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After this political season, the Peace River seemed an obvious escape from the constant debating, bickering, posting and tweeting of the last few months. I needed to leave Facebook and Twitter behind and return to a place of solitude

Peace River in the Fall

Peace River in the Fall

and serenity.

I had paddled the southern portion of the Peace River from Brownville to Arcadia (8 miles) on New Year’s Day 2011. I wanted to paddle another section this time, and I decided on a northern section from Paynes Creek State Park in Bowling Green to Pioneer Park in Zolfo Springs, an 11-mile paddle. Jace, from Peace River Paddle Sports and Adventures, met me at the park and dropped me at the SR 664 Bridge about 11:30 a.m. I paddled away, looking forward to the next 5 hours of tranquility on the river. My first thought as my paddle sliced the water–”’Aaaahhhhhh….”

What a beautiful sunny fall day! There is something mystic and wonderful about being the only person on the river. Just nature and me. A slight fall breeze kept me cool under the clear blue sky. I paddled the dark water, staying to the edges and the shade of the tall cypress and oaks. The cypress had already begun their preparation for winter, brown foliage cloaked in moss. The low water level had left the sloping banks with roots and limestone exposed. Cypress knees pointed to the sky. Welcoming sand bars tempted me to pause in my paddle.

I enjoyed an easy paddle on the waterway—with the exception of a few “woo-hoo” moments when I passed over small rapids formed by the low water passing over limestone shale beneath me. Noisy birds (herons, ibis, egrets, vultures, hawks) called from the trees and banks—enjoying the weather as much as I. Ibis strutted along the banks, curved beaks dipping in the sand. Vultures gathered around their decaying treasures. Two wood storks sat on a tree branch, taking it all in, turning towards each other as if making snarky remarks about the others.

Limestone Banks on the Peace

Limestone Banks on the Peace

Several hours passed before I saw or heard anything other than the birds and the rhythmic sound of water hitting my kayak. I paddled past a man who stood on a sandbed in the middle of the river sifting for fossils. A while later, I came upon a small family fishing on the bank. Then, as I neared Zofo Springs, a kayaker passed me, and finally some campers appeared on the banks.

I floated back to where I had parked my car just before 4:30.

(Peace River Paddle Sports and Adventures. (863) 832-2102)

 

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Hello, old friend. Happy New Year!

I paddled my first Florida river in July 2010 and have paddled over forty Florida rivers since. Unquestionably, Fisheating Creek holds a place in my top five. I love this waterway!

Entering the Cypress Swamp

Entering the Cypress Swamp

As I have done in the past (because I have yet to buy my own kayak, and I need a drop anyway), I rented a kayak from the Fisheating Creek Outpost in Palmdale. (The people are great; the kayaks, a bit worn.) They dropped me, along with five others, around 10:00 a.m. at the Burnt Bridge put-in, giving us an eight-mile paddle back to the outpost—about four hours. I waited to put in last, standing on the shore and taking it all in. Fish jumped as if playing a tune on a xylophone, and then, seemingly on cue, an alligator glided slowly along the top of the water in the distance. It all appeared to be an opening number of a musical, a glimpse of something wonderful yet to come.

This would be my third paddle on Fisheating Creek. I paddled it in October 2011 and July 2014—both times with a much higher water level. The level on New Year’s Day was just over three feet. To paddle without portaging requires a minimum of one and a half feet. I would not want to portage on this creek with as many gators as I saw this day.

I paddled away from the shore, feeling somewhat secure that I had remembered to bring my snake knife this time! Tall cypress, turned brown and draped in moss shrouds and air plants, framed the waterway. Twenty minutes into my paddle, I entered the cypress swamp—my favorite part—and paddled among the cypress trees, twisting left, then right, the landscape deserving the front cover of a nature magazine. Paddling this creek for the third time, I have discovered that it’s pretty darn important to watch for the small kayak signs to stay on the trail. More than once I had to turn around and find the trail again.

White Ibis on Fisheating Creek

White Ibis on Fisheating Creek

The other paddlers had gone ahead, so I was alone in the swamp, enjoying the sweet melody of bird sounds—such as the honking of the ibis and croaking of the great blue herons. (I know, melodious, right?) I paddled past wood storks—happy to see them amongst the others, and lots of vultures, egrets, anhinga and cormorants. Gators sun bathed on the shore, not bothered when I paused to take a picture–while others bobbed in the water as I floated by. I spotted more gators than ever—perhaps due to the low water level forcing them closer to the trail. At times, I had to choose my path—to the left or right—based on gator sightings.

