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Standing on the creek’s bank looking up the narrow twisting waterway, one word came to mind: “mystical.” The creek reminded me of a fairy tale…a beautiful twisting path leading to a mystical,

Pollen Dusts Deep Creek

Pollen Dusts Deep Creek

magical place. Tall cypress embraced the waterway and added a welcomed shade on a hot day—in the 90s already.

My sister had suggested we paddle Deep Creek in Volusia County. I didn’t even know it existed! Deep Creek flows from the northwest—I believe originating from run-off (from what I could tell from the topo map). It merges with the Lake Ashby Canal at some point before our put-in location on Maytown Road, and it empties into the St. John’s River somewhere before Lake Harney—just a few miles away. I found little information about Deep Creek online or in my guide books.

So, we pushed away from the shore, looking down the twisty, narrow waterway, low banks on both sides. Cypress knees outlined the edges of the dark water, fresh pink growth poking through the bark. We paddled towards the St. John’s, coming across our first deadfall ten minutes later—and ducked under. We loved the peaceful tranquility and the many twists and turns of Deep Creek! Our paddle was quiet with the exception of the hum of the cicadas and an occasional bird call deep in the woods. For a time, a great heron led our way up the river.

If you look closely at the one picture, you will see a thin dusting of green pollen on the top of the water–perhaps because it was so still–and I’m not sure that is a bad thing. However, somewhat troubling was the very large number of Amazonian apple snail eggs that sat on top of the cypress knees. Sadly, these are the invasive species, not the Florida species, and can cause great harm to the ecological system of the waterway.

Dark and Twisty

Dark and Twisty

My sister and I paddled about three miles towards the St. John’s River, stopping on the side of the creek for a snack and a stretch—before turning back in time to meet the outfitter.

(Go Kayaking Tours. 415 South State Road 415, Osteen, FL 32764. Tom and Jason.)

 

 

 

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I stood at the water’s edge of Katie’s Landing State Park with my paddle buddy, Bill Belleville, looking across the

Splashes of Color on the Wekiva

Splashes of Color on the Wekiva

Wekiva River, so glad I had remembered to bring my rain jacket. The wind had picked up, and the cloudy sky promised rain sometime soon. For the first time this season, I felt a chill in the air—the kind that nips your nose and makes you think about hot cocoa and fireplaces. Brrr…

The Wekiva is one of only two National Wild and Scenic Rivers in Florida. (Loxahatchee is the other.)  Twenty-seven miles of this waterway is also a Florida Designated Paddling Trail. Three years ago, I paddled the Upper Wekiva with my sister, Michele.  On this day, Bill and I planned to paddle the Lower Wekiva.

So, we put in, trying to keep our feet dry, and paddled away from the shore, crossing the river. Bill wanted to show me around a little island in the river, but we had to push and pull our way through the thick pennywort to get there.  Amazing how the winter brings a completely different kind of beauty to the rivers.  The gray sky darkened the water, creating an eeriness as I looked at the eel grass waving from the river bed below us.  The cypress, bared of their foliage, draped themselves in silvery moss shawls.  Green ferns and tall grasses, along with yellow-flowered spadderdock lilies, added splashes of color to the wintry brown and gray landscape.

We didn’t really believe we would make it the eight miles to the St. Johns and eight miles back, but we did think we might make it to the point where the Blackwater Creek empties into the Wekiva.  We paddled northward to the Lower Wekiva (the Wekiva flows north, so the lower is the north and the upper is the south), enjoying the scenic shoreline and feeling blessed to be there.

A Posturing Wood Stork

A Wood Stork Poses for Us

Of all the rivers I’ve paddled, the Hillsborough River gets the prize for having the most birds.  However, after this paddle, I would give Wekiva the prize for the most variety.  Great blue herons waded through the tall grasses, little disturbed by our presence. A wood stork seemed as curious about us as we were about him, turning on his branch, moving this way and that, so we could see him from various angles.  We spied egrets, ibis, anhingas, moorhens, and even a red shouldered hawk and a pileated woodpecker.  Tiny warblers filled the trees as we paddled beneath them. I felt a bit like a “nature voyeur,” peeking in Mother Nature’s windows, quietly watching her do those things she does when we humans aren’t around.

