Paddling the Wekiva River
Florida Vacation Guide to Canoeing the Wekiva River
By Katherine Jacob
A lone oak branch stretches over the water’s edge reaching toward a column of sun slipping through the forest canopy. Vines coil around the limb, one dangling in the water, the other tapping a gracefully arched golden footed fern. Above air ferns and Spanish moss drape from the branches.
This is the tranquility of the Wekiva River, a welcome retreat after an action-packed day at Disney World and the joy rides of Universal Studios. Here, excitement is spotting a kingfisher hovering over the water before diving straight down for a fish; hearing the loud, rollicking song of a Carolina Wren perched under the hardwood canopy; or facing an alligator as it silently slips off a log into the water.
Only half an hour from the Magic Kingdom, this river is what old Florida used to look like. Millions of years ago, the Wekiva River was formed by the remains of marine plants and animals. In fact, fossils of the Sabertooth cat, mastodon and giant sloth have been found along the river’s banks. The Wekiva, formed during the last Great Ice Age, now receives life from the Floridan Aquifer – a porous limestone rock formation that regulates its water supply and spring flow.
Designated as an Aquatic Preserve, a State Canoe Trail and a National Wild and Scenic River, the Wekiva river is protected by the State of Florida. Flowing from south to north, the Wekiva and its tributaries run under a densely forested canopy, joining the St. Johns River fourteen miles downstream.
Each part of the river has its own character and personality. Wider sections, interspersed with islands, are open to the sky. Narrow river channels flow through thick patches of lily pads bobbing in the wake of the paddle. In other sections, cone-shaped “knees” project from the submerged roots of a giant Cypress and the river winds past cabbage palms and a tangle of roots and vines that criss-cross the shoreline.
If you want to spot wildlife, it’s best to canoe in the morning, when the mist still rises off the water. As sunlight filters through thick groves of trees, a pileated woodpecker hammers into a tree trunk behind me. With a clap of its wings, a wood duck bursts from the water into the tangle of the forest. In the distance, a heron wades along the shore, patiently searching for a fish to swim within reach. Nearby another heron balances on an overhanging branch, awaiting its first catch. It notices the canoe, then rises into the sky with a few graceful strokes of its wings, disappearing into the forest grove.
It’s the abundant wildlife that attracted the Timucuans to the river. First encountered by Ponce de Leon in 1513, these Native American people lived in an area of northern Florida stretching from the Suwannee to the St. John’s River. Traveling the river in dugout canoes, the Timucuans fished and collected snails and mussels in the Wekiva and approximately 18 of their mounds, sometimes rising ten feet above the riverbank, have been identified along the Wekiva. These middens are easily recognizable by the layers of shells and bones embedded in the banks, but if you stumble across one, please don’t remove an artifact as it disturbs valuable information for archaeologists.
There’s another reason not to disturb these mounds. The untrained eye, would have a difficulty distinguishing them from other mounds in the swamp – piles of vegetable debris three to four feet in diameter. These are alligator nests and should be avoided. Females are aggressive when protecting their young.
In general, alligators are weary of humans and usually slip out of the way before you notice them. You’re lucky to see an alligator at all, and would most likely spot one sunning on a log or swimming idly with eyes, head or snout protruding out of the water. If you paddle softly and quietly, you’ll increase your chances of seeing them. The same principle applies to other wildlife, including turtles sitting on fallen tree trunks warming up in the sun.
Gentle paddling also protects the river’s fragile ecosystem as several distinct biological communities can be found in and surrounding the river from wet, marshy swamplands to dry, sandy, elevated plateaus. Digging the paddle into the river’s bottom to pole a canoe tears up vegetation essential for aquatic life. If you need to step ashore, try to find a firm, sandy bank to minimize damage as climbing the banks or bumping into them with the canoe, knocks mud and silt into the river. This starts sand movement that covers up plants and begins to change the river bottom. Similarly dragging the canoe over the log will disturb moss, fungus and air ferns.
The Wekiva basin used to be a cypress swamp. Since the 1900′s logging companies pushed their way through the forests, cutting down the dominant cypress trees. Now a few scattered trees remain, and the Wekiva is referred to as a river swamp.
For many, the mental picture of a swamp is a sunless, mucky, stinky place where snakes dangle from every overhanging branch. The Wekiva is Nature’s Kingdom – a playland with no mechanics or special effects. Sunlight wrestles its way through the canopy dappling the swampy shoreline. An ibis roosting on a tree’s limb, among strands of spanish moss. Oak trees stretch their branches to the water’s edge. All a part of a pristine Florida, the way it used to be.
The Wekiva River is located in Wekiva Springs State Park. Both are terms from the Creek Indians - Wekiwa means bubbling water (spring) and Wekiva means flowing water (river). If you’re not into paddling, other activities in the park include: hiking, cycling, horseback riding or swimming in the cool spring.
Wekiwa Springs State Park
1800 Wekiwa Circle
Apopka, Florida 32712
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