Explore Florida by canoe
Is there a more perfect way to see a shark than a swirl of fins and tail next to your canoe? Less than 1 meter long it's small enough to look both beautiful and cute, instead of scary. Disturbed by our canoe, the shark disappeared across the meadow of sea grass that carpets Florida Bay.
Paddling in the slightly deeper channel out of Flamingo Campground in the Everglades National Park we had seen dolphins leaping ahead of us. These glimpses of wildlife made taking a few hours paddling to reach our accommodation a pleasure.
A Chickee Night
It wasn’t a tropical island luxury cabin over the sea on stilts, but for only $2 a night Shark Point Chickee was one of the most memorable places I have stayed. When the Seminole were pushed into the watery landscape of the Everglades by the United States Army in the 19th century they used chickees—roofed platforms on stilts—as places to cook, eat and sleep. In the wilderness of the Everglades National Park, the park service has a selection of chickees as a camping option that can be reached by canoe, kayak or boat.
Located 300 m from Shark Point, the chickee has 360-degree views of the sea. Its only mod con is a Portaloo. We were prepared for bird poo since a platform at sea is an irresistible perch for pelicans, cormorants, gulls and terns. We brought hammocks to sleep in, a fly sheet tent in case of rain and a tarpaulin to tie onto the deck. As well as keeping us and our belongings off the bird poo, the tarpaulin stopped things we dropped from falling through the slats of the chickee deck into the sea below.
Exploring the Everglades
Beyond the Everglades, a host of rivers and bays across Florida are best explored by canoe. Self-propelled travel by canoe was the easiest way to travel around Florida before the land was drained and roads were built, but there are still many beautiful places that can only be reached by canoe. Navigable waterways are held in public trust. Even if surrounding land is privately owned, these waterways can be used so long as the entry and exit points are accessed via public land. When we paddled down the Blackwater River in northwest Florida signs were dangling from trees warning people to stay off private land, but from the canoe we could experience the river and its surrounding forest without trespassing.
Black Water and Singing Sand
As the Blackwater River runs through a forest, clear water that feeds the river is tinted dark by tannin from the trees. Its eponymous name is not the only feature of interest on the river. When we hopped out of our canoe to picnic onto a sandbar we stumbled on one of the world’s mysteries—singing sands.
There is no consensus on why sand sings. Singing sands are a rare and delicate phenomenon. It is thought that dust and pollution can stop them from singing. Some sand is made to sing by the wind; some sand sings when it is walked on. Humidity and shoe surface can influence their performance. Sand saturated with water does not sing, but small amounts of water raise the pitch of the sound singing sand makes.
Stepping and scuffing our feet across the sand at the edges of the Blackwater River created sounds like instruments. And since the Blackwater is a pristine sand river (one of the few remaining ones), it is no wonder that the sand is clean enough to sing. Being untamed, the river’s flow fluctuates, which causes its sandbars to move. Some of its shifting sandbars are big enough to accommodate a tent for those who want to stay on the river for a night.
Fortunately, we had not planned on camping. With about an hour of paddling left to reach Deaton Bridge, where Blackwater canoe would collect us and our canoe, a heavy Florida rainstorm started. Getting wet was not the concern; our problem was being on the water in a metal canoe and wondering how close the lightning needed to be for us to get electrocuted if it hit the river. We arrived soaking wet and thoroughly reminded that we should check the weather forecast before setting off for a paddle.
Within Kings Bay on Florida’s west coast, there are over 70 springs of which only one can be reached by land; the rest can only be reached by water. In winter these springs are a warm refuge for manatees, in fact, Kings Bay is one of the best places to see them. These large aquatic herbivores slowly graze their way around the bay. In the ‘Manatee Manners’ video that you must watch before being allowed to head out into the bay in canoes, the only warning for the safety of people around manatees is that during their mating season they can form frenzied groups. Injuries from boat propellers are one of the main threats to manatees, so visiting them by canoe is a gentle way to meet these gentle souls.
Against the forest greens and dark rocks of the riverbed, Seven Sisters Spring stands out as a bright turquoise circle. Three Sisters Spring is certainly the most beautiful spring in Kings Bay, and during our visit, manatees were milling around at the entrance to the spring run. We tied up our canoe and got in the water wearing fins and snorkels for a closer look. Finning backward is one way to avoid curious manatees when they swim up to you. As they are not very wary of people, they came so close that we could see filaments of algae growing on their wrinkled skin and feel their gaze when they looked at us.
In contrast to the urban surroundings of Kings Bay, paddling around nearby Chassahowitzka River is a journey through a wild forest, back in time. We came upon a man sifting debris from the riverbed. It looked like he was panning for gold but he was looking for old arrowheads and prehistoric sharks’ teeth. Arrowheads are artifacts spanning local culture from the Paleoindians to the Seminole tribe. The sharks’ teeth were shed when rocks were formed out of sediment in an ancient sea. While he looked for treasure, his dog splashed through the shallow water around Seven Sisters Spring.
We drifted downstream. Even knowing we were near the entrance to Baird Creek, we never would have found it without the help of a fisherman who asked us where we were going. He pointed out a gap in the reeds barely the width of a canoe. Only inches deep in places, it provided a path through the forest. Eventually, the canoe ground to a halt in the sandy creek bottom. We walked upstream between palms and fallen tree trunks until we reached a spring called “The Crack.” You had to look underwater with goggles to see that the pool was the lid on a fissure down into the ground. An otherworldly place you can only get to by canoe.
It is easiest to rent canoes at each location as this avoids having to take one in tow, it saves money on launch fees and it means that at each location a local person knows what time to expect you to return from your trip.
Shark Point Chickee
1 Flamingo Lodge Highway, Homestead, FL 33034
Apply for backcountry camping permit ($15 in winter, free in summer), pay the camping fee of $2 per person per night at the Flamingo Visitor Center in Everglades National Park and hire a canoe from the boat rental for 24 hours for $46. Backcountry camping permits are contingent on weather conditions so they cannot be booked in advance and it is wise to have an alternative plan.
Blackwater Canoe, 6974 Deaton Bridge Road, Milton, FL 32583
$25 per person for a day trip
Captain Mike’s Kayak Rentals, 1610 SE Paradise Circle, Crystal River, FL 34429
$55 for a two-person canoe for the day
Chassahoowitzka River Campground
8600 W Miss Maggie Drive, Homosassa, FL 34448
$35 for a canoe for the day
Text and photos: Susanne Masters