The St. Marks River below Natural Bridge has been a frequent companion on Saturdays. I've been helping with paddling trips for the Wilderness Way and we usually launch our colorful flotilla of kayaks on private land along "the basin," a wide marshy area where the St. Marks River rises from underground. Paddlers who don't have this prime access usually launch at the Newport Bridge and paddle up the six miles to the basin and back down again.
The St. Marks basin is generally filled with birds. Hundreds of white-beaked American coots usually rise up as we pass along with smaller flocks of wood ducks and other waterfowl. There are also wading birds galore, mostly great and snowy egrets, white ibis, and little and great blue herons. A bald eagle often makes a regal appearance along with more raucous red-shouldered hawks.
Below the basin, where the river narrows and has a defined channel, houses dot the west bank for about a mile, but after this, the river shorelines are undeveloped. The water is often clear, especially in winter, and polarized glasses enable one to peer into the depths to spot gar, sheepshead, bass, schools of mullet and huge carp. Occasionally, an otter will peer above the surface at the curious humans, and in warmer months, a manatee or two are commonly seen just before the bridge.
A shallow area about half way to the bridge can at times show a touch of white water and be deemed a class one half rapids. I have rescued one paddler who tipped in the river, but it wasn't due to these mild rapids but because she missed a tight turn and banked against a protruding log. The river is generally fine for beginners, but accidents can still happen.
Like most rivers, the St. Marks is rich in history. Native Americans once lived along its shores in much larger numbers than humans do today. The river was a lifeblood for food and water and a canoe path to numerous places.
In the early 1800s, after most Native Americans were driven from the area, American settlements were built along the shores, but some were short-lived. The most notable of these was Port Leon below the town of St. Marks. Once consisting of eight to ten businesses, a hotel, tavern and warehouses, an 1843 hurricane and massive storm surge-some described it as a tidal wave-destroyed the town only a few years after it was founded.
Magnolia was a small but busy port town founded in 1827 above Newport. Cotton was often shipped for Jefferson County planters and by 1830, the town became the second largest in Middle Florida, with a population of 276. But when a new mule-drawn railroad from Tallahassee to St. Marks bypassed the town in 1837, Magnolia was gradually abandoned and the 1843 hurricane wiped out most of what was left. All that remains of Magnolia today is a wooded cemetery.
The Battle of Natural Bridge, reenacted every March, occurred in 1865 as Union troops advanced along the eastern shore of the river with hopes of capturing Tallahassee. Trying to cross the natural land bridge, they were met with hostile resistance from mostly elder men and young cadets and eventually were forced to retreat. Tallahassee stood proudly as the only southern capital not captured during the war.
So, whether you're looking for history or wildlife, or both, try paddling the serene St. Marks River.