Tours A – N

Tours A – N
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Alachua Lake

A once in a lifetime (if your lucky) paddle tour

The rare opportunity to paddle on Paynes Prairie only happens with exceptional flooding in Alachua County.
On average, these conditions happen once every couple of decades. Besides being a fun opportunity to paddle on the
Prairie, it is good for the marsh habitat to flood occasionally and kill back upland species. So, let’s hope for rain!
At other times (between high water events) we lead hiking tours on this historic and ecologically important
wetland prairie (see Paynes Prairie).

Group size: 1 – 20 people
Trip time: 2.5 hours
Skill level: beginner (but the pro’s enjoy this one too)


Join us for a scheduled tour. (see calendar for trips being planned).
If you see a free date on the calendar, suggest
the trip of your choice and we’ll post it!
or, schedule your own private tour. Call for details (386-454-0611)


To see this river’s general location, go to the River Locator Map or click on link below for a local map and then use zoom and panning arrows to explore the area.
Note: the red star is NOT our meeting place, but just a nearby town or landmark.


Paynes Prairie is a large, 20 square mile basin formed by dissolution and collapse of underground limestone. This same process forms the many lakes and sinkholes in this part of Florida. In fact, Paynes Prairie would be a lake if not for one significant feature – it has a leak. At the northern edge of the Prairie basin, a hole in the limestone bottom, known as Alachua Sink, drains water into the underground aquifer system. It’s a relatively small hole however, perhaps the size of a small car, so it takes a long time to drain the basin when it floods. This constant dampness—rarely dry and only occasionally flooded—has created a fantastic, and relatively unique marshland.


Located a few miles south of Gainesville, this 20 square mile wetland prairie is not only a wildlife hotspot, but one of the most historically significant natural features in North Florida. For the first nomadic hunter-gatherers who entered Florida about 12,000 years ago, it was all about location, location, location — location of big game (including mammoths, mastodons and more), location of water and location of tool making materials, most notably a type of stone known as chert. Chert, the best material in Florida for making spear points and blades, is abundant on an around the Prairie.

In later periods, the Prairie continued to be an important location for native settlements. Archaeologists have found abundant artifacts dating from every cultural; period up to the present.

Paynes Prairie has a long history of flooding during high water events (if this comes as news to you, there’s a book I’d like to recommend ;-) . Since the 1800′s, the ephemeral lake created when the basin floods has been referred to as Alachua Lake. In dry periods, the diminished pool that remains in the low center of the basin retains the name – like a devoted keeper of the flame, waiting for the rains to return. During active hurricane seasons, we sometimes get enough rain to refill Alachua Lake.

Over the centuries, all kinds of boats have been used in the occasional lake. The nearby dugout canoe graveyard that is Newnan’s Lake gives ample proof that North Florida’s aborigines were paddlers. It seems likely they took to the waters of Paynes Prairie whenever water levels allowed.

The first documented boats on the Prairie were small steamboats used to ship goods and supplies (and the occasional brave passenger) during a 20 year flood that lasted from 1871 to 1892. The convenience of water transportation as opposed to the treacherous, sugar-sand wagon roads around the prairie perimeter, was a boon to area planters. Citrus cultivation was enjoying it’s heyday in North Florida and the heart of the industry was centered at Paynes Prairie. Recreational sailing was also popular on Alachua Lake. Contemporary accounts mention days when many sails could be seen skimming through the wind-ruffled whitecaps.

In the 1920′s, as highway 441 was being laid across the Prairie, flooding rains filled the basin. Once again, locals brought their boats and launched into reborn Alachua Lake. By now, it was gas-powered motor boats that plied the shallow lake. The elevated, half-completed roadbed for the highway became a favorite launch site.

The flooding of the 1920′s proved to be a temporary mood swing of the Prairie. Within a couple of years the waters had receded. By the ’30′s, the highway was complete and a new system of dykes and canals was completed by the cattle ranching Camp family who owned the Prairie. The new water control structures made the possibility of ever seeing another prolonged “lake” period, unlikely. Wrong again. In the 1960′s, the Prairie seemed to be on the verge of becoming a permanent lake – this time, with the help of humans.

