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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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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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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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The Sweet Blackwater Creek

Spring Break!  A chance to escape selection committees and program reviews, and this time my destination–the Blackwater Creek.

The Blackwater Creek, a sweet, tea-stained river, originates with the waters of Lake Norris in Central Florida.   Carter et al. describe its 20-miles of twists and turns through the cypress forest as “tight and hauntingly beautiful.”  As it weaves its way through the forest, the Blackwater Creek eventually empties into the Wekiva River which then joins with the St. Johns River.

I could not have had a better guide for the day than Bill Belleville, Florida writer, filmmaker, and nature lover.  We began our journey by putting in at the bridge in the Seminole State Forest.  We paddled several miles downstream and returned nearly five hours later along the same path. We never passed another soul on the river.

As we paddled, the creek seemed to embrace us like an old country road, twisting and turning and surrounded by beautiful flora—and just a few critters.  Live oaks, sweet gums, cypress, and cabbage palms framed our liquid pathway.  Alligators—some as big as 10 feet long—slithered into the water as we approached.  Anhingas sat on branches, drying their wings, and we spotted wood ducks, herons, and even a red-shouldered owl.

The creek varied, first narrow, then wide, then narrow again.  The water was cool and clear enough that, at times, I could see the bottom, and then it deepened and darkened.  The low banks showed wear from water level changes and the hurricanes from years ago. The forest surrounding us was dense, then sparse, the sparseness a reminder of cypress logging in the early 1900s.  The creek challenged us, only a bit at times, with downed trees and logs.  The waters moved us along at a nice, easy pace.

We had originally planned to paddle to the Wekiva, but Bill had heard that the creek was blocked and impassable further down, and so, we decided on this loop.  For us, it was a beautiful, serene day on the Blackwater Creek under the lovely Florida sun.

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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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The Alluring Loxahatchee River

The Loxahatchee River was the first of two Florida rivers designated as a Wild and Scenic River (the second being the Wekiva River), a well-deserved designation.  Its name comes from an old Indian name which means, “river of turtles.”  This area has historic relevance.  During the Second Seminole War in 1838, the Battle of Loxahatchee was fought in the area now known as Riverbend Park.  I saved the Loxahatchee River for a Sunday in September because I wanted to paddle the Riverbend Park section which had been closed in August due to the low water level.

From the beginning, I knew this would be a fun paddle.  The man at Canoe Outfitters pulled out a map–which had been copied way too many times–and with a line forming behind me, he very quickly outlined the five mile run.  It went something like this: “After you put in, go to the left and paddle about three quarters of a mile.  You’ll see a small sandy beach on your left where you need to drag your kayak out and to the other side.  From there, you will turn right and head toward West Lake.  On the south side of West Lake you exit to Hunter’s Run which will take you under Reese’s Bridge to South Pond.  Continue on Hunter’s Run to the East Grove Bridge.  You’ll see a spot where you can beach and stretch your legs, and from there you will paddle to Cow Pond Lake and exit to Gator Slough run.  Here, you will paddle through the cypress knees and then reach a portage where you will have to drag your kayak up and over the path again.  After paddling through two culverts, you will exit to your right…” you get the picture.  I felt as if I was embarking on an obstacle course!

So, I headed south as directed, paddling along the slow moving, tannin river, yellowed lily pads floating atop the water.  The Loxahatchee was the narrowest river I had kayaked to this point.  I had to keep paddling to keep from drifting into the sawgrass along the side.  One moment I was in the wilderness, preparing myself for an alligator or wild cat sighting, and then suddenly, I floated under a walkway, a reminder that civilization was nearby.  I spied an occasional turtle, great blue herons, hawks, and anhingas.  Cabbage palms and cypress were plentiful.  I continued my paddle along the edge of a small, marshy lake, tree islands testing my skills until I came back to the narrow twisty river.  With the low level of the water and the thick grasses on the bottom of the river, I found myself, at times, pushing my way through the water.  And just as quickly, I was back in the open, paddling across a lake, the wind challenging me.  My trip ended with a zig and a zag through the cypress knees and a paddle through the culverts.

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The Crystal Clear Rainbow River

I brought my vacation to a close with a paddle down the Rainbow River in Dunnellon.  What a lovely way to go!  

This crystal clear river is a favorite of both tubers and paddlers.   The river begins at the springs in Rainbow Springs State Park and runs for about seven miles before it joins the Withlacoochee River.  Although paddlers can start in the state park, many access the river at KP Hole in Dunnellon.  From there, they can paddle upstream the mile or so to the springs and back before completing the 3.6 mile stretch between KP Hole and CR 484.   

I paddled on a Tuesday, and I was one of the few kayakers on the river; tubers were abundant!  I paddled the stretch between KP Hole and CR 384, expecting it to take me over two hours.  However, I was finished in 1.5.  I feel as if I cheated! 

Regardless of the length, it was a fun paddle.  I saw my first otter; he was swimming in the water to the left of me, little bothered by all the people on the river.  For that matter, none of the wildlife seemed bothered by all the people in the water.  The ibis and egrets watched from the sidelines while the cormorants stood on the rocks in the water, flapping their wings in time with the water fun.  Anhingas crossed in front of me,  their long necks like snakes in the water, slithering about.  I floated and paddled with the current; to the  left of me, the bank was lined with trees while to the right, the bank was lined with homes.  Homeowners seemed accustomed to having tubers and paddlers floating by in their backyards.

So, after two weeks, my vacation was over, and I packed up my car and headed home.  Rather than sadness, I was feeling excitement and exhilaration about the journey I have begun and the many Florida river adventures still waiting for me.

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