Spring Garden Creek in Volusia County–which flows for four miles from the springs to Lake Woodruff and another six miles to the St. John’s River. We intended only a short paddle this day–an out and back, about two hours.

We rented kayaks at the onsite concession in the park, walked past the beautiful live oaks and the many sunbathers along the banks of the springs, hopped aboard our vessels, and paddled away. Missy spotted a manatee immediately and paddled along side if for a bit. Then, we headed down Spring Garden Creek towards Lake Woodruff. We had yet to have winter weather here in Florida, so it was a pleasant day–if not a little warm on the wide waterway. We kept to the shore, trying to catch a little shade.

The waterway was quiet–with the exception of an occasional boat. No surprise that we spotted many birds along the shore–herons (great, blue, tri), egrets, ibis, coots, cormorants, anhingas, and osprey, as the park is on the Great Florida Wildlife and Birding Trail. We never did make it to the lake, but we enjoyed the paddle and our brief encounter with nature.

(Outfitter: DeLeon Springs State Park Concession. 601 Ponce de Leon Blvd, De Leon Springs, FL 32130. (386) 985-4212)

 
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Spring term at the College had ended, and I desperately needed a get away! Don’t get me wrong; I love my job. However, the time had come to pull out my river guide books and my map and find a

A Quiet Day on the Cotee

A Quiet Day on the Cotee

new paddle destination. I selected the Pithlachascotee River on the west coast.

It has taken me several years to get around to paddling the Pithlachascotee River—or the “Cotee” as those who know it well refer to it. I love the winding, twisting, secluded rivers—drop me in the swamp with no humans for miles around, and I’m happy. Much of the Cotee is an urban river, flowing through the town of New Port Richie—with the houses and busy boat traffic that accompany a wider, urban river. Thus, the delay.

So, I paddled the Cotee on a Friday morning, and I managed to avoid human contact almost completely. I put in at the James E. Grey Preserve–renting a kayak from Gill Dawg Marina (They dropped off and picked up!). I headed east, towards the river’s source, curious to see how far I could paddle before the fallen trees forced me to turn around.

The blackwaters of the Cotee flow about 25 miles from its source to the Gulf. The five-mile paddle from the Rowan Road Bridge to the Francis Avenue City Park is the official canoe trail. I planned to travel from the Preserve, east to Rowan Bridge and beyond, and then turn around and paddle west past my put in to the Francis Avenue City Park, and then, back to the Preserve.

I found the portion from my put-in at the Preserve to the bridge (east) and beyond, challenging—but lots of fun! I made the bridge in about 20 minutes and was able to paddle for another 30 minutes before I was forced to turn around. Along the way, the trees and brush dusted me with twigs and webs as I scrapped between fallen branches. I got stuck on submerged logs several times, and I was grateful to be in a sit-on-top kayak and able to hang my legs outside the kayak to shove myself off (a pretty picture, I know!).

A Heron on the Cotee

A Heron on the Cotee

I saw little wildlife as I paddled—an occasional heron and a few turtles sunning themselves. Fish jumped around me in the murky waters. Heading west, the canopy disappeared, and the river widened and took on an estuarine quality, tall sea grasses lining the banks. Once I reached the Francis Avenue City Park, I made my turn and paddled back to the Preserve.

 

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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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In the spirit of the New Year fast approaching, it seemed appropriate

A Busy Homosassa River

A Busy Homosassa River

to select two rivers to paddle–one new river (one which I have never paddled) and one old river (one which I had previously paddled). I chose the Homosassa River in Homosassa, Florida, as my “new” river.

The Homosassa River originates at the Homosassa Springs in Citrus County. From there, the river travels about 8 miles westward before emptying into the Gulf. The Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park sits at the river’s headwaters. I toured the park this past summer and even visited the underwater viewing room to watch the fish and manatee from below. Pretty cool. The Homosassa is designated as an Outstanding Florida River, and by Florida Statute, it is “worthy of special protection because of [its] natural attributes” (Florida DEP).

From where I put in at Riversport Kayaks, I could see the considerable development along the river with homes and businesses. Small motor boats and pontoon boats filled with sightseers watching for manatees crowded the river heading east towards the springs. The sounds of puttering motors and country music filled the air, and there was no question that this would be a fun, rather than serene, paddle.

It was afternoon, and I paddled away under a beautiful, sunny sky with a light breeze—perfect weather for paddling. Kayakers and paddle boarders enjoyed the lazy afternoon keeping to the shoreline. I followed the crowd and paddled toward the springs as well, catching my first whiff of gas fumes just as a manatee ducked beneath the surface in front of me.

