PALMDALE -- I probably should have waited until the weather cooled to paddle and camp along south-central Florida’s Fisheating Creek. But when I saw that water levels measured by the USGS gauge near U.S. 27 in Palmdale were running around 5 feet last month, I just had to go right then.
You see, Fisheating Creek, unlike most of our freshwater bodies in southeast Florida, is not manipulated by pumps or gates for flood control. Whatever rain falls into it, that’s how deep it is. And if the rain stops, the creek level drops about a 10th of a foot every day. When the gauge reads lower than 1.5 feet, Alan and Patty Register — operators of the Fisheating Creek Outpost concession — will not offer kayak and canoe shuttles. That’s because paddlers can get stuck doing long portages through the mud, which slows them down and can cause safety issues.
And don’t even think about conducting your own shuttle upstream because you can’t. While the state controls the creek bed and shoreline, the uplands are owned by the Lykes Bros. agribusiness giant, which has enclosed its holdings behind locked gates. The only keys belong to Lykes, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Registers. You will, as they say, just have to go with the flow if you want to explore the upper reaches of this scenic water course.
And scenic doesn’t begin to describe Fisheating Creek — especially now that the bald cypress glimmers brushy green and dappled sunlight forms a halo around the crooked boughs of swamp laurel oaks draped with Spanish moss. Paddling through these woodlands swivels your head constantly; you can’t figure out what not to photograph.
The only drawbacks are summertime heat and bugs. I just chose to put up with them.
Fisheating Creek originates at the southern end of the Lake Wales Ridge in rural Highlands County and winds south and east for about 50 miles to Lake Okeechobee. Best paddling is from Ingram’s Crossing, located about 16 miles upstream from the Outpost, or from Burnt Bridge — an easy day paddle about eight miles upstream. The Outpost will rent you a canoe or kayak or transport yours to both put-in sites. You also can paddle downstream from the Outpost for several miles to the head of Cowbone Marsh, but the Outpost doesn’t do shuttles there, so you’ll have to paddle back upstream. Cowbone Marsh, the subject of a lawsuit (more on that later), is choked with vegetation and deadfalls and is pretty much impassable by any paddlecraft unless water levels are super high.
My plan was to put in at Ingram’s, float downstream, camp overnight at Bonnet Lake adjacent to Burnt Bridge, then continue south to the Outpost. But someone had tampered with the gate lock at Ingram’s, blocking Outpost workers from transporting my kayak and me to the put-in. So I settled for embarking at Burnt Bridge.
Despite the midday heat, I decided to paddle upstream for a few miles until I got tired of it, then make my way down to Bonnet Lake. The current was running full-tilt, but I ignored it, gazing open-mouthed at the beauty of the shimmering forest enhanced with a birdsong soundtrack and devoid of people.
I found myself shaded by the towering cypress through some of the narrower reaches and then back in full sunlight where the creek widens. The banks are dotted with cypress knees at kayak level like little soldiers guarding the shoreline.
These creek banks have been settled for thousands of years, but you can’t really tell from your kayak. The serenity and absence of humans and their accoutrements make you feel like you are the first one here. The only signs of life were swallow-tailed kites, herons and ibis flying by, a few small gators and a herd of wild piglets.
After a couple hours of paddling against the current in 90-plus-degree heat, I had only gone about three miles. So I pointed my kayak downstream and mostly floated back down to Bonnet Lake.
I set up my tent at the campsite, which held a fire ring and a rickety wooden table. I longed for a cooling dip in the creek, but — one after another — about a half-dozen gators up to 10 feet long swam by and paused to gaze at me. So I had to settle for a Baby Wipes bath.
If you expect quiet in the deep woods at night, forget it. From dusk on, the bass croaking of frogs and the calls of night birds filled the air. But after a while, I got used to the noises and fell asleep with my ThermaCell posted just outside the tent to ward off mosquitoes and no-see-ums. It worked, sort of.
The next morning, it seemed weird to hear the roar of a motorboat on the creek: probably an FWC officer because they usually launch from Burnt Bridge.
But I never saw him or her because the boat headed north away from Bonnet Lake.
I broke camp, loaded the kayak, and continued downstream, planning to disembark at the Outpost but wishing I had time to explore as far down as Cowbone Marsh, which is about eight miles north of Lake Okeechobee.
Decades ago, paddlers were able to travel the entire creek from Highlands County to the Big O, but at some point the vegetation clogging Cowbone Marsh blocked their path. After the state purchased the creek corridor from Lykes Bros. in 1999 and created the Fisheating Creek Wildlife Management Area, FWC employees worked to open up the stream to navigation. The FWC’s efforts were challenged by Lykes and state and federal agencies, so the FWC proposed building a temporary road through the marsh and filling in a portion of the creek with sand.
In response, the Sierra Club’s legal arm, Earthjustice, filed suit, and an administrative law judge ruled last week in favor of the Sierra Club. That means Cowbone Marsh might someday be navigable, allowing paddlers to explore it unimpeded.
I made it from Bonnet Lake eight miles to the Outpost without much effort, owing to the rapid current.
Along the way, I spied more soaring swallowtails and a huge gray paper hornet’s nest.
Here’s hoping for cool weather and continued high water this fall to make for a much more comfortable journey.