By Capt. Jason Callaghan
As we slid through the lily pads in
our kayaks, our guide, Georgia, in excited but hushed tones, pointed out a bird
hidden in the vegetation on the edge of the river. The limpkin, as we
were told, was busy dining on a breakfast of apple snails and seemed hardly as
impressed with us as we were with it. By birdwatcher's standards, we were
getting a rare treat by observing a once near-extinct
species in an even more endangered habitat. We were near the headwaters
of the Wacissa River in the Florida panhandle and less than fifteen miles from the Gulf of Mexico.
On this day, Georgia led a group of
eight kayakers through the stunningly beautiful array of open springs and lush
flora of a truly unique river system.
There are at least 12 known springs along the upper 1.5 miles of the
river. The smallest, Cassidy Spring, is neatly tucked away in a half bowl
of cypress and sweet gum trees. The spring's opening, which is a mere
eight feet in diameter, is clearly visible from the water's surface. The
sand-lined banks around this natural swimming pool
seem to beckon a few hours of picnicking and swimming on a hot summer
a half-mile farther down river is the first access water trail to Wacissa's
largest first-magnitude spring. The shallow, tree-lined trail suddenly
opens up to an awe inspiring site-Blue Spring, a bright, emerald-blue pool more
than 50 feet in diameter and at least 30 feet deep. Though, on this day
we were to turn around at Blue Spring, the entire
length of the Wacissa is easily paddled in a full day.
The Wacissa River starts in the
town of Wacissa, Florida and is about 12 miles long. There is parking and a
small boat ramp at the river's start. At over 100 feet wide for most of
its length, the water flow is slow and conducive for paddle craft.
It ends in a broken flow of cypress swamps and near unnavigable wetland,
before eventually pairing with the Aucilla River.
This lower stretch was painstakingly excavated in the mid 1800's in an effort
to provide passage for cotton barges from the Gulf to the upper Wacissa.
The Slave Canal, as it is now called, was never fully completed and was
abandoned over 100 years ago. It remains passable only by canoe or kayak.
This stretch of the river offers a remoteness and pristine natural beauty that
can be found in few other areas in Florida. From the Aucilla it is
another few miles downriver to complete this unique estuary.
Wildlife on the Wacissa is truly
spectacular. Alligators, turtles, otter, and a host of smaller reptiles
and water mammals can be observed on its banks. There are few places in
Florida that offer the diversity of the Wacissa's bird population. Many
large birds such as herons, red tailed hawks, bald eagles and egrets thrive on
The fish population contains many freshwater species such as largemouth and Suwannee
bass, blue gill and catfish. Farther downriver into the lower reaches of
the Aucilla River, saltwater species such as mullet, seatrout, and redfish can
be found. On this day, Brad Kirn, a fellow paddler and avid freshwater
angler, was able to coax a few hungry bream and small bass into eating the
flies he offered. Fishing is very popular and productive along the entire
stretch of river.
Kayaking on rivers such as the
Wacissa offers a unique way to discover and experience Florida's interior
wetlands. Though most of our rivers have been clear cut for timber in the
last century, with our help, their recovery is well on its way. Aside
from the lack of a true mature forest and the introduction of some exotic
species, it is still possible to quietly slip down these spring-fed rivers and
imagine life here when the plants and animals
were their own caretakers.
Georgia Ackerman is the owner and
ecotourism guide for the kayak based The Wilderness Way just south of
Tallahassee. She and her highly qualified staff have been offering guided kayak
tours on many of north Florida's rivers for over five years. These trips
range from short and sweet beginner-friendly trips, to all day
excursions. Georgia's technical knowledge of both kayak touring and the
wildlife she visits is impressive. Though our morning spent with her on
the Wacissa River consisted of a group of kayakers with various degrees of
experience, from veteran to novice, she managed to give attention to the entire
group. Tour locations offered by The Wilderness Way include multiple
sections of the Wacissa, St. Marks, and the Wakulla River, as well as coastal
marine tours in the Florida panhandle. The Wilderness Way can be
at (850) 877-7200 or visited by web at www.thewildernessway.net.