Tuesday, July 17, 2018
Outdoors

Daytripping on the Chaz and its hidden gem (w/video)

CHASSAHOWITZKA — The water runs clear around The Crack, a zigzagging fissure that snakes for about 30 feet above one of the many springs flowing into the Chassahowitzka River.

One of the river system's gems, The Crack is easy to miss but hard not to admire once you find it. By eroding underwater limestone, the spring has created a pond area big enough to swim in. Two rope swings hang from trees along the water, a somewhat perilous activity above the pond's shallow rocks. On this Friday morning, the sun partially shined through the trees, brightening the turquoise water.

I found this secluded locale with the aid of my guides for the day, outdoor extraordinaires Aaron Freedman, Darry Jackson and George Stovall. All expert paddlers — unlike this reporter — they led me downriver from the boat ramp at the Chassahowitzka campground for about half a mile.

Douglas R. Clifford | Times

George Stovall paddles through a tight finger of the Chassahowitzka River on Friday, which is fed by a dozen springs that form the headwaters that flows 5.6 miles to the Gulf of Mexico at Chassahowitzka Bay in Citrus County.

 

There, we hooked a left into Baird Creek, one of the river's tributaries, and continued in our kayaks down the narrow waterway flanked by sawgrass and other heavy brush. Our companion along the creek was a disgruntled great blue heron who glided above the nearby trees.

We soon arrived at what seemed like the end of the road, a lagoon filled with schools of mullet visible beneath the clear water.

"If you're here by yourself, paddling through here, what would you do?" Jackson said. "Would you keep on going, or turn around?"

More Outdoors: 28 local spots to have fun outside, and still beat the heat

Fifteen years ago, almost everyone turned back. Only locals knew about The Crack's existence, and even now, most visitors head back to the main river from here. (If you're a beginner paddler, go to The Crack with someone who has been before. Even if you consider yourself an able paddler, it's best if you have a companion to help navigate.)

Jackson assured me there was more to see. At the back of the lagoon was a small opening. We paddled through until the water became too shallow for watercraft. After wading the final 200 feet or so, escorted by an army of hungry mosquitoes, we arrived at The Crack.

Douglas R. Clifford | Times

From left, George Stovall, Jasper Scherer and Aaron Freedman portage while hiking to "The Crack," one of a dozen springs that form the headwaters of the Chassahowitzka River that flows 5.6 miles to the Gulf of Mexico at Chassahowitzka Bay in Citrus County.

 

• • •

Locals call this place the Chaz. One of the treasures of Citrus County, the river runs for about 6 miles from the headsprings before meeting the Gulf. Undeveloped land surrounds most of the river, and even the springs — the easternmost part of the Chaz — remain peaceful, enclosed by vegetation and the occasional riverfront home.

The name of the river, pronounced "chaz-wits-kuh," comes from the Seminole tribe that once settled in the area. It roughly translates to "place of the hanging pumpkin," after the plant that once grew near the river.

Despite the Chassahowitzka's rich history, much of its past remains uncertain. The Seminoles likely inhabited the area from the late 18th century through the middle of the 19th century, said archaeologist Michael Arbuthnot. Their time in the Chaz included the Second Seminole War, from 1835 to 1842, according to the Fish and Wildlife Commission.

Douglas R. Clifford | Times

Darry Jackson, left, watches as Aaron Freedman leaps into Seven Sisters Spring on Friday (7/21/17) at the Chassahowitzka River, which is fed by a dozen springs that form the headwaters that flows 5.6 miles to the Gulf of Mexico at Chassahowitzka Bay in Citrus County.

 

In 2013, Arbuthnot oversaw a restoration project at the springs where hundreds of artifacts were discovered — including a wooden canoe paddle carbon dated to the time when the Seminoles were believed to inhabit the Chassahowitzka area. The team also found Chattahoochee brushed pottery, a type of ceramic used by the Seminoles.

Also excavated in the project were Spanish colonial ceramics dating to the same century, seeming to indicate that Spanish settlers passed through the area and traded with the Seminoles.

Get Sporty: Take sports outside the box, including cycling on a boat that's also a bar

Though signs of Seminole habitation are gone today, the Chaz's conditions that likely attracted the Seminoles — freshwater springs, abundant fishing, active wildlife — remain visible.

As we paddled down the river, anhingas poked their heads and necks above the surface while gliding through the water. Ospreys perched high on tree branches — oak, cedar, magnolia, cypress — and peered into the water for fish. Turtles basked on branches near the edge of the river. Pink swamp hibiscus lined parts of the river banks.

Douglas R. Clifford | Times

From left: paddlers George Stovall, Aaron Freedman, Darry Jackson and Jasper Scherer leave the Chassahowitzka River Campground en route to Seven Sisters Spring on the Chassahowitzka River.

