On Florida's Peace River, brightly colored plastic kayaks and rugged aluminum canoes float over traces of life tens of millions of years old, all framed by tall oaks and Spanish moss-clad cypress trees and attended by alligators and birds of every kind, forming a contrast without irony. This subtropical river offers some of Florida's finest canoeing and kayaking, with great wildlife viewing and some of the best fossil hunting anywhere.
Dr. Richard C. Hulbert Jr. of the University of Florida's Florida Museum of Natural History, said the state can credit its fossil fame to layers of rock and sediments that lie at or near the surface. Other places, he said, have mainly marine fossils, or glaciers wiped clean records of millions of years, leaving only very old and very young fossils. But Florida has a full range of fossils, from a few thousand to 30 million years old. The Peace River continuously washes away sediments and rocks, exposing its fossils. Most common are shark teeth, eagle ray teeth, porcupine fish jaws and dugong ribs.
Fossil hunters use short-handled shovels or scoops to lift sediment samples and filter them through floating screens. Want help? Professional guides can lead you to a known fossil spot and aid your efforts. To collect any animal fossils but shark's teeth from Florida-owned lands or any river, you need to obtain a $5 permit and file an annual report of what you've found and where. The state has first shot at your finds, otherwise, they're yours.
Fossil hunting shares the Peace River spotlight with canoeing, kayaking, wildlife viewing and ATV riding. Paddlers on the popular, sometimes noisy river report easygoing, mostly beginner and intermediate conditions. The rainy months of August and September can raise the challenge. Wildlife watching? Keep an eye out for gators: you might see a 12-footer here.
Choose from private campgrounds and free primitive campsites. Campgrounds are popular with ATV riders, and it can get noisy.
The 105-mile-long river rises in Polk County and flows south through Hardee County, turning southwest at Arcadia in DeSoto County, to Charlotte Harbor, where its fresh waters recharge the rich estuary. Through much of its course the Peace runs near U.S. Highway 17. For its first 70 miles, from above Fort Meade to Arcadia, it's a state-designated Paddling Trail.
With a population of about 7,000, Arcadia is the largest of Peace River towns. Established in 1886, struck by a massive fire in 1905 and Hurricane Charley 99 years later, it still offers old-Florida charm; nearly 400 buildings in its historical district are on the National Registry of Historic Places. It offers varied restaurants, antique shops — more than two dozen packed in just four blocks of downtown's Oak Street! — and other shops, rodeos, an animal attraction, a working citrus grove nearby, and great golf courses.
Upstream are Wauchula, once called the Cucumber Capital of the World but now ringed by citrus groves, and Zolfo Springs, both in Hardee County. At 5,000 or so, Wauchula's population is about three times that of Zolfo Springs.
Peace River paddling trips range from a half-day to eight days. Access points offer wade-in opportunities for those so inclined; DeSoto Park in Arcadia is considered a top wade-in fossil-hunting spot. A splendid map of the river and paddling trail, with access info, is available at www.dep.state.fl.us/gwt/guide/designated_paddle/Peace_guide.pdf.
Steve Griffin has been a full-time freelance outdoors and boating writer since 1975. This story originally appeared at Visit Florida, www.visitflorida.com.