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Better prepared to take on wonders of Withlacoochee River

A platform nailed to the limb of a live oak that arched over the Withlacoochee River was a good stopping point.

DAN DeWITT | Times

A platform nailed to the limb of a live oak that arched over the Withlacoochee River was a good stopping point.

Figuring that only hundreds of screeching chicks could make the kind of racket that had kept my son and me up all night, my first guess was that we'd unknowingly camped next to a wood stork rookery.

"Hoarse croak, mostly silent'' my Peterson Guide to Eastern Birds said about the call of the wood stork. Nope — silent it definitely wasn't.

On to the next page and a picture of limpkin, which did, in fact, look quite a bit like the plump, mottled bird settling peacefully (now that dawn had arrived) in the branch of a cypress tree across the river from my picnic table.

"Voice: A piercing, repeated wail, kree-ow, kra-ow, etc., etc., especially at night.''

Bingo!

I hate to start the story of the second leg of our trip down the Withlacoochee River with the worst part, but this was the only episode that was even remotely dramatic, which I don't mean as a complaint. Just the opposite. It was a great change from the previous month's ill-planned fiasco of a journey near the river's source in the Green Swamp.

First and most importantly, we brought life jackets this time — plus a tent, sleeping bags and foam pads, all bundled in watertight plastic in case we capsized. Our food was in a cooler with a latch to keep the raccoons out.

We even had a map, a printout from the state Department of Environmental Protection's Web site of designated paddling trails ( www.dep.state.fl.us/gwt/guide/paddle.htm), though I did overlook the accompanying description of the road leading to our launch site east of Lacoochee in Pasco County: "extremely bumpy'' and nearly impassible without a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

We didn't have one, which meant a quarter-mile portage to the river — where our pace picked up immediately.

The river is not at flood stage, not even close. But it is higher than normal for this time of year, higher, in fact, than it's been since late 2005, with V-shaped riffles forming when the water flows between trees and the discharge of its many springs bulging up into the channel.

At the risk of sounding like a propagandist for local tourist development councils, let me say that despite my lack of recent paddling trips, I do know something about rivers. I worked for two years as a deckhand on the Ohio and Mississippi. I spent every summer in my teens canoeing in Canada. I've even paddled the Noatak River north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska.

And though my memories may be growing fuzzy, I swear that none of these rivers were any prettier than this stretch of the Withlacoochee between Lacoochee and Floral City, in southern Citrus County.

Actually, what I have to say may not be much help to the tourist industry, because the only way to replicate our trip would be to wait a year until the absolute height of spring and luck into two similarly brilliant, sunny days — Tuesday and Wednesday of last week — at the end of an unusually rainy winter.

On the first day, there was one populated section of the river — through Lacoochee, Trilby and Ridge Manor — bookended by two wild ones, in the Richloam and Croom tracts of the Withlacoochee State Forest.

In the wild ones, the water spread out past the lines of bank-side cypresses and far into the low-lying woods of oaks and sweet gums.

Looking up, we saw blue sky and branches weighed down with new green leaves and needles. The view ahead was of dark water — not dirty, but tinted by tannin the color of tea. Or raspberry tea, to be exact, because I also noticed a slight reddish tint.

"Populated'' is probably too strong a word to describe the scattered mobile homes and houses along the banks, some frightening looking, with Confederate battle flags and signs warning of mean dogs and defiant gun owners, but others with neat stacks of firewood, lawns that sloped down to the river and azaleas and wisteria in full bloom.

We stopped twice, to jump off a platform nailed to the limb of a live oak that arched over the river, and for lunch in a weedy ghost town of picnic tables at an abandoned rest area at the U.S. 98 bridge.

Though the Southwest Florida Water Management District has used the translation of the river's name — "big little river'' in Creek — to explain its widely fluctuating levels and especially its periodic disappearances during recent droughts, this really refers to the way that narrow channels connect a series of lakes.

This was the defining pattern of our second day on the river, which would end at the pleasantly isolated and well-named Trail's End Camp, northeast of Floral City. But we hit the first of the wide spots, Silver Lake, toward the end of the first day.

We watched swallow-tailed kites swoop over the water, and for a while were committed to camping there. But once we took in the buzz of traffic on the nearby Interstate 75 bridge and the airboat roaring around the lake, which left me wondering why anybody would think of trying to appreciate the outdoors on a machine that requires protective ear covering, we decided to move on.

Another hour of paddling and we were at one of the several campgrounds on the river operated by the state Division of Forestry (352-754-6896) — Hog Island — where we found clean showers, running water and, until the limpkins really got going about 2 a.m., just about total peace and quiet.

What could have made this good trip better?

Earplugs and some sort of pillow, because a stuff sack crammed with old clothes doesn't work for me now that I'm 50, as well as fireside, riverside beverages to enhance the relaxed feeling you get after 22 miles of paddling.

I have in mind caffeine-free tea for the boy and a beer for me. Not as crucial as life jacket, maybe, but close.

Better prepared to take on wonders of Withlacoochee River 04/10/10 [Last modified: Saturday, April 10, 2010 2:26pm]

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