Outside the protected springs area, snorkelers swam in groups, hoping to make friends with a manatee. I paddled among the boats and then ventured into a couple of the river’s little nooks hoping to glimpse a bit a nature unaffected by all the commotion. I took a detour to the north and paddled under a bridge onto the Halls River, leaving the boats and country music behind on the Homosassa. Halls is a spring-fed tributary of the Homosassa, only about 3.5 miles long. It’s surrounded by tall marshy grasses. I explored a more shaded and narrower branch of the river for a while, and then I headed back to the outfitter—not spending near enough time on this river. Perhaps I will return to this river next year for a paddle to the springs.

(Riversport Kayaks. 5297 S. Cherokee Way, Homosassa, FL. (352) 621-4972 Email: rskkirk@gmail.com)

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The Steinhatchee River had been on my list of rivers to paddle for some

High Waters at the Steinhatchee Falls

High Waters at the Steinhatchee Falls

time, so I was happy to make the five-hour drive.  My attempt to paddle it last year had been throttled due to heavy rains that resulted in closed access at the Falls. Apparently, the waters had gotten so high and so fast that the paddle from the Falls to town, which typically takes about three hours, had some locals back in town in less than two! So, wisely, this year, I called the State prior to making the journey to confirm that there would be access. (Florida Water Commission, 904-359-3883) I later discovered that the Suwannee River Water Management District has a great website that monitors water levels and closings.

The Steinhatchee River (Native Americans named it “esteen hatchee” which means“river of man”) originates in Mallory Swamp in Lafayette County, and as it travels southwest to eventually empty into Deadman’s Bay, it picks up water from various springs (including Steinhatchee Springs) and creeks along the way. At one point—at US 19—it even goes underground when it flows into a sink, and it re-emerges about a half mile later—a couple miles above the Falls.

I planned my paddle for a weekday to avoid the weekend crowds, and the folks at Steinhatchee Landings Resort dropped me at the access in the Steinhatchee Falls Park. I put in on the west side of what would have been the Steinhatchee Falls—if the water level had been lower. Only little bubbles atop the water hinted at the 1-3 foot limestone drop now hidden under high waters. Suspecting that the river might be fast, I busied myself strapping everything down in my kayak. Next to me, a young local couple prepped to drop lines from their flat bottom boat. Watching as I loaded my kayak, the woman twanged “You

Limestone Banks Etched by Moving Waters

Limestone Banks Etched by Moving Waters

paddling alone?” When I nodded, she added, “What if you flip? Who will help you?” I quickly double checked my straps.

I climbed in my kayak and paddled away from the shore, relishing the peaceful tranquility the river always brings. For the first hour or so, I paddled a quiet, wild river, cypress and oaks providing me with refreshing shade. Limestone ledges hung over the water, etched by the water movement over many years. Large roots like long arms reached out from low banks and curved down towards the water. Birds called to each other from the woods, preferring its cool darkness to the hot sun. I hung my feet over the sides of the kayak and let them dangle in the cool, dark waters.

Midway through my paddle, the landscape began to change as old wood-framed cottages appeared, mostly on the north bank. Just as I spotted my first “watch for manatee” sign, the river took on an estuarine quality, and was now bordered by lilies, tall sea grasses, leather ferns, and sea grapes. This wider river offered little shade for a summertime paddle. As I neared the Landings Resort, more private residences, docks and marinas appeared on the banks.

In the end, I managed to stay upright throughout the seven-mile paddle; the river really wasn’t all that fast. It took me just over three hours with a couple short side trips on small creeks that entered the river. I made it back long before the rains came.

(Steinhatchee Landing Resort. Highway 51 North. Steinhatchee, Fl. 32359. (352) 498-3513.)

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Admittedly, my favorite rivers are remote, narrow, and twisted with a lush green canopy, lots of wildlife, and little human life.

A Hot, Lazy Day on Crystal River

A Hot, Lazy Day on Crystal River

However, a girl can enjoy an occasional frolic in a busy setting from time to time…right?  I had just paddled Waccasassa the day before, and this Saturday in May, I would paddle my 30th river (Yippee!).  I knew that Crystal River would be busy, but I expected it to be fun as well.

About 30 springs in and around King’s Bay make up the headwaters of Crystal River. The springs keep the Bay to a refreshing 72 degrees and a prime spot for the manatees during the colder months—however, not so many manatees hang around in these warmer months. Crystal River runs about 7 miles westward from the Bay before it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. (Boning)

So, mid-morning, I rented a sit-on-top kayak from Birds Underwater, planning to dip my feet in the cool water while paddling under a very hot sun.  I paddled away from the dock, hugging the shoreline, and took in my surroundings.  Sailboats and pontoon boats anchored around the Bay, painted a beautiful picture of a lazy afternoon on the water. Boats loaded with manatee-seekers and scuba divers coasted by.  Ahead of me, a parade of paddlers in their colorful kayaks paddled away.

