Many South Floridians probably would like to explore new paddling frontiers around the Sunshine State, but are daunted by the logistics of packing, camping and shuttling. A simple weekend trip to a river in Central or North Florida often requires more prep time than paddling time.
Enter Paddle Florida — a 5-year-old nonprofit based in Gainesville that stages multiday paddling excursions throughout the state. Led by executive director Bill Richards and a small volunteer staff, the group takes care of everything except the paddling itself. If you don’t own a canoe or kayak, Paddle Florida will hook you up with a rental. Shuttles carry gear from campsite to campsite and return paddlers and their craft to their vehicles when the trip is over. All meals are catered, and musical entertainment or educational lectures are provided each evening.
Paddle Florida recently hosted more than 40 paddlers — singles, couples, retirees and families with small kids — on a three-day, 30-mile trip along the Wekiva and St. Johns rivers in Central Florida. Ideal weather — sunny skies with warm days and cool nights — seemed like it was programmed by the Seminole County Convention and Visitors Bureau. Most participants seemed like they were having a good time and nobody got hurt.
Paddlers spent the first day on Rock Springs Run — a downstream drift of about eight miles from Kings Landing in Apopka to Wekiva Island in Longwood. About half the group added an extra couple of miles to the trip by heading upstream against the strong current to a bridge that marks the boundary of Kelly Park, then floating back downstream.
That extra side excursion upstream provided the most beautiful surroundings of the entire trip. The spring waters were so clear you could pick out individual pebbles on the bottom, along with sizeable largemouth bass and turtles. The banks were decorated with periwinkle-colored asters and lined with lush greenery. It seemed like every vista from a canoe, kayak or stand-up paddleboard was a photo op.
“I liked it immensely,” first-timer Kim Heiss of Gainesville said.
The surroundings heading downstream, although not as visually spectacular, still provided plenty of pleasant stimulation as paddlers passed literally scores of turtles sunning on logs; a few resting gators; and frequent herons, anhingas and egrets. The colorful fauna was set against a backdrop of tall oaks, maple and cypress. By mid-afternoon, everyone disembarked at Wekiwa Springs State Park for the shuttle to the park’s rustic cabins. After a barbecue dinner, dulcimer virtuoso Bing Futch entertained the group.
Paddlers spent the second day on a leisurely nine-mile float along the Wekiva River, propelled gently by the gushing Wekiwa Springs, which spews more than 40 million gallons per day from the underground aquifer. The reason the river and springs have slightly different spellings is that Wekiva comes from the Native American word for “flowing water” while Wekiwa loosely translates to “bubbling water.”
Though mostly clear and bottomed with vibrant strands of gleaming eelgrass, the waters became more opaque farther from the spring head. The fauna were out in force: numerous species of birds and the ubiquitous turtles and gators.
Several paddlers paused just before the take-out site at Wilson’s Landing in Sanford to visit a popular waterside bar at Wekiva Falls RV Resort in tiny Sorrento. The bar hop became a prime campfire topic because of two significant events: the appearance of Pete, a recalcitrant dachshund sporting a Mohawk that sat on a golf cart outside the bar entertaining patrons with his pugnacious, snarling defense of a sawed-off deer leg he guarded; and the sight of two young black bears munching on palmetto stalks on the river bank at dusk.
Several paddlers theorized that the bears could be the offspring of a female put down several days earlier after being implicated in an attack on a woman walking her dogs near Wilson’s Landing — where the paddlers were camping in tents. The discussion so rattled one woman that she removed all snacks from her tent and dumped them in one of the park’s bear-proof trash receptacles. But no furry interlopers were detected at the campsite that night.
The group spent the final day of the trip paddling north on the Wekiva to its confluence with the wide St. Johns, arriving at the take-out at Blue Springs State Park in Orange City in early afternoon — a distance of about 121/2 miles. Many were hoping to spot endangered manatees cruising the St. Johns or lolling in the spring run, but there were no sightings of the gentle mammals. With water temperatures in the 70s, manatees could be anywhere foraging for food and they had no need to seek warm-water shelter at Blue Springs.
After a barbecue lunch, the group packed their vehicles and departed for home.
Kevin Riley of Fern Park made the trip in his canoe beside wife Amy in a kayak. Both said they enjoyed themselves.
Said Kevin: “We like the shuttle aspect of this trip and the logistics. We were hoping to meet more people who like to do this. We might do this on our own sometime, but I don’t know about the camping part.”
Canadian Hans Eggers, a part-time resident of New Port Richey paddling the Wekiva for the first time, also said he was glad to leave the logistics to Paddle Florida.
Said Eggers: “I get three lengths and three paddles in one, instead of driving back and forth.”