N. Florida paddling voyage showcases variety of vegetation, wildlife

More than the seat of Florida's government, the state capital is a paddling hub. Georgia Ackerman knows that better than almost anyone. Ackerman and husband Rick Zelznak operate Wilderness Way - a kayak store, tour service, instructional center and paddler hangout located on the outskirts of town.

"We can get to three major spring-fed rivers in 10 minutes," Ackerman said, referring to the Wakulla, Wacissa and St. Marks.

Recently, I joined Ackerman and Doug Alderson, field director for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, on a three-hour paddle starting on the Wakulla and ending on the St. Marks. If you are a South Floridian used to paddling the Everglades and its endless stands of mangroves, this North Florida excursion showcases a welcome variety of flora and fauna.

We put in at the upper Wakulla bridge at CR 365, located downstream from Edward Ball/Wakulla Springs State Park. I immediately felt the gentle push of the spring above us, which spews out between 200 million and 300 million gallons of fresh water per day from beneath the earth's surface.

The river was clear enough to make out individual strands of vibrant eel grass undulating with the current. Schools of mullet and bass hovered around the sandy edges of the grass, and a couple of cooters dived beneath the surface as we glided by.

The river banks are lined on both sides by cypress sprouting a feathery green, intermingled with white-blossomed dogwood, multicolored swamp maple, holly, and sweetgum. Beneath the tree canopy was pickerelweed and swamp lilies.

"I like to go on the river in the spring and fall when the colors are changing," Alderson said. "And the wildlife excites me."

There was plenty of that: a pair of colorful wood ducks sitting on a log; ospreys cheep-cheep-cheeping overhead; a juvenile bald eagle that treated us to a fly-by; cormorants that swam just in front of us; and flocks of periwinkle-backed tree swallows that darted around, hopefully devouring no-seeums.


As we got further downstream, the watercourse began to lose the spring's influence and become brackish with the influx of saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico. Ackerman grew animated when she spotted a distant school of dolphin marauding what we presumed were mullet schools.

"I've never seen dolphin this far upriver before," she said.

They were gone before we reached them, but were replaced by a trio of manatees cruising by.

"Where else can you paddle in one day and see freshwater fish, eagles, and then dolphin and manatee?" Ackerman said happily.

Drawing closer to the confluence with the St. Marks, the river grew wider and was lined with marsh grasses. We passed a small fish camp and then the Wakulla Yacht Club - its half-dozen aging trawlers covered by a rusted, tin roof.

Minutes later, we took out at the boat ramp beside the San Marcos de Apalache State Historic Site in the town of St. Marks. Not much remains of the 1679 Spanish fort, but you could see how its location was chosen - strategically positioned where the rivers meet, leading out to the Gulf.

Must be a heck of a recreational fishery, I thought - two rivers mixing with the Gulf tides.


The next day, I went fishing with light-tackle guide captain Chuck Simpson on his 16-foot Hewes Redfisher. The day was overcast and chilly, but what really astounded Simpson was the 20-degree drop in the water temperature, to 53 degrees, in less than a week. It left us with a good portion of the vast St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge to ourselves.

Using five-inch gold-flake Exude jerkworms, Berkley Gulp shrimp and gold spoons, we probed numerous spartina-lined creeks flowing into the refuge. Tides were lackadaisical, and we caught and released one `rat' redfish and probably a half-dozen sea trout. We could see more reds waking along the creek banks, but they were in firm, lockjaw mode no doubt from the cold and lack of current - and they refused everything.

No matter. It gave me an excuse to plan a return trip for the dual purpose of paddling a new river and getting another shot at the recalcitrant reds.