Bald eagles were our guides as we made our way down the lower Aucilla River and began skirting through a maze of tidal creeks and coves to the Pinhook River. I was with a loose-knit group of experienced paddlers who, appropriately, call themselves the Loose Cannons. It's not a club; just friends wanting to paddle together. And they gave me a good excuse to paddle to the Pinhook River in the heart of the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.
The Pinhook is perhaps the wildest small river we have in our region because the upper reaches are only accessible by kayak or canoe, and then, it is preferable when the tide is up. Limestone covers the shallow river bed and you can smell sulphur, so perhaps its origin is a sulphur spring or two.
Since it was my idea to paddle up the Pinhook, I was elected as the trip leader, even though I had never attempted this paddle before. To prepare I downloaded an aerial Google map, logged coordinates into my GPS, checked the tides, and we embarked on a perfect winter morning. A few no-see-ums stirred, but nothing else marred the day, not even the small alligator that jumped off the bank and startled one paddler. That was to be expected. It was one of only two alligators we spotted, and the other one-a fat five-footer-was sunning and refused to budge as we passed.
The most striking part of the journey was when we rounded a bend and saw where the wide, marsh-lined Pinhook suddenly narrowed and was bordered by arching sabal palms and steep limestone banks. Even the Highwaymen artists couldn't have imagined a wilder, more picturesque Florida scene.
We lunched on a refuge-built wooden bridge along a former rail line that is now a premier hiking and bike path. We shared brownies, hot tea and other goodies until, almost begrudgingly, we embarked on our return trip. The tide was starting to ebb and that being our main time clock, meant it was time for our adventure to end.
So, if you want to experience a perfect Florida outing, factor in 70-degree temperatures, a light breeze, a wild place, and-most importantly-good friends.