About three hours into my paddle, I spotted a patch of sand on the side of the creek and pulled up for a quick stretch before paddling the last hour on this beautiful waterway. (Sigh) What a great way to begin the New Year!

(Fisheating Creek Outpost. 7555 US Highway 27 North. Palmdale, FL 33944. (863) 675-5999)

 

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I’ve been paddling Florida rivers about four years now, and there’s no question that I would give Fisheating Creek four stars as

Beautiful Cypress on Fisheating Creek

Beautiful Cypress on Fisheating Creek

one of my favorite paddles. I first paddled Fisheating in October 2011 with a friend—and what an awesome experience! Only a two-hour drive from home, I chose this as my next “re-paddle destination.”

I rented my kayak from Fisheating Creek Outpost in Palmdale, and Mike dropped me—along with eight others—at the Burnt Bridge put-in around 9:30. This is the same paddle I did three years earlier, about 8 miles, 4 hours. On the way to the put-in, we passed through two locked gates and over the Lykes Brothers’ property. Mike pointed out a crested caracara sitting atop an old tree. He told us to watch for panthers in the fields as several had been spotted recently. I listened to the folks traveling with me as they chatted about snakes they’ve encountered on their paddles, and I cursed that I had left my snake knife in the car. We arrived at the put-in and piled out of the van, but stood aside while Mike first scooted a couple small gators away from the beach!

Fisheating Creek flows into Lake Okeechobee, apparently the only free-flowing tributary that does. Paddling it, it seemed three different waterways to me. At the Burnt Bridge put-in, the creek was wide, tall cypress dripping with Spanish moss and air plants on each side. Within 30 minutes, I paddled into the cypress swamp and twisted and turned around the cypress and their knobby knees, trying to follow the swift tannin-colored flow. When I emerged from the swamp, I entered a creek, smaller than the original but with a more definite path than the swamp trail. Now, I paddled around grass islands. For the next few hours, my paddle continued in this manner with the ever-changing waterway.

Entering the Cypress Wonderland

Entering the Cypress Wonderland

I love that Fisheating feels so wild! There are no homes along the banks, just beautiful tall cypress. Much of the creek lies within the Fisheating Creek Wildlife Management Area, purchased from the Lykes Brothers years ago. I heard few sounds other than the ibis honking loudly from the swamp floor. I paddled under the hot sun, appreciating the occasional cloud that gave me shade. A crested caracara flew overhead; a few small gators bobbed in the water as I passed; an anhinga stood on a log, scouting for lunch. Life was good.

I just love Fisheating Creek—still an awesome paddle!

(Fisheating Creek Outpost. 7555 US Highway 27 North. Palmdale, FL 33944. (863) 675-5999)

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I paddled away from the bank of the Caloosahatchee River Regional Park, maneuvering around the cow lilies and into

An Oxbow on the Caloosahatchee

An Oxbow on the Caloosahatchee

the wide river. A bird called out from a large oak behind me. The sky was clear, and I could just feel a touch of fall in the air. I loved this—Friday morning, and no one else in sight on the river.

Named for the Calusa Tribe that inhabited the area (500 to 1700 A.D.) and traveled the river long ago, Caloosahatchee means, “river of the Calusa.”   At that time, this much shallower river originated from sawgrass meadows west of Lake Okeechobee, and the Calusas traveled it in dugout cypress canoes. (How cool is that!) However, the Disston Canal was constructed in the 1880s, connecting it to the lake, and then dredging began in order to straighten and deepen the river. Today, this river (C-43 Canal) runs about 76 miles from Lake Okeechobee to the San Carlos Bay. (Boning) Of course, we are well aware of the issues with the water quality this fall due to the discharge of fresh water from Lake Okeechobee!

I paddled west toward my destination, Hickey’s Creek, briefly wondering who Hickey was. I admired the tall pines, palmetto palms, and oaks dripping with moss on the north side of the river. On the south side, homes, often with comfy wrap-around porches, sat on spacious properties. Parts of the banks had been kept wild with tall grasses and leather ferns. I passed two oxbows, leftovers from the original winding river, and took the curved route to the left of the tiny islands.

