Flat Water Rivers of North Florida
The rivers of north Florida offer some wonderful and diverse flat-water paddling opportunities. My favorite destination among them is the Wakulla River, which runs from a spring located within Wakulla Springs State Park in Tallahassee for a distance of 6 miles, emptying into the Gulf of Mexico around St. Marks. The public boat ramp I use for this river is located under the bridge that crosses the river on Hwy. 98 between Newport and Medart. Adjacent to the public boat ramp is a canoe and kayak rental place called TNT Hideaway. These folks offer use of their restroom facilities to paddlers putting in at the public boat ramp. There is no usage charge for the public boat ramp.
There is no shuttle service for this river, so all trips are out-and-back. This is a very easy river to paddle in the upstream direction, with almost no current between the public boat ramp on Hwy. 98 and the fence that separates the river at the far upstream end from the state park property (you cannot enter the state park via the river). There is an unpaved public ramp at that end. The water in the downstream direction from the Hwy. 98 ramp flows toward the Gulf and is increasingly influenced by tidal currents as you paddle in that direction. If the tide is going out as you are returning to the ramp, it can make for somewhat difficult paddling; check the tides table if you want to go in that direction. There is a boat ramp on the river at the point where it merges with the Gulf at the Shell Island Fish Camp, which also offers lodging. If you are not staying there, there is a $3 usage fee to put in at their ramp.
Since it is spring-fed, this river is almost always unbelievably crystal-clearwith the exception of days following periods of heavy rain, when it become silty. In years of paddling this river, I have only encountered this condition once. There are no shoals or portage areas. The bottom is clearly visible through much of the four miles from the public ramp to the top and consists largely of either sand or underwater reeds. Many fish are visible swimming beneath your boat, as well as turtles. The banks of the river are lined with aquatic plants such as pickerel rushes, with wooded property beyond. Many people live along this river and so there are many private docks on either side, though very few visible houses except for an area near the public ramp.
Aside from the clarity of the water and easy slow current, the primary draw of this river is that manatees make it their home from April to October, and its unusual to spend time on it without spotting at least one. Typically they are seen in groups of from two to four, often with a baby calf among them. These are very, very large animals that must come up to breathe about every 5 minutes or so. Its quite a sight seeing large gray nostrils poke out of the water and hear the Phhhhhht! sound of their exhales before they dive back under. They are completely unafraid of people in canoes or kayaks and will go about their feeding activities seemingly oblivious of your presence. Its a bit unnerving to have an animal longer and wider than your kayak swim some 4 inches beneath it, but they seem well aware of what is above them and I have never heard of one surfacing beneath a boat and upsetting it. The length of this river from the boat ramp to the park end is a no-wake zone because of these manatees, which works well for paddlers since motored boats are constrained to a speed that produces little or no wake to interfere with paddling.
Another feature of this river are the many alligators that can be spotted nearly submerged in the water along the banks. This is not a river in which you pull over and step out for a stretch! This is a popular boating river and the gators are used to seeing humans so they rarely submerge as you go by but rather just watch your progress through unblinking eyes. These are not dangerous animals as long as you respect their space. Occasionally you will spot one swimming from one side of the river to the other, but for the most part they just stay immobile along the edges.
You will see a few ducks here and there and as you get farther upstream and out of the busier part of the river, you will spot egrets, ospreys, and herons perched in the plants along the edges or on someones dock. During the summer the mullet (fish) jump very high out of the water and your journey is accompanied by the sounds of them splashing down. I have never been bothered by any biting insects on this river, though there are many, many dragonflies.
Another spring-fed river is the Wacissa. The put-in that I use for this is at the headsprings, which is reached via Hwy. 59 east of Tallahassee. Pass through the small town of Wacissa and continue on the road less than half a mile after 59 turns right; the road dead-ends at the ramp. On weekends there is a canoe rental concession, and somewhat primitive restroom facilities are provided at the ramp. Depending on the amount of rainfall and how far you paddle, this can be a somewhat swift river in places, and if you are going out and back, you must watch the current conditions since you will be starting out going downstream from this boat ramp. This river is also crystal clear and rarely so deep you cant see the bottom. It is lined with assorted water plants and the edges are swampy and marshy, so there are no places, at least close to the ramp, where you can get out for a stretch. This river also has a gator population, along with abundant water fowl, from a variety of duck-like birds to wading shorebirds. I find that this river is best paddled in cooler weather (try October or November, or spring) rather than the heat of summer, since there are few shady places in the main channel. Many tributaries branch off, some rejoining the river and some eventually fading into the marshland. Within the distance I have paddled it (which is minimal, at most 3 hours out before turning around), I have encountered no shoals or portage areas and no submerged logs or rocks.
