Posts Tagged ‘Bill Belleville’

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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My friend, Bill Belleville, and I headed to the Econlockhatchee River for a paddle the Saturday morning before Easter, pleased to find the river was quiet when we arrived.  A few sleepy campers emerged from the woods with blankets and pillows just as we carried our kayaks down to the launch area.  We finished loading our supplies, lathered on some sunscreen, and off we went.

The Intriguing Econ River

A state-designated canoe trail, the Econlockhatchee River originates in the Econlockhatchee River Swamp in northern Osceola County.  Its tea colored waters flow first north and then northeast for approximately 35 miles, eventually emptying into the St. Johns River (Boning).  Along its journey, the river passes through private ranch lands and state protected forests.  It passes through the Little Big Econ State Forest before emptying into the St. Johns River.

The Econ can be paddled in several sections; however, little rain in recent years has resulted in low water levels, in some areas, too low to paddle.  If we paddled the first section, between FL 50 and the CR 419 bridge, we would have struggled with numerous carryovers.  Paddling the next section, between the CR 419 bridge and the Snow Hill Road bridge, would have meant leaving our cars in a remote area.  So, we chose the third section, and we put in at Snow Hill Road between Geneva and Chuluota and paddled northeast toward the St. Johns River. 

I have to pause for a moment here and say, that there isn’t a better way to experience a river than traveling with a nature writer and conservationist, such as Bill Belleville.  He can identify most of the flora and fauna along the river, and is tremendously patient with all my questions.  In his most recent book, Salvaging the Real Florida: Lost and Found in the State of Dreams, Bill dedicates at least one chapter to Florida rivers and describes one of his previous paddles on the Econ after tropical storms had, as Bill writes, “filled its valley of paleo-dunes to overflowing.”  The river he described at that time was much different than the river we experienced on this day.

Intriguing rather than beautifully lush, the landscape of our Econ run varied from high sandy banks to low sandy beaches.   At times, towering cypress dwarfed us as we paddled past, water marks on their trunks evidence of higher water levels.  Of course, there were oaks and cabbage palms, and we even spotted a couple magnolia trees nudging themselves between the larger trees.  However, without the benefit of spring waters and with little or no rain in the area for a very long time, the water level was low, leaving the worn, depleted banks with trees clutching to their sides.  At times, deadfalls challenged us, as we were forced to paddle either through or over them. 

Amazingly, the low water level did not deter the birds as we saw many!  We spotted three bald eagles, one quite large, and we were treated to a great blue heron that seemed to await us at each river bend, flying off as we approached, to scout ahead.  We saw blue herons, swallow-tailed kites, vultures, and red- shouldered hawks.  Bill even spied a wild turkey just before it ducked behind a log.  Two alligators crossed our path—the larger one, about 10 feet long, slid into the water ahead of us, pausing while we paddled closer, and then disappeared slowly somewhere beneath us.

There never seems to be enough time when paddling a Florida river.  We had hoped to make it to the St. Johns, about a 12-mile run.  However, after two hours of paddling and a short snack break and nature scout, we turned around and headed back to Snow Hill Bridge.

I’d love to return to this river someday—after a tropical storm, when its “valley of paleo-dunes” are overflowing–and paddle the entire 35 miles.  It was a beautifully intriguing river with so much character.

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