The Ochlockonee River is dynamic, navigable
July 21st, 2015 by Red Hills
published in Tallahassee Democrat 6/26/14
Coursing through the Red Hills, emptying into Lake Talquin and then stretching out into the north Florida coastal plain is the Ochlockonee River. All parts of the river are navigable, although snags are possible in low water.
I’m most familiar with the 76-mile stretch from the dam along Highway 20 to the Gulf of Mexico, since I’ve kayaked this twice with Paddle Florida and have frequently paddled shorter sections. Numerous campgrounds along the river make planning overnight trips easy. The Paddle Florida trips are in March and that usually means high water and swift currents.
The Ochlockonee gives the appearance of a wide, easy flowing river from the Highway 20 Bridge, but it quickly narrows and becomes fast and tortuous in sections, with numerous side streams and sloughs. In places there are bluffs and long sandbars, and in others, thick river swamps dominated by cypress and tupelo gum trees with little dry land. Near the Gulf, the river widens and paddlers are greeted with vast salt marsh prairies and mazes of tidal creeks. One can do a couple of scenic loop trips through tidal creeks using Ochlockonee River State Park as a base.
Some of the Ochlockonee’s sloughs, such as Mack Slough, Hitchcock Lake and Wood Lake, are highly scenic and worthy of exploration. Old-growth cypress trees can be seen and admired. At low water along Hitchcock Lake, I once spotted numerous logs poking out from the water along the shores. Most of these appeared to be old-growth longleaf pines that were cut during the timber boom of the 1920s and sank when loggers attempted to float them downriver. Today, dead-head loggers obtain permits to retrieve these submerged logs, and the larger ones can fetch a good price. I’ve met some of these folks on the river.
The real showcase of any trip on the Ochlockonee is the waterway and its creatures. Upon embarking in early morning, the river is often cloaked in rising mist. Depending on the time of year, bald eagles and swallow-tailed kites are often seen perched on branches or soaring majestically. Otters playfully romp along shore. Great blue herons fly overhead and it is common to spot various ducks, alligators, turtles, water snakes, wild turkeys, woodpeckers and wading birds. Endangered Atlantic sturgeon are now swimming up the river to spawn, but I’ve never seen any of the primitive-looking fish leaping out of the water. A friend, Tommy Thompson, once came upon a black bear swimming across the river.
Plants, too, put on a show along the river, especially in spring — bright green cypress needles and gum leaves, red maple seeds, striking red bud trees and the white and pink blossoms of wild azalea. A group of master naturalists developed a complete month-by-month guide to the flowering plants of Womack Creek, a tributary of the Ochlockonee River near the Womack Creek Campsite in Tate’s Hell State Forest: womackcreek.wordpress.com/about.
So whether you enjoy boating, paddling, fishing or just admiring native plants and animals, check out the Ochlockonee River.