Into the Hickey Creek Mitigation Park

Into the Hickey Creek Mitigation Park

Forty-five minutes into my westward paddle, I made a left before the house with the windmill and entered Hickey’s Creek—a much narrower and more shaded waterway—and part of the State-designated paddling trail. An hour later, I reached the Hickey Creek Mitigation Park and stopped for a stretch. When I continued my paddle into the park area, the homes disappeared, and the river narrowed. At times, I wasn’t certain I had taken the right path, and I longed for breadcrumbs or some other such marker to put down so I could find my way back!  However, the paddle was quiet and serene, and the herons, limpkins, and egrets seemed to not be disturbed with my presence.

Thirty minutes later, I turned around and headed back. The wind had picked up, and when I reached the Caloosahatchee, I had to put some muscle in my paddle. However, in less than an hour, I had reached my put in location.

(Outfitter: Caloosahatchee Regional Park. 19130 North River Road, Alva, Florida 33920.  (239) 694-0398)

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Afterwards, I questioned my determination to paddle the Manatee River during the hot summer months.  However, having run out of new rivers to paddle

A Hot Paddle on the Manatee River

close to home, the Manatee seemed the obvious next choice.  In retrospect, it would have been a lovely paddle during the fall or spring months.

The Manatee River passes through Lake Manatee in Bradenton, and then continues on its westerly way to eventually empty into the Gulf—a 46-mile journey.  As it nears the Gulf, it widens and acquires estuarine qualities in the flora and fauna. The section closer to the lake—where I paddled—is the Upper Manatee River and is designated as a State Canoe Trail and Greenway.

Lake Manatee did not always exist. In the 1960s, officials built a dam on the river to create a reservoir for the surrounding areas—and thus created Lake Manatee. When Tropical Storm Debby came through mid-June of this year and dumped some much-needed rain on Florida,  the dam was opened wide to prevent flooding. The few paddlers who attempted the trip to the dam returned very quickly, unable to paddle against the strong current.

So, the river slowed down, and I rented a sit-on- top kayak at Ray’s Canoe Hideaway (well-hidden and very unpretentious). Ray’s sits on the river about 5.5 miles west of the lake.  My goal: to make it to the dam and back.

Along the way, I paddled past beautiful white sandbars that on a cooler day would have tempted me to stop and play.  High sandy banks with overhanging trees clinging to the sides showed wear and tear of storms past.  Oaks, cabbage palms, saw palmettos, slash pines, and pond apples edged the wide river but offered little shade.  The wildlife seemed to know to stay out of the sun.  I saw a blue heron, a turkey vulture, and one lowly turtle.  An occasional fish jumped around me, probably searching for a cooler spot in the water.

I turned on my camera, and it lit up with a warning, telling me that it was just too dang hot, and then it shut itself off.  My IPhone screamed TEMPERATURE! However, even in the heat, some found enjoyment on the river: a dad canoeing with his two young children (picture), a group of teenagers swinging on ropes and splashing in the cooler waters in a rare shady spot. One yakker even offered to share his cold beer with me.

I paddled against the current, light at first, but growing stronger as I neared the dam and Lake Manatee.   I made it about 3 miles up, just past the bridge and Rye Wilderness Park. The current was getting stronger, and my time on the river was running short.  I turned around and enjoyed the easy paddle back.

(Outfitter: Ray’s Canoe Hideaway on the Manatee River, 1247 Hagle Park Road, Bradenton, FL 34212. Phone: (941) 747-3909 or (888) 57CANOE).

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Low Waters on the Little Manatee

The fog had begun to lift, as the sun struggled to peak from the clouds.  A few sprinkles of rain tapped my windshield, as I pulled into the Canoe Outpost.  I didn’t know what to expect from this river, and I realized how much I loved the anticipation and the “not knowing.”

The Little Manatee River starts narrow and twisting somewhere around Fort Lonesome and Wimauma in Hillsborough County and widens as it travels west approximately 40 miles to the Tampa Bay.  A blackwater river, it is designated as an Outstanding Florida River.  The five miles between the Canoe Outpost and Little Manatee State Recreation Area is an official state canoe trail. (Carter et. al)

Rather than paddle from the Outpost to the Little Manatee River State Recreation Area, I chose to paddle the upper river, the 9-mile stretch between CR 579 and the Outpost.  Here, the river is narrow, canopied, less traveled, and wild.  This time of year, the water level is low, and as I gathered my supplies, the folks at the Outpost warned me to expect a portage or two.