 

Had we stayed longer or paddled on a different day, we might have crossed paths with otters, manatees or even black bears and bobcats.

Though the river remains healthy, the springs have been stifled in parts by algae that grows almost unchecked. When paddling in shallow areas, you can run your hand under the surface and pull up a handful of plants covered in algae.

• • •

The Crack isn't the only beautiful spring feeding into the Chaz. We began our day at the Seven Sisters Springs, located a short paddle upriver from the boat ramp.

The Seven Sisters are a cluster of springs separated by an underwater tunnel system of limestone bedrock. Intrepid swimmers can pass under these tunnels.

In the morning, we stopped at the springs to take a dip in the water and cool off. Near our kayaks were two springs separated by about 15 feet of underwater tunnel. The tunnels are not too deep, and the swim between springs appears manageable, but people have drowned here after making a wrong turn in the tunnels.

Douglas R. Clifford | Times

George Stovall free dives through a tunnel of limestone at Seven Sisters Spring on the Chassahowitzka River.

 

After his initial hesitation, Stovall, a St. Petersburg chiropractor and longtime paddler, swam through. He shot up above the surface of the water and filled his lungs with air.

"I couldn't help myself!" he said, a grin stretching across his face.

As Stovall will tell you, bathing suits are mandatory if you want to fully experience the Chaz. Between the Seven Sisters and The Crack, we saw some of its most breathtaking features, though only touched a fraction of what the area has to offer. There is so much more to explore, and many more miles to paddle.

     
             
Comments

Captainís Corner: Warm water brings algae blooms

Itís been a hot summer. This week water temps crept up to sweltering 90 degrees at the surface inshore. We saw 88 degrees on the surface temps offshore. The deeper the water, the cooler the water temps were found, especially toward the bottom. Wit...
Published: 07/16/18

Captainís Corner: Fishing docks and bridges at night is good way to beat summertime heat

The summertime heat and humidity are in full swing. Get out early to avoid the heat and the afternoon thunderstorms. Water temperatures are anywhere from 88 to 93 degrees. With water temperatures that high, youíll be able to spend only the first few ...
Published: 07/13/18
Updated: 07/15/18

Captainís Corner: Donít forget about the ponds for fishing

Saltwater gets all of our attention, but when driving to and from work or visiting a friend, keep an eye out for a pond that looks fishy. There are many productive ponds that have bass and panfish, some even have snook and baby tarpon, both of which ...
Published: 07/12/18
Updated: 07/14/18

Captainís Corner: Welcome to summertime kingfish season

We now have a summertime kingfish season. In the past weíve basically given up on kingfish at the end of May because the feeling was they had migrated to the northern gulf to spawn, not returning until mid-October. Weíve targeted kingfish this year i...
Published: 07/11/18
Updated: 07/12/18

Captainís Corner: Spanish mackerel push back into bay

Large Spanish mackerel have pushed into the bay as of the most recent full moon. Many of these pelagics are in the 6-pound range, and recent catches of 8-pound mackerel have not been uncommon. A medium action rod with a 4000 series reel spooled with ...
Published: 07/11/18

Captainís Corner: Pinellas south beaches strong for snook

Snook fishing along the south beaches of Pinellas County has been amazing. Large schools are hanging in the swash channels formed by wave motion right off the beach. The water clarity changes daily, depending on the wind direction. If the wind is out...
Published: 07/08/18
Updated: 07/13/18

Captainís Corner: Good tarpon action should last through August

For those who have not had their fill of tarpon fishing, thereís still plenty of it. A good flow of silverkings continues along our gulf beaches and in the bays and backwaters. Weíll be tugging on íem through next month. We battled tarpon last week j...
Published: 07/07/18
Updated: 07/08/18
Captainís Corner: Summer weather brings great bay fishing

Captainís Corner: Summer weather brings great bay fishing

We are right in the middle of the summer, which makes for some hot weather and rainy afternoons. With summer weather patterns come some great bay fishing. Sharks, cobia, snapper and grouper are plentiful inside Tampa Bay. Shark fishing is also a grea...
Published: 07/06/18
Updated: 07/09/18

Captainís Corner: Nowís the time for beach tarpon fishing

Beach tarpon fishing has been good. Tarpon have been showing up early in the morning and during the tide change occurring midmorning to early afternoon. Live pinfish fished 4-5 feet under a float has been the ticket. Most of the fish are heading nort...
Published: 07/06/18

Captainís Corner: For July fishing success, avoid the sun

This is the dead stretch of summer. Success in fishing has everything to do with the "when." A month ago it was at sunrise. With water temperatures at 90, you should think about being out on the water several hours before sunrise. Of late, the fishin...
Published: 07/05/18
Updated: 07/07/18