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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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Olli and Robert pulled my kayak to the edge of the creek at Cotton Landing, just north of Cypress Springs. I looked to the south, at the winding waterway, shaded by cypress and oaks.

A Beautiful Paddle on Holmes Creek

A Beautiful Paddle on Holmes Creek

“Is the entire paddle like this?” I asked. Beautiful.

I’m not sure why it surprised me, but it did. And now, knowing that this would be a great paddle helped make up for the port-a-potty, my only restroom option. A quick stop, and I finished packing my gear into the kayak, secured my cooler, and climbed in. Olli gave me a shove into the water, and I paddled away, smile on my face.

I had almost missed this one, Holmes Creek. For some reason, it seemed insignificant on the map. It originates a few miles north of the Florida- Alabama border. Its length includes about 20 miles of State Designated Paddling Trail between Cotton Landing and Live Oak Landing before it flows into the Choctawhatchee River. I’m not even certain that the portion I paddled from Cotton Landing is part of the official paddling trail. I often see paddles beginning a few miles south, around Vernon.

I paddled, taking in the beautiful forest of cypress, oak, tupelo, and sweet gum which seemed to snuggle and curve around the river. I had seen the water described as “emerald green,” but today it was cloudy and murky; I could not see the bottom of the creek. Robert had explained that recent rains had churned it up. The trees around me were…noisy! The sounds of the birds grew louder as I paddled. “She’s coming! She’s coming!” they seemed to scream.

Ten minutes into my paddle, I spotted the orange dot painted on a tree and paddled to the right towards Cypress Springs (as instructed). Beautiful clear blue-green water and a white sandy beach greeted me. People swam about in the springs, and kids swung from a rope tied to a tree. Others sat atop of a kayak or small boat enjoying the sun. I chatted with some of the locals. Bud and Missy sat in low chairs in the sand, bratwurst cooking in a smoker at the end of their small boat. They let me use a raft, flippers, and homemade viewer to paddle over the vent and get a better look at the

Cooling Off at Cypress Springs

Cooling Off at Cypress Springs

springs. Missy and Larry talked about the history of the springs. Larry said that it is a manmade springs, dynamited and then connected to the creek. (I need to check this out.) I paddled around the springs for a bit, a perfect spot on a hot day.

From the springs, I had about a 3-mile paddle back to the outfitter—1.5 hours. I passed an occasional kayaker or small boat, but the creek remained peaceful. Although the current was light, it required little effort to paddle. My paddle was scenic and lovely. I attempted to find Becton Springs and paddled up another small waterway. Somehow, I managed to miss the orange dot and lost my way for a bit, never seeing the springs. Oh well, a good reason to return someday!

(Old Cypress Canoe Rentals. 2728 Traverse Drive, Vernon, FL 32462. (850) 388-2072. Dana/Olli/Robert)

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Spring term at the College had ended, and I desperately needed a get away! Don’t get me wrong; I love my job. However, the time had come to pull out my river guide books and my map and find a

A Quiet Day on the Cotee

A Quiet Day on the Cotee

new paddle destination. I selected the Pithlachascotee River on the west coast.

It has taken me several years to get around to paddling the Pithlachascotee River—or the “Cotee” as those who know it well refer to it. I love the winding, twisting, secluded rivers—drop me in the swamp with no humans for miles around, and I’m happy. Much of the Cotee is an urban river, flowing through the town of New Port Richie—with the houses and busy boat traffic that accompany a wider, urban river. Thus, the delay.

So, I paddled the Cotee on a Friday morning, and I managed to avoid human contact almost completely. I put in at the James E. Grey Preserve–renting a kayak from Gill Dawg Marina (They dropped off and picked up!). I headed east, towards the river’s source, curious to see how far I could paddle before the fallen trees forced me to turn around.

The blackwaters of the Cotee flow about 25 miles from its source to the Gulf. The five-mile paddle from the Rowan Road Bridge to the Francis Avenue City Park is the official canoe trail. I planned to travel from the Preserve, east to Rowan Bridge and beyond, and then turn around and paddle west past my put in to the Francis Avenue City Park, and then, back to the Preserve.

I found the portion from my put-in at the Preserve to the bridge (east) and beyond, challenging—but lots of fun! I made the bridge in about 20 minutes and was able to paddle for another 30 minutes before I was forced to turn around. Along the way, the trees and brush dusted me with twigs and webs as I scrapped between fallen branches. I got stuck on submerged logs several times, and I was grateful to be in a sit-on-top kayak and able to hang my legs outside the kayak to shove myself off (a pretty picture, I know!).

A Heron on the Cotee

A Heron on the Cotee

I saw little wildlife as I paddled—an occasional heron and a few turtles sunning themselves. Fish jumped around me in the murky waters. Heading west, the canopy disappeared, and the river widened and took on an estuarine quality, tall sea grasses lining the banks. Once I reached the Francis Avenue City Park, I made my turn and paddled back to the Preserve.

 

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Having spent the last two months moving and renovating my new condo, I have not had time to take my usual summer

Barb Paddles Riverbend Park

Barb Paddles Riverbend Park

paddling vacation to the far corners of Florida. However, I have made a couple return trips to some of my favorite paddling destinations closer to me—one of them Loxahatchee River in Jupiter, Florida. This time, I brought along a good friend, Barb.

