I loaded my board and drove to the Youth Camp at Wekiva Springs State Park. It felt like a reunion—Ronnie Kemp of Sea Kayak Georgia, Ashley Brown and Jeff Atkins of Wave Paddler, and Christa Foisy of Paddle NC and more. My kayak buddies had switched from boats to boards.
We learned stuff on the water, and we learned stuff on land. David Hernandez and Will Niemann from St. Augustine Paddle Sports spoke about fishing SUPs, a quickly growiong market segment. These SUPS are large and stable, with hatches, attachment points for coolers, and even a bar to stand up. Not a bad way to spend a day on the water.
Plenty of options each day, ranging from an L1-2 IDW/ICE to coastal paddling to ‘Meet and Greet’ paddles on the Wekiva River and Rock Springs Run.
Chaz Corallo of, ironically, Flatwater Paddle Co. of New Jersey showed us the gear necessary to do battle with rocks, including body armor, helmet and breakaway leash. Not just anyone can style Nantahala Falls on a SUP.
Inflatable boards bounce, not break, on rocks. I can’t say the same about bodies. Body armor seems like a good idea.
One day, we paddled down Wekiva River and up Rock Springs Run which has 3 primitive campsites, perfect for a SUP camping trip. Despite the proximity to Disney and Orlando, this landscape feels primeval and wild.
Road trip to Wekiva Island for fish tacos and beer! Noone left hungry.
New friends, new skills, and a new board for Watertribe. I’m looking forward to Paddle 2 the People, part deux.
Salt Springs Run hints of old Florida, before Disney and development transformed the land. The scrub landscape bordering the run offers a glimpse of the Florida William Bartram encountered centuries ago. Paddling this river lets me escape the twenty-first century for a little while.
I launch at Salt Springs Marina and slide my paddleboard onto the calm water just below the head-spring. The water is cloudier than the last time I visited a year ago, which saddens me. Heavy rains and over-pumping from the aquifer have degraded many area springs. But even so, Salt Springs rarely disappoints.
The Salt Springs Marina sits at one end of a large pool. To the left lies the headspring itself and just downstream a pack of motor boats have anchored for an afternoon of swimming and sun. I turn my right, downstream, away from boats and people. It only takes one river bend to step back in time and imagine how William Bartram felt when he floated down what he called Six Mile Springs. On my first trip to Salt Springs, I paddled In William Bartram’s Wake on Paddle Florida’s 2015 Bartram History Paddle. Dean Campbell and Sam Carr, designers of the Bartram Trail in Putnam County, regaled us with Bartram lore as we paddle down Salt Springs Run and up the St. Johns River to Palatka.
In 1766, Quaker naturalist and explorer William Bartram and his father John Bartram encountered Salt Spring Run while exploring the shore of Lake George, a wide spot in the St. Johns River. They rowed upstream against the slow-moving current until they reached the head-spring which they called Johnson Spring. Their journal entry, dated January 24, 1766, describes the oak hammocks, cypress knees, and pines that still characterize this run. Today, adventurers can paddle, hike, and bike sections of the Bartram Trail in Putnam County using maps and QR code that identify sites mentioned in Bartram’s travel journals. Site 28 marks the entrance to Salt Springs Run on the western shore of Lake George. Both University of North Florida’s Florida History Online and Bartram Trail in Putnam County provide ecological, historical, and literary commentary on the specific sites Bartram visited.
Today, Salt Springs Run is part of the Salt Springs Recreation Area in the Ocala National Forest, easily reached by Highway 19. In the time of Bartram’s Travels and even well into the early twentieth century, most people travelled by boat. The dense and swampy Florida landscape made overland journeys difficult and dangerous. To reach Salt Springs, the Bartrams rowed up the north-flowing St. Johns River and up what we call Salt Springs Run.
William Bartram returned to Salt Springs in 1774 and again floated the spring run. But his observations and “romantic imagery” after this second descent reveal so much more about Bartram and his enchantment by the spring.