Of course, we didn’t make it to the St. Johns—or the Blackwater for that matter.  And the rain did come (thank you, handy rain jacket).  So, we turned around after a couple of hours and headed back to Katie’s Landing, still chatting about all we had seen.

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We had driven through the gates of the Seminole State Forest just ten minutes earlier and were bouncing along the

Browned Cypress on the Blackwater Creek

Browned Cypress on the Blackwater Creek

dusty road in Bill’s SUV, kayaks on the hood. As we chatted about the last time we paddled Blackwater, and we took in our surroundings, Bill brought his car to a sudden halt. A diamondback rattler lay curled on the road in front of us. I dove for my camera on the back seat, but missed the shot; the snake had slithered away.

I was thrilled to be returning to Blackwater Creek with Bill Belleville (Florida writer, filmmaker, nature lover); it had been over two years since our last paddle—way too long! We put in at the same spot as last time, the bridge in the Seminole State Forest. However, this time, we chose the upper river and paddled towards the creek’s source, Lake Norris. Two years ago, we had paddled the lower section towards the Wekiva River.

The coolness in the breeze signaled fall had arrived at last; the sun peaked from behind the clouds.  What a gorgeous day! We paddled away from the Sand Road launch against a slight current. Leaves fell from the trees, dancing, twirling on their way to the creek’s surface.  For the next few hours, we explored the beautiful, twisted Blackwater Creek, catching a glimpse of the natural Florida, quiet and serene.

Bill Masters the Deadfall Shuffle

Bill Masters the Deadfall Shuffle

Bill had predicted that we would be challenged with many deadfalls as the upper creek is not kept clear—and we were. However, by the end of our paddle, I believe we had both mastered the deadfall shuffle and the forest limbo! Any challenge we faced was well worth it; we watched as bees and butterflies paid homage to a beautiful, blooming Carolina astor and hawks coasted on the vents above us. Browned cypress added fall décor to our surroundings of tall pines, oaks and palmetto palms; water lines on their trunks marked the higher summer levels.

We paddled our way through Pennywort and Pickerelweed, and I had to laugh when I spied a rafter of turkeys running on the forest floor deeper into the trees—I could see their heads bobbing up and down; my first thought was “little forest people.”  We paddled under flocks of ibises sitting on branches overhanging the creek. They seemed to be enjoying the waterway as much as Bill and I.

An hour into our paddle, Bill and I took a waterway to the left where there seemed to be a strong current. We were surprised to make it another hour upstream, and decided it was time to turn around. With the current, we made it back to our launch in an hour.

Some consider snakes an ominous sign…you know, the serpent in the garden. For us, I prefer to think of our snake as a symbol of renewal and life…a signpost in the middle of the road screaming, “beautiful Florida nature up ahead!”

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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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The Intriguing Econ River

My friend, Bill Belleville, and I headed to the Econlockhatchee River for a paddle the Saturday morning before Easter, pleased to find the river was quiet when we arrived.  A few sleepy campers emerged from the woods with blankets and pillows just as we carried our kayaks down to the launch area.  We finished loading our supplies, lathered on some sunscreen, and off we went.

A state-designated canoe trail, the Econlockhatchee River originates in the Econlockhatchee River Swamp in northern Osceola County.  Its tea colored waters flow first north and then northeast for approximately 35 miles, eventually emptying into the St. Johns River (Boning).  Along its journey, the river passes through private ranch lands and state protected forests.  It passes through the Little Big Econ State Forest before emptying into the St. Johns River.

The Econ can be paddled in several sections; however, little rain in recent years has resulted in low water levels, in some areas, too low to paddle.  If we paddled the first section, between FL 50 and the CR 419 bridge, we would have struggled with numerous carryovers.  Paddling the next section, between the CR 419 bridge and the Snow Hill Road bridge, would have meant leaving our cars in a remote area.  So, we chose the third section, and we put in at Snow Hill Road between Geneva and Chuluota and paddled northeast toward the St. Johns River. 

