By Eugene Buchanan
Want to paddle an easy-to-follow, warm-water and -weather water trail? Head to Florida, a state that pioneered the United States’ water trail concept featuring a linked set of campsites and mapped routes for paddling trips of all lengths.
It’s easy to see why the state has such a legacy. The Sunshine State’s wealth of tranquil, protected waters combined with swamps, saltwater keys, barrier islands and gin-clear freshwater springs make it unparalleled for paddling opportunities, ranging from canoe trails in the interior to sea kayaking routes along the Gulf’s inside passage.
Perhaps the crown jewel of all of these is the recently completed Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail along the section of Gulf Coast shoreline curving from the panhandle to the peninsula’s northern reaches. With effects of the BP oil spill barely a concern for paddlers, the 105-mile trail, which parallels one of the longest and wildest publicly owned coastal wetlands in the United States, offers bays and barrier islands to explore, as well as side-trips to freshwater springs and hiking trails to stretch your legs after the day’s paddle.
As well as your conventional boating and camping gear, make sure to bring your binoculars. The section is known for its rich variety of bird life. On a typical outing you can expect to see everything from eagles and egrets to pelicans and osprey. Wildlife diversity is equally world-class in the water, just on a slightly larger scale. Kayakers can expect to see sea turtles and rays gliding beneath their hulls, as well as massive manatees, which also call the area home.
Most trips head north to south from the Aucilla River to the trail’s end at Salt Creek landing in the town of Suwannee. To escape the heat and the bugs, the best time to paddle the trail is from early December through March, though it’s open from Sept. 1 through June. It’s also best to tackle it in sea kayaks; afternoon winds can create white caps and rough water, which can wash over the gunwales of canoes. Plan to spend at least a week to paddle its full length. You’ll also need a permit (visit www.myfwc.com/recreation), and don’t expect to search out campsites on your own. Regulations require you to stay at one of seven designated campsites en route, each one spaced 10 to 14 miles apart, with one or two nights at private sites. You can also do shorter excursions, including day trips or one of three different three-day-long permitted trips. For additional information, get a $15 copy of the 40-page, water-resistant Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail Guide, which contains natural and cultural information as well as compass bearings, and maps with GPS points and mileage markers for locating campsites as well as side trips, trails, historical sites and other points of interest.
Getting There: Fly into Tampa and take U.S. Hwy. 19 north to the town of Fanning Springs. Base out of there or the town of Suwannee, which marks the trail’s end.
On Land: The confluence of the Suwannee River estuary and Gulf of Mexico creates an rich wildlife environment with more than 250 bird species, all protected by the Lower Suwannee Wildlife Refuge. Bonus: Hike or bike the Dixie Mainline Trail, which heads north from Suwannee paralleling the coastline.
Other Paddling: To paddle with manatees, head to the Homosassa and Crystal rivers near Homosassa, Fla. (launch at Homosassa River Resort marina). The best viewing months are December and January when they feed on aquatic plants in shallow, spring-fed rivers.
Fun fact: Harmless to humans, manatees average three meters and 1,000 pounds, dwarfing the standard kayak.
Find other excerpts from Eugene’s book Ultimate Canoe and Kayak Adventures and learn where to purchase itHERE.