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Archive for the ‘Paddling’ Category

In the spirit of the New Year fast approaching, it seemed appropriate 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.

A Busy Homosassa 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. https://www.riversportkayaks.com/. Email: rskkirk@gmail.com. (352) 621-4972 )

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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 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.”

Beautiful Cypress on Fisheating Creek

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. https://fisheatingcreekoutpost.com/. (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 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.

Barb Paddles Riverbend Park

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?

(Outfitter: Riverbend Rentals in Riverbend Park. 9060 W. Indiantown Road, Jupiter, FL 33478. https://www.jupiteroutdoorcenter.com/riverbend-park/rentals/. (561) 746-7053).

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The Steinhatchee River had been on my list of rivers to paddle for some 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!

High Waters at the Steinhatchee Falls

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 paddling alone?” When I nodded, she added, “What if you flip? Who will help you?” I quickly double checked my straps.

Limestone Banks Etched by Moving Waters

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 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…

Splashes of Color on the Wekiva

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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We had driven through the gates of the Seminole State Forest just ten minutes earlier and were bouncing along the dusty road in Bill’s SUV, kayaks on the hood. As we chatted about the last time we paddled Blackwater, and we took in our surroundings, Bill brought his car to a sudden halt. A diamondback rattler lay curled on the road in front of us. I dove for my camera on the back seat, but missed the shot; the snake had slithered away.

Browned Cypress on the Blackwater Creek

I was thrilled to be returning to Blackwater Creek with Bill Belleville (Florida writer, filmmaker, nature lover); it had been over two years since our last paddle—way too long! We put in at the same spot as last time, the bridge in the Seminole State Forest. However, this time, we chose the upper river and paddled towards the creek’s source, Lake Norris. Two years ago, we had paddled the lower section towards the Wekiva River.

The coolness in the breeze signaled fall had arrived at last; the sun peaked from behind the clouds.  What a gorgeous day! We paddled away from the Sand Road launch against a slight current. Leaves fell from the trees, dancing, twirling on their way to the creek’s surface.  For the next few hours, we explored the beautiful, twisted Blackwater Creek, catching a glimpse of the natural Florida, quiet and serene.

Bill Masters the Deadfall Shuffle
Bill Masters the Deadfall Shuffle

Bill had predicted that we would be challenged with many deadfalls as the upper creek is not kept clear—and we were. However, by the end of our paddle, I believe we had both mastered the deadfall shuffle and the forest limbo! Any challenge we faced was well worth it; we watched as bees and butterflies paid homage to a beautiful, blooming Carolina astor and hawks coasted on the vents above us. Browned cypress added fall décor to our surroundings of tall pines, oaks and palmetto palms; water lines on their trunks marked the higher summer levels.

We paddled our way through Pennywort and Pickerelweed, and I had to laugh when I spied a rafter of turkeys running on the forest floor deeper into the trees—I could see their heads bobbing up and down; my first thought was “little forest people.”  We paddled under flocks of ibises sitting on branches overhanging the creek. They seemed to be enjoying the waterway as much as Bill and I.

An hour into our paddle, Bill and I took a waterway to the left where there seemed to be a strong current. We were surprised to make it another hour upstream, and decided it was time to turn around. With the current, we made it back to our launch in an hour.

Some consider snakes an ominous sign…you know, the serpent in the garden. For us, I prefer to think of our snake as a symbol of renewal and life…a signpost in the middle of the road screaming, “beautiful Florida nature up ahead!”

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I paddled away from the bank of the Caloosahatchee River Regional Park, maneuvering around the cow lilies and into the wide river. A bird called out from a large oak behind me. The sky was clear, and I could just feel a touch of fall in the air. I loved this—Friday morning, and no one else in sight on the river.

An Oxbow on the Caloosahatchee

Named for the Calusa Tribe that inhabited the area (500 to 1700 A.D.) and traveled the river long ago, Caloosahatchee means, “river of the Calusa.”   At that time, this much shallower river originated from sawgrass meadows west of Lake Okeechobee, and the Calusas traveled it in dugout cypress canoes. (How cool is that!) However, the Disston Canal was constructed in the 1880s, connecting it to the lake, and then dredging began in order to straighten and deepen the river. Today, this river (C-43 Canal) runs about 76 miles from Lake Okeechobee to the San Carlos Bay. (Boning) Of course, we are well aware of the issues with the water quality this fall due to the discharge of fresh water from Lake Okeechobee!

