‘Happy’ times on the Withlacoochee

<cutline_leadin>Taking a timeout:</cutline_leadin> Paddlers from the Broward-based ‘Happy Hoofers’ chapter of the Florida Trail Association stop for lunch at a park on the Withlacoochee River.
<cutline_leadin>Taking a timeout:</cutline_leadin> Paddlers from the Broward-based ‘Happy Hoofers’ chapter of the Florida Trail Association stop for lunch at a park on the Withlacoochee River. Miami Herald Staff

At 77, Tom McLain says he has to give up paddling because it’s too hard on his knees to get in and out of a canoe or kayak. For his self-proclaimed final paddling trip, the Georgia hay-truck driver spent the Thanksgiving holiday weekend exploring 27 miles of west-central Florida’s Withlacoochee River with about a dozen of his friends from the Broward-based “Happy Hoofers” chapter of the Florida Trail Association.

The journey was bittersweet for McLain — not just because it was to be his last but because he had already paddled the “other” Withlacoochee River, which originates northwest of Valdosta, Georgia, and merges with the Suwannee near Live Oak, Florida.

“I grew up with the Georgia Withlacoochee River. I live within a half-mile of it,” McLain said as he relaxed beside a campfire in the Withlacoochee State Forest near Nobleton. “I like this river because it brought back good memories. It’s a little lower and swampier than the one where I grew up. I love Florida and I love Georgia.”

Florida’s Withlacoochee originates in the Green Swamp east of Polk City and runs crookedly northwest for more than 140 miles to empty into the Gulf near Yankeetown. Fed by pre-holiday downpours from a strong cold front, the river flowed at a steady 3 miles per hour past a resplendent autumn landscape during the Happy Hoofers’ visit.

The party of three canoes and three kayaks embarked on the first day at Lacoochee Park under a cloudless sky and a cool 50 degrees, steering easily with the help of the current. The lead paddler surprised a deer reclining beside the river, and it dashed off into the forest.

For the first couple of miles, the group encountered no signs of civilization — just a forest of oak, pine, red maple and cypress displaying various stages of seasonal changes with leaves of red, orange, brown and green. Revitalized green resurrection ferns coated the broad tree trunks that lined and toppled into the river.

But as the paddlers continued north, the thick woods were pierced by railroad tracks, then a series of roads and highways — CR575, U.S.301, U.S.98 and SR50.

Hunting camps and single-family homes lined the riverbank. Several pet dogs dashed down to the water to bark at the group.

Overhead, anhinga dried their wings in the trees as great blue herons squawked and hawks circled and cried.

In about six hours, the group covered 17 miles to arrive at the Crooked River Campground in the state forest in late afternoon.

Four more kayakers joined the Happy Hoofers for the second and final leg of the trip — some 10 miles from the campground north to the Nobleton Canoe Outpost.

Amid warmer temperatures and skies just as sunny as the previous day, the group made a brief detour onto the Little Withlacoochee River — a narrow, shady tributary — before crossing broad Silver Lake and passing under I-75. After leaving the highway behind, the paddlers were pleased to encounter almost no development — only a couple of campgrounds and day-use parks interspersed with cypress, oak and maple as far as they could see.

“It’s lovely,” said Kathy Bonvouloir of Margate, kayaking the river for the first time with husband Rene. “There are some bends we went around that took my breath away. The cypress trees are so majestic.”

One paddler reported seeing a small gator, while nearly everybody spotted several turtles sunning themselves on deadfalls.

The group lunched at Hog Island Campground and continued north through vast cypress swamps before encountering civilization once again at CR476.

They reached the take-out spot in Nobleton in early afternoon.

“I thought it was a pretty good paddle,” said trip leader Dave Denham, a retired Miami engineer who celebrated his 70th birthday on the river. “With that current, we had an easy time of it.”

The Bonvouloirs said they really want to make a return visit, and not just to paddle but also to hike a portion of the Florida Trail and bike the Withlacoochee State Trail — the state’s longest rail trail at 46 miles — that parallel the river.

“You get a triple hit here,” Rene Bonvouloir said. “We always like new places, new experiences.”

If you go

▪ For paddling information, rentals and shuttles on the Withlacoochee River, call the Nobleton Outpost at 352-796-7176.

▪ For camping information in the Withlacoochee State Forest, call the Recreation Visitors Center at 352-754-6896.