Autumn is prime time for paddling Florida’s Fisheating Creek

A paddler’s view of the scenic, shady upper section of Fisheating Creek.
A paddler’s view of the scenic, shady upper section of Fisheating Creek. Miami Herald Staff

Quickly, before water levels drop too much for easy paddling, take an excursion down south-central Florida’s Fisheating Creek. Weekdays are best because you’ll have the canoe/kayak trail mostly to yourself. On weekends, you’re likely to encounter plenty of hunters, anglers and fellow paddlers. But either way, you’ll be immersed in a scenic, undeveloped Old Florida environment you probably thought was gone this far south.

Fisheating Creek begins at the southern end of the Lake Wales Ridge in rural Highlands County and flows south and east for about 50 miles to Lake Okeechobee near Lakeport. The creek corridor is controlled by the state while the uplands are mostly cattle pastures owned by the Lykes Bros. agribusiness giant.

Last weekend, I took advantage of dry weather following passage of a cool front to kayak 16 miles of the mostly narrow, twisting creek starting upstream at a put-in called Ingrams Crossing, camping overnight, and arriving the following day at Fisheating Creek Outpost.

Water levels were so high that the Outpost’s shuttle driver stopped about an eighth of a mile before the put-in site, refusing to go any further for fear of getting mired in the mud. So I had to drag my double kayak, cooler, and camping gear to the water, which took about an hour with two trips. By the time I set out shortly after noon, I was already sweat-drenched and fatigued.

But the first eight miles of the creek are mostly shaded by tall, very old cypress trees that form something of a gauntlet through the flooded swamp. Navigating downstream was a lot like slalom skiing but in a kayak, swooping from one post to the next. High water made it difficult to see where the creek bed lay; however, strategically-posted signs and blue blazes on the trees kept me mostly on course. I missed one blaze, as did a motorboat operator ahead of me, but I wasted only about 10 minutes before continuing south. With the current running at about 2 miles per hour, I could relax and just float on the wider straightaways.

I don’t think I paddled more than 20 minutes before I spotted my first alligator — an 8-footer — crossing the creek. Neither it, nor the other 11 reptiles I encountered in my 4½-hour trip, posed any threat. Without exception, all sank quickly beneath the surface when they saw me coming.

With hunting season in full swing, I spied neither deer nor wild hog on the banks. Game animals seem to know precisely when it’s time to get out of Dodge. But colorful butterflies flitted around me and I was escorted downriver by great blue heron, ibis, and anhinga overhead. Distantly, I heard the wild, whooping cry of a pileated woodpecker and the “who-cooks-for-you” calls of barred owls. The ibis likes to grunt when it’s picking around in the mud for food and sometimes sounds like an inarticulate person trying to hail you, like “Huh!” I turned around several times in startled response only to see white birds with bent orange beaks busy feeding.

I passed four boats carrying hunters and fishermen and a john boat manned by two Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers.

In late afternoon, I reached Bonnet Lake where I planned to set up camp. But when I paddled over to the shoreline, I saw a large tent with a towel drying on a clothes line. So I continued downstream looking for a small patch of high, dry ground and found it after about a quarter mile.

I pitched my tent, switched on the ThermaCell bug-repelling device, and made a charcoal fire in a shallow pit that a previous camper had dug. I really longed for a cooling dip in the creek, but the abundance of gators ruled that out and I opted instead for a Baby Wipes bath.

After a meal of boiled Teriyaki noodles, I washed my pot and cup and scanned the dark creek with my flashlight. The beam caught a large, red orb about 50 yards away moving slowly downstream, and then another one behind it. If I didn’t know better, I would think I was looking at the running lights of small idling boats. But of course they were gators foraging for dinner. Every now and then I heard a loud splash which meant they had scored. Luckily, they never crawled up the bank to my campsite.

I fell asleep in my tent only to be awakened sometime in the middle of the night by the croaks, grunts and barks of what sounded like thousands of frogs. I guess they were singing their version of the “Hallelujah” chorus in honor of high water levels. The chorus went on all night, allowing only fitful sleep, and in the morning was replaced by the cawing of crows. Whoever said the woods are quiet and peaceful at night clearly has never spent much time outdoors.

I broke camp, packed my kayak, and headed downstream for the last eight miles back to the Outpost. In this section, favored by day paddlers, the creek is generally wider and less shady than the upper portion. I passed a gator sunning on a sandy beach — this one didn’t even budge — and was conducted by a rotating welcoming committee of birds and butterflies.

After paddling through long, wide Lemon Lake and past a sandy island dubbed Nude Beach, I came to a large, mysterious structure about five feet tall that looked like a gray mushroom (or maybe an alien spacecraft) beside the creek. Closer, but not too much closer, inspection revealed it to be a giant wasp nest—a very busy giant wasp nest. I snapped a quick photo and got the heck out of there, arriving at the Outpost just before noon.

The official USGS water gauge at U.S. 27 in Palmdale shows creek levels have been dropping quickly over the past two weeks. Unless the region gets a deluge, unlikely during the dry season, Fisheating Creek could soon be so shallow in spots that paddlers will have to get out and drag their craft part way downstream. But it’s plenty full now, so take advantage while it lasts.

If you go

For paddling, camping, and shuttle information on Fisheating Creek, visit www.FisheatingCreekOutpost.com or call 863-675-5999.