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I put in mid-morning, three days after Christmas, under overcast skies in chilly (brrrrr…60 degrees!), breezy weather. Winter had arrived in Florida!  My location,

the Chassahowitzka River Campground—probably the best, if not the only put-in on the “Chaz.”

It took me some time just to be able to pronounce the name of this river—Chassahowitzka—and I’m still not certain I have it right. The Chaz is an Outstanding Florida Waterway. The river is wide, wide enough for boats, but shallow in many areas, keeping bigger boats away. It’s about six miles from the river’s source, just east of my put-in, to the Gulf. (See map.)

I had delayed my paddle on the Chassahowitzka expecting little shade from the hot sun during the summer months. However, I learned that what makes this waterway so special are the many spring runs along it—which are narrow and shaded and full of sweet surprises.

Jesse put me in at 10:30 a.m., securing my snake knife and cooler. (Others had told me there were many snakes on the river. However, I did not see one.) I paddled away, the water below me clear, heading just east to the Seven Sisters Spring. I passed a few small houses at the entrance to the spring and paddled into the little cove and over each of the seven sisters, all easy to see just below the clear surface.

ps://kayakingcaldwell.files.wordpress.com/2018/02/img_2631.jpg”> Searching for a Bite to Eat

[/caption]Exiting the springs, I paddled west along the wider river, spying schools of fish scurrying about below me. I later discovered that they were most likely mullet or mangrove snapper. Cypress, oaks, palms, and river grasses stood tall along the banks, bending slightly with the breeze. I saw tents pitched along the north side, smelling the campfires even before I saw the campers.

Jesse had described two “must see” areas that would provide me a peak at nature along the river, and that’s where I headed, eventually paddling into a narrower loop to the right toward Salt Creek. I spent an hour or so here, paddling up each of four narrow waterways, feeling rewarded when I spotted a raccoon couple making its way to the water, searching for a late breakfast. Birds huddled along the shallow banks and on branches—anhingas, small herons, egrets, and ibis. Wood ducks paddled along the water’s edge.

Forced to Portage on Baird Creek

Time went by quickly on the waterway—over two hours had already passed. I felt the refreshing cold on my face, the kind that turns your nose and cheeks red. I headed back towards the outfitter and up another spring run on the south side of the river, Baird Creek. I came upon a wood stork on the side of the narrow creek, searching for food, not bothered by my presence at all. I paused as I watched a playful otter dipping in and out of the water around the stork and my kayak. No fear. I carefully paddled around them, and continued until the waterway widened over Blue Spring. A bit further, and I was once more in a narrow, shallow waterway and was forced to get out and portage until a downed tree finally stopped me. From here, I sloshed about 150 feet through ankle deep water until I arrived at a clear pool of aqua water and the Crack.

In all, I was in the river four hours and never got far from my put in. On my return to the outfitter, I was treated to three colorful mallard ducks dipping in the water. A light rain began just as my trip ended.

(Chassahowitzka River Campground. 8600 W. Miss Maggie Drive, Homosassa, FL 34448. (352) 382-2200)

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Originally from New England, I find that Florida often surprises me with its knack of squeezing beautiful glimpses of nature in among the hub of civilization. Shingle Creek is one of these surprising glimpses.

Entering Shingle Creek

I took exit 242 off the turnpike and drove west through the Kissimmee sprawl on US 192 for several miles. Finally, my phone nagged me that Shingle Creek was just ahead on my left. “You’re kidding me, right?” I responded, not believing. I must have entered the address wrong. However, I made a U-turn at the light and took a right as directed, driving down a short, cypress-lined driveway to the outfitter and put in.

Considered the “headwaters of the Everglades,” Shingle Creek originates around Orlando and travels about 23 miles before it empties into Lake Tohopekaliga, (Ten of the 23 miles are part of the Florida’s Designated Paddling Trail system.) The creek makes up a portion of the Kissimmee basin—the waters that eventually flow into Lake Kissimmee and then the Kissimmee River. The Kissimmee River drains into Lake Okeechobee which flows into the Everglades and the Gulf. (Shingle Creek Regional Park)

I rented a kayak from The Paddling Center at Shingle Creek and pushed away from the shore on the small, still creek, heading south towards the lake. At the point of my put-in at Steffee Landing, I would only be able to navigate two to three miles of the creek (north and south of my put-in), a three-hour paddle at the most.

I paddled the creek, dead leaves fallen from overhanging trees floating on top the cool water. Although sounds of traffic and the local Kissimmee airport seemed to compete with the calming, rhythmic sounds of nature on the waterway, the wildlife appeared undisturbed.  Birds sang from the trees and waded along the banks. Turtles sunned themselves on downed trees. I put my head back looking up to the clear sky, breathed in deeply, and decided to ignore civilization as well. I focused on my surroundings—the dark water below me and the cypress, pine, and oaks along the creek’s banks.

Paddling Among the Cypress

Hurricane Irma had left the waterway a bit haggard here and there with downed trees and dead brush, while the Florida winter had stripped the trees of much of their foliage. However, the creek was lovely. Ten minutes into my paddle, I passed the banks of the Shingle Creek Regional Park on my left. I continued my southern paddle as the creek narrowed, and soon I was paddling among the cypress trees. Ahhhh…

Nearing the end of the clear trail, a posted sign warned me to stop and turn around. I admit I ignored the sign and paddled another 15 minutes. The trail, now winding among the cypress trees narrowed further while the flow of the water picked up a bit.  Another sign warned me that it was unsafe to continue—perhaps due to downed trees in the path. I paddled just a wee bit further before turning around, seeing the path blocked ahead.

On my return paddle going north, I passed the outfitter and under the US 192 bridge. The creek widened here but was still bordered by tall cypress. A shorter paddle this time, I eventually came to another outfitter sign instructing me to go no further. I continued until the creek became impassable—just a short distance.

Shingle Creek turned out to be a pleasant surprise and the perfect getaway—a two-hour paddled stretched into three for me. I found beautiful pieces of nature in the least likely place. I left reluctantly, spying the walkways and bike trails through the woods as I loaded my car, wishing I had time to linger.

(The Paddling Center at Shingle Creek. 4266 W. Vine Street, Kissimmee, FL 34741 (407) 343-7740)

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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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