Explore Florida’s rivers by kayak

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By Joe Belanger

Fifteen years ago, my wife, Lee, and I began an RV retirement trip with a twist. Our goal was to see the country; the twist was to volunteer for two-month intervals in different locations. Several cross-country trips landed us in deserts and mountains, beside lakes and along coastlines.

Volunteering took us to Habitat for Humanity disaster relief sites, to an outward-bound 4-H camp, a West Texas Elderhostel, and more than 40 national and state parks. Our assignments included building homes, shooting cannons, reburying Native American remains, tagging sharks, and guiding night hikes and canoe and kayak trips.

Our personal kayaks are basic, all-purpose 12-foot boats that are stable and versatile. We’ve used them on Thurmond Lake, Puget Sound, the Colorado and Green rivers, and in the Gulf and Atlantic, but our favorite place to take them is on narrow, winding rivers with ever-changing scenery.

Florida offers superb opportunities for both canoeing and kayaking. Here are some of our Florida river haunts in case you decide to bring or rent a paddle boat on your next trip there.

The Ichetucknee River in north central Florida features two major springs. Visible to kayakers, Blue Spring Hole offers views of an open cave, an impressive sight. The crystal-clear river is full of fish. Tubing is offered on the river during the summer.

Closer to Orlando, the Wekiva River also flows from springs and is full of wildlife. We saw our first green heron along this waterway. This timid bird is often difficult to spot.

The Hillsborough River near Tampa winds by old-growth cypress trees and surprisingly sports some class 2 rapids, making paddling fun without risk. All three of these rivers flow through Florida state parks, should you wish to camp after kayaking.

Farther south, the Myakka River near Sarasota requires a bit more skill because of fluctuating water levels and fast water on some hairpin turns, but it is brimming with bird life and alligators.

[pullquote type=”right”]Our favorite place to take our kayaks is on narrow, winding rivers with ever-changing scenery.[/pullquote]

Traveling east from Sarasota to Sebring you will find the Peace River, where you will see many wading birds and turtles. This river is better known for its many Pleistocene and Miocene fossils. If you have a little sifting scoop, you may join other fossil hunters digging and sifting for shark teeth and prehistoric mammal bones. Not surprisingly, the northern section is nicknamed “Bone Valley.”

On the East Coast, our favorite river, the Loxahatchee, is Florida’s second wild and scenic river. Meandering through bent palms and jungle-like vegetation, this is the location of the original Tarzan movies. Starting as a freshwater creek, it becomes a brackish estuary and finally empties into Jupiter Inlet and the Atlantic.

In southwest Florida, the Turner River in the Everglades twists through a natural botanical garden of flowering air plants and songbirds. This narrow river, just off the Tamiami Trail, can require some wading in the dry season.

Just east of Naples is one of Florida’s four Blackwater Rivers, named for the brown tannin stain from leaves dropped from overhanging mangrove trees. You access the river through Collier-Seminole State Park, where we guided many a day and moonlight canoe trip. It’s a paradise for those who appreciate the beauty of gliding through mangrove tunnels and looking for tree snails along the way.

Since Joe Belanger, S, retired from the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, he and his wife, Lee, both master naturalists, have traveled half-time in their RV, volunteering in state and national parks. Members of Thurmond Lakes Sail & Power Squadron/26, they live in McCormick, S.C., on Strom Thurmond Lake.

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