“But there are yet remaining scenes inexpressibly admirable and pleasing. Behold, for instance, a vast circular expanse before you, the waters of which are so extremely clear as to be absolutely diaphanous or transparent as the ether; the margin of the bason ornamented with a grat variety of fruitful and floriferous trees, shrubs, and plants, the pendant golden Orange dancing on the surface of the plellucid waters, the balmy air vibrating with the melody of the merry birds, tenants of the encircling aromatic grove.” (Travels)
William Bartram’s ornate language captures the magic of Florida’s springs. I see the magic on my friends’ faces when they plunge into a spring’s clear waters. Bartram’s flowery descriptions likely influenced writers and poets far beyond Florida. Scholars have traced Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan to Bartram’s description of Salt Springs.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
Salt Springs, like all Florida springs, flows from an ancient sea, deep under the Floridan Aquifer, passing through limestone and karst caverns. Coleridge’s sacred Alph could very well be our own Salt Springs Run. Who isn’t captivated by our springs?
Even though the water was more tannic than my last visit to Salt Springs, in my mind’s eye, I envision the crystal blue flow that William Bartram must have seen–the water that is “absolutely diaphanous or transparent as the ether.” I’ve seen this clarity on the Ichetucknee, Naked Springs at Gilchrist Blue, and Cannon springs during the Ocklawaha drawdown, so I know what is possible.
My father recently passed away at Oak Hammock in Gainesville, FL, after struggling with dementia for several years. After he died, so many residents and staff at Oak Hammock spoke fondly of my father, whose Charlie Brown smile lit up the room. My mother and I worried that nobody knew my father as we knew him, in the past. But they loved him as they knew him, as he was in the last years of his life.
I’ve only known and loved the springs in their current state. My husband Kevin tells me how much cleaner they were when he first came to Florida over twenty years ago. Still others reminisce about their clarity before air conditioning made Florida newly habitable and brought millions of new residents, including myself. I love them as they are.
Salt Springs Run is an out and back paddle, and fortunately paddling back upstream to the marina is not difficult. I paddled past the marina towards the headspring where motor boats congregated just beyond the ropes marking the Salt Springs swimming area. After the solitude of the spring run, the competing stereos emanating from the boats was jarring, but we all have our ways of loving Salt Springs.
William Bartram’s words illustrate how some visitors responded to a landscape alien to them. I’m interested in landscapes and the people who inhabit them, past and present. Paddling on the waters that Bartram described helps me imagine the springs in a former, more glorious state. Even though I love the springs as they are, I know we can do better. Perhaps if we can expand our ecological imagination, we can find the will to restore and repair our springs.
“Noone’s ever done that before,” exclaimed Trent from Canoe Outpost-Peace River. We had called the outfitters to shuttle us on our SUP expedition down the Peace River. Despite this winter’s unusual cold, Janice, Jill, and I hoped the window between Christmas and New Years would be warm. Jill and I had paddled through a cold front in Cuba in early December, and we were ready for the tropics. We chose the Peace River because its southern location offered warm temperatures, and its sandy banks promised wilderness sandbar camping. In November 2016, our trio camped from our paddleboards on the Rock Springs Run in central Florida. It was time for a new SUP adventure.
The 106-mile Peace River flows south through Polk County into Charlotte Harbor. Sixty-seven miles has been designated as the Peace River Canoe Trail, but many paddlers—like us—opt for the 31 mile-long wilderness section from Zolfo Springs to Arcadia. Few roads intersect this part of the river, and this stretch feels isolated and remote.
We launched from the public boat ramp in Zolfo Springs on a pleasantly warm Florida December day. I left my car downstream in Arcadia at the Canoe Outpost, and they shuttled me back to Zolfo Springs in their school bus. They provided detailed maps and descriptions of where we could—and could not—camp for the next two nights. In general, the right side of the river was fair game, while the left side was off-limits beyond gathering firewood. The Canoe Outpost owns several sites along the river that offered campground-style camping, but we wanted to camp more primitively. Just in case, paddlers needed a reminder, a sign in the bus warned people that they were entering the ‘True Florida,’ the kind that will hunt you down and eat you.
