Kayaking on Rainbow River in Dunnellon, FL

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Rainbow River Headspring

The NWFLOA team attended the 2017 Florida Paddler’s Rendezvous in Ocala, FL this past weekend, and one of our trip destinations was Rainbow River in Dunnellon, FL, about 45 minutes away via Hwy 40 and Hwy 41. Our trip started at the KP Hole County Park at where we waved goodbye to the majority of our paddling friends as they headed downstream on a leisurely 4 ½ mile float while we paddled upstream a mile and a half to see the headsprings, figuring we wanted to have the full experience after driving down from the panhandle.

Kayaking with Eagles

We shoved off from KP Hole with our new friends, Gus and Susan, who were doing a shuttle with us and we hadn’t paddled any distance at all when a stunning Bald eagle flew across the river and landed in the front yard of one of the many waterfront homes lining the river. I allowed my kayak to drift quietly closer to shore while I took several photographs of this seemingly unperturbed eagle before he finally took flight up into the trees. Next we saw Ibis, Anhinga and Cormorants. Talk about a welcoming committee!

We continued up toward the headsprings, passing several smaller springs and delighting in the clarity of the water. Vibrant green grasses swayed beneath the gentle current and scores of fish and turtles swam by oblivious to our presence. The water was deceptively deeper than it appeared; where it looked like one could reach down and touch the bottom, a depth test from the paddle proved that it was over a paddle length deep. We passed a couple of groups of scuba divers who were also enjoying the clear waters.

Underwater View of Kayaks

We made it to the headsprings and one member of our group dove in to have a look around while I paddled up to a trio of turtles basking on a log. We could hear nearby Juliette Falls but weren’t able to see it. A handful of swimmers were enjoying the roped off swim area above the headspring. It’s easy to understand why this location is so popular during the hot summer months.

After a few minutes of exploring and drifting, we headed back downstream to check out the rest of the river. A short distance past where we put in at KP Hole park, we were treated to the sight of a river otter catching and eating a fish. He also ignored us and I was able to get a few photographs of him before he headed back beneath the surface to find more to eat. Almost everywhere we looked there was wildlife. We saw two more otters slip from the bank into the water, but I wasn’t able to get a pic of them.

River Otter

Turtles, turtles everywhere. No alligators this trip, but I’m sure there must’ve been one tucked away on the riverbank somewhere. We took our time heading downstream and roughly 4 ½ hours after we started the confluence of Rainbow and Withlacoochee Rivers came into view. From there it was a short paddle to the takeout at the public boat launch on Hwy 41 where I declined to announce the presence of a Northern Water snake next to the kayaks until after our party exited for fear that one of them might paddle out to the Gulf rather than share space with a scaly friend.

Fish swimming in Rainbow River

This river was the highlight of the ones we paddled over the weekend and I highly recommend it. If you’re not able to run your own shuttle like we were, there are several nearby outfitters that will handle the shuttling for you.

KP Hole County Park is located at 9435 SW 190th Ave, Dunnelon, FL.

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Announcing the 2018 Florida Paddler’s Rendezvous Dates

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Bear Lake

The 2017 Florida Paddler’s Rendezvous just wrapped up in Ocala, FL, and with that came the announcement that the rendezvous for 2018 will be held October 26-28 at Bear Lake Recreational Area north of Milton, FL in the panhandle. The 2018 Florida Paddler’s Rendezvous is being sponsored by the West Florida Canoe and Kayak Club and Floridakayak.org.

Planning is still in the early stages, but the rivers and creeks that are tentatively scheduled include Coldwater Creek, Blackwater River, Big Juniper Creek, Turkey Creek, Boiling Creek and Yellow River. More rivers may be added as the rendezvous approaches.

Red Clay Bluffs Along Juniper Creek

A number of paddlers at this year’s rendezvous asked me about camping options and trips. You will find most of the rivers mentioned here on the website, just plug them into the search tool option. As for camping, there are several options. Bear Lake is in Blackwater River State Forest, and the Forestry Service has opened up to Reserve America. Some people were worried about the number of campsites at Bear Lake. Good news, nearby is also Krul Lake, north and south Hurricane Lake campsites, Blackwater River State Park, and north and south Karick Lake campsites. Registration for campers should open toward the end of November or beginning of December. There should be plenty of sites available, and yes Virginia, there is water, electric and bath houses.