I chatted with Mike from the Outpost as he drove me to my drop.  “You probably won’t see many gators, if any,” he said, “the poachers got most of them.”  Mike added that since this section of the river would be quiet (me, being his only drop so far), I may be treated to some wild hogs, deer, and bobcats along the way.  I appreciated the “heads up.”

I began my paddle west, sheltered by steep banks and wooded forest.  I could see the fish scurrying beneath me and could have easily touched the river’s sandy bottom with my hand—the water was that low.   A great blue heron flew up the river toward me, its wing span magnificent—what a sight.

About an hour into my paddle, alone on the river and lulled by the sweet harmony of the birds in the woods, I suddenly became alert when the bushes on both sides of the river came to life.  Wild hogs, first one large black one to my left, then more to my right, and for the next 10 minutes or so I paddled through the land of swine with hogs racing up the banks as I approached.  I spied a couple wild turkeys as they quickly bobbled away, as well.

The poachers had apparently been successful, as I saw only one small alligator.  However, the turtles appeared quite large and healthy!  I spotted ducks, herons, hawks, cardinals, and even a few red-bellied woodpeckers.

The low waters had created high steep banks in some places and low sandy beaches in others.  I scooted over sandbars and logs and under overhanging branches trying to avoid all the obstacles.  My mantra became, “I ain’t ‘fraid of no bugs” as I checked my hair and body each time I emerged from the branches.  (I read that during the rainy season, this water rises rapidly, and with all the obstructions in the water, one must be quick to make it through without mishap!)  Grapefruits, oranges and tangerines added a splash of unexpected color against the green and brown backdrop of oaks, willows, pines and cabbage palms.

For nearly four hours, I paddled past undeveloped landscape—with few reminders of civilization except the Florida Power plant just about halfway and the abandoned railroad trestle further along. Oh, and then, of course, there was the small group of four-wheeling, beer-drinking rednecks who greeted me just past the trestle.  Other than that, it was a fabulous, peaceful day on the river.

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New Years Day turned out to be a perfect day, bright and sunny, not too hot.  I

Up River on the Estero

paddled the Estero River in Fort Myers, expecting to see a different landscape, as this river has a tidal influence.  The river’s flow begins as trickles on the west side of the Corkscrew Swamp in Naples.  As it travels west, it picks up more water, and eventually empties into the Estero Bay. Only about six miles of this coastal river can be paddled. (Boning)

I put in at Estero River Tackle and Canoe Outfitters off of South Tamiami Trail in Estero.  By the way, I have never seen such a huge selection of kayaks to rent and buy!  I opted for the upgraded hard plastic model that supposedly moves faster in the water.

Before heading west to the bay, I took a quick paddle up river, and was treated to a narrowed river shaded by draping oaks, cool and quiet.  Heading down river, toward the bay, the river widened and the landscape changed from draping oaks to mangroves and spartina grass.  The influence of the tidal changes became evident.

Within the first mile, I passed the Koreshan State Historic Site on the south side.  Shortly thereafter, civilization emerged, and I passed a trailer park and another small development on the north side.  Along the banks, small motor boats and pontoons were lined up at docks like trinkets on a necklace.

Admittedly, I was disappointed with the development along the river.  At the same time, I was intrigued by much of the flora that I typically did not see, and I found myself wishing I could identify more.  Although the mangrove swamps dominated the landscape as I neared the bay, I also saw various pines and palms, bamboo, leather ferns, sea grapes, and swamp lilies (not yet in bloom).

Mangrove Swamps along the Estero

I imagine that the traffic on the river—small motor boats, pontoons, jet skiers., and, of course, kayakers—kept the wildlife away.   I saw only a few birds—little blue herons, great blue herons, and swallow-tailed kites.  An osprey sat on top of his nest observing the buzz below.  Signs warned boaters to slow down for manatees, but they eluded me; I saw none.

