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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Paddling With the Dolphins of Choctawhatchee Bay

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Dolphin checking me out on the standup paddleboard

Dolphin checking me out on the standup paddleboard

One of my favorite things to do after a long day at work is to take the paddleboard out for a couple of hours and paddle around the bayou. On special days like today, I’ll sometimes find myself amongst a pod of dolphin on the hunt. The Choctawhatchee Bay dolphins can frequently be found in the early morning and evening hours scouring the bay and bayous for food. If you’re on a quiet craft like a kayak or paddleboard, they will often come in close to check you out.

Mother dolphin with calf.

Mother dolphin with calf.

On this particular outing I paddled out to the mouth of the bayou to find the pod already in feeding mode. It was a sizeable pod for this area, numbering close to a dozen or so dolphins including a mother and calf. I glided into a good viewing position and settled in to enjoy the show. The first thing I noticed is the the mother and calf paired off to feed a fair distance from the rest of the actively hunting pod. The remaining pod members then broke into groups of two and three.

 

A dolphin dives back under near my SUP

A dolphin dives back under near my SUP

I watched as the working pods would move out and back, out and back, but never straying too far from our location. Occasionally the pods would seem to circle briefly in place as they worked a school of fish. More than once a couple of the more curious dolphins would pop up next to the board as if to say ‘Hi’ and then it was back to business. One of the more notable maneuvers were three dolphins racing forward in formation and then diving with a loud splash.

A dolphin showing some tail

A dolphin showing some tail

 

Mother and calf were having a fun time as well. The calf appeared to be fairly young and mother had her flippers full with teaching it and making sure it stayed well away from my paddleboard. The calf seemed to be more focused on playing and I even watched him jump a couple of times. After about an hour spent with my aquatic friends and with the sun sinking lower on the horizon, I decided that it was time to leave my peaceful friends and paddle back home. They certainly put a big smile on my face and definitely took the stress out of my hectic day.

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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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