Down the Blackwater River
The Panhandle's Wild Blackwater
General description: A 31-mile, three- or four-day paddle trip down a pristine Florida river, with wilderness camping on snow-white sand bars.
Starting point: Kennedy Bridge,
N 30.9335 deg, W 86.7357 deg
Ending point: Deaton Bridge, Blackwater River State Park,
N 30.70413, W 86.8816 deg
Maps: Pick up a Blackwater River State Forest Map at Blackwater Canoe Rental. Also, I used the appropriate pages out of my Florida Atlas and Gazetteer. Since the Gazetteer provides longitude and latitude, we were able to use the GPS to track our position down the river. USGS Topo Maps: Floridale, Munson, Harold (We got along fine without the USGS Topo Maps)
Blackwater River State Park
7720 Deaton Bridge Road, Holt, Florida 32564, 850-983-5363
Blackwater Canoe Rental
800-967-6789, from Pensacola 623-0235
Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Office of Greenways and Trails
325 John Knox Road, Bldg 500, Tallahassee, FL 32303-4124, 850-488-3701
The Creeks called it "oka-lusa," meaning "black water." Yet, the tannin-stained waters of Florida's Blackwater River aren't so much black, but more the color of weak iced tea. Although the water is stained, it's clean, clear, and inviting.
They tell me the river starts somewhere up in Alabama. "In the Conecuh National Forest," they say. From there, the gathering waters form a most delightful stream that meanders across Florida's panhandle, making its way into Blackwater Bay, then into East Bay, then into Pensacola Bay, then on to Santa Rosa Sound and into the Gulf of Mexico.
The Panhandle's Premier River
There's a lot to like about the Blackwater River. For starters, its banks are largely wild and undeveloped since it flows through the 190,000-acre Blackwater River State Forest and not through private land. Only a small portion of the river flows past private property.
During times of normal water levels, numerous sugar-white sandbars are found all along the river, and are perfect for camping. You'll love this sand, which is different from most Florida sand. It's made--not from seashells--but from finely ground quartz washed down over millions of years from the Appalachian mountains. Clean and white, it actually squeaks when you walk on it. This is the same sand that accounts for the exquisite beauty of Florida's Emerald Coast beaches.
The river's average depth is only about two and a half feet, and its two- to three-mile current carries your canoe or kayak downstream with little paddling on your part. Most of your paddling efforts involve maneuvering around logs and other obstructions in the water. While such obstructions aren't so numerous as to be a pain, they do force you to stay alert. Some people even enjoy the opportunity to test their paddling skills as they work their way around fallen trees and submerged stumps.
Although the upper part of the river can be more challenging, the overall paddling skill level required for this river is "beginning to intermediate," according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Office of Greenways and Trails (850-488-3701).
The river's banks are forested with pine, palmetto, magnolia, dogwood, oak, maple, sycamore, holly, azaleas, tupelo, and numerous Atlantic white cedars. Here and there along the way, you'll see impressive, tall bluffs and a few small, clear gurgling creeks entering the river.
Fish and Wildlife
Fishing is an enjoyable activity on the river. The locals say worms and beetle spinners make good bait. On our trip, my buddy, Don, caught a couple of bass for dinner one night, plus a few bream. Fish near the log jams along the river's deep holes for your best chance of catching something.
Our most impressive wildlife sighting were three (maybe four) deer swimming across the river. When they caught sight of us approaching, they quickly made for the nearest bank where they bounded--dripping wet, of course--out of the water, up a steep bank, and into the forest. Other than deer, we saw wood ducks, a coot, a few turtles, and an ibis or two.
Since a journey downriver is a one-way trip, we needed shuttle service.
For that, we were pleased with Blackwater Canoe Rental, a long-time family-owned business. Located about a mile and a half from the finishing point, they not only shuttled us up to Kennedy Bridge, they let us leave our vehicle at their place of business while we were gone. Our vehicle remained safe and unmolested, due in some part, I'm sure, to Block, the owner's giant pit bull, who is in charge of nighttime security. Our other alternative was to leave our vehicle at Blackwater River State Park for a fee of a few dollars a night.
At the ending point, all we had to do was alert Blackwater Canoe Rental by cell phone and they picked me up a few minutes later, took me back to their place where I retrieved my vehicle.
As their name states, they can not only shuttle you, but rent you a canoe as well. Check their web site or call them for current prices. For the record, they were friendly, helpful, the least expensive, and I'd be pleased to do business with them again.
For a shorter trip
If you'd like a trip shorter than 31 miles, check with the folks at Blackwater Canoe Rentals. There are other possible starting points farther downriver, and they may be able to shuttle you there instead.
Check water levels and local conditions
Before you leave on a trip down the Blackwater, do check with either Blackwater River State Park or Blackwater Canoe Rental for the current water level. Heavy rains can cause the water level to rise quickly. On our trip, the water level was only slightly above normal, and we considered the conditions ideal.
Cell phone coverage along the river is spotty at best. I had no coverage with my Nextel until we got to the last third of the trip.
The Blackwater River Canoe Trail is part of
Florida's Statewide System of Greenways and Trails
Last revised March 2006