It did get a little confusing close to the mouth of the river.  I headed down a couple small waterways only to find that they dead ended, and I had to turn around and come back.  One time, I paddled up to the bank and asked a homeowner which way to the bay!  I thought afterwards that it would have been wise to time my out and back with the tide and paddle this river on a quiet weekday.  This is a river where one should take his/her time and meander around the mangroves, observing the scenery and looking for wildlife.  Apparently, there is a lot of history in this area and some interesting sites at the river’s mouth and into the bay.  Orr and Carmichael report that there is a population of exotic squirrel monkeys along the river as well.

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Gator on the Myakka River

It was 11/11/11, and with prophecies of both gloom and doom and enlightenment casting about, I opted for the spiritual enlightenment and headed for the Myakka River in Sarasota.

The Myakka River is a brown water river that originates in Manatee County and travels southwest to eventually empty into the Gulf, a 66-mile journey.  In 1985, Florida designated 34 miles of the Myakka  a “Wild and Scenic River;”  14 of these miles pass through the Myakka River State Park, one of the more desirable and easily -accessed locations for kayaking and canoeing (Huff).

I arrived at the outpost in the Myakka State Park on this windy, chilly morning only to be told by RJ that they weren’t renting kayaks due to the weather.  You see, from this point on the south end of the Upper Myakka Lake, one would paddle south a few miles –with the current—and return north—against the current—and on this morning, against the wind.  In the end, I was able to convince RJ to rent me a kayak—knowing that I would pay an extra fee if he had to come get me.

Shortly after putting and beginning my paddle south, I portaged around a dam at the end of the lake.  I thought RJ had told me to portage right, but apparently, I thought wrong. To the right was “Gatorland”—seven or eight gators sunning on the river bank, surrounded by 30 or more vultures.  So, I was up and over to the left and on my way.

Tall grasses and low muddy banks flanked me right and left, as I paddled through this marshy, plain-like landscape, so unlike the canopied, winding Alafia and Hillsborough Rivers.  Further south, the landscape changed some, as cabbage palms and oaks appeared on one side, offering some shade, and sometimes, a break from the wind.

Huff cautions readers about the Myakka gators, no scaredy cats here!  These gators were more active and a bit more intimidating than those in other rivers, and when the river narrowed to 10 feet, having gators on both sides of me became…only a little uncomfortable.  They seemed curious, and often left the banks and slithered into the water as I neared, coming out to greet me, or so it seemed.   However, they always stayed a distance, perhaps swimming parallel to me or crossing in front of me and then disappearing below the surface.

The birds often amused me, like the happy cormorant that flapped his wings as his

The Adorable Black-Necked Stilts

feet skipped across the water, a prized fish in his mouth.  Some amazed me, such as the great herons that first crouched and then pushed themselves into the air for flight and the large wood storks that somehow managed to look graceful gliding on the thermals.  The banks were alive with the “hunk, hunk” of the ibises and the grunting of the roseate spoonbills and about 20 other birds including egrets (snowy, great), red-shouldered hawks, cormorants, anhingas, herons (great blue, great white, little blue, tricolor), wood storks, vultures, ospreys, and the adorable black-necked stilts.

I paddled to the first bridge and back…less than six miles.  With the wind and the current on my return (and pausing now and then for pictures), it took me four hours.  I passed only a few other kayakers along the way and a few gator spectators along the banks, and I walked away with some added serenity.   I’d love to return someday.  Then, I would put in at SR 72 and paddle south into the park wildness preserve to Lower Myakka Lake and the Deep Hole, a 150-foot deep sinkhole.

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Even the name sounds intriguing—Fisheating Creek.  The Seminoles called it

The Shimmering Fisheating Creek

Thlothlopopka-Hatchee, “the creek where fish are eaten” (Boning) long before it  was paddled for recreation.  I’ve wanted to kayak this creek for some time.  After  all, Carter et al. gives it an A+ for scenery; I knew it would be amazing.  However, I found that during the dry season, the water level was too low for paddling—unless of course, I didn’t mind carrying my kayak for much of the trip!  So, I waited for the rain, and then, I waited for the rain to stop. Finally, I decided to paddle Fisheating Creek, rain or shine.

Originating in a swamp in Highlands County, Fisheating Creek flows south, then east, for 48 miles.  It passes through the cypress swamps, much within the state-owned Fisheating Creek Fish and Wildlife Management Area, and then this tea-colored creek eventually empties into Lake Okeechobee (Boning).

