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Dark Waters of the Blackwater River

Dark Waters of the Blackwater River

I began “Day 2”of my summer vacation with a paddle on the Blackwater River in Milton, Florida. I rented a sit-on-top kayak from the Blackwater Canoe Rental and selected the 11-mile paddle from the Bryant Bridge (north of Milton) to Deaton Bridge. The outfitter dropped me at 9:30 a.m. along with three folks from Alabama.

Boning claims that the Blackwater is among the most pristine of Florida’s rivers. Blackwater comes from the Choctaw word “Oka Lusa” which means “water black.”  At lower levels, the river is tannin-colored (rusty looking in the lowest spots) but turns black at deeper levels.  The Blackwater River begins its journey in the Conecuh National Forest in Southern Alabama.  It flows about 56 miles south, then west, on its way to the Blackwater Bay. When it reaches Florida, it passes through the Blackwater River State Forest.  The Blackwater River is an Outstanding Florida Water; thirty-one miles are Designated Florida Paddling Trail as well.

So, I paddled away on the tannin-colored water under clear, sunny sky, waving goodbye to the folks from Alabama who had been nice enough to invite me to join them. I took in the scenery and sighed—to my right, a high sandy bank, etched throughout the years by the twists and turns of the river, topped by tall, straight pines.

For over two hours, I paddled in silence, little sign of life. A couple lazy hawks flew overhead, and then I saw low-flying aircraft from the nearby Eglin Airforce Base—a strange reality check. Briefly, my mind flitted to a scene from the African Queen, but then they were gone, and I melted back into my seat and took in my surroundings: white cedar, cypress, water oak, pine, wax myrtle, and magnolia.

The river offered an occasional shady spot and a light breeze, only minimal relief from the sun. The sides of the river alternated with white sandbars on one side and sandy banks on the other—similar to the Perdido. High waters and storms had scooped out the banks, leaving tree roots exposed. A sandbar beckoned me; I stopped for a quick stretch and a dip to cool off.

Occasional Shade on the Blackwater

Occasional Shade on the Blackwater

About 2.5 hours into my paddle, tubers appeared in their blue, green, pink, and yellow tubes, decorating the white sandbars like sprinkles on a cake. My spiritual retreat ended, as I paddled past wading sunbathers and sandbars adorned with umbrellas and coolers. Teenagers stood on high banks while from the water below, others dared them to jump.  I couldn’t watch.

Four hours after my put in, I passed under the Deaton Bridge, and pulled my kayak out of the water. My outfitter connection awaited me there.

(Blackwater Canoe Rental. 6974 Deaton Bridge Road, Milton, Florida. (850) 623-0235  or (800) 967-6789)

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I drove down a long leaf pine-lined country road to reach Adventures Unlimited, the outfitter for Coldwater Creek.  I felt “at

Tea-Colored Coldwater Creek

camp” when I arrived.  Young boys directed me through a crowded parking lot.  Teens and families had lined up for the bus to the drop off.  Bold signs directed me up the stairs to the office, and more signs sent me out the back door and down to the storage area to pick out my life jacket and paddle.  It promised to be a busy day on the river!

Coldwater Creek originates in the Conecuh National Forest in Georgia.  Eighteen of its 28 miles are a state-designated paddling trail.  Its cool waters travel south through the Blackwater River State Forest and eventually join the Blackwater River as one of its major tributaries. (Carmichael)

I boarded the bus with about 10 others—all carrying coolers and other supplies for a fun day on the creek.  The Adventures Unlimited folks dropped us at their privately-owned property off Christmas Tree Road—giving us about a 7-mile paddle back to the outpost.

Paddling away from the put-in, I could see the sandy gravel bed of the creek through the shallow tea-colored water.  The sun shone hot, and I dangled my toes in the coolness beneath me, silently thanking the AU staff member who talked me into a sit-on-top kayak. Lush foliage surrounded me—tall long needle pines, oaks, and cypress.  A magnolia tree peaked out here and there.  I paddled around a bend in the creek and faced tall sandy bluffs. An “ahhh” moment.

However, soon enough, I realized the thing about paddling on the weekend—it’s not a serene, peaceful paddle and the only wildlife to be seen comes equipped with coolers.  Wide sandbars poked out into the creek, creating perfect nooks for family get-togethers. Children splashed in the water while their parents chatted and sipped cool drinks.  Tubers began to show up in large groups just past the Springfield Road put in—about four miles from my AU destination.  I quickly learned to maneuver around them, 20 or more at a time.

So many of these folks traveled by canoes, and with the loads they carried, I understood why.  However, the low water level meant frequent portages for canoers, no doubt.  Even in a kayak, dodging the deadfalls and scooting around the wide sandbars challenged me, and more than once I got out and dragged myself to deeper water.

Shallow Waters of Coldwater Creek

But what a beautiful creek!  Paddling this gravel-lined waterway, I could feel the downhill flow (a 2.8 gradient), and I sometimes felt as if I was sliding down someone’s flooded country driveway.    As I neared the end, I took a sharp left at a fork in the creek, where, for just a few moments, the swift waters hastened my journey and then delivered me safely back to the main waterway—a fun ending to my day on the creek.

(Outfitter: Adventures Unlimited Outdoor Center. 8974 Tomahawk Landing Road, Milton, Florida. (850) 623-6197 or (800) 239-6864)

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