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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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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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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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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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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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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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Admittedly, my favorite rivers are remote, narrow, and twisted with a lush green canopy, lots of wildlife, and little human life.

A Hot, Lazy Day on Crystal River

A Hot, Lazy Day on Crystal River

However, a girl can enjoy an occasional frolic in a busy setting from time to time…right?  I had just paddled Waccasassa the day before, and this Saturday in May, I would paddle my 30th river (Yippee!).  I knew that Crystal River would be busy, but I expected it to be fun as well.

About 30 springs in and around King’s Bay make up the headwaters of Crystal River. The springs keep the Bay to a refreshing 72 degrees and a prime spot for the manatees during the colder months—however, not so many manatees hang around in these warmer months. Crystal River runs about 7 miles westward from the Bay before it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. (Boning)

So, mid-morning, I rented a sit-on-top kayak from Birds Underwater, planning to dip my feet in the cool water while paddling under a very hot sun.  I paddled away from the dock, hugging the shoreline, and took in my surroundings.  Sailboats and pontoon boats anchored around the Bay, painted a beautiful picture of a lazy afternoon on the water. Boats loaded with manatee-seekers and scuba divers coasted by.  Ahead of me, a parade of paddlers in their colorful kayaks paddled away.

I paddled towards the Three Sisters Springs, watching a couple dolphins frolicking in the water to my right.  The birds splashed around me, seemingly accustomed to the hub-bub: osprey, pelicans, cormorants, and ducks.  After I passed under a bridge, the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge appeared to my left while private residences lined the canals to my right.  I followed the colorful kayak parade to the Three Sisters Springs, entering what could have been a themed swimming pool at Disney.  Paddlers sat atop trees that had fallen across the crystal clear water while others sunbathed on their kayaks. I half expected to see a mechanized mermaid arise from the water singing an enchanting song about life under the sea. I slid from my kayak into the chilly (eek!) water and spent some time cooling off.

Before returning to the outfitter that afternoon, I took a paddle around the tall grasses of Buzzard Island. I did see one manatee lifting its snout out of the water as paddlers looked on. As I neared the outfitter, I could hear music coming from Crackers Bar, Grill, and Tiki. A cold beer was beginning to sound darn good!

Now that I’ve become somewhat familiar with King’s Bay, on a return trip I would like to paddle across the Bay and down the river. Although the river is not narrow and twisted, Huff claims that it is wild and natural—except for the occasional passing motor boat, that is.

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