The Peace River offers an idyllic view of Florida nature.

The Peace River offers an idyllic view of Florida nature.

“Oh yeah,” my sweetheart says as he steps tentatively into the wobbly canoe, “we are totally going in today.”

The vessel sways precariously and I grip the sides at the front where I’m already seated, my eyes locked on a large alligator smiling at me from the far shore. I risk a glance towards our driver, but he’s already in the van, heading the eight miles back to Arcadia’s Canoe Outpost. There’s a sudden push, and then we’re floating down the Peace River.

Paddlers can rent canoes from Arcadia's Canoe Outpost

Paddlers can rent canoes from Arcadia's Canoe Outpost

At first, I cling rigidly to my paddle, but soon find an easy rhythm as we glide past the lush combination of cypress, oak and palm. The river is almost otherworldly beautiful. With recent storms, its beds are swollen with nearly five extra feet of water and low hanging-branches on the banks sway in the current. The water’s smooth surface reflects a mirrored jungle, backed by its own blue sky. At times it appears we’re floating on clouds.

The writer during her trip.

The writer during her trip.

Image: Stewart Leith

My interest in the Peace River comes from my recent acquisition of a Florida Fossil Permit, which allows me to collect vertebrate specimens—within certain regulations—on state-owned land. Florida has fascinating geology, unique from the rest of the continental United States, and its riverbeds are a fossil collector’s dream. For curious paleontologists in our region, the Peace River offers a world-class site for discovery within an hour’s drive.

Sadly, there is to be no fossiling on this particular expedition as the water’s current depth makes digging in the river’s bottom impossible. During low periods, shallow areas appear that are perfect for prehistoric treasure hunting. The Canoe Outpost has examples of various finds, from dugong ribs to pieces of giant armadillo shells. Beyond the teeth of the giant megalodon sharks, you can also search for the chompers of horses, tapirs, crocodiles and giant ground sloths. How cool is that?

And while we can’t pretend to be Dr. Alan Grant from Jurassic Park, the day is far from a bust.

After finding our balance, we alternate paddling for the workout with simply drifting along. We take in the rustic charm of the river-front homes, spot a menagerie of birds, and enjoy friendly exchanges with others on the water. People are fishing from docks, bikini-clad women lounge on the prows of zippy little boats, and brave souls go for a refreshing dip. After asking one family if they spotted many alligators, a woman responds, “Oh sure, but it’s not gators you’ve got to watch out for! It’s the cows. They’re the real jerks.”

A picnic area is the perfect place to break for lunch.

A picnic area is the perfect place to break for lunch.

Steps leading to the river

Steps leading to the river

Roughly four miles along, the outpost offers a series of picnic areas that can also function as campgrounds for those wanting a little more time on the water. They’re marked with blue signs and have names like First Chance and Armadillo Way. We begin to cruise into Cypress Knee before realizing it’s already occupied by a giant alligator, so we politely move down to The Stump. Here we drag our canoe up on the bank before settling down to a well-earned sandwich in a slice of verdant paradise.

Returning to our canoe, the final stretch seems to go by too quickly. We pass turtles basking in the sunshine, bucolic fields and trees projecting out of the water, their little islands completely submerged. At one point we hear ominous mooing coming from somewhere in the thick foliage, but escape the bovine menace unscathed. After passing underneath a dilapidated train track that still smells like tar, we round the bend and see our driver waving from the Canoe Outpost dock.

We made it—and without getting more than our feet wet.

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