A Hike to Cherokee Sink near Wakulla Springs

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Cherokee Sink Trail

Cherokee Sink Trail

I learned of Cherokee Sink Hiking Trail while preparing for a return visit to Wakulla Springs south of Tallahassee. My morning plans consisted of a river boat ride on the Wakulla River followed by a couple of hours of hiking before continuing south to Crystal River. Cherokee Sink fit the bill perfectly by being a short hike with a scenic destination.

Access to Cherokee Sink Trail is off of Hwy 61 about 1.3 miles southwest of the main entrance of Wakulla Springs State Park. We turned right at the small Cherokee Sink sign onto an unpaved road and drove a short distance to the parking area.

Cherokee Sink

Cherokee Sink

The trail itself was an easy trek over flat terrain down an old forest road lined by hardwood trees. Deer and other small animal tracks were abundant along the 1 mile trail. The weather was mild for late November, and I was glad for that, having hiked many a trail during hotter temperatures.

After about 20 minutes of peaceful walking we arrived at our destination, a large sinkhole lake about 250′ wide glistening in the afternoon sun. Three wooden boardwalks dotted the rocky perimeter to viewing platforms overlooking the lake, and we moved onto the closest one to take in the view of this amazing 80′ deep karst window into the Florida aquifer.

Another view of Cherokee Sink

Another view of Cherokee Sink

Where most people might just see a swimming hole, Cherokee Sink is more than that. Florida is composed primarily of porous limestone, which over time becomes pockmarked with voids and passages, sometimes creating caverns. Cherokee Sink used to be one of these caverns until its roof collapsed into itself creating the sinkhole lake that exists today. The water that you see today is rainwater runoff that mixed with the water table far below.

Pond Apples?

Pond Apples?

We took the time to walk around most of the lake, and to my surprise I found what appeared to be ripe Pond Apples on the ground along the trail. Further along the trail we arrived at the site of the historic Causseaux Cemetery. The grave markers are long gone, but a sign tells about the family that lived there, including Stephen Causseaux, a Confederate Soldier.

After exploring the overlooks, we headed back to the parking area. Our brief visit to Cherokee Sink was well worth the effort – it’s not every day that one gets to peer into a karst window. Don’t pass it by due to the short hike. It’s easy to add more hiking mileage in by adding the trails at Wakulla Springs to round out a full day of hiking.causseaux-cemetery

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Magical Manatee Madness

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Manatee taking a breath of air. Photo © Beverly Hill

Manatee taking a breath of air. Photo © Beverly Hill

At the time of writing this article, the West Indian Manatee, and its two subspecies, the Antillean and Florida Manatee, is still listed on the Endangered Species List. There is a current proposal before the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to change their classification from Endangered to Protected, which could potentially impact their continued recovery.

It’s been a few years since I traveled down to Crystal River, Florida, for the yearly migration of manatees moving inland to overwinter in the warm springs that they depend on during the winter months, only this time as my friend and I glided in on kayaks, I noticed another migration – an over-abundance of tourists.

Crowd of visitors

Crowd of visitors

Manatees are a big draw, monetarily speaking, and Crystal River is one of the most easily accessible destinations that allows tourists to get up close and personal with these gentle giants. On the down-side, it has humans and manatees competing within the same finite resources – Florida’s crystal clear springs.

In an effort to strike a balance between the needs of the manatees and the wants of the humans, the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge has begun a monitoring program that ensures that during periods of extreme cold, the sanctuary at Three Sisters Spring will close to human intrusion so that the manatees can rest undisturbed. Naturally, the winter months experience the most closures to human access. There are still areas within Kings Bay that will allow humans to view and swim alongside of manatees outside of sanctuary boundaries, as well as Homosassa River just a few miles away.

Manatee and snorkeler

Manatee and snorkeler

There is a boardwalk/viewing area at Three Sisters Springs Visitor Center, however, there is no parking available and visitors must purchase tickets and take a trolley that runs every half hour from the Visitor Center to the Springs. Budget-minded visitors may want to consider Ellie Schiller Homossassa State Park instead, because it also hosts a manatee viewing platform on the river, included with the cost of admission into the wildlife park, and has more things to see and do.

Manatee closeup

Manatee closeup

Fortunately, for now, we were still able to enjoy our kayaking/snorkel trip with the manatees. Being able to swim with these big curious creatures is both a joy and an educational opportunity. One can float quietly just outside of the sanctuaries and inquisitive manatees will approach at their leisure to have a look at their human visitors. Its magical moments like these that continue to inspire people to learn more about these amazing animals and educate others about them.

Algae

Algae

I understand the need to protect the manatee, and it is my fervent hope that further restrictions will not take this amazing opportunity away. Currently, the biggest threat to the manatee is the removal of “No Wake Zones” within Kings Bay and surrounding waterways, and the continued pollution by nitrates into the aquifer that feeds the springs. Nitrate laden water feeds the algae that chokes out the plants that the manatees need to feed on.

Manatee

Manatee

So if you’re planning on visiting the manatees, do your research ahead of time to see if the rapidly evolving protections will impact your trip. You can do that by visiting the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission websites for more information.

