When the cold winds blow through the Southern Appalachians, this outdoor aficionado starts planning adventures down South, where the weather is a little warmer, the days a little longer, and deep snows a distant threat. And early spring is a great time to head to the Florida panhandle for a two- for-one Sunshine State adventure on the Blackwater River.
Even with a fine springtime destination, sometimes you just can’t decide whether to go hiking or paddling. In that case, just do both. There are many such places where — with careful planning — you can paddle your boat down a river, then return by foot with your backpack — or in our case, hike upriver then return to your point of origin via boat.
One such place is Blackwater River State Forest, located in the northwest tip of the Sunshine State, near the Alabama line. My friend John Cox and I met at Blackwater River State Park, loaded our packs for part one, backpacking, where we headed north on the Juniper Creek Trail, roughly paralleling Juniper Creek, a canoeable feeder stream of the Blackwater River. We took the Juniper Creek Trail 6.5 miles to a trail shelter located atop a piney bluff overlooking the coffee-colored creek. A front had blown through and the stars were phenomenal, but the mercury went below freezing overnight. Winter happens in the Sunshine State.
We resumed our march, joining the northeast bound Jackson Red Ground Trail, named after one of ours, Andrew Jackson. Old Hickory headed through the Blackwater River Valley when running the Spanish out of Florida. John and I had it much easier than did Jackson and his soldiers. We rolled over longleaf pine woods on a long day, mostly spent in piney woods and rolling hills, occasionally lit by flowering dogwoods. The shadows were long by the time we hit the Wiregrass Trail. After 20 miles of hiking that day, we tiredly made camp on the banks of the Blackwater River. I scratched up a fire and boiled noodles for supper. Darkness fell and we were soon asleep.
Next day, we walked through lush bottomland woods to reach Kennedy Bridge, spanning the Blackwater River. I went up to nearby Hurricane Lake campground, where I had left my canoe before we started the hike, then brought the boat down for phase two of the adventure, canoe camping. We loaded the canoe and set off downstream on the Blackwater, relieved to let the river do the work for us. The skies were dark so we shortly made camp in the woods behind a sugar white sandbar (the Blackwater River is adorned with gorgeous sandbars) and battened down the hatches. The rains came, but not until long after we had retired to the tents.
Happily, the river hadn’t risen the following morning, day 4. We packed up the boat and floated those dark waters that resemble tea as they flow over sandy shallows. John and I each caught a few fish but mostly just enjoyed the wooded and wild scenery. Breezes sang through the pines overlooking the Blackwater River. A tall bluff fronted by a wide sandbar proved too alluring and we stopped for the night.
While gathering firewood I stepped into an ant nest, and was suddenly covered with hundreds of ornery insects, biting in revenge for disturbing their domain. I dashed into the river fully clothed, knocking the biting pests off as fast as I could. My right leg swelled up good. The night was quite pleasant nonetheless as the fire crackled and the owls hooted in the woods beyond our camp.
A heavy fog covered the river as we pushed off on our final full day. The river was quite fast here and the banks lowered, giving a swampier appearance. Ol’ Sol burned off the fog and left a bright day. The soggy shores made finding a campsite quite challenging. However, we found a camp below Bryant Bridge on a bank barely above the water. The night was quite mild and a few mosquitoes buzzed us. We reflected on how we had hiked approximately 30 miles and paddled the same distance on one adventure. It took some planning but there are many places I have canoe/backpacked, including Black Creek of Southern Mississippi, the Suwannee River near Suwannee River State Park and Tennessee’s Big South Fork River.
Our final morning dawned bright and clear. All too soon we were back at our starting point, Deaton Bridge in Blackwater River State Park. We had completed our adventure and looked forward to more ahead, hiking and canoeing in one trip.