CHASSAHOWITZKA RIVER — For years, the folks in Citrus County have kept the spring-fed waterway known as the "Chaz" to themselves. When it comes to rivers, the Chassahowitzka isn't much to talk about. Just 7 miles downstream, the cool, clear waters empty into the Gulf of Mexico.
The Chassahowitka seldom makes the Top 10 list in any of the Florida paddling guides. In fact, it has always been a little difficult finding any useful information about the river that draws its name from Seminole word for "hanging pumpkin."
So the only way to really get to know this little gem is to climb in a canoe and see for yourself.
A few paddle strokes from the boat ramp at the Chassahowitzka River Campground is the first of the river's more than one dozen springs. The water is clear and cold (72 degrees), coming from deep within the Floridan Aquifer.
Since most of the local fishermen put in here, swimming and diving are prohibited. But if you keep paddling upstream, you'll find the first of many swimming springs.
As you approach the area known as "The Sisters," the water will get shallow, just 1 to 2 feet deep. Keep an eye out for "vents" along the bottom that continuously pump spring water into the river.
If you get out and swim, be careful. The rocks are notoriously slippery, so wear water shoes. If traveling with little ones, hold them by the hand or somebody will end up with scraped knees.
If you are a strong swimmer or experienced snorkeler, try the "swim through" at the deepest hole. Be forewarned. This is not for everyone. Proceed with caution.
More fun downstream
About 20 minutes downstream, you will see a tiny island with palm trees off to your left. This is the entrance to Baird Creek.
As you paddle deep into the woods, the creek will narrow and you will be tempted to turn back. Remain steadfast. Paddle on.
Eventually you will hit Blue Springs, which is usually full of large schools of mullet. There is a rope swing here, so it's a good place to stop and take a dip.
But the adventure is not over. Keep paddling until you cannot paddle any more. Then leave the canoe behind, get out and walk along the creek bed.
A 200-foot trek through ankle-deep water will bring you to "The Crack," a 30-foot-long crevice for swimming. Bring a mask or some goggles and take your time and explore. You will be glad you did.
As you get back to the main river and continue downstream, remember to look, but do not touch. You are now in the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, a 31,000-acre wilderness that is home to more than 250 species of birds, 50 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 25 species of mammals, including the West Indian manatee and the state's largest land mammal, the Florida black bear.
Bring the bird book
The Chassahowitzka River is Site 51 on the Great Florida Birding Trail. You will see a variety of waterbirds, raptors and if you are lucky, perhaps even a swallow-tailed kite. To learn more, go to www.florida birdingtrail.com.
Pitch a tent
The Chassahowitzka River Campground, a Citrus County park (www.citruscountyfl.org), is a great place to spend the night before or after a paddle. The campground has a small general store and the folks there are friendly and full of local knowledge.
A campsite with a full hookup is $25 per night; $20 a night for a primitive (tent) campsite. Paddlers must also pay a $2 parking fee.
The Chassahowitzka is a great river for beginners or families with small children. The current is gentle and boat traffic, though common, is not a problem. Locals tend to respect the canoeists and kayakers and usually slow down when passing.
One last tip: Check the tide before leaving the boat ramp and plan accordingly. If you have the tide with you, plan on a longer, harder paddle on your return trip.