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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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Reflections on the Suwannee River

The Suwannee River is the second largest river in Florida.  It is 238 miles long; 206 of these miles are in Florida.  The Suwannee originates in southern Georgia in the Okefenokee Swamp.   Approximately 200 springs flow into the Suwannee before it eventually empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

After speaking with two outfitters for the Suwannee River, I decided to paddle the Upper Suwannee.  The Upper Suwannee is considerably narrower than the Lower, thus, fewer motor boats are able to pass through.  I wanted a quiet ride.   

I drove north to Live Oak to the Suwannee Canoe Outpost located in the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park.  From here, the outfitters shuttled a group of six of us north several miles, giving us a six-mile paddle back to the Outpost—with the current.  It was late Sunday morning, and seeing the groups that had gathered at the Outpost, I knew to expect a busy day on the river.

Without a doubt, it was a lovely way to spend the afternoon, slowly kayaking down the Suwannee River.  White sandbars appeared frequently on the banks, giving me a chance to get out and stretch my legs from time to time.  Cypress blanketed in moss, lined the river.  Several small motor boats passed me; I was joined by a few other kayakers and canoers.  I passed several springs, obviously local swimming holes.  On this hot, Sunday afternoon, people cooled off in the dark, tannin water.

The high limestone banks and many beautiful white sandbars distinguished the Suwannee River from the other rivers I had paddled so far.  At one point, I passed a rock wall on the left side.  Springs were on both sides of the wall, and people jumped from the top into the water.  I believe this is what is left of the town of Suwannee Springs.  Carter (et al) writes that in the late 1800s, one of the finest resort hotels in the southeast was located in Suwannee Springs.  A railroad took hotel guests to New Branford where they took a paddleboat to the Gulf.  The retaining wall and an old railroad track are all that remains of the town. 

Although the Suwannee is known for creatures such as white-tailed deer, various wading birds, raccoon, turtles, and snakes, I saw none.  The only signs of wildlife I saw were the empty beer cans left on the banks.  Of all the rivers I have traveled thus far, only this one had littered banks.  Was this inevitable with all the people who came to the river on the weekends?

I admit, although the river was lovely, I was still a bit disappointed in the Suwannee.  I felt that even with its limestone banks, the Suwannee fell short of “majestic” and “magnificent,” words often used to describe it.  My words: long, lovely, beautiful, meandering, relaxing, fun, and family.

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Cypress on the Santa Fe River

I paddled the Santa Fe River on Friday and chose the run from 441 to Rum Island, about 7 miles.  (The river is 76 miles long.)  This route would take me by three springs: the Poe, the Lilly, and the Rum Island.  I put in at 11:00 a.m. and ended the trip four hours later at Rum Island.

Carter (et al) rated the scenery on the Santa Fe a “B,” perhaps because of the gentle reminders of civilization.  In the beginning of the trip, I could hear the sound of light traffic in the background, and by the time I reached the mid-way point, homes started to pop up on the left bank.  Old plastic chairs rested on private docks, places where I imagine homeowners sit to watch the river go by.   However, I enjoyed a quiet paddle; I did not see many people on the river.

Even with the ever-present reminders of civilization, nature did present itself. Only 15 minutes into my paddle, I spotted a deer ahead on the left bank.  I saw flocks of water birds swimming and heard birds calling in the trees.  A large alligator slithered into the water to my right.  He swam along the bank for a short while and then disappeared into the water.  I saw more turtles sunning on logs than any other paddle—hundreds, perhaps thousands—by the end of the trip!  Several shared a log with a small alligator.  Cypress with huge trunks and roots bordered the sides.  I avoided paddling too close to the low hanging trees on the banks because of the stories I had heard about snakes dropping out of the trees.  I paddled with the current, although it was slow, not like the Ocklawaha or the Silver Rivers’ swift currents.

The Santa Fe River originates in Lake Santa Fe and then passes through the Santa Fe Swamp.  The river goes underground at O’Leno State Park and emerges three miles later, considerably larger than before and most likely fed by underground springs.  Eventually, it joins with the Suwannee River. 

