Since our arrival at Wekiwa Springs State Park in Apopka, FL my desire and intent was to kayak down the Rock Springs Run Paddle Trail, which is touted as the number one paddle trail in Central Florida. I must admit that even with my desire and intent, I felt a nagging anxiety. Yes, I felt nervous, uncertain, scared, and fearful of doing what I wanted to do. I suppose my anxiety was rooted in several things. First, I have never kayaked this particular paddle trail. I would literally be entering unknown and uncharted waters — at least for me. Second, I would be doing the paddle alone. I know, the “rules” of kayaking urge us not to go it alone, but in this instance, I have no choice. Do it alone, or don’t do it at all! Third, it is a long paddle — 8.5 miles — requiring four to five hours minimum paddle time. Fourth, Rock Springs Run is on the Wekiva River which is designated a National Wild and Scenic River. Now, I am fine with scenic. It is the “wild” that causes me pause. In this case one might translate “wild” into alligators. Also, I had been told that the current in the upper run was fairly swift, and the river was definitely not straight — lots of crooks and turns. This combination can be difficult and even treacherous. So, I was anxious. Bottom line – I was scared!
I knew that if I didn’t push through the fear and do the paddle that I would be disappointed with myself and with not getting to experience the river up close. So I shared my feelings with Lou Anne which actually made me feel better and decided that I would go to the launch point, King’s Landing, talk with the folks there about the river conditions, take a look at the water, and then make my decision. Which is exactly what I did and launched the kayak at 9:30 am. I would paddle the 8.5 miles to Wekiva Island, and Lou Anne would meet me at the take-out there at 1:00 – 1:30 pm. I set the launch location as a waypoint on my GPS, set the trip odometer, and paddled out. Still a bit anxious, but ready for the challenge!
I entered the main channel and was greeted by dense water lilies with a paddle trail snaking through their midst. There were also a couple of houses on the right — nothing wild about that. The river was wide bank-to-bank, but the water lilies made the paddling trail much narrower. This was the case intermittently throughout the trail. Toward the end of the trail these plants were blooming a colorful red and blue. When I was not traversing the lilies, the banks were lush and green with large towering oaks, palms (the short, bushy saw palmetto as well as the cabbage palm tree), and the occasional cypress. It was a jungle out there – really!!
I wasn’t far into the paddle when I spotted my first alligator. It was swimming parallel to the kayak about 8-10 feet to my right. With him being in the water, it was difficult to gauge his size. Given the distance between his eyes (sometimes this is all you see of them) and his wake in the water, I guessed him to be about 4-5 feet. Sorry, no photos! For me, the right action when spotting a gator in the water is to keep moving and not do anything to draw attention to myself. The presence of alligators in the river forced me to change my paddling patterns. I normally enjoy paddling close to the riverbanks just to get a closer look at the plants and critters. However, with the gators as often-unseen companions and with their propensity to lie quietly in the vegetation along the banks, I opted to keep my paddling path in the middle of the river. This was my first of four alligator sightings this day. All were quite similar, with the exception of one in which the gator was swimming across the river. He spotted me and went under the water. If he stayed on the same path underwater, I floated over him. My only thought was, “I hope he doesn’t come up while under me!” I moved forward with short, quick paddle strokes in hopes of not disturbing him!
About thirty minutes into the paddle, I had a definite decision to make. I came to a sign reading: King’s Landing Blue Band Turn Around. I knew that my destination was still at least eight miles down river. Yet, I launched from King’s Landing and the attendant had placed a blue band on my wrist. Does that sign apply to me? I decided it did not and continued down the river, which became much narrower with more obstructions, fallen trees or branches, in or over the water. I was paddling deeper into the jungle! As the river narrowed, the current was more noticeable, and my river trail became one crook and turn after another. The wild had now merged with the scenic! I had to pay attention and be intentional with my paddle. It became a challenge to place the paddle in the water at the right time and rudder angle to make the upcoming turn, and to make it before the current carried the kayak into the oncoming bank. I maneuvered the kayak left, then right, then right again, then left again consistently. Only once did I have to dig myself out of the bank. No, you won’t see photos of these sections of the river, as I was too busy with the paddle!
