Off in the woods, a pileated woodpecker rattles away at an old pine tree. The rat-a-tat-tat of its beak echoes across the river on this fine autumn day, breaking the silence of an otherwise quiet afternoon.
We’ve been paddling for almost an hour and haven’t seen another soul or, for that matter, heard the sounds of humans, the distant roar of a big rig or dull drone of an outboard motor. Just birds like ole Woody pecking away in the forest.
That is the beauty of the Blackwater River. The Sunshine State has many breathtaking waterways, but few are as secluded and serene as this tea-colored river near Milton in the middle of Florida’s Western Highlands.
The Blackwater, part of the state’s System of Greenways and Trails, has a 31-mile section that meanders through forests of cedar, maple and cypress that often form a canopy over the river.
The Creek Indians called this river the “Oka Lusa,” which translates to “Water Black.” The dark water isn’t muddy. It’s just stained, like coffee or tea, from the tannins that leach from the leaves and roots of the surrounding trees.
Pine Tree Paradise
Blackwater River State Forest, along with Conecuh National Forest and Eglin Air Force Base, contains the largest stand of longleaf pine trees in the world. Paddling south, aided by a gentle three-mile-an-hour current, my family and I admire the mighty trees on the bluffs.
With the tall pines towering overhead like silent sentinels of an earlier age, we wonder how much has changed since Seminole warriors ruled the riverbanks. Not much, we agree. The land, like the water, still appears pristine and pure.
For a flatlander from Southwest Florida, the high ridges are real treat. The Blackwater River is one of the few places in this sea-level state where you can actually see a change in elevation. The north end of the state forest is about 80 feet higher than the southern end. Elevations can vary anywhere from 10 feet above sea level to 290 feet above sea level, hence the current that helps the canoe on its way.
High ground also makes for good camping. So with plenty of daylight to spare, we pull the canoes up on the bank, above the high-water line, and pitch our tent beneath the trees.
Twilight brings out the deer, which come down to the river’s edge to drink. Soon after the sun slips below the treetops, a hoot owl begins its lonesome call. Before long, another owl answers. We drift off to sleep, wondering what surprises the next day will bring.
Breakfast on a Sandbar
A half hour before sunrise, wild turkeys roosting somewhere in the trees behind us begin their morning gobble, gobble, gobble. It’s nature’s alarm clock, a loud but pleasant awakening.
With undeveloped forest lining both sides of the river, the Blackwater has no shortage of wildlife. An old-timer fishing for crappie at the bridge where we put in tells us to be on the lookout for bobcat. These curious cats sometimes follow the game trails that run along the shoreline. We could only be so lucky, I think to myself as I slide the aluminum boat into the water for another day’s adventures.
Paddling in the morning mist can be tricky, for it seems like every curve of the river brings another sandbar to avoid. Over the years, as the Blackwater snaked its way through the rolling countryside, sand gradually built up along the inside curves of the river. A canoe packed with camping supplies can easily run aground on these soft sandbars. We learn to stick to the deeper channel to avoid running up on one every 15 minutes.
But these sandbars are signs of an unspoiled environment. The Blackwater is one of the few remaining sand-bottom rivers left in its natural condition in the United States. That is why this waterway, protected by the State of Florida, attracts paddlers, tubers and swimmers from across the country.
Sandbars are also great places to stop and camp or picnic. We wait until the sun is high in the sky to stop on one and brew up a pot of hot coffee on our camp stove.
The Blackwater River has 31 miles of navigable canoe and kayak trail running south from Kennedy Bridge on State Fire Road 24 to Blackwater River State Park. The river beyond Deaton Bridge is not suitable for paddling.
The river is generally much quicker and narrower in the upper reaches and requires more expertise. But in general, it is rated “easy” in terms of difficulty and can be attempted by both beginners and intermediates. Water levels can fluctuate with heavy rainfall, so it is a good idea to check the weather and local conditions before embarking on any trip.
You can expand your trip by exploring any of the smaller tributaries that feed into this popular waterway. The most widely known are Juniper Creek, Coldwater Creek and Sweetwater Creek. These side trips are well worth the time because several species of the rare, carnivorous pitcher plant are found in the wetter parts of the surrounding forests.
Nestled in the center of the even greater wilderness of the forest, Blackwater River State Park, established in 1967, has grown from its original 360 acres to more than 590 acres of pine forests, swamps and scrubby ridges.
The park has numerous Atlantic white cedars, including the Florida 1982 Champion, credited as the largest of its species. This area is so unique that in 1980, the park was certified as a Registered State Natural Feature for possessing “exceptional value in illustrating the natural history of Florida.”
The campground and restrooms recently have been renovated with new electric, water and sewer systems. Paddlers who enjoy camping closer to nature will find plenty of good overnight spots upriver. Camping is only available in the state park. The park does not offer canoe or kayak rentals, but there are several vendors in the area who will provide equipment and shuttle service to several launch points.