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Wildlife observation? If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, the Chasshowitzka River is the destination for you.
I made my third visit to the Chas, Tuesday, November 8, 2005. The small town of Chassahowitzka is located about 60 miles north of Tampa, 100 miles west of Orlando. A Citrus County campground and boat ramp are located a few miles west of US 98, at the end of Miss Maggie Drive. Parking is $2.12, $2.65 if you have a trailer. This is the only public access on the Chashowitzka River.
The ramp is near the beginning of the River. I paddled a short distance upstream, and was over Chassahowitzka Spring, the main source for the River. Looking down, I saw large schools of big fish. I continued upstream a short way, turned left into a short run. A series of small, interconnected springs, called "Solution Holes", fills the Run like blue jewels on a chain. I paddled over them, into a narrower spring run. I proceeded a short way into this narrow jungle canopied waterway, until I came to a log blocking passage. To early in the day to portage, time to head downstream.
The Chas is fed by several springs in addition to the ones upstream of the ramp. Spring runs enter the River from both north and south. A few have homes near the spring, most have no human habitation other than a rope swing or campfire ashes. I proceeded down the Chas, about 3/4 of a mile to the first run heading south. This is unnamed on the hand drawn map provided (free) at the camp store, but may be the way to Lettuce Spring. I paddled a short way until a tangle of limbs blocked passage. I turned around, knowing more spring runs were nearby. Just west of this run is Baird Creek, a narrow, diverse, waterway. A journey up the creek has scenery from dense oak and palm hammock to narrow passageways through reeds closing in on my kayak. At the end of the creek is Blue Springs. I continued, into a narrower run at the back of Blue Springs, taking this narrow shallow run, having to get out to lift over a log at one point, to the source of this run, a spring called The Crack. As I entered the spring, I glimpsed an animal leaving. All I saw was an indistinct shape with spots. Perhaps a bobcat.
An appropriate name, The Crack is a zigzag fissure. I pulled the yak on the muddy bank, snorkeled the spring, angling my body along the limestone walls of the Crack. Back in the kayak, downstream. On the way up, I heard two splashes as I came around a corner. Now, I silently approached the same area. On my right, an alligator floated on the surface. Just beyond, a turtle soaked up the sun on the bank. It pays to be quiet.
I was soon back at Blue Spring, where again, I got out of the kayak and snorkeled the spring. Whereas The Crack is very clear, Blue is somewhat murky, and you cannot see the bottom from the surface. Being able to get out and snorkel allowed me to get a much better view. A huge school of mullet swam with me. Bass and pan fish were also present. After my swim, I paddled down Baird Creek, and into the Chas.
The Chas is maybe 100 yards wide here, and gets wider as it heads to the Gulf of Mexico. A short way past Baird Creek, a series of islands divides the river in half. On previous visits, I had taken the north channel, which is recommenced to avoid boat traffic, this way being to shallow for most power boats. But being a Tuesday, and looking for a change of pace, I took the main channel. There was very little boat traffic, just a few fishermen. Worst thing was a noisy (is there any other kind?) airboat. Best thing was seeing a wood stork on the south bank. Past the islands, the River widens and signs mark the entrance to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, 31,000 acres of water and islands. I continued, passing two creeks, entering the third, Crawford Creek.
Crawford Creek is similar to Baird Creek. Longer then Baird, at two miles, it is a nature lovers delight. Blue herons fly along the creek while Great Blues stand on logs, watching for the next meal. Belted kingfishers nosily flit about, as egrets roost in the trees. An otter pokes its head out of the water. Coming around the bend, two otters, coats glistening from just leaving the water, dash into the forest. Crawford Creek meets Blue Run. Three homes are at the confluence. The first has a pock marked frying pan on the opposite bank. Thankfully, no target practice today. I continued on Crawford wanting to get to its source, Beetejay Spring. The land around Beteejay Spring is private, signs warn of no trespassing. The waterway, of course is public, so I paddled up it, alongside a home. Another home, or perhaps an extension of the same one, appears to be right over the Spring. I did not get that far. The current was extremely swift, a dog was running and yapping on the deck along the run, so I turned around, knowing there were uninhabited springs nearby.