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Kayaking on Big Escambia Creek on the Alabama/Florida Line

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Relaxing on the creek.

Relaxing on the creek.

On this adventure, I met up with the FPCKC (Florida Panhandle Canoe & Kayak Connection) group that I’m a part of, in order to join them on a trip down Big Escambia Creek (aka Conecuh River), which as luck would have it, I’ve never been on before. We met the group at the Flomaton Landing boat launch underneath the Hwy 29/31 bridge in Flomaton, Alabama a little before 9:30 a.m. to unload boats and shuttle drivers down to the take-out at Fischer’s Landing on Hwy 4, east of the town of Century back in Florida.

Perfect day for a float trip.

The weather and water levels were perfect for today’s trip. Our trip leader, Doug Waggle, couldn’t have picked a better day if he’d tried. There was a good turn-out of about 18 people, but despite the size of the group, everyone launched fairly quickly and without any incidents. Then it was a pleasant mellow drift down a shallow, gravel-bottom creek. As we chatted, I could hear the mournful wail of a train in the distance and secretly hoped that I would get to see it as we neared the railroad trestle further along the creek.

Paddlers passing beneath the railroad trestle.

Paddlers passing beneath the railroad trestle.

The creek meandered past forested banks, occasionally giving way to large gravel sandbars. Small fish could be seen darting across the creek bottom and one ambitious turtle tried his luck at disguising himself as a shadow on the bottom. The sounds of the train grew louder and as we rounded a bend I was able to see a train slowly crossing the trestle. This was a treat for me because I really like trains. I dearly miss the days when the conductor would wave from the caboose.

Lunch break

Lunch break

After a few miles of drifting we rallied up at our lunch stop right before the entrance to the cypress forest where the recognizable creek path disappears into a maze of choices before re-emerging a half-mile away into a creek once again. Doug gave an inspiring pep-talk informing us that survivors would split the gear of those that didn’t make it, but that any left-over kayaks belonged to the trip leader. Perfectly reasonable.

The forest beckons

The forest beckons

We finished up lunch and clambered back into our canoes and kayaks. Somehow or other I wound up third in the starting line-up which then evolved into me winding up in the starting position after another paddler had to back-track his initial path into the swamp. Doug posted himself at the first choose-your-own-adventure station and pointed me deeper into the swamp. This is how most horror stories begin… straying from the main trail. Here, there is no main trail.

Enter the gauntlet

Enter the gauntlet

Ten feet in and it quickly became apparent that all roads lead downstream, and at a reasonable clip. In paddling terms, it was a technical paddle. Once we entered the watery forest, it was easy to get separated from the rest of the group, and I was paddling alone for many a stretch, often wondering if I would ever make it out to the main channel. The trick was to keep following the current and look for the widest waterways possible.

Beautiful river view

Beautiful river view

Finally I crossed paths with fellow paddler and great conversationalist, Larry Burner. Time flies when you’re shooting the breeze and the current, so it wasn’t long before we made it out of the maze and into the main channel. The scenery was even more amazing than in the first half of the paddle. From here it was a serene paddle to the Escambia river where it widened considerably. A little under a mile and a quarter later we arrived at the Fischer Landing take-out. Total trip-time: 3 ½ hours.

This was a great paddle. I wouldn’t recommend it for a beginner paddler, but someone with average or better paddling skills shouldn’t have much difficulty with it. Below is the full video from the Cypress forest section of the trip so you can judge for yourself.

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Kayaking Adventure on Rocky Creek, Niceville FL

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Dolphin hunting near shore in Rocky Bayou

Dolphin hunting near shore in Rocky Bayou

With the recent heat indexes in Florida we’ve been keeping the adventures fairly close to home so that we can start early and be off of the water before the temperatures really start to broil. Yesterday, we decided to take a paddle up Rocky Creek on Rocky Bayou in Niceville, Fl. Rocky Creek is a great choice for more than just convenience, it also has history, nature and is technically challenging enough to give paddlers a good workout with its swift current and tight turns.

Kayakers traveling up Rocky Creek

Paddlers traveling up Rocky Creek

Despite our best planning, not all of our team members were able to rendezvous at Rocky Bayou State Park on time so we were a bit later than we would’ve liked with launching our vessels. These consisted of two standup paddleboards and two sit-on-top kayaks. After a quick check to make sure that we had our required range passes*, we took to the water and began the half-mile paddle across the bayou to the mouth of the creek. On the way there we managed to spot a couple of dolphins on the morning hunt for food. Rocky Bayou is a designated aquatic preserve and is a haven for aquatic life and a quick meal for a dolphin.

Swamp Lily

Swamp Lily

The tides were in our favor as we approached the mouth of the creek and we were able to glide right in. During low tide you often have to drag your kayak across the sandbar in order to gain access to the creek. Supposedly there is also a fairly large alligator that likes to hang out near the mouth of the creek, but we’ve never seen it. Still, in Florida you can never be too careful so keep an eye out for it.