When I returned to the launch, Janice and Jill had loaded the boards with our camping gear, food, and water. After a few adjustments, we set off. We knew we would have some company on the river. A Boy Scout troop from Palm Beach was preparing to launch their aluminum canoes and would paddle the same stretch as us.
We aimed for about 12 miles our first day, about 7 miles upstream of Gardiner. The last third of our trip—between Gardiner and Arcadia—was more residential and offered fewer camping opportunities, so we planned our mileage to stay in the wilderness section as long as possible.
Paddling this section felt blissfully remote. We heard no road noises, and only the occasional mooing reminded us of the ranch land that border the Peace. The drive from Tampa to Zolfo Springs on central Florida’s rural roads suggested a similar isolation, or perhaps desolation, as we sped through miles of Mosaic phosphate mining.
Mosaic’s mining activity has contributed to lowered water levels in the Peace River. We checked the link provided by the Canoe Outpost site to confirm that the water level was high enough for our trip. Water levels matter even more for paddleboards than canoes and kayaks. Submerged branches reach out and grab the fin, resulting in unplanned swims.
The river meandered through a scrub landscape, alternating between straight sections and hairpin turns. The low water level exposed the limestone structure of the riverbanks, making us aware of Florida’s permeable geology. The river was so still in places that it was difficult to distinguish the landscape from its mirrored reflection. Only the leaves floating past revealed the river’s current.
After several hours of paddling, we found a perfect sandbar campsite. Since the Boy Scouts passed us in their canoes, we hadn’t seen anyone else on the river.
Firewood was plentiful enough on the sandbar for both an evening and a morning fire. Coaxing a fire from the previous night’s embers makes me glad for the skills I developed and later taught at Camp Green Cove.
The day warmed up, and we set off downriver towards Gardiner. The day before, we saw a number of baby gators basking on the riverbank, but downriver, the mama gators were out and about. Not a good place to fall off the board.
And the birds: ibis, egrets, bob whites, great blue herons, wood storks, and roseate spoonbills. One trip highlight for me was a flock of wood storks flying overhead, with two roseate spoonbills in the mix to add a touch of color. I’m never quick enough with a camera to catch such moments, but then no picture could do it justice. Bearing witness was enough.
We paddled on, aiming to camp downstream of Gardiner. We passed a run-down cabin, with several men sitting outside. One waved, but wordlessly we quickened our pace, as banjo music invaded our imaginations. Several miles down, a sandy bluff welcomed us for the night. Long after we had set up our tents, we discovered a dilapidated abandoned house nearby. Fortunately, it didn’t look like anyone would be returning soon.
Campsite 2 just below Gardiner
Just enough space for a hammock
Settled in for the evening
On our last morning we paddled the final stretch through a residential area and past Canoe Outpost’s Oak Hill Campground. A number of people were sifting through the sand in search of shark’s teeth and other fossils, a draw for many Peace River paddlers.
Soon we arrived at the Canoe Outpost in Arcadia. Janice and Jill continued onto the the public boat ramp about 1 1/2 miles downstream. The outfitters not only helped me load my board onto my car, they also washed it!
Janice and Jill looked a bit stunned when they arrived at the boat ramp. They had seen Amphibious ATVs plowing through the river just upstream from the ramp. Who knew?
As we loaded the car, our minds had leapt ahead to the tacos at Chuey’s Taqueria and Ice Cream in Zolfo Springs. That meal alone is worth a return visit.
This 31-mile section of the Peace River is a perfect 2-3 day paddleboard camping trip. Depending on water levels and river conditions, paddling the upper sections would make a longer trip. While paddling down the Peace River, it’s hard to believe that we were close to some of Florida’s most populated regions. But, Florida’s waterways, once our highways, offer us our best chance to experience wilderness.
Springs, a midnight swim, rope swings, and a water slide — Florida’s Panhandle catapulted me back to my childhood. Who knew that I could laugh so much in three days?