We’ve had a rainy summer in Florida this year, and the rain started as Barb and I drove I-95 to get to the park. We vowed then to paddle rain or shine! Magically, the sun poked through by the time we arrived at the park, and the rain stayed away for the next few hours. All this South Florida rain did have its benefits, though, as the Riverbend trip is not always open at the park as it relies on the higher water level.

What I like best about the Riverbend paddle (besides the beautiful scenery and safe location) is that the scenery changes every few minutes. It’s a 5.5 mile paddle that begins and ends in the Loxahatchee River but travels through various sections of the park in between. It passes through fun-sounding places such as Picnic Loop, East Slough, Cow Pond, West Lake, Hunters Run and South Pond. Within the paddle are two portages—easy enough. Along the way, we spotted bikers, walkers, and even a painter! We stopped along West Lake for a stretch and a snack before moving on. I had looked forward to our paddle through the large culverts and the cypress knees, but dang if we made a wrong turn somewhere and ended our trip without passing through them!

Even without the culverts and the knees, we had a great paddle and a fun day at Riverbend. We ended our outing with lunch at Guanabanas in Jupiter—what could be better?

(Canoe Outfitters at Riverbend Park. 9060 W. Indiantown Road, Jupiter, FL 33478. (561) 746-7053).

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057

The “Little” Big Withlacoochee

I stood in the close quarters of the tiny outfitter’s office with Jackie, the owner. “We have alligators and snakes here, just so you know,” she warned me, and then she demonstrated how to remove a snake from a paddle. Truthfully, alligators don’t bother me, but I’ve yet to encounter a snake in a Florida river—strange as that might seem after 28 rivers paddled. So, I listened and asked questions (“What kind of snakes?” “How big are they?”), secretly hoping that the cold weather would keep the snakes away.

The Withlacoochee River. It sure is a mouthful to say. It’s a Native American term that means, “little big water” or “crooked river.”  I understood, once I paddled it. During the drier season, when the water is low, the “small” river twists and turns through sometimes high banks. However, when the rains come, the water flows high and into the woods so that the banks disappear and the river appears “big.” Paddling in the dry season, I could see how the high waters had left their marks on the trees.The Withlacoochee originates in the Green Swamp, along with the Peace, Hillsborough, and Ocklawaha rivers—a few of my favorites.  It travels west, then north, then west again, and it finally empties into the Gulf. It is an Outstanding Florida Water and is more than 140 miles long. Eighty-three miles is also a designated Florida Paddling Trail.

To get to the drop off, Jackie and I drove through the Richloam Wildlife Management Area in the Withlacoochee State Forest, scooting over on the dirt road to let hunters pass in their dusty pickups, hound dogs barking in cages in the back. If it had been later in the year, during the rainy season, I would have started my paddle several miles deeper into the Green Swamp at “High Bluff,” welcoming the extra couple hours of serenity and nature.  However, during the dry season, that portion of the river becomes puddles in places and requires a lot of portaging, so Jackie dropped me at the Lacoochee Park put in. From here, I had several miles to paddle back to the outfitter located on SR 575 and another five miles to the Sawmill residences where Jackie would pick me up.

The Withlacoochee Dressed in Browns and Grays

The Withlacoochee Dressed in Browns and Grays

I had layered up for a cool day of paddling—in the 60s when I began—brrr!  I had added the “required” orange vest (to ensure I would not be mistaken for a deer or hog by the hunters). The crisp air felt good as I paddled the quiet river. For nearly two hours, only the screeches of the occasional red-shoulder hawk broke the silence.

Earlier, Jackie had described the beautiful colors of the river in the springtime; however, even in its neutral shades of brown and gray, the river was beautiful—like an old photograph. Naked brown cypress clung to the banks while live oaks and red maples added bits of green and red to the landscape. Cypress knees stretched to the sky as if in prayer—how appropriate for this ethereal habitat!  Young ibis in various shades of white and brown, stood sentinel atop of the brown river banks while vultures cast ominous shadows on the river, perhaps circling a carcass hunters left behind.  Black-crowned night herons, great herons, anhingas and egrets seemed to enjoy the river’s tranquility, watching quietly as I passed.

Shortly before I paddled under SR 575, I saw the first house.  After that, old wooden framed houses popped up on the banks here and there, and folks were out fishing. The low water created light turbulence in the water in some areas which made paddling fun.  In one spot, I struggled to get my kayak through overgrown vegetation and fallen trees, but I managed to do it without stepping into the dark water and muck.

Indeed, the cool weather had kept the critters away—no snakes or alligators on this trip!  However, the Withlacoochee is definitely a river I’ll return to when the water is higher and the banks are green. I imagine I will see an entirely different river at that time.

(Outfitter: Withlacoochee River Canoe Rental. 39847 SR 575, Dade City/Lacoochee, Florida. (352) 583-4778)

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I stopped my car and read the sign at the entrance to the outfitter: Econfina Creek Canoe Livery “Go With The Flow.” I briefly

Embracing Foliage on the Econfina Creek

reflected on the river-life metaphor as I drove down the driveway and parked.

