Photos and essay by P.C. Zick (@PCZick)
I began my water journeys in a canoe, but I never felt at home, either as the navigator in the back or the first mate in the front. However, I knew nothing else and loved the quiet and peace of the rivers of north Florida, mostly the Santa Fe near High Springs. One day, friends who lived on the river invited us to use their double kayak. When I first sat down and felt the steadiness of the boat, I knew I’d never use a canoe again. And I haven’t.
When I moved to Tallahassee in 2007, I began pursuing kayaking opportunities. I met a friend who had two kayaks but no kayaking partner. I found the outfitters in Woodville who gave me lessons and trips to explore the area, mostly on the Wacissa River where I encountered the dark and narrow Slave Canal. When I met Robert in 2009, I introduced him to kayaking. He’d always been a canoer, so it was fun to see his reaction—similar to mine years before—as he put in on the Wakulla River near Tallahassee. Once I’d moved to Pennsylvania, we bought my/our first kayaks, but strapping them to the top of his Rav-4 was time-consuming. Once we bought a pickup truck, that problem disappeared as we could just throw them in the back and be on our way.
Since then, we’ve put in some kayak miles on rivers, reservoirs, and lakes in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania. And always, I am soothed by the water and its surrounding environment. And now we own six kayaks—three in Tallahassee and three in North Carolina. They are all used and simple rafts but that’s all we need. We don’t need speed or maneuverability since we go on slow-moving waters, mostly, with only one intent—to enjoy the beauty and tranquility of nature.
I began canoeing back in Michigan when a college friend asked me to go on a trip with her family. She and I had no idea what we were doing and ended up ramming the canoe into the banks and capsizing after we’d been looking up the high banks where four cute boys stood looking down at us and shouting. So much for looking like “hot” chicks in a canoe. We were “wet” morons up the river without a paddle. Another trip with my own family ended up even worse when my dad and nephew capsized, and my father’s hearing aids went into the water after we had warned him not to wear them while canoeing. It was a quiet ride home with my mother and father that night. Maybe now it’s becoming clearer why I so readily accepted the kayak as my mode of river transportation.
The Santa Fe River became my most travelled river after I moved to north Florida from Michigan in 1980. I’ve also traversed Santa Fe Lake near Melrose where the river begins then flows westerly until it flows into the Suwannee River only miles from the Gulf of Mexico. So much about north Florida can be learned from the slow-moving spring-filled river. From history to diverse ecosystems to its world-class springs, this river could be its own school.
After it leaves the confines of the lake, the Santa Fe flows into a swamp to the small town of Worthington Springs. At one time, a sulfur spring at this point in the river hosted a Gilded Age resort for wealthy northerners to visit to restore and cure all their ailments. Today, the sulfur no longer bubbles forth and only fragments of the manmade pool remain.
Once it leaves Worthington Springs to continue its westward flow, the river becomes more navigable but there are few boat ramps until it reaches High Springs. But before then, when it reaches O’Leno State Park, it dips its flow underground for three miles only to emerge at River Rise State Preserve near High Springs. This natural bridge played a large role in the area’s history as it served as a part of one of Florida’s oldest road systems, Old Bellamy, which was the main north/south road in north Florida. The indigenous people of the area depended on that bridge.
From the preserve, the Santa Fe is host to dozens of significant freshwater springs, including those of the spring-fed Ichetucknee River which empties into the Santa Fe only a few miles before both rivers feed their flow to the mighty Suwannee.
The river traverses a variety of habitat from pine flatwoods to sand hills to hardwood hammocks to swamps teeming with wildlife. Turtles, alligators, and river otters are common sights along with a variety of song and wading birds. Bears, bobcats, and foxes roam the shores, but I’ve never seen any on the river.
All three rivers, the Suwannee, the Santa Fe, and the Ichetucknee, sealed my love for kayaking. They also gave me an appreciation of the unique nature of Florida’s environment teaching me about the Floridan Aquifer from where the springs originate. It taught me the history of the Timucuans, a highly evolved tribe of Native Americans in north Florida and who disappeared within two hundred years of the Europeans’ arrival.
And the fragile landscape inspired me to be a steward of nature.
Directions: From I-75 southbound, take Exit 414 – Highway 441 south to High Springs, Florida. Before the city limits, 441 crosses the Santa Fe, and there is an outfitter on the right. From I-75 northbound, take Exit 399 – Highway 441 north to High Springs. One mile past intersection of 441 and SR 236, 441 crosses the Santa Fe. Outfitter on the left. From High Springs, take highways 27 or 47 north to find other boat ramps and springs on the Santa Fe. Highway 47 leads to the two entrances to Ichetucknee State Park as well.