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Notes From Hunter Creek

Floating In Florida

Next to the Big Bend Country of the Rio Grande along our southern border, my favorite haunting grounds for a canoe trip in winter lies in Florida.   

And another bonus to Florida is that  it’s rare in receiving heavy frost, sleet, or snow during the winter. I have been rudely awakened more than once while floating a Big Bend Canyon in early February to stick my hand out of my toasty sleeping bag and get it slapped by a cold 19 degree stiff north breeze.      

And when I finally got brave enough to withdraw my head out of my bag and look up to the bluffs and cliffs towering some 1500-2000 feet above me, I saw a thin coat of white powder snow covering the sandstone mesa above me.  I usually curse and crawl back into my sleeping bag.     

Now it is true that Florida can get caught in a icy “Norther” storm grip occasionally during winter. Hopefully, you can avoid that time of year it usually happens. Once in the late 80s, I remember traveling through frigid Florida over Christmas break with my family. Pensacola had suffered a low temp of 5° the week before. There were piles of carpets, toilets, and other plumbing items that had apparently frozen, and had been unceremoniously dumped into parking lots of the various seaside motels.           

And when we got down to Orlando, we learned that those residents were just thawing out after a low of 15°.  Needless to say it was a slow day for Disney World. And unfortunately, there were thousands of acres of citrus groves permanently damaged; and later gave way to a whole new host of golf courses, industrial parks, and numerous trailer courts.                 

The Florida panhandle holds three beautiful float streams. I generally avoid them from mid-December to mid-February in order to avoid the more frequent cold snaps that can affect the Panhandle..   

However, in late fall and late winter or early spring, give one of these gems a try,  you will not be disappointed.

The first and most popular river is the Blackwater River, which is aptly named due to the tannin dark color of rotting cypress trees leaning along the white sand shores, like most rivers in the Panhandle.          

The Blackwater floats through beautiful stands of live oak, willow, tall pines, and cypress trees, almost all of which are confined within the boundaries of the Blackwater State Forest and Blackwater River State Park, until the river reaches civilization along the upper Pensacola Bay and US 90 and I-10.      

You can put in on the Alabama state line to the north, but most people float canoes, kayaks and jon boats from Fla. Hwy. #4 and below. This stretch runs for about 40 miles and there are canoe outfitters and fishing guides located in the area.   

While the deep river colors its moving current in a shade of dark brown, it’s sandy shores offer many nice white sand shorelines for easy and beautiful camping.

However, there are living things to be on the watch for this time of year. Mosquitoes are not one of them. 

First, beware of sand fleas. As you could probably guess, they are at least inconvenient and can hang out in your bedding and clothing for 24 hours or so.  

Next beware of snakes.  The main two poisonous ones are the more common eastern diamondback rattlesnake which can reach seven-feet long, and as thick as your wrist. 

And, there is the less commonly viewed cottonmouth snake that stays in the water or close to it.    

And finally, be on the watch for the occasional gator. Gators range from 3-1/2 feet to 11 feet, with the average size  six-foot.  At issue here are mainly pet dogs that you may want to bring along.  I have taken several dogs floating through many different Florida river-ways and I haven’t lost one yet.  But still, be aware, be observant and be smart! 

A second popular float stream is the Yellow River, which runs from near Florida’s highest point Britten Hill (elevation 345-ft). You can canoe this marvelous float steam putting in four miles south of the Bama state line and manage 68 miles south, again to Pensacola Bay. 

Caution! Below US 90 on river left for 48 miles lies land belonging to Eglin Air Force Base. It is also home to a portion of US Army Ranger Training.

I remember years ago (1992?) eight trainees were dropped off along a high dry spot in the swamp. A large storm followed along later with a lot of cold rain producing high water levels. Tragically two Rangers were never found, and another two later died of hypothermia. Only four soldiers survived. Heads Rolled! 

There are numerous fishing cabins located along the right river banks of the Yellow, and their decks can offer  safe refuge and emergency camping in case of high water. 

One trick you should know about the Yellow, and really all rivers in Florida, when it rains hard and levels rise, it’s not like the Ozarks where all of the smaller tributary steams roll into the larger stream. Because of low sea levels, especially close to the Gulf, high water melts away from the top of the river banks and creates a maze of river-lets running out through the cypress swamps. 

Do not get out of the main current and when you get close to Pensacola Bay, stay hard RIGHT all the way to where you will hopefully find your parked shuttle vehicle. 

In 1994, I came perilously close to a large gator named “Lefty” about 10-1/2 feet long along the lower river reached above the bay. A state Ranger later told me that the alligator had lost his left eye somehow and could be approached relatively close if cautiously on his left side. Thus, he was named “Lefty.”  In 1994, this 68-mile trip took one week to float and fish occasionally, in relativity high water. 

My favorite Panhandle river in Florida is the Ochlockonee River which floats through the Apalachicola National Forest for most of its 70 miles from Hwy. 20 below the dam at Lake Talquin east of Tallahassee, all the way to below Sopchoppy, coming out at the Apalachicola Bay. 

For this week-long float, there is a good put-in at a bait shop, along Florida 20 Hwy. They can provide camping, fishing lures, and shuttle service. Be sure and go inside the shop and eyeball two out-sanding photos. The first is a photo of a 17- 1/2 dead gator with its head down and tail flung up above the roof of the small bait shop building (circa 1953). 

Another photo is allegedly taken in an area called Hell’s Half Acre which rests along the right hand bank of the river as it floats through the National Forest. Pictured in the photo are three National Forest workers holding up a (I presume dead) 8-ft. long diamondback rattler.  At its widest the same width of a forearm of one of the workers holding the snake in a horizontal position (circa 1976). 

The Ock is a true wilderness adventure. You will encounter a couple of seldom used fishing camps along the river, along with a bunch of nervous, fleeting three-seven ft. gators. 

After you pass near Sopchoppy and head for take-out at Ochlockonee River State Park and cross the upper end of Apalachicola Bay, be ready for lots of riverside house dogs barking at you, and if the wind is up, high waves will lap perilously close to the gunnels of your canoe. A great wilderness adventure and a great river! 

Other good float streams located in the Florida Peninsula are: The Ichetucknee River into the Santa Fe into the Suwannee. Take out at Manatee Springs State Park on the Gulf of Mexico. I suggest taking 8-10 days to cover this 90 mile trip. This is another beautiful, wild float through large stretches of State forest and State park land. 

On the central and eastern side of Pensacola, you could float the beautiful clear water Juniper Spring branch or Alexander Spring River, both entering into the large St. Johns River system which eventually dumps into the ocean at Jacksonville  Both of these float streams are protected within the confines of the Ocala National Forest. 

For another two dozen great Florida floats, consult any decent guide book.                                                     

Note:  I am still seeing lots of eagles in the valley this year. And in this column, gratefully, I have no notable recent deaths to report.   

Now, get up and go enjoy our beautiful Ozarks outdoors!