On this Sunday morning, I paddled with a new friend, Rick Murphy, who hails from the Hendry County area.  We rented kayaks from Fisheating Creek Outpost, and they dropped us at Burnt Bridge about 11:00.  We would have an 8-mile paddle downstream to the Outpost in Palmdale which would take us about four hours.

The sun had just peaked from beneath the clouds, promising us a good paddle.  The creek was wide at the put-in.  Tall cypress trimmed its edges—brown and bare this time of year—but cloaked in air plants and Spanish moss which shimmered silver in the sunlight.  During the four-hour trip, the sun was in and out as were our rain covers.  During the last 30 minutes of our paddle, the rain drenched us!

The creek and surrounding scenery awed us.   One moment we paddled in open waters, the creek, 40 feet or wider, and in the next moment, the dark waters took us swiftly, twisting and turning through the cypress swamp.

Wood storks and ibis dominated this Florida wonderland, but we also spotted various herons, blackbirds, vultures, anhingas, egrets, and even a turkey. We became accustomed to the alligators that often crossed in front of us or that sunned on the sand banks as we passed.

Cypress Reflections on Fisheating Creek

We owned the creek for nearly the entire paddle, and neither the occasional rain nor the humongous spider that slipped down my shirt as we put in dampened our spirits.  Fisheating Creek is an amazingly authentic, awe-inspiring Florida wilderness experience.

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Clutching to the Banks of the Peace River

New Year’s Day, a time for reflection and resolutions, and I found myself drawn to the Peace River in Arcadia.  Paddling the Peace seemed appropriate and reinforced a resolution I had already made to myself, to stay in the moment and to seek joy in living.

The Peace River is a blackwater, coastal river which originates with waters from Lake Hancock in Polk County around Bartow, and after 76, 106, or 133 (I’ve read all three!) miles, it ends as it expels its water into the Charlotte Harbor estuary.  At least two different stories explain how the Peace River got its name, but the one I hear most frequently is that the Spanish had named it Rio de la Paz, “river of peace,” way back in the 1500s (Huff).

So, on New Year’s Day, the Canoe Outpost folks put me in at the Brownville landing around noon just as the sky clouded over and the breeze picked up.  Paddling downstream into the wind felt more like paddling upstream until a bend in the river brought relief.  Brownville is north of Arcadia, where my paddling excursion would end.  The area is mainly agricultural and ranch lands, and at this time of year, everything was, indeed, brown.

Although Katie at the Canoe Outpost told me it was a slow day on the river, I passed a number of kayakers and canoers.  Some were simply enjoying the paddle while others were fishing or panning for fossils, shovel in one hand and strainer in the other.  I’ve heard that many find treasures such as giant sharks’ teeth, mastodon teeth, and other prehistoric fossils.  This river has so much history.  In the 1700s, Seminoles settled along its banks, and several conflicts took place there (Boning).   In the 1900s, barges traveled up and down the Peace to mine phosphate and harvest cypress logs (Huff).   I saw a very large hole at the top of one of the banks when I made a stop at Oakhill (owned by Canoe Outpost).  At first I thought this was a sink hole, but perhaps it was the remnants of a phosphate dig.

Lacking the green lushness of most of my previous paddles, there was still a beauty in the various shades of brown along the white sandy banks (think “golden brown meringue”).  The river was wide and varied ranging from high banks to low sandbars.   Live oaks draped in silver moss hung from the banks, their huge root systems twisting and reaching for something to stabilize them, the soil beneath them eroded away.  The cypress had lost their foliage.  Dead, fallen trees decorated the river like pieces of abstract art along a city street.

The dark water was cool and slow moving except for occasional shoals and incoming streams.  I saw turtles, herons, egrets, hawks, and vultures.   Carter et al. gave the Peace River a “B,” although she gave another section—Zolfo Springs to Garner—an “A.”  I would concur with the “B” on this segment (and as an instructor, I would add that it’s still a good grade!).  Keep in mind that my paddle was only 10 miles and one segment of about 61 miles and nine segments that can be navigated.  If you consider a paddle on the Peace, check out Huff’s guidebook and her descriptions of each of these segments.

(Canoe Outpost-Peace River. 2816 NW County Rd. 661, Arcadia, Florida 34266.
(863) 494-1215 or (800) 268-0083)

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