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Swamp to sea, coasting the Withlacoochee River

"Keep a-movin', move along …"

Follow That Dream

YANKEETOWN — Elvis paddled here.

Or at least that's what I'll tell people if I ever find my way off this river the Indians called Withlacoochee.

It's no secret that Presley loved white jumpsuits, pink Cadillacs, and peanut butter and banana sandwiches. But few know the legendary singer was also an avid sea kayaker.

Some even suspect the King actually still may be roaming these parts, paddle in hand, humming a tune from that 1962 hit movie that he filmed over by that bridge that spans Bird Creek.

When your heart gets restless, time to move along

When your heart gets weary, time to sing a song …

After nearly 50 hours paddling this waterway, which twists and turns for more than 100 miles through six counties, I'm ready to, as they say, "leave the building."

Crooked river

Over the past 20 years, I've explored more than two dozen Florida waterways from beginning to end. But I've always dreamed of paddling the Withlacoochee, from its headwaters in the Green Swamp to its terminus at the Gulf of Mexico.

The word "swamp" is a misnomer when referring to the area in Central Florida that gives birth to the Withlacoochee, Hills­borough, Peace and Oklawaha rivers, because it is actually more than 100 feet above sea level.

You can't paddle the Withlacoochee without brushing shoulders with Florida history. In 1539, the Spanish conquistador Hernando De Soto crossed the river during his ill-fated expedition through Central Florida.

Centuries later, Seminole warriors led by Osceola battled federal troops on the banks of the Withlacoochee. Two of the river's many feeder creeks — Jumper and Alligator — still bear the names of two of Osceola's most trusted lieutenants.

But while arcane historical facts may impress scholars, it wasn't until 1962 when United Artists made Follow That Dream, what critics called Presley's "Funniest … Happiest … Dreamiest … Motion Picture," that the Withlacoochee finally earned a spot in the annals of pop culture.

Lakes, springs and swimming holes

As you paddle north — the Withlacoochee and St. Johns are the only rivers in Florida that flow in that direction — from the edge of the swamp at Lacoochee, you pass through every type of habitat the state has to offer: hardwood hammocks, cypress swamps, pine flatwoods, palmetto scrub, freshwater wetlands and salt marsh.

Silver Lake, part of the sprawling Withlacoochee State Forest, is this region's major recreational destination. Here you will find the river's best canoeing, fishing, camping and hiking. Most folks never venture beyond the confines of the forest, which the World Wildlife Fund declared one of the "top 10 coolest places you've never been in North America."

Keep going "downstream," past Nobleton and the now-defunct Canoe Outpost, which at one time was the river's primary livery service. And if you still have the energy, press on to Turner's Fish Camp, east of Inverness, the airboat capital of the Withlacoochee and home to the hottest chicken wings and coldest beer east of U.S. 41.

Most people take six days to travel the entire length of the river, which varies from 86 to 157 miles, depending on whom you talk to and how they measure it. But my companions and I were pressed for time, so we set a goal of reaching the end in Yankeetown in 60 hours.

That meant paddling 18 hours the first day, which might seem excessive to most folks, including the King, who was known to throw an all-night party or two in the Jungle Room.

But no Withlacoochee journey is complete without a side trip to Rainbow River, or Blue Run as the old-timers call it. This 6-mile stretch of gin-clear water near Dunnellon is the best swimming river in Florida.

Some might call it "paradise." Come to think of it, that's exactly what Toby Kwimper, a.k.a. Elvis Presley, thought when the family truck broke down in that opening scene of Follow That Dream.

Locks, dams and dumb ideas

Highway 40 runs west out of Dunnellon, which is a great place to stop for a warm shower and a heaping plate of gator tail at the Blue Gator after two days on the river. The fictional Kwimper family, heroes of Pioneer, Go Home! the book on which the Elvis film was based, broke down along this yet-to-be-completed stretch of highway and claimed squatter's rights.

The book is classic tale of little guy vs. big government, and if Elvis had taken the time to travel off the set and look around, he would have seen three of the Withlacoochee's biggest boondoggles: the Inglis Dam, Lake Rousseau and the Cross Florida Barge Canal.

The hydroelectric dam, built in 1909, created the lake that disrupted the natural flow of the river. And if that wasn't enough to rile the spirits of the Seminole warriors who once paddled these waters, the federal government decided to dig a big ditch that just made things worse.

Fortunately, the Cross Florida Barge Canal project was abandoned in the 1970s, but its main control structure on the west end of Lake Rousseau was left intact. Alas it is inoperable, which we discovered when we paddled to the lock and found our path blocked.

So we had to turn around and go back to the dam, where after a half-hour portage, we could put back into the river, go down the canal, climb up over the bank, walk through the woods and climb back down into the river again — to a spot a quarter-mile west (and four hours later) past the inoperable lock that initially blocked our way.

Frustrated and angry, I took off, headed for that roadside rest stop where Elvis serenaded Joanna Moore, better known as Sheriff Andy Taylor's love interest Peg McMillan on the Andy Griffith Show.

But then I remembered it was only a movie, and a bad one at that. Undeterred, I thought of Elvis and started singing.

Keep a-movin', move along. Keep a-movin', move along …

My quest to paddle the Withlacoochee from swamp to sea was no longer just a dream.

Swamp to sea, coasting the Withlacoochee River 12/22/10 [Last modified: Thursday, December 23, 2010 7:00am]
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