I paddled towards the Three Sisters Springs, watching a couple dolphins frolicking in the water to my right.  The birds splashed around me, seemingly accustomed to the hub-bub: osprey, pelicans, cormorants, and ducks.  After I passed under a bridge, the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge appeared to my left while private residences lined the canals to my right.  I followed the colorful kayak parade to the Three Sisters Springs, entering what could have been a themed swimming pool at Disney.  Paddlers sat atop trees that had fallen across the crystal clear water while others sunbathed on their kayaks. I half expected to see a mechanized mermaid arise from the water singing an enchanting song about life under the sea. I slid from my kayak into the chilly (eek!) water and spent some time cooling off.

Before returning to the outfitter that afternoon, I took a paddle around the tall grasses of Buzzard Island. I did see one manatee lifting its snout out of the water as paddlers looked on. As I neared the outfitter, I could hear music coming from Crackers Bar, Grill, and Tiki. A cold beer was beginning to sound darn good!

Now that I’ve become somewhat familiar with King’s Bay, on a return trip I would like to paddle across the Bay and down the river. Although the river is not narrow and twisted, Huff claims that it is wild and natural—except for the occasional passing motor boat, that is.

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An hour and a half up the river, and I found myself stuck on a log, disappointed that my swift paddle maneuver didn’t work, after

Stuck on a Log--Waccasassa River

Stuck on a Log–Waccasassa River

all.  It was close to low tide, and even if I could get over the log, chances are, it would be more difficult on the return! I could see the narrow, twisted river in front of me, beckoning, and I hated that I couldn’t go further.  Below me, I peered through the clear, cool water, too deep for me to stand in to hoist the kayak over the log…not that I’d want to stand in the river after seeing the huge gator a while ago.

It had been months since I had been on a river—not since the holiday break in December. I’ve been working my way up the west coast of Florida on my paddling trips. In December, I paddled the Withlacoochee River (south), and I loved it, so when we started our four-day work week at the college in May,  I headed back to that area to paddle a couple more—beginning with the Waccasassa River.

The funny thing about the Waccasassa (besides saying the name) is that few people in the area seem to know where the heck the river is located.  However, it wasn’t difficult to find; the put in is a few miles south of US 19 on CR 326—the intersection a straight shot north of Crystal River—about 29 miles. CR 326 dead ends at the Waccasassa River Park.

The Waccasassa—named by the Seminoles—means “there are cows.” The river runs about 29 miles from its source at the Blue Spring west of Bronson to the Gulf. Along the way, it picks up waters (and some of its dark color) from a swampy area, the Waccasassa Flats in Devil’s Hammock.  As it travels southwest, the Wekiva River, Otter Creek, and Cow Creek add to its flow. (Boning)

So, I arrived at the park and hauled the kayak off the top of my car, put in at the boat ramp and paddled east, away from the bay. A few folks, probably locals, sat along the banks in old lawn chairs, their fishing lines in the water. It seemed a familiar and comfortable spot for them.  I gave a wave and a “phew, hot morning!” as I passed.  I looked forward to the shade of the river.

Twenty minutes later, I reached the fork in the river. To the left, the Waccasassa, to the right, the Wekiva. I stayed on the Waccasassa.  Just as I entered the wilderness, a huge gator took a running leap from the low bank and belly flopped into the river to my left (at least this is how I imagined it based on the loud sound he made).  Satisfied that he got my attention, he swam out to greet me.  I chatted only briefly with him before I paddled swiftly away, watching my back to make certain he didn’t follow.

Once I passed under CR 326 bridge, the distant boat noises I had heard earlier disappeared. The river narrowed, and I moved through the dark water—scooting around the many downed trees. As I paddled east, the water seemed to become clearer, and soon I could see mosses growing on logs below me.

I loved this–alone on the river, surrounded by low banks adorned with cypress, cabbage palm, pine, maple, oak, and Florida willow. Much of the property along the river is state-owned with no development.  I paddled quietly, listening to the noisy cawing and chirping going on in the trees.  I saw ducks, herons, swallow-tailed kites, ospreys, ibises, and an occasional turkey moving clumsily from tree to tree.

The Natural Beauty of the Waccasassa River

The Natural Beauty of the Waccasassa River

Fish jumped around me, and crabs scurried up the banks as I paddled past. The banks held colorful reminders of springtime—patches of white, purple and yellow flowers brightened my journey. The Waccasassa is not a designated Florida Paddling Trail—which may be why I now found myself stuck on this log. However, with its natural beauty and peaceful tranquility, it was a pleasure to paddle. I finally wriggled my kayak free of the log, and headed back to the park.

(Outfitter: Crystal River Kayak Company. 1332 SE Highway 19, Crystal River, Florida. (352) 795-2255.)

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