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Posts Tagged ‘Florida rivers; kayak; kayakers; kayaking’

I paddled through the shallow, swampy waterway, around the cypress and swamp weeds, and emerged onto the Wacissa River. Long eel grasses waved in the cool, clear water beneath me. Around

Emerging Onto the Wacissa River

Emerging Onto the Wacissa River

me, the river was wide and bordered with beautiful cypress, oak, maple, tupelo and pine trees…an “Old Florida” postcard.

The Wacissa River begins close to where I put in—in the swamp with a couple small springs. However, the larger Big Blue Spring is considered the headwaters of the river. The river runs about 14 miles and ends as it flows into the Aucilla River by way of a man-made canal. About a dozen springs add to the flow of the Wacissa (Carter et al.).

I paddled south, towards Big Blue. An orchard of water plants, such as Pickerel weed, forced me to the middle of the river, away from the shade of the banks. The thought crossed my mind more than once that I should have saved this river for cooler weather! The water deepened, and below me, invasive hydrilla—like thick masses of dreadlocks—blocked much of the view of the sandy bottom.

As much as the water plants kept me from shade, they were also alive with sounds of screeching and squawking birds. I saw blue heron, common moorhen, and egrets. I paddled past the frolickers at the Wacissa County Park—splashing around, trying to keep cool on this very hot day. A couple young boys in a canoe had hooked a small gator—and neither the boys nor the gator seemed to want to give up the lure.

Big Blue Spring on the Wacissa River

Big Blue Spring on the Wacissa River

I arrived at Big Blue Spring, delighted to find shade at last. I paddled over the Spring and peered into the clear water—beautiful shades of blue and green. However, the hydrilla growing in and around the Spring kept me from dipping. The ickiness of it all did not tempt me!

On my paddle back to the outfitter, I discovered that the river had many little nooks and crannies to explore which gave me a break from the sun. It really was a lovely river.

(Wacissa Canoe and Kayak. 290 Wacissa Springs Road, Monticello, FL 32344.(850) 997-5023)

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Yippee for summer vacation! I headed to North Florida to paddle a few rivers. I had selected three: the Withlacoochee River North, the Wacissa, and Holmes. I stayed two nights in Live Oak, a very

Lush Green on the Withlacoochee River North

Lush Green on the Withlacoochee River North

tiny town—and apparently “recently wet.” (a new term I learned from a bartender at what I believe was the only restaurant that sold liquor in Live Oak)

Sunday morning, I headed to Withlacoochee River North, renting a kayak from Lucas at the Suwannee River Canoe Rental. Lucas dropped me at Blue Spring about 10:30 a.m.—not nearly early enough to beat the many families already splashing around in the clear cool water. Where else would one go on such a hot day? It was in the 90s, but it would feel in the 100s by mid-afternoon. Lucas would pick me up at the Suwannee River State Park—a 12-mile paddle from here (longer than usual for me!). It would take me about 6 hours—did I mention how hot it was?

There are two Withlacoochee Rivers in Florida. I have paddled the Withlacoochee River South—which originates in the Green Swamp—twice. I loved it. The Withlacoochee River North originates in Georgia. Its black waters flow about 70 miles in Georgia and then another 32 miles in Florida before the river finally flows into the Suwannee River. I would be paddling the final 12 miles of the river.

Lucas had told me that given the choice, most people chose the Suwannee over the Withlacoochee. He explained that the Suwannee has higher limestone banks and more sandy beaches for paddling picnics. I paddled the Suwannee a few years ago, and although beautiful, I had been surprised at the amount of trash along the river. The price of being popular, I suppose.

I paddled south and took in the “Withs” limestone banks, etched out by the movement of the water over the years which created beautiful designs and little caverns. The surrounding green forest of cypress, oak, maple and tupelo trees shaded the edges of the river, giving me a little break from the hot sun. Moss hung from the trees as if stretching to reach the river. Dark green ferns poured down the banks. This picturesque scene only needed a plantation to complete it. What a beautiful river!

Shoals on the Withlacoochee

Shoals on the Withlacoochee

Large fish jumped around me as I paddled. I laughed, thinking one would land in my kayak. Herons, hawks, turkey vultures, ducks and turtles braved the heat. I passed only an occasional paddler or flat-bottom boater along the way. I stopped by other springs, smaller than Blue: Pott, Tanner, and Suwanacoochee.

