It is not often that I get to spend time with just my wife on the water, so I take advantage of every chance I get. On an unseasonably warm December day, a Thursday to be exact, one of these moments arose.
The sky was blue, the wind was calm and Otter Lake was calling our name. We loaded the kayaks and headed south, toward Panacea. Panacea, whose name means a remedy for all ills or difficulties, was just what we were after for breaking up the mundane, weekday grind. You can always tell when you arrive in Panacea. The salt marsh, with its own unique smell, fills the air and Mineral Springs fish market greets you as you slow your pace to 35 mph, and for good reason; the whole town seems to slow down and give you a glimpse into “Old Florida”.
We made the turn down Otter Lake Road and cruised the neighborhood until we reached Otter Lake Recreation Area, which is a part of the Great Florida Birding & Wildlife Trail. Our drive took us through pine and hardwood upland forests before sliding down into cypress swamps and eventually into the lake itself.
There is a sign at the boat launch warning visitors of alligators. It never fails, if there are other people at the ramp when I load/unload my kayak, I always get the question: “You aren’t scared of those alligators messing with you?” With a smile, I explain that they are more afraid of you than you are of them. I wholeheartedly believe that the alligators live by a code that if we respect them, they will respect us. I have paddled many times next to some rather large alligators without an altercation. But today, we had the lake to ourselves, well, beside the several alligators and birds that we paddled amongst.
We shoved off the bank and glided toward a small alligator breaking the water’s surface. Otter Lake is stained a dark, reddish tea color from decaying organic matter, much like many lakes and rivers in the surrounding area. That dark, “black water” appearance makes for some incredible reflections. Given the size of Otter Lake we decided to circumnavigate the lake along the shoreline, which took us close to four hours.
We meandered through the Cypress trees and danced in the sunlight on our way around the lake, pointing out alligators along the way. A few hours into our paddle, we came upon the north end of the lake and it became evident why this area is part of the birding trail. Even though there are many Osprey nests littered around the lake, we only saw a few Cormorants and a Red-shouldered Hawk before now.
We first came across a couple dead cypress trees and upon paddling closer, they came alive with the flapping of wings. Both Black and Turkey Vultures occupied the vacant limbs where needles used to hang. We were close enough to see the wrinkles in their heads. Like cliques in High School, we moved on to the next flock. The Wood Storks stood clumsily on the tree limbs with their long, bowed legs and long, goofy faces. The Cormorants were still scattered throughout the trees lining the lake. Much to our delight there was also a small flock of Roseate Spoonbills! Their name is quite fitting with their pink color, which is due to their diet, and long wooden spoon shaped beak. No matter how many times I see these Ibis related wading birds, I can never get enough.
The sun began to lower and the winds picked up, it was time to leave the birds behind. We made the short jaunt back to the boat ramp with the wind in our face. There was a married couple photographing a few Egrets that made their way through the swamps. My wife and I began to tell them of the birds around the corner, stumbling over each others’ words in excitement. We loaded our kayaks, wished the photographers well, and headed back to Tallahassee, a short 45 minute drive, with the sunset in the rearview mirror.