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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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