I was enjoying the paddle and the challenge of the crooks, turns, and the fallen trees and branches even as I felt I was going “deeper into the jungle.” Maybe an hour to an hour and half in, I encountered an obstacle that would require much more strategy and maneuvering than any of my previous encounters. A large tree, probably 18-24 inches in trunk diameter, had fallen and was blocking the entire span of the river. I considered going to the right, but the still green branches filled the river and even lay upon the bank. The left option looked a bit more promising. The base of the tree was high enough up on the bank that with my 5’ 3” stature there was a possibility of going under the fallen trunk albeit a “duck” would be needed. This plan was complicated by the fact that the tree had fallen across another large tree trunk that obviously had been in the water much longer. The resulting trunk configuration looked like a slightly squeezed “X” lying on its side. The water level barely covered the lower cross trunk, but there was enough for me to push my kayak over it. Actually, as I started the crossing, the current pushed the kayak and me laterally over the lower trunk. Luckily, I was still in the kayak. The next step was to push and paddle the kayak along the trunks toward the bank, make a right turn at the opening, duck, and go under the upper trunk. I did it! My heart was pounding and my hands shaking, no doubt, the result of both the exertion and the fear. I must admit that there was a moment as I struggled to push and paddle the kayak up and through the opening that I thought, “Am I going to make it!”
I relaxed for a bit, basking in the excitement of having met the challenge. As the trail continued to be littered with obstacles and having encountered the large tree blockage, I suddenly recalled something I had read previous to launching to the effect that the staff of King’s Landing does a good job of keeping the Rock Springs Run free of obstacles. Hgh! I was not experiencing a run “free of obstacles!” I then remembered, “King’s Landing Blue Band Turn Around.” Whoa! My heart was not pounding. It had been grabbed and caught tight in the vise of FEAR. Where am I? Am I lost? Should I have turned around? Do I need to turn around now? I don’t know that I can paddle two hours against this current? How will I get around that tree again?
To counter these questions, my first response was to tell myself, “Just breath, Brenda, just breath.” Is it really possible that I had turned the wrong direction? I kept visualizing a map of the river that did have a side stream; maybe I had turned down that stream. I dug in my wet sack and pulled out a simple map of the paddling trail. No, that side stream was off the lower section of the river. I was in the upper part of the river. I felt somewhat better. I then remembered that the day before when I left Wekiwa Springs for a short paddle I had set a waypoint on my GPS. I also knew that today’s paddle would take me toward Wekiwa Springs and less than a quarter of a mile from that waypoint. I pulled the GPS out. I had traveled almost three miles today already. I located the Wekiwa Springs waypoint and programed the GPS to “Go To” that waypoint. When the screen popped up, I felt a wave of relief. My current location was on the track between this morning’s King’s Landing waypoint and yesterday’s Wekiwa Springs waypoint. I was headed in the right direction! I just needed to keep paddling.
And paddle I did with even greater enjoyment and confidence. My confidence was bolstered even more when I saw the brown state park sign that read, “You are halfway.” I had reached that part of the run within the bounds of Wekiwa Springs State Park. Eventually I passed Otter, Big Buck, and Indian Mound Campsites maintained by the state park. I knew I was doing well on my time so I parked the kayak – lodged it against a tree trunk – pulled out my snacks, rested, and ate a bite of lunch consisting of an apple and mixed nuts. As I sat in the kayak, I remembered my fear and being scared about doing the run. Just think! I almost missed it! I almost missed this adventure – the alligators, the lily pads, the narrow twisting, turning river, the jungle, the heart stopping fear, the satisfaction of rising to the occasion and meeting the challenges.
I finished the run. The river widened. The jungle disappeared – so much so I had to break out the sunscreen. The lily pads returned sporting gorgeous red blooms and so thick they brushed the sides of the kayak as I maneuvered the trail. I saw another alligator or two. They kept moving and so did I. The last half hour or so I actually met some other folks making their way upstream. Not what I would want to do! I arrived at Wekiva Island around 1:30 pm pretty much on schedule feeling both very tired and very content. Lou Anne was walking down to the landing to meet me. What an adventure I had to share! Just think, I almost missed it! September 24, 2015