I heard the shoals before I saw them. Seriously, I thought I was approaching a sizeable water fall! But alas, most of the shoals were quite harmless. The final two shoals were much more fun, and the last one included a little white water as well! The small soaking I received helped to cool me down. Just after the last shoal, I spotted a deer on the west bank that had come to the river for a sip of cool, spring water.

As much as I loved paddling the Withlacoochee, after six and a half hours, I was happy to see the Suwannee River. Lucas was already there waiting for me.

 

(Outfitter: Suwannee River Canoe Rental. U.S. Highway 90, 4404 193rd Drive, live Oak, GL 32060. (386) 364-4185. Lucas)

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For the New Year, I chose Withlacoochee River South as my “old”

Bare Cypress Adorned with Moss

Bare Cypress Adorned with Moss

river—one which I had previously paddled. Coincidentally, I had paddled this river for the first time two years ago on the same day—December 28. I love, love, love this river; this is a “must paddle” river for anyone who enjoys nature, peaceful serenity, and paddling.

Withlacoochee is a Native American term that means, “little big water” or “crooked river.” When I paddled the “With” two years ago, the water level was low—a “little water.” Although Jacqui, operator of the RV

Water Like Glass on the "With"

Water Like Glass on the “With”

Park, dropped me as close as she could to the river’s source, the Lacoochee Park put-in, I had wanted to be closer. This time, with the water level higher, a “big water,” she dropped me deeper into the forest, at the High Bluff put in—closer to the river’s source but still about a two-hour paddle away. From High Bluff, I expected at least a 3-hour paddle back to the RV Park, so I decided not to paddle deeper into the swamp before heading west and back to the outfitter.

On the drive to High Bluff, Jacqui pointed out the site where the Cummer Sons Cypress Company sawmill once stood. The Cummer brothers built the mill in 1922, and for nearly four decades until the mill closed in 1959, Lacoochee prospered and grew (East Pasco Historical Society) —at the expense of the cypress, of course.

So, I paddled away from the High Bluff put-in. I wore an orange vest as I did two years earlier; it was hunting season (hogs and deer). It felt like winter on the river. Tall cypress, now bare except for moss that hung like tinsel on last year’s Christmas trees, surrounded me. I felt grateful that the Cummer brothers had left some cypress for me to enjoy. What a beautiful river!

Lost in the river’s magic and to the outside world, I moved with the swift, gentle current. The high waters had flooded over many banks and into the trees, leaving me to wonder, at times, whether I was still on the river or had floated into the watery forest. Dark bands around tree trunks revealed to me that this “little big river” could get bigger

An Occasional Bird Appears

An Occasional Bird Appears

still. High waters had forced the wading birds (cormorants, egrets, and ibis) deeper into the woods, and the river remained quiet with the exception of the occasional splash of a gator’s belly flop.

The river was awesome, and I was awestruck. Old wood-framed houses began to pop up as I neared the outfitter—way earlier than I expected. I arrived at the outfitters in less than two hours from my put-in.

(Withlacoochee RV Park and Canoe Rental. 39847 State Road 575, Lacoochee, FL. (352) 583-4778)

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In the spirit of the New Year fast approaching, it seemed appropriate

A Busy Homosassa River

A Busy Homosassa River

to select two rivers to paddle–one new river (one which I have never paddled) and one old river (one which I had previously paddled). I chose the Homosassa River in Homosassa, Florida, as my “new” river.

The Homosassa River originates at the Homosassa Springs in Citrus County. From there, the river travels about 8 miles westward before emptying into the Gulf. The Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park sits at the river’s headwaters. I toured the park this past summer and even visited the underwater viewing room to watch the fish and manatee from below. Pretty cool. The Homosassa is designated as an Outstanding Florida River, and by Florida Statute, it is “worthy of special protection because of [its] natural attributes” (Florida DEP).

From where I put in at Riversport Kayaks, I could see the considerable development along the river with homes and businesses. Small motor boats and pontoon boats filled with sightseers watching for manatees crowded the river heading east towards the springs. The sounds of puttering motors and country music filled the air, and there was no question that this would be a fun, rather than serene, paddle.

