Trip Report: Florida Paddle Trip
By Natalie Downey
It might sound crazy, but one night I wandered into my very first WILD meeting not knowing what to expect, and within an hour signed up to join these women I had just met on a three night paddling trip to Florida. I didn’t exactly plan on signing up for the trip right away, but as I listened to WILD leader Sanna describe the Silver River and Juniper Springs and all the wildlife we would encounter, I was intrigued. Two days of kayaking and canoeing would bring us face to face with alligators, turtles, possibly manatees, and even wild monkeys. This wasn’t my typical weekend adventure and to me, that was plenty of reason to sign up for it right away. The best part of WILD that I immediately noticed was the genuine friendliness of each and every woman that surrounded me as we sat in a circle on the ground of the upstairs room of Outside World. Faces of all ages and hues glowed all around me as we shared the camaraderie of a love for outdoor adventures.The diversity of the group attests to the inclusiveness of WILD, and I never once felt anything but welcome. For me it was a no-brainer: in that moment I knew I had become a member of WILD.
Even though I was excited to join the women of WILD on their Florida paddling trip, I was a little nervous about it too. I had never kayaked or canoed for any significant distance, had little experience cooking over a campfire, and was a little unsure what exactly would happen when we encountered those wild monkeys. Monkeys are cute when they’re safely tucked away at the zoo, but I was pretty sure I didn’t want a wild monkey jumping into my kayak with me. For several weeks leading up to our trip, WILD held clinics to address any concerns about the trip such as what to do when we encounter wildlife, what to pack, planning meals, and our itinerary. The clinics helped me feel better prepared for the trip and we were all assured no one would be left behind to fend for themselves against wild monkeys and alligators.
Finally the departure date arrived and we all met to embark on our journey south where adventures awaited. We carpooled down to Salt Springs campground in Ocala Florida where we reconvened as a group, set up tents and hammocks, and settled into our home for the next three days.
The next morning brought with it the promise of an adventure-filled day on the Silver
River, so we packed our lunches and set out. With our kayaks and life jackets, we put in and left our cares behind, paddling down the gently flowing Silver River. The first thing I noticed was the beautiful jade colored water, crystal clear beneath our kayaks. We were surrounded by lush palm trees and it was easy to feel as if we had been transported to a jungle far away from civilization. Our group kayaked leisurely, enjoying the sounds, smells, and sights of nature all around. We spotted countless turtles sunning on logs, necks extended in a blissful reverie. Birds of all types and sizes called out, flew overhead, and perched in palm trees on the bank. Because the river had a gentle current, we were able to float and didn’t have to put in a lot of work paddling. The weather was perfect, the day was dreamy and warm, and we each took in the sights and sunlight happily, united in our wonder at the beauty of such a place. We stopped about halfway through our trip down the river, parking our kayaks in a little cove and eating the sandwiches we had packed that morning. After lunch it was time to finish out our journey for the day and we found our way back to the current, paddling once again and keeping a lookout for monkeys. After awhile, the first person in our group spotted monkeys and the word filtered back through our line of kayakers that monkeys were up ahead. We cruised by slowly, some of us circling back around to get a better look at the monkeys.
They were everywhere, climbing out on branches of palm trees on the banks, observing us as we observed them. We watched them for a few minutes, exclaiming over the adorable baby monkeys, a surreal experience to encounter them at such a close distance in the wild. After we continued paddling on, we passed some people who told us they had seen manatees up ahead. We began to search the water, hoping to get a glimpse of them, and then came one of the most magical moments of my life. It’s hard to explain how you know when there is something alive, something huge in the water right below you. Before we could even see the manatees’ white figures beneath us, I could feel their presence, their largeness in the water up ahead. And then there they were, bigger than I had imagined, white figures filling up the space beneath us, gently swimming under our kayaks. We were quiet with wonder, as we sat still and watched these magnificent creatures. Finally we paddled on until we eventually reached the spot where we were to end our kayaking adventure for the day. We left our kayaks behind, tired after paddling for 5 miles but thankful for the sights and colors the Silver River gave us to add to the walls of our memories.
Back at camp we took turns preparing and cleaning up meals, played games, hung out in hammocks, and enjoyed the sisterhood of messy wind-blown hair and dirt traces of adventures beneath fingernails. Being with the women of WILD was just as much a part of the fun as kayaking down the tropical river. We left behind judgment and the expectations of society, each of us different and unique and yet all so very much alike. We sat around the campfire laughing and telling stories while the light from the fire turned the dark trees into dancing shadows.
The next day we woke ready for our next adventure: Juniper Springs. While this waterway was similar to the Silver River in some ways – lush, tropical landscape, jade blue-green clear water, and an array of wildlife – it was also quite different. It was narrower and more densely crowded with tropical trees and plants. I felt like we were truly lost in a jungle with palm trees twisting all around the banks and out over the water, sometimes making it so that we had to duck to pass by. This was definitely a more strenuous trip, with the ever curving waterway keeping us constantly paddling to attempt to turn away from obstacles and follow the path of the water. I’m not going to lie: I was terrible at this endeavor. My poor partner and I spent most of the trip racing headfirst into shrubs and palm trees extending out into the water. No matter how we paddled, our canoe seemed determined to go in the opposite way of our intended direction. After 7 miles of paddling into every single tree on Juniper Springs, with several scrapes and sore arms, we arrived at the end of our journey. Though Juniper Springs was a challenge, it was a beautiful tropical hideaway and we were proud of ourselves for facing the challenges of the day and completing our course.
We sat around the fire that night laughing at our sorry canoeing techniques, comparing scratches and stories, and reveling in the beauty we had experienced in Florida’s jungle waterways. We were tired and sore, and maybe a little smelly, but we were all glad for all the memories we had made with our WILD friends. The next day we packed up and headed home, ready to see our families and tell them all about our trip. We knew it wouldn’t be long before we shouldered the weight of our camping gear once more and set out on our next adventure.