Boating on the Loxahatchee River

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The Loxahatchee River on Florida's east coast is great for paddling. Start out with kayaking, then take a boat tour to find out the history of the area.

"Come on! Come on!" they shouted, dripping and laughing, having just paddled over the dam. "It's fun!"

They dared me to follow. "You can do it! Come on!"

Crazy. Take a four-foot drop in a kayak? But they did it. And with a gulp, dammed (you might say) if I didn't, too. I lined myself up for the opening in the log barrier.

Quick! Stow the paddle! The kayak shot almost clear out of the water before plunging into the stream below. Green water swamped the bow. It was over in seconds. They cheered and laughed and I admit I felt pretty good myself.

The faster-flowing upper section of the Loxahatchee is one of three thoroughly different sections of the first nationally designated wild and scenic river in Florida, stretching 15 miles from Loxahatchee Slough in northeast Palm Beach County north to Jupiter Inlet. Each section of the river has its own access some 10 miles apart. One you do better paddling; the other, tour boat is the way to go. It's a memorable day doing both.

Because good as the paddle is on the more wild and scenic section, the more historical lower section lets you travel by tour boat to a site that takes you back in time.

Paddle first for the personal encounter. Most visible atop the stream are fleet buzzing skimmers and turtles couch-potatoed on logs. Cypress, cabbage palms and ferns crowd the banks, thickly overgrown.

Cypress knees rise like organ pipes and form an uneven low balustrade along the narrow banks. Above rise the trunks of young palms. Ferns form a messy tangle of ground cover. Looking down, the sun falls milky white onto the tea-colored river, filtering sun through ghostly clouds in endless apparitions.

The river has more twists than a sack full of pretzels. Any straight section seems closed off by forest 'til a hidden bend this way or that appears.

Below the barrier where I shot the falls, the river pools. You either portage or fly the chute down. Plank walkways ease the portage and, with benches, let folks dry awhile.

Paddling done, drive the 10 miles to Jonathan Dickinson State Park for the tour boat that carries you to the lair of Trapper Nelson, who haunted the Loxahatchee as recently as during the growing-up years of today's Boomers. Only yesterday the frontier of the Gold Coast still lay open!



Trapper is revealed in park ranger tales. He arrived in the 1930s, when he was about 27 'til he died in '68. Early on he was trapping 'gator, otter, raccoon. A two-and-a-half-foot otter pelt earned him $12 to $15. That was as much as a working man could make in a week.

Trapper lived on berries, grapefruits, guavas, mangoes and hearts-of-palm plus whatever he fished and hunted. When he craved civilized food, he'd row the nine miles each way to visit the DuBois family across from Jupiter Light. Folks say he'd eat a whole pie at a time.

Word got around about the Wild Man of the Loxahatchee. People started coming up river where he'd put on a show. He was 6'4" and weighed 240 lbs., built like Johnny Weismuller. In his red bandanna and cut-offs, he'd bow to the crowds, jump on a rope, swing into the river and give a Tarzan yell. Palm Beach socialites loved it.

His place became a destination. He learned to charge docking and turnaround fees. He built guest cabins and a zoo, outfitting his place with hammocks, picnic tables and barbecue pits.

But civilization caught up with Trapper. Bureaucrats started harassing him about the rope swing that kids got to using, about toilets, about the animal cages. He turned reclusive and felled two cypress trees across the river. At the landing, he met even people he knew with a shotgun. And soon he was gone. Done in, the coroner said, by his own hand.

You can still get a feel for how he lived. His cabins are here, the woodpiles he kept, the animal pens, the water tower. On the boat tour, you get a good look.

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