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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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057

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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Blooming Vines on the Sebastian River

Blooming Vines on the Sebastian River

Standing on the dock, looking down at the small, winding river, my thoughts drifted to childhood images of summers in Vermont, fishing from the banks of Joe’s Brook with my siblings. We would sit amongst the tall grasses—in the middle of nowhere—where we had moments ago caught grasshoppers and dug for worms to use for bait.  I love small rivers like this, the kind that twist and turn with banks dripping with foliage, trees casting shade for paddlers.

A funny thing about this river, the Sebastian, it seems no one agrees on what to call it. My guidebooks call it Sebastian River, Sebastian Creek, and St. Sebastian River.  At first I thought they all referred to different waterways, and I nearly passed this one up. So glad, I didn’t!

So, I rented my kayak from All About Kayaks—right across from Wimbrow Park, just off Airport Road, in Sebastian, Florida.  Steve drove me to my put in on the South Prong of the Sebastian—off Fellsmere Road (CR 512), giving me a three-hour paddle north to Wimbrow Park, about 4.5 miles. I would paddle the South prong which flows south to north and eventually meets up with the North Prong and empties into the Indian River.

I put in under a beautiful clear sky, the crisp air and tinges of orange and gold along the river’s edge signaling that fall had finally arrived.  I paddled away from the dock on the dark, cool water, already captivated by this charming river.  I pushed aside branches to get through here and there and took in the uncoiffed landscape— tall grasses, leather ferns, oaks, cabbage palms, pines, and saw palmetto—all crowding the river—and blooming vines pouring off trees like waterfalls.

Paddling north, the St. Sebastian River State Buffer Preserve appears on the left, so it was on the east side where the houses popped up—usually not disturbing the serene surroundings, at least in the beginning. More than once I headed down a branch of the waterway, only to find that it dead-ended, and I had to turn back.

For nearly two hours, I paddled a narrow river where nature reigned.  My paddle was peaceful, serene, and fragrant. Water seeped into the woods over the low banks; occasional sand bluffs appeared on the west side of the river.

The country charm eventually gave way to a more estuarine quality as the river widened…and then, a dolphin slid in and out of the water in front of me.  I continued to enjoy the solitude of the river and the fish that jumped around me—sometimes near misses to my vessel.  Lazy turtles sunned themselves on fallen logs as great blue herons lifted themselves into the air. Before long, I spied colorful skydivers floating on the air currents in the distance—much the way the osprey floated.  Wimbrow Park was just ahead.

(Outfitter: About Kayaks (Steve). 25 Airport Drive West, Sebastian, FL 32958. (772) 589-3469)

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At last, the sun graced Southeast Florida for a day, so I took off from work and

Marsh Grasses on Turkey Creek

headed to Palm Bay for a paddle on Turkey Creek.  This is an out-and-back paddle, with a put in on either end.  I put in at the Palm Bay Marina on U.S 1.  My destination: Turkey Creek Sanctuary, a nature reserve run by the Audubon Society.

I paddled away, passing the boats docked at the marina and the Palm Bay Estates—a small modular residential area. I paddled under the railroad trestle and into a series of braided channels. “Take the middle waterway,” the man at the marina had told me—and about the time I cursed myself for leaving the map on my car seat, I saw an aqua blue sign directing me.   I believe this is called “Willow Swamp,” perhaps after the Carolina Willows which adorn the banks.

I paddled upstream (west) against a current and a breeze, feeling guiltless for missing my morning workout. I spied a great egret peeping out through the tall marshy grasses and an osprey keeping watch from a high tree. Homes dotted the banks on the outside of the channels.

Pathway Through Turkey Creek Sanctuary

Just over a mile into my trip, a dolphin dipped into the dark waters in front of me, marking my passage into the sanctuary. Shortly thereafter, I paddled under the Port Malabar Bridge where the scenery changed.  The creek became a winding stream, shaded by oaks, maples, elms, and palms and embraced by various wetland scrub plants including leather ferns and swamp lilies.  Sand pines clutched high bluffs on the right as I paddled around a bend in the creek.

Mullet jumped around me, cooling me with their splashes.  Suddenly, a huge (yes, huge!) fish surged from the water–an Aquaman wanna-be–directly in front of me.  He did a little squiggle, and went straight back down, tail first.   He was a few feet long with a wide girth—I would not have been able to put my hands around him.  I’ve asked four people what it was and got four different answers—the best being a large bass.

With my meandering and a bit of chatting with other yakkers, it took me over an hour and a half to reach the sanctuary.  I paused at the sandy beach, stretched my legs and snacked on nuts and fruit.  I didn’t take the time to walk along the board walks and nature trails, but I understand they are lovely.

Before heading back, I took a quick paddle to the dam—less than 15 minutes upstream. I realized that the water pouring from the four large sections accounted for the stronger current as I neared the sanctuary beach earlier.

My outing was just over 4 miles, and with my leisurely paddle, it took me three hours.

(Outfitters: Palm Bay Marina, Palm Bay, Florida, 321-723-0851)

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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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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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