It was afternoon, and I paddled away under a beautiful, sunny sky with a light breeze—perfect weather for paddling. Kayakers and paddle boarders enjoyed the lazy afternoon keeping to the shoreline. I followed the crowd and paddled toward the springs as well, catching my first whiff of gas fumes just as a manatee ducked beneath the surface in front of me.

Outside the protected springs area, snorkelers swam in groups, hoping to make friends with a manatee. I paddled among the boats and then ventured into a couple of the river’s little nooks hoping to glimpse a bit a nature unaffected by all the commotion. I took a detour to the north and paddled under a bridge onto the Halls River, leaving the boats and country music behind on the Homosassa. Halls is a spring-fed tributary of the Homosassa, only about 3.5 miles long. It’s surrounded by tall marshy grasses. I explored a more shaded and narrower branch of the river for a while, and then I headed back to the outfitter—not spending near enough time on this river. Perhaps I will return to this river next year for a paddle to the springs.

(Riversport Kayaks. 5297 S. Cherokee Way, Homosassa, FL. (352) 621-4972 Email: rskkirk@gmail.com)

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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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The Steinhatchee River had been on my list of rivers to paddle for some

High Waters at the Steinhatchee Falls

High Waters at the Steinhatchee Falls

time, so I was happy to make the five-hour drive.  My attempt to paddle it last year had been throttled due to heavy rains that resulted in closed access at the Falls. Apparently, the waters had gotten so high and so fast that the paddle from the Falls to town, which typically takes about three hours, had some locals back in town in less than two! So, wisely, this year, I called the State prior to making the journey to confirm that there would be access. (Florida Water Commission, 904-359-3883) I later discovered that the Suwannee River Water Management District has a great website that monitors water levels and closings.

The Steinhatchee River (Native Americans named it “esteen hatchee” which means“river of man”) originates in Mallory Swamp in Lafayette County, and as it travels southwest to eventually empty into Deadman’s Bay, it picks up water from various springs (including Steinhatchee Springs) and creeks along the way. At one point—at US 19—it even goes underground when it flows into a sink, and it re-emerges about a half mile later—a couple miles above the Falls.

I planned my paddle for a weekday to avoid the weekend crowds, and the folks at Steinhatchee Landings Resort dropped me at the access in the Steinhatchee Falls Park. I put in on the west side of what would have been the Steinhatchee Falls—if the water level had been lower. Only little bubbles atop the water hinted at the 1-3 foot limestone drop now hidden under high waters. Suspecting that the river might be fast, I busied myself strapping everything down in my kayak. Next to me, a young local couple prepped to drop lines from their flat bottom boat. Watching as I loaded my kayak, the woman twanged “You

Limestone Banks Etched by Moving Waters

Limestone Banks Etched by Moving Waters

paddling alone?” When I nodded, she added, “What if you flip? Who will help you?” I quickly double checked my straps.

I climbed in my kayak and paddled away from the shore, relishing the peaceful tranquility the river always brings. For the first hour or so, I paddled a quiet, wild river, cypress and oaks providing me with refreshing shade. Limestone ledges hung over the water, etched by the water movement over many years. Large roots like long arms reached out from low banks and curved down towards the water. Birds called to each other from the woods, preferring its cool darkness to the hot sun. I hung my feet over the sides of the kayak and let them dangle in the cool, dark waters.

Midway through my paddle, the landscape began to change as old wood-framed cottages appeared, mostly on the north bank. Just as I spotted my first “watch for manatee” sign, the river took on an estuarine quality, and was now bordered by lilies, tall sea grasses, leather ferns, and sea grapes. This wider river offered little shade for a summertime paddle. As I neared the Landings Resort, more private residences, docks and marinas appeared on the banks.

In the end, I managed to stay upright throughout the seven-mile paddle; the river really wasn’t all that fast. It took me just over three hours with a couple short side trips on small creeks that entered the river. I made it back long before the rains came.

(Steinhatchee Landing Resort. Highway 51 North. Steinhatchee, Fl. 32359. (352) 498-3513.)

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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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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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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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