Sunday, March 18, 2018

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?"

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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.

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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.


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