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Canoeing Withlacoochee River reveals peace and pollution

We parents get only so much time with our kids, just so many days and hours.

And now that my oldest son is a senior in high school, I hear the clock ticking all the time.

Maybe that's why a goal we pulled out of the air a few years ago — or that I pulled out, because this is more my deal than his — suddenly seemed like something we just had to get done.

I couldn't justify letting a Hernando County childhood pass without taking on a backyard adventure that is also a real adventure — canoeing the length of the 157-mile long Withlacoochee River.

We started three years ago at the headwaters in the Green Swamp, which was enough like wilderness that making it back to civilization felt like a victory. We took an idyllic overnight trip, the closest thing imaginable to Jim and Huck on the raft, through the Withlacoochee State Forest. We plowed through a drab section of river skirting the Tsala Apopka chain of lakes in eastern Citrus County.

All we had left was the stretch between State Road 44, near Inverness, to Yankeetown, which, actually, is about half the length of the river.

I suggested setting aside three days during spring break for the trip. My son agreed to two.

So what did we see after setting off Thursday morning?

Birds. Lots of them, including all the usual big waders — ibises, limpkins and great blue herons slowly laboring into flight. We saw soaring ospreys, eagles and swallow-tailed kites. We saw so many kingfishers — one at nearly every bend in the river — that I later called Andy Wraithmell of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, to see what might be going on.

They're migrating this time of year, he said, and probably following the Withlacoochee so they can feed as they work their way north. It's a sign the river is holding plenty of water and fish.

The rain had also brought out green, spring foliage so unrelentingly spectacular that it almost, but not quite, got old.

An jumbo alligator slipped into the river outside of Dunnellon and, in town, at the mouth of the Rainbow River, we saw a turtle as fat as a Thanksgiving turkey swimming a dozen feet down in the clear, spring water. The view from our campsite at the Oxbow Trail Recreation area was so pretty that it shows up even in crummy cell phone photos.

But we saw lots of riverside homes, too. Most of them come with septic tanks and lawns, which put nitrogen in the river, which helps explain another sight — stringy algae clogging the river bed.

Nutrient levels rise in the Withlacoochee as it runs through developed parts of Citrus and especially after it's joined by the nitrogen-tainted Rainbow.

You might have read that in the fight to force state and federal environmental agencies to crack down on this kind of pollution, the agricultural and industrial interests are winning. All you have to do is paddle Lake Rousseau to know what that means — that the rest of us are losing.

It's more than a century old, this 6-mile-long lake, created by a dam on the Withlacoochee.

According to Sandra Clodwick, a Dunnellon Realtor and member of a waterways restoration group, "the lake is rapidly progressing toward a more marsh-like system, characterized by excessive aquatic plant growth, accumulated bottom sediments and poor water circulation."

According to my son, looking out over miles of stagnant water, rafts of water lilies and half-submerged tree stumps, it's a "god-forsaken hellscape."

I guess he was starting to sour on our adventure. And by the time we reached the dam at the end of the lake and big lock chamber left over from the abandoned plan to build a barge canal across Florida, we'd run out of steam and daylight.

We were at least a dozen miles short of our goal, which seemed an awful shame until my son pointed out that this is the perfect distance for one more trip.

Canoeing Withlacoochee River reveals peace and pollution 04/02/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 2, 2013 9:29pm]
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