Breathtaking Turkey Creek

The 2018 Rendezvous looks to be a great event. Don’t let the distance deter you. We have a lot of great rivers here along the Emerald Coast, including several of my favorites like Boiling Creek and Turkey Creek. I’ve met a lot of you at the Rendezvous in Stuart, Ocala and Marianna and I hope you can make it up to our area. Stay tuned for more details.

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Kayaking Adventure on the Ichetucknee River

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Beautiful clear waters of the Ichetucknee

The Ichetucknee River has always been on my list of rivers to explore. For years I had been jealous of tales of crystal clear waters and more wildlife than you could shake a stick at, so I was thrilled to get the opportunity to paddle on this pristine waterway last October during the 2015 Florida Paddler’s Rendezvous at the Suwannee River Campground in Mayo, FL.

Ichetucknee Springs State Park is almost literally in the middle of nowhere, with the closest town being some 5+ miles away in Fort White and the next largest town, Lake City, located nearly 23 miles away. Despite the distance, Ichetucknee Springs receives more visitors than it can sometimes handle and it has to turn people away once capacity for the park is reached.

Aquatic grasses swaying in the current

Fortunately for our group, October is the off-season and the tubers had gone home for the summer and our convoy of paddlers had no problem dropping off kayaks near Blue Spring at the north end of the park before shuttling vehicles to our takeout on the lower Santa Fe River almost 12 miles away. The plan was to paddle 6 miles on the Ichetucknee before merging onto the Santa Fe River where we would paddle another 5 ½ miles to our takeout on Hwy 129.

 

Unnamed spring beneath a limestone bank

Because of the distance we would be traveling that day and the restrictions within Ichetucknee Springs State Park, special care had to be made with our food and water provisions since disposable containers/wrappers are not allowed within the park, including glass or plastic bottles. For this trip I brought along my Camelbak and a drybag containing cookies and dehydrated fruits. I really don’t mind extra measures like these when it comes to protecting such a vital natural resource.

Kayaking

We finally got underway and were immediately met with the beauty that is Ichetucknee. The waters were clear and cold, allowing us to see all the way to the bottom of the river where a sea of grasses waved gently beneath us, beckoning us with their rich colors. A variety of bream, bass and other fish drifted casually in and out of the grasses, probably secure in the knowledge that fishing isn’t permitted here. Along the banks we would sometimes see White Ibis, Great Blue Heron and even a Barred Owl as it swooped across the river.

Raccoon washing paws

Turtles were everywhere, and more than once I counted as many as 30 on a log. I figure there weren’t more simply because the log wasn’t long enough. We never saw any alligators, and I’d been told that any over 4′ in length are trapped and relocated. That being said, this is Florida and you never know when one will find its way in, so it’s a good idea to be on the lookout just in case. Someone should probably mention that to the Raccoon I spied washing his paws at the water’s edge.

Devil’s Eye Spring

Along the way we took the time to gaze into the depths of Devil’s Eye Spring and later Coffee Spring, as well as several other springs along the length of the spring run. We drifted along the river for a couple of hours, passing several of the park’s tube launch platforms until we finally passed out of the park and the last takeout before entering the lower section of the Ichetucknee where houses and long boardwalks slowly loomed into view. There were no takeouts beyond this point, so we were committed to our takeout on Hwy 129.

Confluence of the Ichetucknee and Santa Fe Rivers

Finally we reached the amazing confluence of the Ichetucknee and Santa Fe Rivers. I stopped to take several pictures of the brilliant clear water of the Ichetucknee merging with the tea-colored flow of the Santa Fe. It was such a stunning contrast. From here we downstream the remaining 5 ½ miles to our takeout. This last section of Santa Fe was mostly unremarkable with homes appearing regularly. Our biggest challenge was just keeping an eye out for any motor boats.

Before planning your trip, be sure to visit the Florida State Parks website to see when the south gates are open. Ichetucknee Springs State Park is located at 12087 SW Hwy 27, Fort White, FL.

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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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