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Paddle through paradise

If you can avoid the high-horsepower yahoos, easy canoe rentals now make exploring the Weeki Wachee River a pleasant adventure.

By BARBARA L. FREDRICKSEN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 25, 2001


Go on a Wednesday. Maybe a Tuesday or Thursday. Friday in a pinch.

But never on Sunday. Nor Saturday, for that matter.

Paddling down the Weeki Wachee River in Hernando County can be a beautiful, peaceful experience . . . if you go at the right time.

Go on a summer weekend, though, and you take your life into your hands. On Saturdays and Sundays, a few yahoos with 300 horsepower twin screw cigarette boats and oblivious goons with wide-body pontoon boats find their way to this narrow, clear, lovely stream of water, bringing their "This-here belongs to me from shore to shore, I don't give a @##$% who or what is in the water" attitude with them.

If you happen to be paddling down the river in your little kayak or taking a dip to cool off, these beer-swilling (yes, I know it's illegal to booze on the Weeki Wachee, but the numerous rusting beer cans along the bottom are testament to how often that law is broken) jerks will plow right over you, slowing down only if, say, your hair gets tangled up in their propellers and causes a drag on their speed.

Okay, maybe I exaggerate a little. But just a little.

I've been there, and I know: The Weeki Wachee is pure bedlam and a place to be avoided on summer weekends. If you want water tranquility, you're better off soaking in your bathtub with a good book.

Have I made my point? Then let me talk about the good stuff along the Weeki Wachee, and there is plenty of good to talk about.

The Weeki Wachee is worth taking a vacation day off to savor, now more than ever before. Until June 1999, when Dave Lowerre and Pete Ruban opened the Weeki Wachee Canoe Rentals in a former maintenance building behind the Weeki Wachee attraction, the only way to see the river from the start in a canoe or kayak was to leave from a downstream marina, Rogers Park or a riverside friend's back yard, paddle against the current and then drift back down.

Now, Lowerre and Ruban offer enough canoes and kayaks for about 75 people a day to float and paddle from near the headwaters.

"Any more than that would be too many," Lowerre said.

Their crews launch the canoes and kayaks from a tiny clearing down a wooded path behind their office/store, after first giving instructions and directions to newbies. As you leave, Lowerre hands you a quarter, with instructions to call him on the pay phone when you reach Rogers Park about 7 miles west. He'll then dispatch a van and trailer to pick up you and your companions and bring you back to your car in the parking lot.

So, what's in between?

Beauty. Serenity. Wildlife -- birds, alligators, river otters, manatees. Neat swimming holes. Pretty sandbars.

Recently, Hernando County built retaining walls around two of the best stopping places along the route, creating nice little beaches. Up a flight of stairs are shaded picnic tables and trash barrels, taking away all excuses for dumping garbage in the river (even though the cretins still do).

My most recent trip was on an unseasonably cool Wednesday morning, when few people were on the river. Lowerre doesn't open until 9 a.m. on weekdays, but we arrived at 8:30 a.m., unloaded our gear and parked our cars so we would be ready to go as soon as the doors opened. If you must go on the weekend, get to the rental office by 7:30 a.m., so you'll be ready to take off when the place opens at 8 a.m. Reservations are absolutely necessary either way.

We were on the river by 9:20 a.m., apparently the first people in for the day. We didn't see other people for the first hour or so, but that's a rare occurence.

Two of our party were in a canoe; three of us were in kayaks for the first time. These kayaks aren't Eskimo style, where you pull a fabric "skirt" tight around your waist so you can do that fancy 360. These are more like gently curved surfboards with seats sunken into them. Along the inside are adjustable footrests to help give you traction when you paddle. The seat has a backrest that lets you snooze in comfort if you so desire. There is a covered storage bin in the rear, but the launch crew told me that it isn't really watertight. I put my lunch box, suntan lotion and bug repellent (very important in summer) between my feet.

Also, the guides warned me that my fanny would get very wet, and it did.

I've rolled many a canoe, and even after 15 years of practice, I still tend to zigzag my way down a river like a sailor trying to make way in a calm wind.

Even so, I found the kayak surprisingly stable and easy to handle. The only time I came close to rolling was when I got into an eddying current and my paddle suddenly went under my craft. After that, I learned to use my paddle like a rudder and go with the flow. Okay, sometimes I cheated and used my paddle to gently nudge myself away from the tree roots along the bank. (Gently, because anything too abrupt can flip you.) It may not be the official way to do it, but it worked for me.

Here's another tip: Don't rest your two-ended paddle across your lap if you decide to drift and doze. The paddle can easily get caught on a branch or bush and flip you over or send you careening into one of the river's little swampy sloughs, a place you don't want to be, especially during alligator mating season.

We got to the first county-owned beach about an hour after we launched, but decided to stop at the second one about 10 or 15 minutes further on.

The view is magnificent, and the water is clear enough so that you can see if an alligator is heading toward you. More likely, you'll see manatees here, especially in the winter, when I've seen as many as eight in one spot.

For the first couple of hours, the river is lovely, with relatively little development along its banks. Shortly after you go through a beautiful arch of trees with houses on the right hand side, it's pretty much solid development. At that point, the clear water turns greenish and sometimes has an unpleasant odor, especially where a man-made canal dumps (and I mean dumps) into it.

At this point, I bear down on the oars and concentrate on getting to Rogers Park and home. Others may enjoy peering into yards and houses along the way. Whatever floats your boat.

We got back to Rogers Park around 12:30 p.m., a three-plus hour trip that included a stop for lunch. You can stretch your trip into a full day with more and/or longer stops, or get there in little more than two hours if you paddle hard. Remember, though, the last pickup is at 5 p.m.

The day we went, the river was very low, so the water was slow. After a big rain and in high-water times, the river is fast and you spend a lot of time putting on the brakes.

Or, in my case, picking your way out of the bushes along the shoreline.

If you go

WHAT: Weeki Wachee canoe rental

WHERE: Weeki Wachee park, corner U.S. 19 and State Road 50 (follow the road on the southwest corner of the parking lot to the end)

WHEN: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. Last watercraft leaves at 1 p.m. Last pickup is at 5 p.m.

COST: $31 for a two-person canoe; $22 for one-person kayak. Call (352) 597-0360, reservations strongly recommended

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