Paddling in Coldwater Creek

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Paddlers find an unusual Florida landscape in Coldwater Creek.

Are these the best seven miles of Florida? A paddling trail in the far Northwestern portion of the state, a place that's rural, inland, two sides up against Alabama?
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Paddle the trail and become a believer.

The seven miles are in Santa Rosa County, where flatlanders marvel how the drop of the land sets streams like Coldwater Creek pouring south to the Gulf. Only a few houses stand visible, only a few docks poke into the stream.

Midweek any time of year you're likely out here alone in what they call the Canoe Capital of Florida.

Anyone from "lower Florida" struggles to fit the place into a mindset: 30-foot-high bluffs, silver clear water, river rock, shifting sand bottoms, rill waterfalls, rapids. All make sense elsewhere on mainland America. But here?

I felt myself set back in history by piled-up logs that remain from when the longleaf pine forest was cut and the logs floated downstream. At times of low water, loggers built barriers to pool the stream and keep their logs going. They'd tie them together to avoid jamming like so many pick-up sticks, instead floating end to end in long rafts. Early in the last century, folks in these rural parts would ride the logs downstream to Milton and Bagdad - even women with their children - riding yesterday's station wagon and school bus.

Those barriers today set currents swirling and rapids tumbling. Winters, the cold water challenges paddlers to stay afloat through these rapids - first deep holes that suck a kayak down, then a ledge of sandstone, maybe logs the well-paddled kayak skims, passing into the next peaceful pool.

Tall forest grooves this east branch of Coldwater Creek. Especially late afternoon, shadows lengthen and pines redden. The creek curves wide around stone and sand beaches.

A tributary pours in, inaccessible beyond the first hundred feet or so. A great evergreen, still growing, has fallen into the stream, blocking passage. A split trunk slivers sunlight onto the rushing water. Then back in the channel again through a rush of snapping twigs, and into a briefly wide, swift stream. Down below, rapids again.

A golden hawk captures the light. A great blue heron lofts itself. An albino crawfish scuttles past. A tiny waterfall dimples its way down a bluff, ringing its voice.

You can hike up higher bluffs nearby in a section of red sandstone. You climb to 80 feet. From atop, the green canopy reveals only the glint of the stream below. This feels like adobe country, so high and sharply scaled for Florida, the bluff eroded by wind to form towers, a world of stone, sand, wood, stream.

At end of day, you pass along a narrow road, the sun an hour before setting red as the road. You're chugging through a canopy of green, open field on one side, forest on the other. The scene is wholly country. A passing driver rates a wave.

The region is not without its other attractions. People cycle the paved, 8.5-mile Blackwater Heritage Trail. They tromp happily through the Blackwater River State Forest.

I like the small towns. Just a mile off the interstate, Cracker houses stand beneath dense canopy. Folks socialize on porch swings. Pink and white crape myrtles grow luscious at the edge of woods. A sign coming into Bagdad says, "Golden Honey, Self Service." Jars of sweet amber mellow, warm in the afternoon sun. The First United Methodist Church rises narrow and rectitudinous but not without its gingerbread, suggesting the Lord can countenance a shapely building.

After a quick shower, steam rises up like suspicion on an old asphalt road. The historic graveyard is weedy, as if too much looking after might engender misplaced vanity. Beautyberry edges one section where Confederate war veterans lay buried.

Downtown Milton is livened up by murals of the town's history. The historic Imogene (that's pronounced Ima-jean) does stage plays again, silent movies sometimes. Warehouses from the river's heyday have been saved but they're looking for tenants. The Blackwater flows by a new river-walk, carrying the flow of Coldwater Creek and its paddlers' imaginings.

To get set up for your trip, contact Adventures Unlimited Outdoor Center, 800-239-6864, www.adventuresunlimited.com; Santa Rosa County Visitor Information Center, 800-480-7263, www.floridabeachestorivers.com..

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