What do alligators, bacon-wrapped Oreos, and hillbillies have in common? They were all part of my weekend canoe trip down the Ocklawaha River near Ocala, FL. Exploring Florida’s waterways is part of my continuing discovery of the Sunshine State. I encountered my first alligator while kayaking on the “wild and scenic” Loxahatchee River, I helped locals clear trash from the mangroves in Biscayne Bay, I celebrated my first Florida Fourth of July by swimming in the Atlantic, and I experienced the Gulf by catamaran. Last month I had the opportunity to canoe an 18-mile portion of the Ocklawaha River.
Six friends and I traveled up to the little podunk town of Silver Springs on a Friday evening in mid-April. If I ignored the difference in vegetation, it was almost like I was back in the little farm town where I grew up. The discharge from Silver Springs feeds the Ocklawaha River’s most well-known tributary, the Silver River. Back in the 1870s, prominent individuals such as Harriet Beecher-Stowe, Ulysses S. Grant, and Thomas Edison navigated the scenic river by steamboat to reach Silver Springs.
Saturday morning found our group at the Ocklawaha Canoe Outpost where a few nice gentlemen drove us and our gear to the launch point. We heard rumors that there were monkeys living along the shore, left over from the filming of Creature from the Black Lagoon. Although we didn’t see any monkeys that weekend, we did see one alligator lurking near the shore, several turtles sunning themselves, and many species of birds.
Our group had four canoes – each one heavily stocked with coolers, tents, and food. The river was peaceful and slow-moving; luckily we were blessed with perfect weather all weekend. During some of the wider stretches, we bungeed our watercraft together and made a flotilla – perfect for cracking open a beer and enjoying the woodland scenery. There were plenty of swimming holes with rope swings to stop at if we wanted a break from paddling (click here to see a video of me swinging). Flying through the air on a questionably-secured rope and falling two stories into the drink can be scary – especially when you can’t see through the water. Did you know the word “ocklawaha” is derived from the Creek word “ak-lowahe,” which means “muddy?”
Just before the sun went down, we found the perfect camping spot, set up our tents, and made some hamburgers over the fire. The night was pleasantly warm and I was surprised by the amount of fireflies flitting around the campsite. We heard the monkeys screeching at night but they never made an appearance. In the morning the guys fried up some bacon and eggs (which is unfortunately when the bacon-wrapped Oreo that I mentioned above happened) before we launched our canoes and continued downstream. Sunday brought more rope swings, swimming, and encounters with locals.
Everyone was exhausted when we reached the endpoint around three in the afternoon. After dragging our canoes ashore and loading everything into our cars, we set off on the long drive south. My first Florida canoe trip was a great experience filled with sun, swimming, and new friends – and I’m very much looking forward to exploring more of Florida’s waterways in the future.