The water was very low for the first 15 minutes of my paddle, and just as I was preparing to step out to pull my kayak through the marsh-like water, it deepened.  (I was quite happy that I did not have to step out of my kayak into this marshiness!)  When it deepened, the water became tannin-colored, and I could not see the sandy bottom of the river.   I had read that the Santa Fe is typically clearer in this part of the river because of the number of springs that flow into it, so the darkness of the water may have been due to the recent rain or the level of the water. 

Although the numbers vary depending upon source, there are over 50 springs in the Santa Fe River; about 36 of them major springs.  On my paddle, I passed three of these major springs: Poe, Lily, and Rum Island.  I stopped at Lily Spring and met Naked Ed.  I chatted with him for about 30 minutes before I finished my paddle to Rum Island.  (Be sure to read my sidebar on Naked Ed.)

Although the escape was not as complete as with the Silver or Ocklawaha Rivers, my paddle on the Santa Fe was beautiful and full of wildlife. 

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Morning on the Ocklawaha River

What a fabulously serene paddle.  I spent over three hours on the Ocklawaha River, and I was the only person on the river the entire time.  I paddled eight miles, from Gores Landing to the Ocklawaha Outpost, a paddle Ohr and Carmicheal describe as a “twisty, naturally gorgeous side trip to the northeast.”   It was an easy paddle; I was paddling with the current and had a strange sense of floating downwards the entire trip.  The gradient on this river is 1.4—meaning it drops 1.4 feet per mile—just slightly higher than that of the Silver River which is 1.0. This river flows north, and it eventually flows into the St. Johns River which also flows north.  The water seemed high and spread into the trees on the banks.  It was a beautiful, mirror-like, flooded river.

So, it was just me and the river…and the critters around me.  I could hear the birds calling to each other in the trees.  Later, I discovered that some of those sounds may have been monkeys.  I saw five alligators along the way, but they didn’t care much about me.  It was easy to imagine that I was in a Tarzan movie or on the Jungle Queen; this was the wilderness.  I just floated and paddled with the current and listened to nature around me.  What a life! 

I saw only a few birds; perhaps because the water was so high they stayed deeper in the woods.  The trunks of the trees on the banks were weathered.  The vegetation was much like that on the Spring River including cow lilies, water hemlock and water hyacinths.

I spoke with two women on the Spring River the day before, and they referred to the Ocklawaha as “sweet tea” because of its dark color.  I would add “very strong” to that.  The water was caramel-colored, and I couldn’t see through it.  It was probably a good thing.  The young girl at Ocklawaha Outfitters said that the gar fish are typically four to six feet long.  Yikes! 

The Ocklawaha is another “must paddle again” river.  Mike O’Neal, the owner of the Outpost, suggested that next time I paddle , I should paddle from Ray Wayside Park on Highway 40 and end at Gore’s Landing (where I began today).  He said that besides being a lovely, scenic trip, the monkey sightings are frequent. 

By the way, the Ocklawaha Outpost was the friendliest outfitter so far.  It is family-owned;  the O’Neils have owned it for just over a year.  I met Mike and his daughter, Cassie.  Cassie showed me a couple of the cabins they rent—just in case I come back for the other run.  They were cute and very clean.  Malin, one of the employees who drove me to Gore’s Landing, told me all about the alligators and snakes in the river.  The Outpost rents sit inside kayaks—Loons, and this was the first time I had used this type of kayak.  Once I got use to it—and after hearing the alligator and snake stories from Malin—I felt much more secure!

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The Scenic Silver River

Orh lists the Silver River as one of the top five “must paddle” rivers in Florida.  I put in at the Wilderness Campgrounds on Highway 40 and paddled a short distance on the Ocklawaha River until it met the Silver River.  (The Silver River pours into the Ocklawaha River here.  It was easy to distinguish the Ocklawaha River and the Silver River by the color of the water.)  From this point, the 4.5 miles to Silver Springs was against the current—a laborious paddle to the Springs but a breeze of a return trip.  The entire 10-mile trip took me seven hours to paddle!  Of course, I stopped on a couple river banks to wade in the clear spring water and cool off, and I slowed down to take a picture or two and to watch the wildlife.  It was a lovely day; I wanted to stay forever.  What a beautiful river!