I chose Econfina Creek as my second river to paddle in the Panhandle.  Huff describes the scenery as “superb,” with giant cypress that arch overhead.  Carter et al. claims that many consider the Econfina the “most beautiful and challenging stream in Florida.” It sounded like a waterway I needed to paddle.

So, I selected my kayak from a generous inventory at the outfitter, and I put in right there at 10:30 a.m.—to be picked up at the end of my seven-mile trip at CR 388.  Although the water level seemed low, I paddled away on a strong steady current, through the twists and turns of the Econfina.

Econfina comes from a Muskogean Indian word meaning “natural bridge.” (Carter et al.) The Econfina Creek originates in the southwest corner of Jackson County, Florida, where a number of creeks add to the flow. Along the way, springs and runoff contribute even more until it finally discharges in Deer Pointe Lake in Bay County. (Boning). The upper portions of the creek run swiftly through limestone and high bluffs with a 7.9 gradient. A gradient 4 and lower banks on the lower portion where I paddled make for easier navigation.

Huff’s description of the creek held true; tall, arching cypress, along with magnolia, several varieties of oaks (including Shumard oak and laurel oak) and pines, dogwood, and red maple embraced the waterway.  Similar to the Chipola River, the landscape varied with swampy wetlands on one side and high limestone banks/cliffs—these, dripping with lush ferns—on the other.  Lots of sandbars along the way made for an easy dip to cool off or pause for a snack.

Spring Along the Econfina Creek

Some of the land around the creek is privately owned; however, the few houses that appeared seemed to blend in with the surroundings.  The Northwest Florida Water Management District has acquired about 14 miles along the creek and has built viewing structures so people can access the springs.  I paddled past several of these springs along the way.  At Pitt Spring, I met two local women, Gail and Rose, who came to cool off on a hot day. During our chat, they described the beauty of the creek when the dogwoods and azaleas bloom.  At Emerald Spring (the main source for Econfina Spring water), a young family snorkeled at the base of the 25-foot limestone bank to view the spring’s powerful flow.

What a great place to be on a slow, lazy day! I hung my legs over the side of my vessel, dipped my feet in the clear, cool water and let the flow take me beneath the canopy, around the twists and turns of the river, returning to reality only momentarily to maneuver around a deadfall or a sharp corner.  I love vacation!

(Outfitter: Econfina Creek Canoe Livery. 5641A Porter Road, Youngstown, Florida. (850) 722-9032)

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From the Caverns on the Chipola River

Summer vacation, here at last!  I headed to the Panhandle to paddle a few rivers.  These would be my first in this area, and first up—the Chipola River.

I rented a kayak from Bear Paw Canoe Rental in Marianna—a local outfitter with a good selection of kayaks. The owner, Ricky, drove me just north of Marianna, to the put in at Yancy Bridge on FL 166. I began my peaceful paddle (9.8 miles) at 9:30 a.m., the only person on the river—what could be better?

The Chipola River, located in the Central Panhandle, starts north of the Alabama border.  It runs 80 plus miles to eventually merge with the Apalachicola River, close to the Gulf.  As it passes through the Florida Caverns State Park, the Chipola goes underground for awhile and then re-emerges.  Along its journey, various springs (over 60!) and creeks flow into it. (Boning) The Chipola is an Outstanding Florida Water, and 51 miles of it is a Florida Designated Paddling Trail.

Indeed outstanding, the Chipola did not disappoint me!  Almost immediately, a great horned owl flew over the river in front of me, landed on an overhanging branch, and watched as I floated beneath him.  Belted kingfishers and warblers darted here and there as ibis and herons chilled on the riverside.

Even with the recent rains, I could see the sandy bottom through the beautiful milky blue-green water, thick reeds and eel grass moving with the current.  I paddled the cool waterway shaded by thick foliage of oak (several varieties), cypress (draped in long tresses of moss), maple, magnolia, and dogwood, plus many others that I could not begin to identify. How strange not to spot a single cabbage palm!  The landscape varied with low swampy woodlands on the east side and limestone banks, bluffs, and caves on the west.

I did encounter one strange phenomenon—a constant humming coming from the woods for much of my paddle, perhaps some kind of insect. Ricky later suggested locusts.  (I believe the Florida version is called cicadas.)  Regardless, I imagined that a magical wood nymph, attempting to keep the river serene and peaceful, placed them there to help cover the sound of distant traffic sometimes present.

I stopped to climb and play when I reached the limestone caverns on the west bank—what a great spot for a picnic! However, I stayed close to the entrance of the caves, not wandering into the dark depths.  Further downriver, I followed a short spring run to my left and paddled around Dykes Springs, trying to capture the swirling blues and greens with my camera.  Back on the river, I paddled further and passed Spring Creek.

Just Along for the Ride

The thunder had already started, but I made it back to the outfitter at 1:30 p.m., just before the skies opened up and the thunder, lightning, hail, and rain began.

(Outfitter: Bear Paw Canoe Rentals. 2100 Bear Paw Lane, Marianna, Florida 32448. (850) 482-4948)

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