Prepare well for day of canoeing on the Withlacoochee River

An open stretch just north of Withlacoochee River Park, about 5 miles east of Dade City. The river usually moves slowly because it drops just a few feet over its course, but this winter’s rains have given it a noticeable current.

DAN DEWITT | Times

An open stretch just north of Withlacoochee River Park, about 5 miles east of Dade City. The river usually moves slowly because it drops just a few feet over its course, but this winter’s rains have given it a noticeable current.

I had the plan clear in my mind by the time I left my house Saturday morning with my oldest son:

Take advantage of the high water in the Withlacoochee River and paddle the length of it, in stages, over the next few months. Write about wildlife and water levels and check the status of various plans implemented over the years to tap the river for the sake of green lawns in distant suburbs.

It was the details I didn't worry much about, a lack of planning that was almost a plan itself. The strategy was to make these routine trips, close to home, more adventurous.

My son and I left the house with a canoe, paddles and a pack containing a couple of water bottles, a camera and a bird book.

We picked up sandwiches on the way and another gallon jug of water. All I knew about the weather was that my wife had mentioned it was supposed to be nice. All I did to prepare for it was wear a bathing suit under my shorts.

With a glance at my Florida Atlas & Gazetteer (who needs Google maps?), I picked a launch site that looked both reasonably convenient and close to the river's source in the Green Swamp: Withlacoochee River Park, about 5 miles east of Dade City.

The dozens of trips I've taken before on the Withlacoochee have all been casual floats or, if I decided to work at it, fast cruises through open water.

That's how this one started. My son is a strong paddler now. The Withlacoochee moves slowly, dropping just a few feet over the course of 157 miles to its mouth at Yankeetown, but this winter's rains have given it a noticeable current.

We slid past yellow Carolina jessamine, always one of the first bloomers, that snaked up bare cypress trees. Maples had both spring and fall colors, green buds and clusters of red seed pods. The baby leaves of the sweet gums looked like tiny starfish.

I'd just started reading Paving Paradise, a book by my colleagues Craig Pittman and Matthew Waite, and learned how much of Florida used to be covered with wetlands, nearly three-fourths of it. So those art deco hotels in Miami Beach and oyster bars in Apalachicola aren't Old Florida or at least not old, old Florida. This is: swamp.

And, not surprisingly, it can be scary.

We passed by a bloated deer carcass floating in the dark water like an answer in a Magic 8-Ball. A couple dozen vultures circled above it.

The weather wasn't really all that warm, I noticed. Fine in the sunny middle of the open channel, while paddling. But the water was cold enough to turn our hands red. We took a lunch break on a fallen log in the shade, and cut it short because of the chill. I needed fleece, not a swimsuit.

We had rewarded ourselves with that early lunch because we thought we'd made it through the hard part, a mat of decaying water hyacinth that clogged about 100 yards of river. My son had earlier told me he didn't see why people made such a big deal of invasive plants. They were sure to find a place in the ecosystem. In a few hundred or thousand years, some bug or fish will emerge to eat them.

For the time being, though, hyacinths are definitely a pest.

It took us 20 minutes to paddle through them, a foot or so with each hard stroke. I thought about getting out to push, but when I thrust my paddle straight down into the water, it went up to my elbow without touching bottom. If either of us fell in, I realized, we could be in real trouble.

I remembered those four fishermen stranded in the gulf a year ago, and how quickly one mistake turned their trip into a disaster. How stupid was I not to have packed life vests?

The hyacinth mat turned out to be just the first hard part. After every stretch of the river that opened up, and just when we started enjoying all the wildlife — more birds than I've seen in years, great blue and little blue herons, egrets, ibis, wood stocks, cormorants, ducks and warblers — we came to yet another mat of hyacinths.

Then we came to mats of hyacinths backed by deadfalls of limbs lodged between cypress knees.

The open channel vanished in favor of water spread out between nothing but deadfalls and cypress trees and cypress knees. We realized it had been ages since we'd seen one of those helpful diamond-shaped signs marking the canoe trail.

When an 8-foot alligator slipped off yet another log and disappeared into the black water, I told my son this wasn't a canoe trip anymore, it's a flippin' Tarzan movie.

I'll spare you the drama, because obviously we made it out. But we had to retrace our path, though the hyacinth mats, past the bloated deer and underneath the ranks of vultures now perched on bare limbs as though they'd been waiting for us.

Because my cell phone had died, I had no way of reaching my wife, who I'd told to meet us at 5 p.m. at Silver Lake (25 river miles or so north of the park, so who was I kidding?).

But we were able to borrow a phone from a nice group of hikers, the first humans we had seen in six hours on the water, and got a call to my wife before she called for a rescue party. We were back at the dock before dark and home in time for a late dinner.

What should we have taken? Lots of stuff.

"That's a tough piece of river if you would even consider it a river,'' said Will Miller, land use manager for the Southwest Florida Water Management District. "You need to be self-sufficient and you need to use some common sense when you get into places like that. There's not a 7-Eleven around the corner.''

Life jackets are an absolute must, as well as proper clothing and a well-charged cell phone, the all-around emergency cure-all for helpless yuppies.

We also should have taken a closer look at the map. Even the Gazetteer showed the Withlacoochee dissolving into swampy looking squiggles about 5 miles north of the park, and the state Department of Environmental Protection Web site shows the canoe trail for the southern Withlacoochee starting just north of that point, in Lacoochee, which is where I will begin the next leg of the journey.

Probably without my son, who said this was the worst day of his life. I realized I don't need to be unprepared to find adventure. The swamp, the wilderness, is closer than I thought.

Prepare well for day of canoeing on the Withlacoochee River 03/11/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 12, 2010 7:42pm]

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