Paddling the Wild Waterways of North Central Florida

Michele Sharpe

A year-round paradise for people-powered watercraft, North Central Florida offers lakes, prairies, rivers, and springs with a stunning diversity of wildlife

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Payne's Prairie, Gainesville, FloridaMichele Sharpe

North Central Florida is packed with beauty and adventure for people who enjoy kayaking, canoeing, tubing, paddle-boarding and diving. Wildlife inhabits all of the waterways, but perhaps the greatest diversity is found at Payne's Prairie, where alligators, wild horses, and bison forage beside sandhill cranes, bald eagles, and occasional rare birds like the whooping crane. Canoeing and fishing is available at Lake Wauberg, and much of the prairie can be viewed from the trails system, which offers a few accessible trails, like La Chua and the Hawthorne Trail.

Many rivers in the region offer bring-your-own-boat access, and the area has a wide range of rental options, plus expert guided tours. One of my favorite rivers that offers all three options is the Ichetucknee River and headspring in Fort White. This river is the most pristine in Florida, thanks to ealry protection efforts by environmentalists. If you visit, it's likely you'll see many water birds, including herons, ospreys, coots, limpkins, eagles, and anhingas, and many turtles. In cool weather, manatees swim up from the Gulf of Mexico for the constant 72 degree temperature of the river and springs and to much on water lettuce. Otters also make the river home. Alligators are seen on rare occasions; the water temperature may feel just right to the manatees, but it's a little chilly for the gators. The river and the springs are both loved by human divers and snorklers, as there are many underwater caves.

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Manatee, Ichetucknee RiverMichele Sharpe

Paddling Adventures operates a year-round rental concession at the South entrance of the Ichetucknee Springs State Park on Route 27 in Fort White. Here, you can rent kayaks, canoes, SUPs, and tubes with a shuttle service included. In the late fall through early spring, folks who want to use their own boats can access a boat ramp on Route 27 between the park's South Entrance and where the Ichetucknee joins the Suwanee River.

Speaking of the Suwanee, it's also a river with special wildlife -- sturgeons. These amazing fish can often be seen leaping from the water, quite a spectacular display considering they can weigh over 200 pounds. Be cautious, though -- there have been serious injuries and even deaths resulting from crashes between speeding motor boats and leaping sturgeons. There are conflicting theories about why the sturgeons leap, but that's only one of this animal's unique qualities.

The Suwanee stretches 246 miles from southern Georgia to the Florida Gulf Coast. Access is available at numerous roadside boatramps and at the The Suwanee River State Park , which also offers camping and riverside cabins.

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Santa Fe River, High Springs, FloridaMichele Sharpe

The Santa Fe River in the High Springs area has a unique geological feature -- this river disappears underground at the River Sink in O'Leno State Park and then reappears at the aptly named River Rise Preserve. An small area of rapids (Florida-style) is usually, depending on water levels, just south of the River Sink, and can be difficult to paddle up. No worries, though -- the water is shallow enough to wade through and pull your kayak along. Boat rentals are available through a number of vendors in the High Springs area, including Rum 138.

In addition to river access from these parks, a public boatramp with ample parking is available on Route 27 in High Springs. From here, a short paddle downstream will bring you to Poe Springs, a lovely spot for a cool dip in clear water with picnic areas and restroom facilities. Poe Springs is part of the Alachua County park system, and a boat ramp is also available here.

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Swimming area at Rum Island Spring ParkMichele Sharpe

Further down the Santa Fe, in Columbia County, you'll find another cool spot for swimming at Rum Island, a small county park that's been recently upgraded with an accessible ramp into the spring and accessible restrooms. Entry into the park via motor vehicle requires a $5.00 fee as of July, 2021. There are two boat ramps, and parking.

Continuing down the Santa Fe are even more beautiful springs, some of which have been made into recreational spots. Check out Ginnie Springs, Blue Springs (not to be confused with Blue Spring) and the many smaller springs that help to feed this winding river.

The springs of North Central Florida have entranced residents and visitors for centuries, from indigenous communities that camped, fished, and swam along the network of springs, to steamboat tourists of the 19th century on the Ocklawaha River, to fans of Johnny Weismuller's Tarzan movies. Today's visitor kayaks, scuba dives, birdwatches and keeps an eye out for manatees while enjoying the clear waters that rise up from the Florida Aquifer at a constant 72 degrees. And that's a perfectly cool temperature for my #SummerBucketList !

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Writing and learning about adoption, education, history, law, and the arts, with a frequent focus on issues of race, class, and gender. I'm an adoptee, high school dropout, hep C survivor, former trial attorney, and auntie to 24 nieces and nephews (and counting!).

Gainesville, FL
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