Friday, March 23, 2018

Withlacoochee offers a plethora of canoeing options


The Boy Scouts of Troop 219 have come to love but dread my campfire tales. As an amateur historian, I rely on real names, dates and places to bring my stories to life.

Probably 99 percent of what I tell them is true. But it is that remaining 1 percent, the "unknown unknowns" as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once called them, that keeps them up at night.

"These swamps were once full of Seminole warriors," I told my paddling partner, young Konrad Dzurny. "The soldiers fought here many times. But don't worry. I'm pretty sure there haven't been any attacks … lately."

The boys in my charge were not expert canoeists. A few had never paddled before, but this particular stretch of the Withlacoochee River was ideal for beginners. In fact, some might even describe it as "peaceful."

But this was not always the case. In the winter of 1835-36, many bloody battles were fought along the river's banks. The Withlacoochee, and its surrounding swamps, became the most valuable weapon of the Seminoles as they fought a relatively modern and better-equipped U.S. Army.

It was here along the Withlacoochee that the Seminoles "could strike a thousand separate blows and retreat without a trace," historian Frank Laumer would later write of the area. The Second Seminole War, fought from 1835-42, was the longest and costliest Indian War in U.S. history.

You won't find any museums or monuments along the river banks to honor the men who died here, but as I told my paddling partner, the ghosts of those wounded and left behind are said to still wander the woods at night, especially on a full moon.

"So whatever you do, don't get out of your tent at night," I told Konrad. "But if you have to, make sure you wake up your tent mates and you all go together. There's safety in numbers."

This river, which starts in the Green Swamp and flows to the Gulf of Mexico, is a living history lesson. Two of its many feeder creeks — Jumper and Alligator — are named after two of the War Chief Osceola's most trusted lieutenants.

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

The stretch of river north of Silver Lake, part of the sprawling Withlacoochee State Forest, is the best for beginners. Here you will also find the area's best camping and hiking. In fact, 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."

Hog Island has a great wooded campground. You can call the local canoe livery, the Canoe Outpost in Nobleton, and they will drop off a canoe for a leisurely two-hour paddle. If you time it right, you'll reach the Outpost just about lunch time at the River Ratz Café.

While Florida's office of Greenways and Trails maintains a 76-mile paddling trail from Lacoochee to Dunnellon, the 10 miles south of the outpost is best for families and first timers. But you can do the whole river. But keep in mind that the degree of difficulty, which ranges from beginner to intermediate, depends on the water level, which fluctuates from season to season. In general, the river is usually highest during the summer rainy season.

You can camp at Hog Island. Reservations are recommended. Facilities are limited — potable water and rest room facilities are available.

Be sure to do your research and take time to learn the history of the area. While first-hand reports written by veterans from the Second Seminole War reveal that many seasoned combat veterans were afraid to enter what had come to be called the "Cove of the Withlacoochee," you should be fine as long as you take care on the coming weekend's full moon.


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