Good Paddling: Wakulla River, Florida

Manatee signAs with all my hobbies involving any athleticism I started paddling seriously later in life. When I was in college I spent time on the Youghiogheny and New rivers rafting and kayaking in these inflatable kayaks they called “duckies.” Once I started working I only hit the water a few times on canoe trips or rafting with a pal who coordinated whitewater trips for Deaf people. Other than that, I remained a landlubber. Flash forward to now. We took a kayak tour while in the Canadian Maratimes, which I really enjoyed. You can read about that trip in another post. When I got home I took a kayak class, Ben and I rented boats on a few trips and we were hooked. Here we are three years later with two boats and a carload of paddling gear. I’m mentioning this because I have been writing about our paddling trips and I don’t want you to credit me or Ben with mad boating skills. My friends, any paddling adventure I write about you too can do. This particular adventure ranks as one of my favorites ever and is suitable for people with limited experience.

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Paddling upstream 

A friend in Apalachicola told us if we only went on one kayak outing we should paddle the Wakulla river. The river starts at Wakulla Springs and terminates in the Gulf of Mexico. Along the stretch of river there are dozens of put-in locations. The Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park is a local tourist attraction that features a beautiful natural spring, clear water and is a hang out spot for manatees. Below the spring the Wakulla river drifts south to the Gulf of Mexico. We drove west from Apalachicola on Highway 98  to the boat ramp where 98 crosses the river. TNT outfitters is located right next to the public ramp, so it’s a great place to rent a boat if you don’t own one. The upper Wakulla is a relatively placid river with a gentle current, so most paddlers put in down river, paddle up to the springs and drift back. It is a tidal river, so paddlers should be aware of high and low tides. Trying to paddle on the waning tide can make an upriver paddle more challenging.

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Snowy egret

We saw egrets, ospreys, herons, eagles, king fishers and all manner of birds working on catching a meal. Ospreys were in the beginnings of nesting season. Songbirds of all kinds hopped back and forth. Dozens of turtles were enjoying the warm February sun and fish darted in the clear water under our boats. Spring flowers bloomed along the river and trees were midway along in leafing out, making it easier to see into the bayou on either side of the river.

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Surfaced just past my boat!

I was busy looking up when I got the distinct feeling I wasn’t alone in my little stretch of water. i looked down in time to see two gray shapes each the size of a piano (I am not exaggeratng!) slide a few feet under my boat. Ben was a few yards ahead of me. “MANATEES!!” I squealed. Two bearded snouts popped up just after they passed me with a “pooosh” noise as they gulped air. Ben wasted no time and headed in my direction. He chased the manatees down and managed to snap a picture. I was too enveloped in manatee rapture as my boat bobbed in their wake to get a photo. Once the rapture subsided, I reflected a moment on the idea that ether of these huge creatures could have easily flipped my boat just by coming up for air. I noticed that one of them had a long scar on its back, likely an old propellor strike. Not long after that we reached the northmost end of the paddling trail. There is a chain link fence that stretches across the river at the border of the state park to prevent you from sneaking in without paying a fee.

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Paddle shaped tail

The trip down river is effortless and you get to see stuff you missed on the way up. There are lots of little inlets to explore, and we had fun checking them out. We ducked into one and were enjoying the silence when a whiskery nose broke the surface of the water with another “poosh” noise. A manatee cow and her calf were relaxing in the calm shady water, unconcerned with our presence. We drifted quietly—I didn’t want to risk any motherly manatee wrath. She guided her calf out into the main channel, and away they went.

The rest of the downriver trip we spent in the afterglow of seeing these big mammals. Paddlers heading up all asked us the same question “Did you see any manatees?” We were a little smug about it I suppose. “Yes, several” we replied, “but only when they wanted to see us.”

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Mama cow shoos her baby away. The calf is the smaller shape at the top

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