I have to pause for a moment here and say, that there isn’t a better way to experience a river than traveling with a nature writer and conservationist, such as Bill Belleville.  He can identify most of the flora and fauna along the river, and is tremendously patient with all my questions.  In his most recent book, Salvaging the Real Florida: Lost and Found in the State of Dreams, Bill dedicates at least one chapter to Florida rivers and describes one of his previous paddles on the Econ after tropical storms had, as Bill writes, “filled its valley of paleo-dunes to overflowing.”  The river he described at that time was much different than the river we experienced on this day.

Intriguing rather than beautifully lush, the landscape of our Econ run varied from high sandy banks to low sandy beaches.   At times, towering cypress dwarfed us as we paddled past, water marks on their trunks evidence of higher water levels.  Of course, there were oaks and cabbage palms, and we even spotted a couple magnolia trees nudging themselves between the larger trees.  However, without the benefit of spring waters and with little or no rain in the area for a very long time, the water level was low, leaving the worn, depleted banks with trees clutching to their sides.  At times, deadfalls challenged us, as we were forced to paddle either through or over them. 

Amazingly, the low water level did not deter the birds as we saw many!  We spotted three bald eagles, one quite large, and we were treated to a great blue heron that seemed to await us at each river bend, flying off as we approached, to scout ahead.  We saw blue herons, swallow-tailed kites, vultures, and red- shouldered hawks.  Bill even spied a wild turkey just before it ducked behind a log.  Two alligators crossed our path—the larger one, about 10 feet long, slid into the water ahead of us, pausing while we paddled closer, and then disappeared slowly somewhere beneath us.

There never seems to be enough time when paddling a Florida river.  We had hoped to make it to the St. Johns, about a 12-mile run.  However, after two hours of paddling and a short snack break and nature scout, we turned around and headed back to Snow Hill Bridge.

I’d love to return to this river someday—after a tropical storm, when its “valley of paleo-dunes” are overflowing–and paddle the entire 35 miles.  It was a beautifully intriguing river with so much character.

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The Sweet Blackwater Creek

Spring Break!  A chance to escape selection committees and program reviews, and this time my destination–the Blackwater Creek.

The Blackwater Creek, a sweet, tea-stained river, originates with the waters of Lake Norris in Central Florida.   Carter et al. describe its 20-miles of twists and turns through the cypress forest as “tight and hauntingly beautiful.”  As it weaves its way through the forest, the Blackwater Creek eventually empties into the Wekiva River which then joins with the St. Johns River.

I could not have had a better guide for the day than Bill Belleville, Florida writer, filmmaker, and nature lover.  We began our journey by putting in at the bridge in the Seminole State Forest.  We paddled several miles downstream and returned nearly five hours later along the same path. We never passed another soul on the river.

As we paddled, the creek seemed to embrace us like an old country road, twisting and turning and surrounded by beautiful flora—and just a few critters.  Live oaks, sweet gums, cypress, and cabbage palms framed our liquid pathway.  Alligators—some as big as 10 feet long—slithered into the water as we approached.  Anhingas sat on branches, drying their wings, and we spotted wood ducks, herons, and even a red-shouldered owl.

The creek varied, first narrow, then wide, then narrow again.  The water was cool and clear enough that, at times, I could see the bottom, and then it deepened and darkened.  The low banks showed wear from water level changes and the hurricanes from years ago. The forest surrounding us was dense, then sparse, the sparseness a reminder of cypress logging in the early 1900s.  The creek challenged us, only a bit at times, with downed trees and logs.  The waters moved us along at a nice, easy pace.

We had originally planned to paddle to the Wekiva, but Bill had heard that the creek was blocked and impassable further down, and so, we decided on this loop.  For us, it was a beautiful, serene day on the Blackwater Creek under the lovely Florida sun.

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