I paddled west toward my destination, Hickey’s Creek, briefly wondering who Hickey was. I admired the tall pines, palmetto palms, and oaks dripping with moss on the north side of the river. On the south side, homes, often with comfy wrap-around porches, sat on spacious properties. Parts of the banks had been kept wild with tall grasses and leather ferns. I passed two oxbows, leftovers from the original winding river, and took the curved route to the left of the tiny islands.

Into the Hickey Creek Mitigation Park
Into the Hickey Creek Mitigation Park

Forty-five minutes into my westward paddle, I made a left before the house with the windmill and entered Hickey’s Creek—a much narrower and more shaded waterway—and part of the State-designated paddling trail. An hour later, I reached the Hickey Creek Mitigation Park and stopped for a stretch. When I continued my paddle into the park area, the homes disappeared, and the river narrowed. At times, I wasn’t certain I had taken the right path, and I longed for breadcrumbs or some other such marker to put down so I could find my way back!  However, the paddle was quiet and serene, and the herons, limpkins, and egrets seemed to not be disturbed with my presence.

Thirty minutes later, I turned around and headed back. The wind had picked up, and when I reached the Caloosahatchee, I had to put some muscle in my paddle. However, in less than an hour, I had reached my put in location.

(Outfitter: Caloosahatchee Regional Park. 19130 North River Road, Alva, Florida 33920.  (239) 694-0398)

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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.

Dark Waters of the Blackwater River

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. https://www.blackwatercanoe.com/. (850) 623-0235  or (800) 967-6789)

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Vacation time had arrived at last, and this summer, I planned to return to the Panhandle for three paddles. It was long overdue—I had originally scheduled it for July, but I fractured my wrist (handstands) and had to delay my trip. My cast came off Friday, two days before I left for the Panhandle.  I figured a few days of paddling would be good therapy.

I chose the most westerly river I could for my first paddle: the Perdido River. In Spanish, Perdido means, “lost” or “lost river.” If you look at the map, the Perdido River draws the north-south boundary between Florida and Alabama, and there is so much history here as the Spanish, British, French, and of course, United States, struggled to gain possession of these lands. (Boning) The Perdido originates in Alabama and travels about 58 miles from Alabama to Perdido Bay—which is part of the Gulf.  It includes nine miles of Florida Designated Paddling Trail from Barrineau Park to Adventures on Perdido. The Perdido is also an Outstanding Florida Water.

Adventures on Perdido (formerly part of Adventures Unlimited) is the only outfitter on the river.  Linda and Dave are the owners; theirs is a small mom and pop outfitter in the middle of nowhere. They have enough canoes to meet the needs for busloads of vacationers, but I found the choice of kayaks limited. A sit-on-top would have been nice under the hot sun (and Linda’s recommendation), but theirs were too small to hold my cooler and supplies, so I opted for a sit inside. As it turned out, it had wacky tracking, and whenever I stopped paddling, the kayak turned right–a bit like that crazy cart I sometimes get at Publix.

At 9:30 a.m., Dave dropped me at the Perdido River Wildlife Management Area access, just south of Barrineau Park.  From here, I paddled south with Alabama on my right and Florida on my left—how cool is that? I spent the next three hours alone on the tea-colored waterway under the hot August sun.  The wide river (often about 50 feet wide) and tall palms, cedar and cypress offered little shade! I made do with the sit inside kayak and flung my legs over the sides—not very ladylike, but it was very relaxing and much cooler with my feet dipped in the water.

A Peaceful Perdido River
A Peaceful Perdido River

The river was quiet—no people, no animals, no gators or snakes. Three hawks flew overhead and disappeared. I took in the beautiful white sandbars and the high sandy banks while I snacked on trail mix and fruit. However, as beautiful as these all were, the condition of the river was disappointing. Dead wood in the water collected trash all along the river—reminders of inconsiderate humans. Although the Perdido Wildlife Management Area includes 15 miles of frontage on the river, portions are also owned by individuals (evidenced by many plastic chairs on sandbars) and gun clubs. I wondered who was responsible for keeping it clean.  This river had so much potential, but it seemed neglected.

Truthfully, I can’t say that Perdido makes my “top ten” list. However, is there anything better than to paddle down any Florida river in the midst of nature?

(Adventures on Perdido. 160 River Annex Road, Cantonment, Florida. https://adventuresperdidoriver.com/. (850) 968-5529 or (888) 863-1364)

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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.

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.

A Hot, Lazy Day on Crystal River

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.

(Outfitter: Bird’s Underwater Inc., 320 NW Hwy 19, Crystal River, FL. https://www.birdsunderwater.com/. (352) 563-2763)

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