 

Old plane wreckage in Rocky Creek

Old plane wreckage in Rocky Creek

As usual, the current gave us a bit of a workout as we paddled upstream. Our goal was a picnic spot about 2 miles up the creek that comes complete with a picnic bench built around two Cypress trees situated in the middle of the creek. It’s a great place to hang out after a tiresome upstream battle. Along the way we took a few moments to examine pieces of wreckage from an old airplane crash, presumably civilian, that still litter the creek. It’s a bit of a contrast to the display of colorful blooming aquatic plants that line the creek.

The NWFLOA team stops for lunch in Rocky Creek

The NWFLOA team stops for lunch in Rocky Creek

Perseverance rewarded us and we arrived at our lunch stop. We took time to eat and cool off before deciding to head back. Fortunately for the return trip it’s mainly steering on the quick trip back. Normally we’d also be treated to some wildlife sightings, but on this day the only wildlife we saw were a couple of osprey and dolphins at the beginning of our trip. The other wildlife were probably lying low to beat the heat and I can’t really blame them.

 

Bottleneck on Rocky Creek

Bottleneck on Rocky Creek

On our way out of the creek we encountered a bit of a traffic jam of boats pulled into the mouth of the creek at a picnic spot near the bayou. We threaded our way through and managed to paddle back to the take out and load up our gear before a determined rain shower moved in to try and cool things down. All-in-all it was a good trip and worth doing again.

 

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The Small Wonders of Basin Bayou, Freeport Fla

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Kayaks on Basin Bayou

Kayaks on Basin Bayou

Basin Bayou is a nearly pristine, yet somewhat overlooked area nestled on the north shore of Choctawhatchee Bay and located a short drive west of Freeport, Florida on Highway 20. The northern side of Basin Bayou is surrounded and protected by Eglin, AFB, leaving only a few homes to dot the southern shoreline. A narrow and shallow tidally-influenced inlet allows ingress/egress to the bay to only the most shallow-draft boats. For this reason, I chose this location to paddle on Memorial Day weekend.

Water Lilies on Basin Bayou

Water Lilies in Bloom

On this adventure I brought along a fairly new paddler because I wanted to introduce her to a scenic natural area while remaining relatively safe from speeding motorboats on a crowded holiday weekend. While a creek or river might also have sufficed, I wanted her to gain confidence in her paddling technique before dealing with obstacles like logs or dodging powerboats. Basin Bayou is perfect for this.

We started early since the forecast for the day was slated to get into the low 90s before the afternoon. We parked at the small lot adjacent to Nick’s Seafood Restaurant and launched our kayaks from the beach area behind the restaurant before heading into the narrow pass that leads to the bayou. Almost immediately we spotted waterlilies in bloom on either side of the passage. As we entered the bayou and left the handful of homes behind, we hugged the eastern shoreline and observed moss-draped live oaks, magnolias and a very vocal Osprey guarding a nest in the top of a tall dead pine tree.

Osprey on Basin Bayou

Osprey and Nest on Basin Bayou

Paddling onward, we stayed close to the shoreline and commented on the aquatic grasses gently reaching up from beneath the calm water. It wasn’t long, though, before we observed something completely out of the ordinary disrupting the water’s surface. At first we thought it might be small methane bubbles erupting from beneath the silt and vegetation, but we quickly ruled it out. Nor was it a bait ball. Finally, unable to stand not knowing, I paddled my kayak into the mass of black bubbles and started laughing with glee. It was a large biomass of huge tadpoles!

Tadpoles

Tadpoles

We encountered about 6 more of these large biomasses over the next hour. I even managed to take video of the event and have forwarded it on to Florida Fish and Wildlife for further analysis. After finally taking our leave of the tadpoles, we had reached the end of the bayou, although in truth it is only a mile from the put-in. At the rear of the bayou a small creek, Basin Creek, flows into the bayou. This area is off-limits unless you have a recreation pass obtainable from Eglin’s Natural Resources Branch located in Niceville, FL. Fortunately, we both had one so we decided to enter and explore the tannin-colored creek.

Basin Creek

Basin Creek, Eglin AFB

By now, the temperature should’ve been in the upper 80s but we were lucky enough to have partially overcast skies and a light sprinkle of rain. Upon entering the creek, we were also treated to what I refer to as “cold pockets” where the water and air temperature drop by several degrees. I suspect this is due to unseen underwater springs, which are not uncommon for Florida. The current was slow and easy, and the scenery was splendid as we paddled about a mile and quarter upstream to an access bridge on one of Eglin’s many range roads.

Kayaking Across Basin Bayou

Kayaking Across Basin Bayou

After a short snack break we let the current take us slowly downstream. On this pass we even got to observe a small alligator crossing the creek. We found the experience to be peaceful and relaxing. So many of our natural areas have succumbed to rampant development that it is truly a delight to experience an unspoiled area; to hear the frogs calling from within large clumps of ferns or to catch sight of a red-shouldered hawk. After a short time, the creek delivered us back to the Bay which now had a light chop on it from the winds picking up. We tracked across easily and before long we were back at the take-out area and thoroughly happy with the day’s outcome.

Although Basin Bayou is fairly small in size, it still makes for a great paddling destination. We recommend it and will definitely be taking the kayaks out on it again soon.

    

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