One major drawback to the Wacissa, particularly on weekends, is the presence of air boats. These are boats that are propelled by what appear to be very large fans. These boats make an incredible amount of noise (youll hear it 10 minutes before you see it)the passengers on these boats customarily wear earmuffs to muffle the noise. Needless to say, these boats are both a menace to paddlers and greatly detract from the peacefulness of this river. They are also somewhat difficult to maneuver and must stay in the center of the river so as to not get mired in the underwater reeds, so if you have one bearing down on you, move to the side (the good news is that you have plenty of time to do this since you have more than ample audible warning that one is approaching).
The Suwannee River flows for 240 miles from the Okefenokee Swamp. At one point near White Springs, Florida, it provides Floridas only version of whitewater, near Big Shoals, where there is a take-out. My experience with this river is limited to a run of about 10 miles upstream from the paved boat ramp at Suwannee River State Park outside Lee, Florida. The park entrance is off Hwy. 90. The park offers picnicking and camping. They are currently in the process of building cabins near the river, which look like they will be very nice when finished. There is a fee to enter the park and will soon be what appears to be an additional boat ramp fee. There are many free public boat ramps elsewhere that you can use to access the river if you are only interested in paddling.
[Sandy bank on the Suwannee River]
The Suwannee is a blackwater river. The water is actually the color of tea because of the tannins in the river. In shallow places the water is very clear and the bottom, often covered by rocks or fallen tree limbs, is visible. The first 35 miles of this river, from Fargo, Georgia, to Big Shoals, is the most scenic; below that the signs of civilization increase. I have never seen any gators in this river; the environment is not particularly hospitable for them. There is very little plant life in the water at the banks, and the banks themselves vary from beautiful white sandy stretches (ideal for camping or just getting out for a stretch) to very high wooded drops from the property above. There are very few, if any, residences visible from the water in the stretch I have covered upstream of the boat ramp at the park. Even on the weekends it is rare to encounter other boats on this section of the river. However, there are no HP constraints and it seems to be largely unpatrolled, so you must rely on the courtesy of power boat drivers to slow down and diminish their wake as they pass. They dont always do this so if you hear a power boat approaching, you might want to pull over to one side or the other instead of assuming they will see you and slow down! The current on the Suwannee varies widely according to water depth as well as recent rainfall. At times it seems nonexistent, at other times it can be very swift.
The Withlacoochee River is another personal favorite of mine. There are many free public boat ramps that access this river, several of them in Madison County, which is about 40 miles east of Tallahassee. The river is divided into two parts. It starts in south Georgia and flows southward through Florida until it merges with the Suwannee River at the state park described above. It then re-forms as a separate river farther south. This river rises and falls according to rainfall and the current can become quite swift, so you may want to check conditions before setting out. During the rainy season the water is high and a brown, muddy color, with very little clarity. There are some springs along this river, and when the water is low, it becomes very clear, with the bottom visible. I have spent most of my time on this river paddling upstream and then back down from the point where it merges with the Suwannee at the state park. There are areas of white sand along the edges, similar to the Suwannee, and areas where the banks are muddy but easy to pull over to for a break or picnic. The park ranger once told me that there was an alligator living on the river about 10 miles upstream of the park, but I have never seen it. The most interesting thing about this river is the cave rock structures that you see along the banks when the water is at a normal low point. These rocks are bleached white and pitted and make for stunning scenery, particularly when they are reflected in the sunlight on glass-still water. There are very few dwellings along this stretch and even on weekends its typical to spend hours without seeing another person. The wildlife is mostly limited to turtles sunning themselves on logs, a few shorebirds, and squirrels in the woods beyond the water. If you happen to be on the water in late afternoon or early evening, however, its common to see deer coming down to drink. Motor boats are scarce, as mentioned, and when the water is low they tend to be going somewhat slow because of the rocks and logs that can be present just under the surface of the water. This river, along with the Suwannee, has always been completely free of biting insects; if you take repellent, you may want to wait to apply it till you confirm that you need it.
[Reflections of the rocky bank of the Withlachoochee]
There are many other rivers in north central Florida that offer peaceful flat water paddling conditions and freshwater springs to explore. If you are going to be in the Gainesville area, in central Florida, I highly recommend a visit to the Santa Fe River, another blackwater river that offers superior scenery. The levels of this river vary with rainfall so check the conditions before you go.
While it is not a river but rather a long, narrow lake, I recommend a visit to Merritt Mill Pond near Marianna, Florida, about an hours drive west of Tallahassee on I-10. This lake is fed by two springs and reminded me very much of the Wacissa, except that it is lined with cypress trees. This lake is famous as a fishing spot. I spent several hours on it for the first time recently and was very impressed with it. There are several private homes on this lake. I saw many large shorebirds on the edges and perched in the trees. Directions to Merritt Mill Pond can be found here: http://www.jcflchamber.com/attractions/millpond.cfm.