I paddled back to where Blue Run enters Crawford Creek and paddled to Blue Run Spring. Another cloudy spring, but my snorkel into it paid off with a view of a blue crab in a limestone crevice below the surface, along with plenty of fish. As I stood on the bank and air dried, 18 inch long fish began leaping in the spring pool. After the acrobatics, I went downstream, back to Crawford Creek and the Chasshowitzka.
I was faced with a choice; Do I continue downstream, towards the Gulf, exploring mangrove islands, looking for dolphins and manatee, (I have seen dolphins here, no manatee, so far), or head back, exploring a few more springs on the way? I chose to explore more springs. I had already snorkeled three, my record for springs snorkeled in a day was four, daylight permitting, I might be able to top it.
The upstream paddle on the Chas was fairly strenuous, as it seemed the tide was outgoing. I had to keep the paddle in the water to maintain forward progress. A flock of vultures rode the thermals, and then coming away from the vultures a bald eagle flew overhead. I continued until I reached Potter Creek, entering the Chas from the north. The water is the Creek was very low, mud banks exposed, it was low tide. I was able to make it up the Creek with my kayak. Shore birds took advantage of the delicacies exposed in the mud flats. A hawk screeched, and flew through the trees. Fish easily visible in the clear water. A shape in the water ahead of me. I approached, and paddled over a very large snapping turtle. Potter Creek is fed by Potter Spring. A short run at the back of Potter Spring leads to another spring, Ruth Spring. Ruth Spring Run has some of the clearest water I have ever paddled. The short, twisty run, one pullover and two duck-under ends at Ruth Spring. Once again, I got out of the kayak and snorkeled. in the always 72 degree spring water, going down to where the Floridian Aquifer flowed through a vent at the bottom.
I emerged from the Spring, to be greeted by more Florida wildlife. Mosquitos. I quickly threw everything in the yak and got away as fast as I could, downstream back to Potter Spring.
I had tied my spring’s record, Potter would be the fifth this day. Swimming the springs in the Chassahowitzka and its tributaries is not like swimming a spring in a State Park. These are utterly wild. No steps, decks, or hand rails. Getting on the bank and be a challenge. Often, there is not a bank. Potter Spring is the most challenging of the five I had been in so far this day. No bank to pull up on, so I tied up to a tree limb over the water and stepped out into the shallow water, and promptly sank in muck to my thighs. I extricated myself, snorkeled across the muck, through weeds full of pan fish, into the blue water of the spring. In Potter Spring I was accompanied by a school of chain pickerel, some up to two feet long. I got out, using the tree limb to lessen the muck factor, but was still quite dirty below the knees. How will I clean up? Solution. The Solution Holes, time permitting.
I quickly paddled down Potter Creek, and back to the Chas. I came to the islands where the Chas splits in two, and also noticed a third channel, the entrance to Salt Creek. I made sure to avoid Salt Creek. A very interesting paddle, it twists, turns and can be confusing, not the place to go as the sun is setting. The north channel had exposed mud, so I took the south. Outside of the main boat channel, I got stuck for a bit, but was able to pole forward to deeper water. Wood storks took advantage of the exposed bottom, beaks exploring for morsels, and perhaps, mussels.
The sun was still out as I reached the ramp. I still had time. I paddled over the head spring, up the run to the Solution Holes. I paddled across them, counting 7 or 8 different holes. I got to the last one and saw a deer dash across the spring run at the back of the Solution Holes and into the deep forest. I put the kayak on the exposed limestone near the first hole and stepped out. Firm surface, no muck here. I sat on the edge of the 4 foot wide hole and peered into the blue water, the bluest of all the springs I had been in today. I then went in, looking down and through to the next hole. I though about swimming through, it is only a few feet, but that is the type of thing I would like to do with a buddy, just in case. So instead, I went over, and explored the rest of the holes in the same way. By the time I was done, I was clean. Back to the ramp. I lingered over the Head Spring, contemplated going in. Swimming here is not allowed, due to boat traffic entering from town and the ramp, but nobody was around... But I resisted, I had a new record, six springs in one day, or more, depending on how the Solution Holes are counted, and I was getting a bit chilly, so I just lingered over the surface, observing the disturbance caused by the up-welling water as the ever present school of silver mullet circled below.
To the ramp, yak on car, changed into dry clothes- outside, the bathrooms were locked at this hour, and left. The ramp is available 24 hours, an honor payment box is at the dock when the camp store is closed.
This was a long tale, but as stated at the start, the Chassahowitzka is a multi-faceted destination.