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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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At last, the sun graced Southeast Florida for a day, so I took off from work and

Marsh Grasses on Turkey Creek

headed to Palm Bay for a paddle on Turkey Creek.  This is an out-and-back paddle, with a put in on either end.  I put in at the Palm Bay Marina on U.S 1.  My destination: Turkey Creek Sanctuary, a nature reserve run by the Audubon Society.

I paddled away, passing the boats docked at the marina and the Palm Bay Estates—a small modular residential area. I paddled under the railroad trestle and into a series of braided channels. “Take the middle waterway,” the man at the marina had told me—and about the time I cursed myself for leaving the map on my car seat, I saw an aqua blue sign directing me.   I believe this is called “Willow Swamp,” perhaps after the Carolina Willows which adorn the banks.

I paddled upstream (west) against a current and a breeze, feeling guiltless for missing my morning workout. I spied a great egret peeping out through the tall marshy grasses and an osprey keeping watch from a high tree. Homes dotted the banks on the outside of the channels.

Pathway Through Turkey Creek Sanctuary

Just over a mile into my trip, a dolphin dipped into the dark waters in front of me, marking my passage into the sanctuary. Shortly thereafter, I paddled under the Port Malabar Bridge where the scenery changed.  The creek became a winding stream, shaded by oaks, maples, elms, and palms and embraced by various wetland scrub plants including leather ferns and swamp lilies.  Sand pines clutched high bluffs on the right as I paddled around a bend in the creek.

Mullet jumped around me, cooling me with their splashes.  Suddenly, a huge (yes, huge!) fish surged from the water–an Aquaman wanna-be–directly in front of me.  He did a little squiggle, and went straight back down, tail first.   He was a few feet long with a wide girth—I would not have been able to put my hands around him.  I’ve asked four people what it was and got four different answers—the best being a large bass.

With my meandering and a bit of chatting with other yakkers, it took me over an hour and a half to reach the sanctuary.  I paused at the sandy beach, stretched my legs and snacked on nuts and fruit.  I didn’t take the time to walk along the board walks and nature trails, but I understand they are lovely.

Before heading back, I took a quick paddle to the dam—less than 15 minutes upstream. I realized that the water pouring from the four large sections accounted for the stronger current as I neared the sanctuary beach earlier.

My outing was just over 4 miles, and with my leisurely paddle, it took me three hours.

(Outfitters: Palm Bay Marina, Palm Bay, Florida, 321-723-0851)

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The Tomoka River

The Tomoka River

On Monday morning, I headed to the Tomoka State Park in Ormond Beach to paddle the Tomoka River.  I had attempted to paddle this river twice before, but I could never find the outfitter in—the drats for not bringing my own kayak with me.  This time, I spoke to Billy by phone, and he was meeting me there.

The Tomoka, a state-designated Outstanding Florida Water, originates in a swampy area just southwest of Daytona.  It runs north, picking up waters from the Little Manatee River, Strickland Creek, and Thompson Creek, until it eventually merges with the Halifax River.  As it nears the Halifax, it becomes tidally influenced and takes on more estuarine characteristics.  (Boning)

I wasn’t certain that I would like the Tomoka. The state park “put in” sits at the northern end of the river, at the basin, right where the Tomoka connects to the Halifax River. The river is very wide here, so I knew it wasn’t going to be a sweet, canopied paddle.  However, even with the cool winds on this morning, I could feel the sun warm me through my jacket.  It was a beautiful day to paddle.

From the put in, I had a choice to either paddle south, make a loop that would include Strickland and Thompson Creeks, and return, or to paddle north toward the Halifax.  Although I liked the loop option (the river would be narrower), Billy suggested that with the winds and the movement of the current, I head north toward the Halifax.  So, I took his advice, and I put in, staying close to the shore, and after about 15 minutes of paddling, I took a couple smaller waterways that headed back into the state park.  These were both still pretty wide—60 feet or so—but I was sheltered some from the winds and could see both sides of the river.

It turned out to be a lovely day on the river.  Being Tuesday, the boat traffic was light; I saw only a couple small motorboats on the river.  Within the first five minutes of my paddle, a dolphin graced the water a short distance in front of me.  Fish jumped around me, taunting the few people casting lines from the shore.

The state park brags a bird paradise, and I did see quite a few: herons (great, green, blue, and tri-colored), egrets, osprey, pelicans, kingfishers, and black-necked stilts.  Heading into the waterways, tall salt grasses with a backdrop of cabbage palms and pines trimmed short sandy beaches.  It turned out to be a quiet, lazy day on the river.

I would return to the Tomoka, but I would paddle south and complete the loop to include Strickland and Thompson Creeks as well, or I might even try to put in at the FL 40 bridge and paddle north, provided, of course, I bring my own kayak.  Either way, it’s bound to be a great paddle!

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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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