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If you go to the left when leaving the boat ramp, which is downstream, you will be going toward the Gulf of Mexico. The farther downstream you go from this point, the more the current is affected by tidal activity. If you don't time it right and are returning upstream to the boat ramp while the tide is going out, it could make for difficult paddling. Therefore, I always go right, starting my trip in the upstream direction.
I had expected the river to be murky today, given the recent storms that have passed through the area. However, while the water was higher than usual, it was its typical crystal clear condition. This water clarity is one of the things that makes this river so perfect for paddling, with its great views of underwater activity. Another advantage of this river is that from April to October it is home to manatees, and out of consideration of these "gentle giants," the entire river from the ramp at the bridge to the end, about four miles upstream at the springs, is a no-wake zone. So while a sunny Saturday will bring out motor-powered boats of all sizes, they are not going fast enough to produce either a wake or excessive noise.
When you first leave the ramp and go under the bridge, you are in a very wide area of river, with trees and small islands sticking up here and there. The bottom in this area is almost entirely covered with wide aquatic reeds and other underwater plants, which wave gently in the current. On this day the water was high enough that none of these plants reached the surface. Other parts of the river bottom farther upstream consist of only sandy gravel and submerged tree trunks and limbs.
Paddling was easy today as the current was very slow and almost non-existent in places. I noticed that there were more fish swimming around than I usually see, perhaps they had sought shelter from the storm in the Gulf in the quieter waters of the river.
There are always turtles to be seen sunning themselves on half-buried logs along the river's edges-sometimes many of them lined up in rows, occasionally with smaller ones sitting atop larger ones. Today was no exception. For the most part they are rather shy and will quietly slip into the water as you approach. If you look carefully along the water's surface near the bank, you can sometimes spot just a head poking out as the turtle swims to a new sunning location. The mullet were jumping high as usual, and my entire trip was accompanied by the sound of them splashing back down all around me after their jumps. It's amazing how high they can propel themselves out of the water.
This river, lined on both sides with trees and underbrush on land and aquatic plants in the water, is surprisingly bug-free, aside from the harmless dragonflies that will join you on your trip (those dragonflies may be one reason there are no mosquitoes!). I have only very rarely encountered any biting insects, and even then no more than one at any time. If you take insect repellent along, you may want to wait to see if it is needed before coating yourself with it.
About 30 minutes into the trip, I came to the island in the middle of the river. At this point you can follow the main river as it passes the island to the right, or you can go around the island to the left. I prefer the route to the left, which takes you down a very "forest primeval"-looking channel before it rejoins the river past the island. On previous trips I have seen manatee feeding in this out-of-the-way area, as well as an alligator stretched out on the bank (if you get out to walk around here, check the ground area first!). On another trip, a snake was spotted curled up in the joint of a tree limb that extended out over the water.
After joining the main river again, I came to a group of canoes clustered together, the occupants all looking down into the water. This is always a sure sign that a manatee has been spotted! Unfortunately, by the time I got to them, it had moved on. I didn't go off in search of it, but rather continued upstream.
The river is lined with private docks and decks in various states of repair, from new ones with roofs and ceiling fans to those in such dilapidated condition I doubt they would support a person's weight. There were surprisingly few people enjoying the view on them on this sunny and relatively cool Saturday.
The current often picks up in an area about an hour into the paddle. The river narrows at that point (though it is still more than roomy enough for easy passage) and the private docks and decks become fewer and farther apart. The river is also shallower here, making for great viewing of the bottom and underwater activity; however, I have never seen a manatee this far up the river. The landscape on either side also seems to become less dense in this area, with fewer trees and more marsh grass and low shrub growth. There is a brown duck-like bird that hangs around in the grasses on either side of the river in this area-I see it on almost every trip. It crosses the river back and forth in front of me but by the time I get close enough to snap a picture, it has always retreated in the grass and disappeared from view. It was there again today.
I generally turn around and head back downstream toward the boat ramp a little past the large private dock at Mysterious Waters (not labeled as such, but you can't miss it on the left), and I did so today as well. I have previously continued to the end of the river (you can't get to the springs at the park. The river narrows considerably as you approach the conclusion of the journey and ultimately ends at a very anticlimactic wire fence near a bridge), but I had put in too late to travel any farther today.
I drifted back downstream very slowly, enjoying the views on both sides of the river and exchanging greetings with other paddlers as we passed. I decided to stay very close to the edge for awhile, looking for gators in amongst the lily pads and in front of the pickerel rushes that line the river (beautiful when in bloom in spring!), and trying to see into the wooded areas beyond the bank. This is one of the few trips on the Wakulla that I have seen no gators at all.
It took a little over three hours to paddle upstream to my turnaround point and then drift back.
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