The Silver River is wider than the Wekiva, but not by much.  It doesn’t have the overgrowth of lilies as the Wekiva does, so there is plenty of room for small boats, canoes, and kayaks to share the river.  If you look at it on the map, you see how it continuously turns.  What you don’t see is that around every turn is a beautiful picture.  That added to the time it took me to reach the Springs.  I often kayaked with my feet in the water to keep cool, but I was not tempted to jump in. The fast moving water and the deep holes with long eel grass did not tempt me.

The first glass-bottomed boat appeared on the Silver River in the late 1800s, and for those of you who don’t know or remember, the old black and white Tarzan movies were filmed there.  Seriously, I’m not sure it has changed much; at times, I could squint and picture Tarzan swinging from the trees; I felt that back to nature.  And who needs glass-bottomed boats? I could see the bottom through the crystal clear water.  Petrified, fallen trees like relics from sunken ships decorated the bottom of the river.  The eel grass and other water grasses clung, moving with the water and giving it an eerie appearance.

My paddle was quiet.  A few small motor boats passed me during the day, and only a few other kayakers and canoers appeared.  For awhile, I paddled with two women from Gainesville.  A common greeting among kayakers seemed to be, “Good morning.  Have you seen any monkeys?”  Everyone seemed to be looking for the rhesus monkeys that inhabit the area.  (I never did see one.)

The scenic trip included plentiful bird wildlife: ibis, cormorants, anhingas, egrets, and herons.  Turtles sunned on the logs, and cow lilies and water hemlock outlined the river along with cypress and cabbage palms.  Occasionally, a large fish jumped.  I saw only one small alligator on my way back.  I had to spin around to get a picture of him.  He was sunning on a log and wasn’t moving for anyone.

I agree with Ohr.  Silver River is, without a doubt, a “must paddle” river!

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Mangroves on the Indian River

On day two, Missy and I kayaked the Indian River.  The Indian River is not mentioned in any of my guide books, and chances are, it is due to the fact that it is an estuary—where the salt and fresh water mix—rather than a fresh water river.  Because the sea life is so rich and plentiful in the Indian River, it was named Estuary of Natural Significance.  The Indian River runs 156 miles from the Ponce de Leon Inlet in Volusia County to the Jupiter Inlet. (EcoGuide Volusia)

Paddling on the Indian River was significantly different from paddling on the Wekiva.  Rather than a narrow river canopied with various flora, the Indian River was wide and open with mangroves and mounds of shells.  We began by putting in by J.B.’s Fish Camp in New Smyrna Beach where a daily fishing boat goes out to catch the special of the day.  People harvest clams, mussels, and oysters in this area.  We paddled along the shoreline, and watched as dolphins played around us, an occasional manatee bobbed his nose out of the water, and the pelicans sat atop of the posts.  We ventured into the area around the mangroves.  The flora included grasses and ferns, and we saw ibis, and egrets—including a great white—resting in the trees.   

The river ran deep and then suddenly shallow, and a couple times we had to push the kayak off a sand bar.  It was actually refreshing to walk through the water.  When we neared the mangroves and looked into the water, we saw masses of shells from oysters, clams, and mussels, and we were happy we had worn something on our feet!   

We ended the day with a late lunch at J.B.’s.

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Paddling the Wekiva River

How delightful to spend a day paddling one of the prettiest rivers in Florida, the Wekiva River.  Wekiva means “flowing water,” and Boning explains that it is the only Florida river to receive the recognition of a Wild and Scenic River at both the state and federal level. 

I paddled the Wekiva with my sister, Missy.  Our experience was wonderful.  We put in at the Wekiva Marina late morning and paddled north for two to three miles on a quiet little river canopied with vegetation. We did not see a lot of wild life, (except the teenagers that appeared later in the day), most likely because we paddled on a Saturday, and by the end of our day, the river bustled with kayakers and canoers.  We did see egrets, a great blue heron, and a few other species that we were unable to identify.  Turtles sunned themselves on logs.  Beautiful lilies and deadly water hemlock (it resembles Queen Anne’s lace) encroached the waterway, giving us only a narrow passage in some parts of the river.  Oak, cypress, and cabbage palms decorated the banks.  Below us, golden eel grass swayed with the clear current.

Someday, I would love to return to this river to continue the paddle!  We did not paddle the south end from the Wekiva Marina to King’s Landing which according to Huff is considered the most scenic part of the Wekiva–what she describes as the “paddler’s dream.”

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