Sunday, October 25, 2009

Wakulla River, and MANATEES!

Aimee and I paddled the Wakulla River (pronounced wuh-KUL-uh, or WAW-kul-uh, depending on the prominence of your southern accent) today. The Wakulla flows crystal clear from a massive spring (where there's a state park) to it's confluence with the St. Marks River about ten miles downriver, and then on to the Gulf of Mexico (all water around here goes to the Gulf of Mexico) just a few miles further downstream. We put in at the highest accessible point, which is CR 365, aka Shadeville Rd. Just above this access there is a fence down to the water level which prevents upstream travel (unless you're a fish, turtle, alligator, or manatee). The river is never more than a couple of miles from the St. Marks Bike Trail (which we've ridden and posted about). The bike trail ends at the same place the river does, the Town of St. Marks, which makes for a very convenient bike shuttle. I locked my bike up at the take out (San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park) and then drove back up to the launch. We were on the water a little after ten. There are occasional private docks, but houses are rarely visible, and due to the abundance of manatee on the river, all of the upper section is a no wake zone, so motorized traffic is a non-issue. Despite the minor intrusion of humanity on the banks, the river is beautiful. The forest is thick, the water clear blue-green. It's fairly small for the first few miles with lots of little cypress swamp islands. The cypress and cedars hang with Spanish Moss and palmettos blanket the floor. It's lovely. The next access is under US 98, where a livery operates (I gather that many people fore go the shuttle and put in at 98 and paddle upstream and float back down). After 98 the river opens up and gets pretty wide, which marsh on either side as a buffer between the river and forest. By the time you get to the take-out it's getting downright marshy.

The wildlife was great. There were a couple of broad winged hawks in our backyard this morning when I was loading, which I took for a (very non-superstitious) good omen. Just before we got to the launch we saw a (live) deer on the side of the road. This is a great birding river; we saw double-crested cormorant, anhinga, pied-billed grebe, osprey, eastern kingbird, great egret, great blue heron, little blue heron, yellow crowned night heron, piliated woodpecker, american crow, turkey vulture, misc. gulls, and even a bald eagle circling high overhead (unmistakable white head, black wings, white tail, and HUGE). There was an alligator or two, and raccoon on the banks. The highlight, and real reason for choosing this trip for today, were the manatee. The first ones we encountered a mile or so down from the launch, feeding on grass beds under water (there were two). They seemed completely unconcerned about us floating just a few feet overhead. Every once in a while they came up to breathe, and then went right back down to keep feeding. Another guy was a little further down. He had a tracking buoy attached to his tail and was easy to spot because it floated a few feet behind him when he was close to the surface. He swam along with us for quite a while, practically serving as our guide for the better part of a mile. A few others popped up to breathe once in a while. It was so cool. They were only a few feet away.
Aimee with manatee in foreground. Her boat is 14'6" long.

My paddle blade in the frame, which indicates how close this big guy is.

We finally reached the takeout, where my bike was still safely locked up and untampered with. Aimee hung out and read while I pedaled 8 miles up the bike trail to pick up the truck. It was a nice ride. I'll definitely be doing more bike shuttles in the future. It was a great day on and off the water, and now I'm about to eat dinner (chicken stir-fry) and relax. Cheers.

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