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I call “do-over” on this one. I was never quite sure where I was!

The Put-in at Ochlockonee River State Park

The Put-in at Ochlockonee River State Park

I had hoped to paddle the upper Ochlocknee, a more narrow and twisted river. Failing to find an outfitter who would drop me, I decided on the Ochlockonee River State Park located on the lower Ochlocknee for a put-in. I intended to paddle the short distance from the Park’s put-in to Bear Creek. (Bear Creek connects two parts of the Ocklockonee on a loop.) I would then emerge back onto the Ocklockonee with a short paddle back to the put-in—about a 7.5 mile total paddle according to the Park’s map.

The Ocklockonee River originates somewhere in the swamps of Georgia. Its scape changes as it travels southeast and sometimes southwest and eventually the waterway twists and turns and empties into the Ochlockonee Bay. At the point of my put in, the river creates a camel’s hump. Bear Creek crosses through the hump.

I put-in mid-morning, and although wide at this point, the river was quiet and peaceful and beautiful. I love being the only one on a river; there is nothing else as serene. I paddled south, southwest, the Park on my right–tall straight pines bidding me farewell from the shore. Birds called from the trees; blue herons waded by the water’s edge; and a swallow-tail kite flew overhead, a tasty breakfast in his talons.

After about 20 minutes on the wide waterway, I entered Bear Creek on my left, immediately surrounded by tall swamp grasses. The creek was perhaps 50 to 70 feet wide with no shade, so I was grateful for the clouds overhead. Tall dead trees silhouetted the sky-many with either osprey or eagle nests on top. One tree had several eagles perched in and around the nest.

The sky darkened, and a slight, cool breeze caused me to think that it might rain. Alone on the dark waterway, I paddled, expecting my surroundings to change. Steven, the man at the Park’s guard gate (and coincidentally the son of an author of one my guide books) had told me that I would come to some shade and small cliffs. However, I continued to paddle through the tall swamp grasses.

Something I did not expect—at two points in the creek, I had to decide—go right or left? The first time, I went left. Ten minutes into my paddle as the tall grasses encroached to the point where I could touch them on both sides, I realized I had made the wrong choice. Whoops! Below me in the water I could see a lone fish, long and pointed with spots, his fin above water. He paddled beside me for a bit, but was no help at all.

Tall Swamp Grasses on Bear Creek

Tall Swamp Grasses on Bear Creek

The second time, I turned left first, scouted it out for a bit, then doubled back and went right. This is where I believe I went wrong. However, I can’t tell for certain with the maps I have found. I may have somehow connected with the Cow Creek. I’m not sure, but after about an hour of paddling, I knew I was not on Bear Creek. I checked my location on my phone the best I could (before I dropped my glasses into the water, that is), and it appeared I was in a waterway to the right of where I should have been. I called the park folks, and to their credit, they did not hesitate to tell me that they would send someone out to find me. But I wasn’t going to give up yet. I paddled awhile longer and eventually came out…strangely, just south of where I went in—Cow Creek?

I had put in that morning at 10:45, expecting to return around 3:00. Here, I was back by 1:15. Sadly, I never saw Bear Creek Bluff, and I didn’t have the time to start over again. Thus, my need for a “do-over.”

The red trail on the park map shows my intended trail. The waterway to the south of where I entered Bear Creek (left) I believe is Cow Creek and where I came out.

For some great reading about the Ochlockonee River, try this site.

(Ochlockonee River State Park. 429 State Park Road, Sopchoppy, FL 32358. (850) 962-2771. Stephen Carter)

 

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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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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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The Wild Hillsborough River

The rain came in torrents the night before, and I woke to partly cloudy skies and a chance of more rain.    I called Canoe Escape in
Thonotosassa for a weather report, and I was a bit surprised when the guy on
the other end chirped, “Skies are clear here!”  So, off I went to discover the Hillsborough
River.

Originating in the Green Swamp, the Hillsborough is a blackwater river and largely spring fed by the waters of Crystal Springs (south of Zephyrhills), accounting for its clarity—even after a hard rain.  Along its 54-mile journey, several tributaries feed into it before it empties into the Tampa Bay.  Throughout the years, this river has had  several names, but it was finally named Hillsborough River by the British in 1769 after the Earl of Hillsborough who served as colonial secretary of state (Boning).

On this Sunday morning, I rented a sit-inside kayak from the Canoe Escape outfitters and was dropped at Sargeant Park, where I had an option of paddling two hours downstream to Morris Bridge Park or four hours to Trout Creek Park.  I opted for the four-hour paddle, and was rewarded with a journey through a river wonderland.  This river was absolutely beautiful—an A+–with water often clear enough for me to see not only the eel grass swaying along the sandy bottom, but many bass, gar, and sucker fish as well.

And there were many, many alligators.  Within my first 30 minutes on the river, I  had already sighted 20 gators.  It appears that alligators are to the Hillsborough what turtles are to the Santa Fe.  By the end of my paddle, I had seen somewhere between 50 and 100.  It was obvious that these gators were at home in their habitat, and although they were not aggressive, they weren’t moving from their favorite spot just because I was there, either.

Beautiful, serene, and wild.  My paddle was—AWEsome.  I was in the midst of a bird paradise with a sweet symphony playing in the trees as the water pulled me gently along like a ride at Disney.  A great egret turned toward me, looking silly with white sand on the end of his bill, having just dug for some treasure.  A momma limpkin enjoyed a day at the river with her two young ones. Anhingas spread their wings to dry them in the sun.  Egrets, herons, limpkins, roseate spoonbills, woodpeckers, wood storks, and ibis were plentiful.  At one point in the journey, I passed Nature’s Classroom, and hundreds of vultures, seemingly wicked as they flapped their wings and congregated along the bank, took it all in.

The river was shaded, canopied for much of the trip by oaks, red maples, cypress, and an occasional sweetgum.  At times, the river was narrow and twisted and turned.  (I thought I had made a wrong turn at one point.)  When the river widened, water lilies and hyacinths decorated its edges.

It was impossible to see it all.  Watching a gator slither into the water to my left, I heard a huge splash to my right and turned just as an osprey lifted himself from the water.  An otter frolicked in the water, finally emerging with his hair slicked back, looking ready to don his smoking jacket.  The harmony and balance of nature amazed me.

I paddled just two small sections of this river, but there is so much more to it.  Other sections include a six-mile run from Crystal Springs to Hillsborough State Park (not for the beginner; there are three Class II drops/rapids and many portages in this section.)  The section from Hillsborough State Park to Sargeant Part where I put in, contains the Seventeen Runs with numerous deadfalls and carryovers. At this time of year with the low water levels, the Seventeen Runs section is closed.  However, for anyone interested, Canoe Escape takes a group out once a year in September.

Another beautiful Florida river, the Hillsborough is a wonderfully and surprisingly scenic and serene escape.

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