When the Prairie was named a “wildlife sanctuary” in 1960′s, there was much debate about what to do with it. One of the most strongly lobbied ideas was to permanently flood the basin. The plan called for raising the Hwy 441 roadbed and constructing a tramway to carry tourists across the water. Boats could once again enjoy the open waters of Alachua Lake. The list of organizations was considerable and even included the local Audubon Society! Luckily, the State bought the Prairie in 1970 and all efforts turned to restoring the Prairie’s to it’s natural state. Today, the park service is committed to restoring the natural habitats and wildlife communities that existed on the Prairie before European encroachment.


At all water levels (including no water at all) Paynes Prairie is a Mecca for wildlife. There’s a healthy alligator population, but when ythe basin is flooded we don’t see any more than an average river trip or lake paddle. Birding is always good, with the full roster of common wading birds, assorted warblers, grackles, redwings, osprey, bald eagles, northern harriers and red-tailed hawks all being commonly seen. Sand hill cranes spend a lot of time here. The Prairie also has a reputation for surprising us with some bird species that are uncommon in the Gainesville area, including white pelicans, roseate spoonbills and the large fulvous whistling ducks. On all recent trips, we’ve spotted black-necked stilts, osprey, bald eagles, house swallows, barn swallows, American bitterns, and many wading birds of all persuasions.

Sandhill Cranes
Grus canadensisWith their tall stature, brilliant red cap and distinctive, rattle-like trumpeting, sandhill cranes are among the most loved and recognizable bird species in north Florida. Even non-birders stop in their tracks to scan the skies when they hear the distant trumpeting that announces the return of wintering cranes. By night, they gather by the hundreds in remote marshes and then disperse by day to feed in nearby fields and high marshes on seeds, fruits and small plants, as well as the occasional insects, worms and grubs. While there is a small year-round population in Florida, winter is the real season for sandhill cranes. The rarely seen courtship dance is performed by an enamored couple of cranes that face each other and then alternately bow their heads low and then jump into the air, flapping their wings and cackling like overgrown turkeys.

Conditions and Trip notes
(If you go, let us know)

Winter 2004 and Spring ’05 – The deluge of rains brought by a parade of fall hurricanes, revived the ephemeral lake. Thanks to the park services refreshing commitment to sharing the Paynes Prairie experience with all who love her, we have been allowed to guide tours on the lake since November. Be sure to watch the calendar for trip dates.

April 24, 2005 – Another beautiful day on the lake. Osprey, sand hill cranes, egrets, herons, moorhens, black-necked stilts and only a few alligators. The mats of pennywort, water hyacinth, smartweed, water lettuce, frogs bit, pickerel weed and more are spreading.

June 17, 2005 - Our recent trips have been highlighted by sightings of rare (in Florida) black-bellied whistling ducks. These spectacular birds have striking orange bills, and legs to match. Their grayish head sports an attractive dark stripe starting on the crown and going down to their shoulders, giving them one of the finest “Mohawk” hair-do’s (feather-do??) in the bird kingdom. They’ve been slowly building a population in Florida and there’s apparently a hefty population of several hundred of them in the Sarasota. Increasing reports from other parts of the State seem to indicate that this beautiful, large duck should soon find it’s way into Florida bird guides – to date it is not listed in any except in the occasional appendix of rarities. American lotus plants have burst open with their incredible huge, yellow blooms in scattered locations. The much more abundant yellow water lilies that formed a sea of yellow on last months trips, are now passing out of the blooming stage and are busy developing seeds for future generations.

July 8, ’05 – Recent rains have brought the levels to their highest point this year. With hurricane season bearing down on us, it looks like this rare opportunity might be extended for a while.

Sept. 11, 2005 – Recent trips have been a botanists dream. Dense stands of American lotus blooms on their 3 ft. stalks make for a surreal paddling experience. On the down side, this lush growth of marsh greenery is thriving and expanding. The route we follow out into the open water is getting increasingly clogged. It looks like we might be down to our last couple of trips – at least until winter freezes kill back some of these plants.

Sept. 24, 2005 – We knew this day was coming : – ( Today’s trip was beautiful as always, but….. we couldn’t get out to the main body of open water. After our initial paddle around the Alachua Sink area and over toward Ice Rink Sink, we steered our course down the canal toward Prairie central. About a third of the way out, we met a thicket of water hyacinth, pickerel weed and all of the other marsh vegetables that, under any other circumstances would have been most welcome. But their stubbornness was greater than ours and we were denied further passage. We still have a couple of trips on the calendar, but these will be listed as “X-Stream” trips, suitable only for the most determined (and physically fit) paddlers. We may get permission to manually clear a little channel through the vegetation, so if you’re hoping to do this one, don’t give up yet. Keep an eye on the calendar for possible updates. Either way, the end of this very rare opportunity is in sight.

