By Chelle Koster Walton
“Floating face down in a shallow, syrupy-brown tributary of the Peace River, I peered through my dive mask. Inquisitive minnows approached cautiously. A shy yellow-bellied slider turtle took refuge behind a submerged rock,” wrote Mark Renz, a noted Florida fossil hunter and author at FossilExpeditions.com.
“Suddenly, my mind and vision were transported a million years back in time, where a tropical short-haired mammoth had occupied my space. The big beast sauntered majestically past stately palms and bristly palmetto shrubs. The flora was distant kin to the same vegetation I had traipsed through to find this remote Pleistocene preserve.
“I knew a mammoth had been here. I knew it probably drank from the same stream in which I now snorkeled. Just then, the chewing surface of the massive herbivore’s tooth, looking like the sole of a size 15 Air Jordan tennis shoe, poked up through the white powdery sand bottom.”
The 106-mile Peace River that runs through Punta Gorda, Arcadia, Zolfo Springs, and Bartow has a reputation for fossil finds, particularly shark’s teeth and bones. That’s because, Renz said, it offers easy access and typically low water levels much of the year.
(Note: Renz cautioned that hunters going out on their own for vertebrate fossils should first obtain a fossil permit from the Program of Vertebrate Paleontology, Florida Museum of Natural History, at the University of Florida. No permit is required for shark teeth.)
Paddlers, fishermen, and nature-lovers of all varieties also appreciate the Peace for its bouts of unspoiled scenery and time-machine return to eras gone by. And, like Renz, for its accessibility. It offers plenty of places where its fans can camp, explore, and dine riverside.
Two parks at its northern run invite peeks at the river. At Mosaic Peace River Park in Homeland, folks hike and look for birds along a boardwalk over the river’s floodplain and fish from its docks. Paynes Creek Historic State Park in Bowling Green connects its eponymous creek with the Peace River at “The Point,” accessible by foot or paddle. In Zolfo Springs, Pioneer Park, The Cracker Trail Museum, the Hardee County Wildlife Refuge, and camping line the old-time river banks.
The ranching town of Arcadia makes a popular destination for day paddlers along the river’s 70-mile designated paddling trail. They can rent paddlecraft and hire shuttle service from Canoe Outpost. Alligators, glossy ibis, ospreys, and towering cypress trees strewn with mistletoe and Spanish moss set the scene. The river embraces the oak-canopied grounds of Peace River Campground. Besides RV camping, it offers a wilderness camping area.
In nearby Lake Suzy, at Nav-a-Gator, you can catch an airboat ride or river tour, poke through the fossils museum, eat gator bites, listen to live music, and rent a cottage on the river. Or stay at Riverside RV Resort & Campground, where you can launch your boat, fish for snook and bream, and look for manatees.
The Peace River widens between the towns of Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte, finally flushing into Charlotte Harbor. Locals celebrate the river with parks, festivals, and attractions.
Shopping and entertainment complex Fishermen’s Village makes it easy to dine with an eyeful of river right at its mouth. Upriver, the rooftop bar and restaurant at Wyvern Hotel, the Laishley Crab House in Punta Gorda, or Sunset Grill on the Harbor in Port Charlotte overlook the Peace.
For lodging, try Port Charlotte's Tropical Paradise B&B, a quiet haven where beautiful sunsets and flowing fountains create a romantic atmosphere.
Like many of Florida’s rivers, the Peace takes you back in time. The Peace time travel just happens to be more way-back. “It's an experience of the ancient kind,” Renz said.