North Florida’s Big Bend, A Paddler’s Paradise by Michael Lampman
I confess, I love to waste time paging through paddling and outdoor magazines. It feeds two of my playtime appetites—my love of gear and my wanderlust. I admit to the former without shame or apology. Yes, I am a gear junky but at least it’s a relatively harmless addiction and has never cost me anything but money. The latter, my wanderlust, is more insidious.
Magazine destination features always create a notion that a paddling trip to some distant and exotic place will somehow be more exciting and bring me closer to nature than an outing close to home. So I go off to South Florida, Maine, North Carolina or British Columbia on one quixotic search after another.
Certainly all of these places are beautiful and satisfying in their own ways, but when you have the good fortune to live in an extraordinary place as I do, you don’t need to go far afield.
I paddle for peace, solitude, to escape the rattle of civilization and the neuroses of my fellow man. I have never found any place this quest could be better or more completely satisfied than right here at home.
Florida’s Big Bend area is a paradise of wilderness paddling venues possibly unmatched in the Eastern United States for abundance, diversity and untouched natural beauty. Unlike peninsular Florida, the area is still sparsely populated and not heavily visited by tourists. Also known as Middle Florida, the Big Bend includes the ten counties lying between Florida’s two largest rivers, the Apalachicola to the west and the Suwannee to the east. All of it is less than two hours driving distance from Tallahassee, the main population center.
There are at least twenty-five navigable fresh water streams accessible for most or all of their lengths. Two of these, the Suwannee and the Ochlockonee rivers, are both navigable for paddlers for a long way—at least a hundred miles on the Ochlockonee, and nearly the entire 235 mile length of the Suwanee. In addition, there are roughly two hundred miles of Gulf coastline and literally hundreds of tidal and estuarine rivers, creeks, sloughs, bayous and bays, as well as four lakes of over a thousand acres. It is not surprising that after twenty-five years of living and paddling in the area, my blades have scarcely rippled the surface.
In her 1967 classic, The Other Florida, Gloria Jahoda remarked that Tallahassee is two hundred miles from anywhere else and surrounded by swamps, national forests and wildlife refuge. This is almost as true today as it was then. There are more than one and a half million acres of publicly owned and protected wilderness in the Big Bend region, including the Apalachicola National Forest and the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, as well as state forests, state-owned tracts managed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, state park and recreation areas, and county-owned recreation sites.
These public areas include over 600 maintained campsites and twice that many primitive fire rings. The Apalachicola National Forest and the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission areas allow camping almost anywhere within their boundaries (although only in designated areas during hunting season). Camping is not permitted in the Big Bend Wildlife Management Area, the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, nor on most beaches.
Among the diverse physical environments found in the Big Bend are hardwood swamps, cypress and tupelo swamps, pine flatwoods, hardwood forests, freshwater marshes, canyons with sheer limestone walls, meandering streams lined with willows and sandbars, crystal clear springs, rocky whitewater shoals, freshwater lakes, protected bays, open gulf, barrier islands, tidal creeks, salt marshes, beaches, and more.
Aquatic animals often seen include dolphins, manatees, river otters, stingrays, alligators, freshwater turtles, sea turtles, beavers, anhingas, egrets and herons, storks, ibises and loons. Along the shores you might spot deer, wild hogs, black bear or bobcats. Overhead there are eagles and osprey, terns and swallow-tailed kites.
The climate makes it possible to paddle year-round. Winters are generally mild with only a few really cold days a year. Spring is lovely and fall is gorgeous. Summer paddling is best at night and in the early hours of the morning because of the subtropical heat.
Most of the Big Bend paddling sites are true wilderness. ‘Wilderness’ is,
of course, subject to varying definitions. In South Florida many
places are touted as wilderness yet waterways are often lined with
multimillion dollar houses and clogged with big power boats and
sailing yachts. Even in Maine, much of what is called wilderness
is compromised by being privately held land having heavy boat or
If you are interested in the area, a great place to start is the web site of PaddleTally, a loose-knit local paddling group, ( http://www.paddletally.org ) There are specific trip reports, lots of photos, links to outfitters and guides and information about local conditions.
Michael Lampman is a designer/builder of cedar strip canoes and kayaks; owner of Solitaire Boats, LLC. He is the founder of Paddletally, a large and active paddling club in the Florida Panhandle where he and his family have been paddling for 25 years. His line of boats can be also be seen at http://solitaireboats.com