Panhandle Perfection by Doug Alderson

Blackwater River by Doug Alderson

Sometimes I like mellow streams where you can float and paddle and even close your eyes to swirl in the currents with no worries, listening to birds and the river’s song.  The Florida Panhandle’s lower Blackwater River is one such waterway.  A highly popular river in summer and on warm weekends, I chose a Monday afternoon in April.   Perfect.

The folks at the Blackwater Canoe Rental were accommodating, and they loaned me a serviceable sit-on-top kayak — perfect for floating and jumping out on the numerous brilliant white sandbars for which the river is known.   Despite its name — Blackwater, or the original Oka-lusa (water black) in the Muscogee language — the water was a transparent golden-brown.  Most of the stream flows through undeveloped lands of the Blackwater State Forest and Blackwater River State Park.  The water is as pure as they come, merely tinted with tannins from leaves and roots of shoreline vegetation.  No wonder the river is so popular.

“I’ve been on all the rivers around here and this is still my favorite,”  said Paul Harville, a long-time employee at the outfitter.   The business is open year-round, seven days a week in all types of weather.   The only time they close is when the river is at flood stage, a rare occasion.

“I’ve been on all the rivers around here and this is still my favorite,”  said Paul Harville, a long-time employee at the outfitter.   The business is open year-round, seven days a week in all types of weather.  The only time they close is when the river is at flood stage, a rare occasion.

Tampa Bay Times reporter Terry Tomalin paddled the river for three days in a single digit,nearly record-breaking winter weather in 2012.  Sane people slept in warm beds miles away.  “Lying awake, waiting for morning, I wondered if spinal fluid can freeze,”  Tomalin wrote, “for it felt like every time I moved my backbone was about to snap.   After hours of silent suffering, daylight came, but brought no relief.  Everything was frozen, including camera and phone batteries, gas canisters and hatches to our kayaks, containing all our food and water, which was now turned to ice.”

Those types of trips make for more interesting adventure stories, but what about the perfect days?   I don’t often write about perfect trips on perfect rivers.  …it was sunny, beautiful, and the water was refreshing…  Snooze.   Surely scary rednecks, snakes, alligators, tipping over, storms, bone-chilling cold and such make for exciting stories.   But the Blackwater is worthy of mention because it is one of those rivers where you can have a perfect trip when not too crowded — or too cold.  River Zen at its best.

Other exceptional Panhandle rivers — all of which have similar tannin-tinted waters — include the Perdido, Coldwater, Juniper and Shoal.  All have inviting sandbars, although the Blackwater has the largest number.

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