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I arrived at the Ocklawaha Canoe Outpost and Resort in time to check into my cabin and unpack before jumping on the shuttle to the

A Soothing Paddle on the Ocklawaha…Aaahhhh

drop at Gores Landing. This would be my second paddle on the Ocklawaha and my first stay in the cabins. My adventurous spirit moved me to stay two nights along the river, rather than making a reservation at the closest Holiday Inn.  I took in my temporary “home”—a bit tight, but with enough room for 4 or 5 with the bunk beds—plus the loft.

Since my first visit nine years ago, the Outpost had been sold; the new owners were Lance and Theresa. At noon, Lance drove me—along with a party of eight—to the drop off. On the drive over, he gave us a bit of the river’s history, describing how in the late 19th and early 20th century, steamboats, filled with sightseers, traveled up and down the river to Silver Springs.  Sadly, the steamboats disappeared sometime after the arrival of the railroad.

We arrived at Gores Landing shortly before one o’clock, and Lance was kind enough to put me in first, ensuring a peaceful paddle ahead of the large party. The Gores Landing trip is 8 miles. I expected it to be about a four-hour paddle.  I paddled alone on the river until near the end when I passed two small motor boats—guys out fishing.

Theresa, at the Outpost, had warned me when I made reservations the week before that the river was in the midst of a draw down.  Apparently part of the river’s restoration plan proposed by the Department of Environmental Protection includes a phased draw down of the river to historic levels to flush the river and its banks of aquatic weeds and to help the floodplain re-vegetate. I expected the level to be lower than normal, but instead, it was higher due to recent rains, flowing into the trees and keeping the wading birds and wildlife deeper into the woods.

Floating on the Dark Waters

The Ocklawaha River was one of my very first river paddles—way back on July 14, 2010. I have always remembered it as one of my favorite rivers. At that time, the river was dressed in the bright greens of summer. This time, the river had dressed down in various shades of brown and gray for the winter holidays.

The overcast sky and high 60s temps made for the perfect paddling experience. I paddled north with the steady flow of the dark river, following its many twists and turns. I spied lots of gators—many of them juniors, only a month or so old. I sighted a few birds—ibis, herons. An owl called from deep in the woods. I searched for monkeys but spied none.

I paddled onto the Outpost boat ramp 3 hours and 45 minutes after my put in, feeling refreshed and relaxed. I had a lovely stay in my cabin the next two days, sitting next to a beautiful campfire each night and waking to the quiet. What a lovely way to end the year!

(Ocklawaha Canoe Outpost and Resort. 15260 NE 152nd Place, Fort McCoy, FL 32134 (352) 236-4606)

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I paddled through the shallow, swampy waterway, around the cypress and swamp weeds, and emerged onto the Wacissa River. Long eel grasses waved in the cool, clear water beneath me. Around

Emerging Onto the Wacissa River

Emerging Onto the Wacissa River

me, the river was wide and bordered with beautiful cypress, oak, maple, tupelo and pine trees…an “Old Florida” postcard.

The Wacissa River begins close to where I put in—in the swamp with a couple small springs. However, the larger Big Blue Spring is considered the headwaters of the river. The river runs about 14 miles and ends as it flows into the Aucilla River by way of a man-made canal. About a dozen springs add to the flow of the Wacissa (Carter et al.).

I paddled south, towards Big Blue. An orchard of water plants, such as Pickerel weed, forced me to the middle of the river, away from the shade of the banks. The thought crossed my mind more than once that I should have saved this river for cooler weather! The water deepened, and below me, invasive hydrilla—like thick masses of dreadlocks—blocked much of the view of the sandy bottom.

As much as the water plants kept me from shade, they were also alive with sounds of screeching and squawking birds. I saw blue heron, common moorhen, and egrets. I paddled past the frolickers at the Wacissa County Park—splashing around, trying to keep cool on this very hot day. A couple young boys in a canoe had hooked a small gator—and neither the boys nor the gator seemed to want to give up the lure.

Big Blue Spring on the Wacissa River

Big Blue Spring on the Wacissa River

I arrived at Big Blue Spring, delighted to find shade at last. I paddled over the Spring and peered into the clear water—beautiful shades of blue and green. However, the hydrilla growing in and around the Spring kept me from dipping. The ickiness of it all did not tempt me!