Nov. 6, 2005 – We hand-cleared a small channel through the vegetables (I always grin when I read Bartram referring to wild plants as vegetables – thought I’d pass that grin along to you) so we are able to continue or paddles on the Prairie. Today’s trip was spectacular. The fall setting was dominated by burmarigolds, but many others, including smartweed, bladderwort, pickerelweed and a few yellow water lilies and fragrant water lilies were showing off their flowers as well. We spotted a half dozen glossy ibis, great blue herons, grackles, black-bellied whistling ducks, double-crested cormorants and more. Coots stole the day however, with several gatherings of different sizes, ranging upwards of a hundred birds, kept our attention – especially when making their A couple neaContrary to the breath-taking numbers of gators we see in this area during drier times, we’ve seen very few on recent trips. The 2 footer we saw today was the first we’ve spotted in the last 4 trips (mid – Oct. thru early Nov.) With the new little channel, it looks like we may still have at least a few more months of these Prairie trips. WOOHOO!!

Jan 29, 2006 – Water levels holding steady and recent rains have added a few welcome inches. At this point the celebration of blooms has has passes, and we find only a few scattered burmarigols, spatterdock and climbing asters. The prairie plants are now focusing their energies on producing and dispersing their progeny – coppery brown broom sedge seed heads waving in the breeze, small brownish gray tufts of aster crowd the bushes, a few relict “shower heads” of American lotus stand lonely in once crowded marsh, swollen brandy bottle pods of spatterdock, masses of amaranth seeds perch in large clusters atop buttressed red stalks. Browns of a thousand shades dominate the sweeping vistas in all directions. Glossy and white ibis still wade in the shallowest places, sharing these prime feeding grounds with a mutually beneficial feeding regimen – glossys probing the ground primarily for grains while the white ibis focus on insects and other small animals.

Feb 26, 2006 – Recent rains have added more water than is being lost to the combined workings of Alachua Sink, evaporation and transpiration. The levels are presently about where they were a couple of months after the hurricanes!! At this rate, we could be paddling the prairie for many months to come.

Spring is just starting to show on the Prairie. Willow trees are taking on a soft yellow-green tinge from developing catkins and tiny, fresh leaves just poking out from swelling buds. While we don’t see much spatter dock on this trip, those plants we do see are sending up new, yellow blooms. Oddly, the most noticeable blooms are bur marigolds, holdovers from the brilliant autumn show. Smartweed, pickerelweed, water hyacinth (whose beauty can’t be denied, even though we wish them gone!) have yet to get into the spirit of the season. Soon!! Tree swallows are still actively swooping and darting after flying insects while red-winged blackbirds work the marsh vegetation. I caught one beautiful banded water snake who was kind enough to let us check him out for a few minutes before sending him on his way. Well-healed but significant scars on his neck and a lopped-off tail told of a violent encounter in earlier years. Gators? What gators??

Oct. 4, 2006 - Water levels continue to recede. So, while paddling on the great Alachua Lake is relegated once again to the realm of happy memories and wishful thinking, the prospect of hiking, once again, on the Great Alachua Savanna looms ever closer as our favorite trails – La Chua, Bolens Bluff and Cone’s Dike – continue to dry.

August 2, 2007 – Yeah, I wish!!

March 09, 2008 – After an extended dry-out, recent rains have made the Prairie the gooshy, soggy wonderful place we know and love. While paddling is nowhere near to being an option, wildlife watching is great. The renewed dampness, combined with the renewed spring season has sparked a silent pilgrimage of nature lovers to this wildlife Mecca.

(Journey Home)

Bear Creek

Bear Creek

Group size: 1 – 24 people
Trip time: 4-5 hours
Skill level: beginner

Difficulty: Pull-overs and short wades are a possibility. There are a few tricky forks on all of the side
canals and on the Ocklawaha itself so you won’t want to get too far away from the guide


Join us for a scheduled tour. (see calendar for trips being planned).
If you see a free date on the calendar, suggest
the trip of your choice and we’ll post it!
or, schedule your own private tour. Call for details (386-454-0611)


To see this river’s general location, go to the River Locator Map or Click on link below for a local map and then use zoom and panning arrows to explore the area.
Note: the red star is NOT our meeting place, but just a nearby town or landmark.