Google map of Choctawhatchee River Area
Four paddleboards, one Pilgrim Expedition, snorkeling gear, and loads of food. We pointed the Paddle Florida van west towards Lake Lucas in Chipley, Florida, our base while we explored this area between Panama Beach and the Alabama border. This inland region is dotted with rivers, lakes, and springs, ideal for paddleboarding and swimming, and the Gulf of Mexico is nearby for those wanting a saltwater fix.
We settled into our A-frame cabin, perched on the shore of Lake Lucas. Later that night, we paddled across the placid lake and lay on our boards, gazing up at the almost full moon. And that set the tone for the rest of the trip.
I woke up early the next morning–we had crossed into Central time. The moon lingered in the western sky while the dawn’s light was barely visible in the east. Coffee in hand, I sat on the dock and watched the celestial performance until the sun was high.
We planned a full day on Holmes Creek, a tributary of the Choctawhatchee River, and Cypress Springs and drove to the Holmes Canoe Livery and Water Park for a shuttle. While we waited for our shuttle, we enjoyed their water slide and rope swing. I’m not sure any of us have laughed so much in years, as we climbed up the tower and slid down into the water again and again. I could have happily spent the day there.
We launched at Culpepper Landing and paddled about a mile upstream to Cypress Springs, a local swimming hole. Many other swimmers and paddlers clearly had the same idea. We were not alone, but it never seemed overcrowded–amazing for a sunny summer day. We tied up our boards, donned mask, fins, and snorkel, and swam around the blue hole, diving deep against the rising current and watching the sky through the water’s distortion.
After swimming and eating lunch, we headed downstream to our takeout at Fanning Branch Boat Ramp. The spring was cold and I was ready to warm up.
As we paddled downstream, the river changed moods several times. Shallow and twisty-turny, like a creek, then wide and straight. Clear, like a spring run, and, in other places, opaque. Never predictable.
After several miles, we passed the Holmes Creek Canoe Livery and Waterpark, where many people completed their trip. After a short break, we continued downstream for the last four miles of our trip. Once again the river changed moods, and our paddling became more challenging. The Livery warned us that we would be ducking under trees, and they were right. Once we lay flat on our boards, using our arms to weave through a tangle of branches. Several times, we crawled to the front of our board to free the fins caught on submerged branches, a hazard unique to paddleboards. Several times, I heard the splash of someone going in. Through it all, we laughed and laughed, mostly because it felt good to be in the water. We endured a long paddle that day, about 9 miles, and I was both sad and relieved when we reached Fanning Branch.
On our third and final day, we planned a five-mile paddle on the Choctawhatchee River, from the New Cedar Log Landing boat ramp to Morrison Springs. The river was high, possibly at flood stage, and moving fast. Rain had recently soaked the Panhandle, and the high river flow had drowned out Morrison Springs. Nonetheless, Morrison Springs was our take-out, and we hoped that we would find the entrance to the spring, not obvious even under ideal circumstances.
We pushed our boards into the swiftly moving current and sped downstream. The Choctawhatchee is wide with few obstacles, unlike Holmes Creek. A fisherman told us the spring entrance was marked by a giant leaning cypress, and hence the quest for the cypress began.
We scoured the river banks for the elusive leaning cypress. Instead we saw floating river camps, a park bench with a view, and sandy bluffs eroded by years of floods. “Is that it?” we asked again and again, each time we floated by anything remotely resembling a leaning cypress. We paddled on, recalculating how far we had paddled.
Finally we came to a boat launch and discovered that Morrison Springs was three miles upstream. No way were we paddling against that current, and a storm was rolling in. A fisherman, kind enough not to laugh at our predicament, us to our cars. It would have been a long walk to the road.
On our way home, we stopped at Ponce de Leon State Park for a final swim. As we dove and snorkeled in this fountain of youth, it seemed fitting to end our adventure here as we had spent the last three days laughing and playing like kids. Being on a paddleboard, so close to the water, jumping off and climbing back on, brought out the kid in all of us.
This short trip offered a taste of paddling in the Panhandle, and it was also a preview of Paddle Florida’s new Choctawhatchee Challenge scheduled for March 2018. I can’t wait to paddle more of this wonderful part of Florida.