Since I coordinate most of the state's designated paddling trails for the Florida Office of Greenways and Trails, many people want to know my favorite river. I try to be coy in answering. After all, Florida might have the largest number of scenic and diverse paddling trails of any state in the nation. Plus, my evaluation is subjective and highly influenced by geography. While I have sampled many of Florida's streams, the rivers I paddle frequently are the ones within an hour's drive of my home near Tallahassee, so naturally my favorite would be one of those.
Jokingly, I often say that my favorite river is the last one I have paddled since the sights and sensations of the trip are fresh. It might be a spring-fed waterway with caves such as the Chipola, or the wild Ochlockonee in springtime, or the mighty Apalachicola in early fall. There's the upper Sopchoppy when the water is right-broad sandbars, high banks and artistically twisted cypress roots and knees. The St. Marks is lovely any time, the Wakulla boasts manatees, and for a thrill of mild whitewater, you can't beat the Aucilla.
But the river I return to time and gain for inspiration and spiritual sustenance is the Wacissa, especially on a weekday or early Sunday morning when few others are on the water. The Wacissa is like an old friend, one I've grown up with since moving here at age eleven. When I launch my kayak in the clear water of the headsprings and begin paddling into that wide panorama of beauty, I am at peace. I feel alive. It's that simple.
While on the river, I acknowledge the many wading birds and other creatures. I feel privileged to share the stream with them, if only for a short while. Great blue herons stand sentinel-like. An eagle peeps from a tall cypress while a trilling kingfisher zooms past. Otters and turtles poke their heads up while an occasional alligator or water snake slides off the shore. In the evenings, owl calls echo across the marshy vista and wading birds begin to roost. As the sun dips low, I know it is time to leave, but I vow to return again and again.
Do the Wacissa animals know me? I fantasize that they do, but it is unlikely. If I lived along the river and ventured to the shore or paddled the river daily, they would know me, and hopefully not feel fear. But as an occasional visitor in a kayak, they simply know my kind-people in those funny boats. I hope that we, paddlers, have a good reputation with the river's critters.
You feel for a place like the Wacissa. You fret over changes or proposed changes that threaten the equilibrium. You want the mullet to keep leaping and limpkins to continue probing for apple snails and otters to play unmolested. I am aware that centuries-old cypresses along the shore have watched humans come and go for generations, and so I will one day leave this place, never to return. I hope that day is in the distant future for the Wacissa pulses through me. I have been baptized by its waters and I hope nothing can drain its lifeblood from my veins.
My favorite river? It is the one that feels like home.