On my paddle back to the outfitter, I discovered that the river had many little nooks and crannies to explore which gave me a break from the sun. It really was a lovely river.

(Wacissa Canoe and Kayak. 290 Wacissa Springs Road, Monticello, FL 32344.(850) 997-5023)

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Yippee for summer vacation! I headed to North Florida to paddle a few rivers. I had selected three: the Withlacoochee River North, the Wacissa, and Holmes. I stayed two nights in Live Oak, a very

Lush Green on the Withlacoochee River North

Lush Green on the Withlacoochee River North

tiny town—and apparently “recently wet.” (a new term I learned from a bartender at what I believe was the only restaurant that sold liquor in Live Oak)

Sunday morning, I headed to Withlacoochee River North, renting a kayak from Lucas at the Suwannee River Canoe Rental. Lucas dropped me at Blue Spring about 10:30 a.m.—not nearly early enough to beat the many families already splashing around in the clear cool water. Where else would one go on such a hot day? It was in the 90s, but it would feel in the 100s by mid-afternoon. Lucas would pick me up at the Suwannee River State Park—a 12-mile paddle from here (longer than usual for me!). It would take me about 6 hours—did I mention how hot it was?

There are two Withlacoochee Rivers in Florida. I have paddled the Withlacoochee River South—which originates in the Green Swamp—twice. I loved it. The Withlacoochee River North originates in Georgia. Its black waters flow about 70 miles in Georgia and then another 32 miles in Florida before the river finally flows into the Suwannee River. I would be paddling the final 12 miles of the river.

Lucas had told me that given the choice, most people chose the Suwannee over the Withlacoochee. He explained that the Suwannee has higher limestone banks and more sandy beaches for paddling picnics. I paddled the Suwannee a few years ago, and although beautiful, I had been surprised at the amount of trash along the river. The price of being popular, I suppose.

I paddled south and took in the “Withs” limestone banks, etched out by the movement of the water over the years which created beautiful designs and little caverns. The surrounding green forest of cypress, oak, maple and tupelo trees shaded the edges of the river, giving me a little break from the hot sun. Moss hung from the trees as if stretching to reach the river. Dark green ferns poured down the banks. This picturesque scene only needed a plantation to complete it. What a beautiful river!

Shoals on the Withlacoochee

Shoals on the Withlacoochee

Large fish jumped around me as I paddled. I laughed, thinking one would land in my kayak. Herons, hawks, turkey vultures, ducks and turtles braved the heat. I passed only an occasional paddler or flat-bottom boater along the way. I stopped by other springs, smaller than Blue: Pott, Tanner, and Suwanacoochee.

I heard the shoals before I saw them. Seriously, I thought I was approaching a sizeable water fall! But alas, most of the shoals were quite harmless. The final two shoals were much more fun, and the last one included a little white water as well! The small soaking I received helped to cool me down. Just after the last shoal, I spotted a deer on the west bank that had come to the river for a sip of cool, spring water.

As much as I loved paddling the Withlacoochee, after six and a half hours, I was happy to see the Suwannee River. Lucas was already there waiting for me.

 

(Outfitter: Suwannee River Canoe Rental. U.S. Highway 90, 4404 193rd Drive, live Oak, GL 32060. (386) 364-4185. Lucas)

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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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Reflections on the Suwannee River

The Suwannee River is the second largest river in Florida.  It is 238 miles long; 206 of these miles are in Florida.  The Suwannee originates in southern Georgia in the Okefenokee Swamp.   Approximately 200 springs flow into the Suwannee before it eventually empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

After speaking with two outfitters for the Suwannee River, I decided to paddle the Upper Suwannee.  The Upper Suwannee is considerably narrower than the Lower, thus, fewer motor boats are able to pass through.  I wanted a quiet ride.   

I drove north to Live Oak to the Suwannee Canoe Outpost located in the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park.  From here, the outfitters shuttled a group of six of us north several miles, giving us a six-mile paddle back to the Outpost—with the current.  It was late Sunday morning, and seeing the groups that had gathered at the Outpost, I knew to expect a busy day on the river.

