The popular image of canoeing is eternally linked with 1972’s Deliverance – four men shooting deadly Class V rapids on a wild, remote river in wooden canoes. And that wasn’t the riskiest part of their adventure.
But nowadays, the backwoods folks are in the tourist trade, and they’ll tell you that kind of river-running is best done in specialized canoes and kayaks – custom-crafted boats they’ll be happy to sell you at premium prices. If suburb-dwellers Ed, Lewis, Bobby and Drew were still looking for an enjoyable weekend of canoe-camping in the south they probably would have put their boats on top of the station wagon and headed to North Florida or the Panhandle.
Any of a dozen rivers there offers all the back-to-the-wilderness appeal nature nut Lewis could ever want – without the extreme danger. And they’re at their best in winter and early spring, when in contrast to more northerly options, the prevailing weather is dry and sunny, with highs in the 60s and 70s.
“Flatwater” is the term for these streams, and it’s accurate insofar as they usually have only a few mild riffles. But they’re hardly boring. Winding through cypress swamps, oak woods and savannah, they offer unique scenery and astounding wildlife viewing opportunities. It’s not uncommon to see several varieties of herons, kingfishers and anhingas – sleek diving birds that must occasionally strike a pose, wings extended, on streamside branches to dry out their waterlogged feathers.
You can also spot ospreys, bald eagles and sometimes even wild turkeys. And if you’re lucky, you may see a wild Tom fluttering across the river in pursuit of a hen. Wild boars, which are common in the live oak woods of Florida, deer and even coyotes occasionally visit the riverbanks.
Space is at a premium as the locals catch some rays. Courtesy T-n-T Hide-a-Way
And that’s just the population above the surface. A big part of what makes the Florida flatwater so appealing is that most of the rivers – even those with water stained dark brown by swamp runoff – are spring-fed and window clear. Picture gliding across a deep pool and looking down to see what you at first take to be a log, only to realize it’s a two-foot-long spotted gar lying in wait for another fish to swim by. Or most marvelous of all: watching from your campsite atop a high bank of the Suwanee River on a cool February evening as an alligator outlined in the faint glow emanating from the river’s tiny bioluminescent shrimp glides silently in the current around a wide bend.
The wildlife encounters can be quite spectacular. Courtesy T-n-T Hide-a-Way
And what camping! Particularly along the so-called “yellow” rivers, so-named because of the tint of their sandy bottoms as seen through the crystalline waters, there are countless sand bars inviting you to pitch a tent, stoke a fire and sit back to watch the water roll by.
Rivers bisect the panhandle from the Perdido on the Alabama border to the Aucilla, and include the Ochlockonee (say O’clock-knee), Sopchoppy, Yellow, Perdido and Blackwater. East of there in the upper peninsula, the main streams emanate from Georgia’s Okeefenokee swamp just north of the Florida border: the St. Mary’s, which empties into the Atlantic, and the legendary Suwanee.
The view going down the Wakulla River. Courtesy T-n-T Hide-a-Way
Getting out on the latter is particularly easy. There are a number of Suwanee-specialty outfitters centered around Live Oak and White Springs, near the riverside Stephen Foster State Park, who will equip you with everything from canoes to food, if you so desire. The Tallahassee area also has outfitters, and for canoe campers with their own gear, they will hook you up with services that will shuttle your car to the take-out point for your trip, allowing a one-way, downstream journey.
The flatwater is generally easy and forgiving, but a few cautions:
The upper Suwanee has the only serious rapids in Florida, Big Shoal, a class II-III drop, depending on water levels, that demands some paddling experience.
On any river, it’s possible to encounter what’s called a “strainer,” a clump of downed logs or branches usually found on the outside of sharp bends, where the water eats away at the banks. Even the seemingly leisurely flow of a Florida river can be quite strong at such points, and it’s possible to get trapped or overturned in such an obstruction. Stick to the inside of bends if you can’t see around them. And wear your life jacket – once you’re in the water, it’s too late to discover that the current is stronger than you expected.
Florida alligators aren’t like crocodiles on the Nile, waiting to creep up and grab you. But use common sense. Gve them wide berth, if you see them on a riverbank. And while attacks on humans are quite rare, be aware that your pet dog is regarded as a choice morsel. For your safety and his, leave Fido at home.
Fire ants. They’re the No. 1, bar none, nuisance in Florida. Keep an eye out for mounds, especially when sitting down for lunch or pitching a tent.
Private property. Florida, sadly, has always done, and continues to do, a terrible job of ensuring public access to its public waterways, and private property owners will sometimes place no-trespassing signs right on the riverbank, even on bridge rights-of-way and shifting sandbars they have no business claiming. Move on past them, and if you don’t like them, complain to the state. Being forced to uproot your camp and paddle off in the middle of the night is an experience you’ll want to skip.
The big one! Courtesy T-n-T Hide-a-Way
Most of these cautions are minor annoyances. Paddling the Florida flatwater, you can relax and enjoy a sunny day and the wonders of nature without putting your life at risk. And while you may hear a bull alligator roar in the distance, you won’t hear any banjo music – unless you’re picking your own around the campfire.
On the St. Mary’s River:
St. Mary’s River Fish Camp and Canoe Country Outpost 28506 Scott’s Landing Road
Video: Manatees at Three Sisters Springs, Crystal River, FL getting warm during a coldsnap that engulfed the Southeast in January 2010.
However often he gets the chance to camp, it still isn’t often enough for Bill Steiden, a Decatur, Ga.-based journalist. Got a suggestion or a question about a camping destination? Email him at email@example.com.