Without a doubt, it was a lovely way to spend the afternoon, slowly kayaking down the Suwannee River.  White sandbars appeared frequently on the banks, giving me a chance to get out and stretch my legs from time to time.  Cypress blanketed in moss, lined the river.  Several small motor boats passed me; I was joined by a few other kayakers and canoers.  I passed several springs, obviously local swimming holes.  On this hot, Sunday afternoon, people cooled off in the dark, tannin water.

The high limestone banks and many beautiful white sandbars distinguished the Suwannee River from the other rivers I had paddled so far.  At one point, I passed a rock wall on the left side.  Springs were on both sides of the wall, and people jumped from the top into the water.  I believe this is what is left of the town of Suwannee Springs.  Carter (et al) writes that in the late 1800s, one of the finest resort hotels in the southeast was located in Suwannee Springs.  A railroad took hotel guests to New Branford where they took a paddleboat to the Gulf.  The retaining wall and an old railroad track are all that remains of the town. 

Although the Suwannee is known for creatures such as white-tailed deer, various wading birds, raccoon, turtles, and snakes, I saw none.  The only signs of wildlife I saw were the empty beer cans left on the banks.  Of all the rivers I have traveled thus far, only this one had littered banks.  Was this inevitable with all the people who came to the river on the weekends?

I admit, although the river was lovely, I was still a bit disappointed in the Suwannee.  I felt that even with its limestone banks, the Suwannee fell short of “majestic” and “magnificent,” words often used to describe it.  My words: long, lovely, beautiful, meandering, relaxing, fun, and family.

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Cypress on the Santa Fe River

I paddled the Santa Fe River on Friday and chose the run from 441 to Rum Island, about 7 miles.  (The river is 76 miles long.)  This route would take me by three springs: the Poe, the Lilly, and the Rum Island.  I put in at 11:00 a.m. and ended the trip four hours later at Rum Island.

Carter (et al) rated the scenery on the Santa Fe a “B,” perhaps because of the gentle reminders of civilization.  In the beginning of the trip, I could hear the sound of light traffic in the background, and by the time I reached the mid-way point, homes started to pop up on the left bank.  Old plastic chairs rested on private docks, places where I imagine homeowners sit to watch the river go by.   However, I enjoyed a quiet paddle; I did not see many people on the river.

Even with the ever-present reminders of civilization, nature did present itself. Only 15 minutes into my paddle, I spotted a deer ahead on the left bank.  I saw flocks of water birds swimming and heard birds calling in the trees.  A large alligator slithered into the water to my right.  He swam along the bank for a short while and then disappeared into the water.  I saw more turtles sunning on logs than any other paddle—hundreds, perhaps thousands—by the end of the trip!  Several shared a log with a small alligator.  Cypress with huge trunks and roots bordered the sides.  I avoided paddling too close to the low hanging trees on the banks because of the stories I had heard about snakes dropping out of the trees.  I paddled with the current, although it was slow, not like the Ocklawaha or the Silver Rivers’ swift currents.

The Santa Fe River originates in Lake Santa Fe and then passes through the Santa Fe Swamp.  The river goes underground at O’Leno State Park and emerges three miles later, considerably larger than before and most likely fed by underground springs.  Eventually, it joins with the Suwannee River. 

The water was very low for the first 15 minutes of my paddle, and just as I was preparing to step out to pull my kayak through the marsh-like water, it deepened.  (I was quite happy that I did not have to step out of my kayak into this marshiness!)  When it deepened, the water became tannin-colored, and I could not see the sandy bottom of the river.   I had read that the Santa Fe is typically clearer in this part of the river because of the number of springs that flow into it, so the darkness of the water may have been due to the recent rain or the level of the water. 

Although the numbers vary depending upon source, there are over 50 springs in the Santa Fe River; about 36 of them major springs.  On my paddle, I passed three of these major springs: Poe, Lily, and Rum Island.  I stopped at Lily Spring and met Naked Ed.  I chatted with him for about 30 minutes before I finished my paddle to Rum Island.  (Be sure to read my sidebar on Naked Ed.)

Although the escape was not as complete as with the Silver or Ocklawaha Rivers, my paddle on the Santa Fe was beautiful and full of wildlife. 

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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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