This remote little stream offers a great opportunity to explore the wild beauty of a swamp without getting wet (usually).

On this trip, we explore the maze of creeks and sloughs that braid through the backwaters of the lower Ocklawaha basin. The first leg of our journey follows Bear Creek and Indian Village Slough into the heart of the swamp. Much of this section lies within Little Lake George Wilderness Area. Cypress, tupelo, maple, cabbage palm, holly and more, form a closed canopy overhead. In their shadows, we take in the rich sights, sounds and smells of the regal bottomland forest.

After a couple of hours paddling, we emerge from this shaded, intimate serenity onto the wide open expanse of St. Johns River. Here we rest, drifting in a floating garden of spatter dock, water lettuce, water hyacinth, duckweed and water ferns, enjoying lunch and watching the hustle of myriad river-craft, with shapes and sizes as diverse as their tasks. Many birds live along the big river and there’s always the possibility of spotting a manatee. After our brief, rejuvenating siesta, fed and fluffy, we resume our trip, entering the mouth of the Ocklawaha.

This part of the Ocklawaha starts out fairly wide but narrows as we make our way up against a modest current. Soon, we succumb to the lure of the swamp and we turn our boats away from the wide channel and reenter the river swamp. Following a series of small watery trails, with names like Turpentine Creek and Tusintak Creek, we pass through a section of Caravelle Ranch Wildlife Management Area before returning to our original launch site. This is a round trip.


Florida’s swamps, in general, are a virtual smorgasbord (are my Danish roots showing?) of wildlife. The Ocklawaha river swamp is a prime example. The year-round abundance of woodland birds swells considerably in winter with arriving migrants. Manatees are a possibility in the vicinity of the St. Johns river. Other wild residents include bears, eagles, osprey, deer, otters, egrets, herons, ibis and other water birds. This section also has a healthy ‘gator population, as well as snakes and an occasional wild hog. We often see wading birds, ranging from lone limpkins to 100+ flocks of white ibis feeding among the cypress knees and buttressed trunks of ash, tupelo and oak.

- Forager’s Notebook -Spatterdock (Nuphar luteum) – Our northern clients often know this plant as pond lily or cow lily. The small hard seeds found in the little ‘brandy-bottle’ seed pods (so nick-named because of their waisted, flask shape and also because the flowers sometimes smell like stale brandy dregs), are edible. Knowledgeable fishermen gather small “bonnet worms” that live in the stalks to use as bait. The ripe, dried seeds can be popped like popcorn, but don’t get your hopes up. While they make a unique snack when parched over a a fire, they don’t pop like popcorn. A few seeds will swell and pop slightly, but they don’t expand much bigger than the un-popped seeds. Even so, they are fairly tasty – especially when seasoned, salted and buttered. We see small patches of spatterdock on the open sections of this Bear Creek exploration. But, its’ at lunch where we find ourselves drifting dreamily in a large, several acre patch of their deep green leaves and attractive, yellow blooms.


Remains of an ancient Indian village site and a nearby shell mound, located on the high ground south of Indian Village Slough, attest to prehistoric occupation of this area. In the historic period this section of the Ocklawaha River, with it’s vast swamp lands, has gone relatively untouched. For more on the Ocklawaha river’s past, see Ocklawaha trip history).

Trip Notes
(Interesting sightings or notes? Let us know and we’ll post here)

Oct 14, 2001 – Fall is showing its colors. Red maples, black gum, sweet gum and dogwoods are providing reds of all shade, while wild grapes, hickory and others add some yellow. These, when mixed with the beautiful copper crowns of the bald cypress and the many hues of green offered by the die-hard leaves of the evergreens species and set against the electric blue winter sky, made this a very scenic trip. Several large flocks of white ibis were seen in the swamps as we quietly maneuvered down the thin, “north leg” stream.

Current Conditions
(If you go, let us know)

March 2, 2006 – Water levels are a little high, giving the river forest a good soaking. Usually, this would men fewer wading birds, but on today’s trip we were treated to quite a few feathered companions. A couple of large flocks of white ibis were making their way up and down the channel, while pine warblers and scores of other LBJ’s (little brown jobs) worked the under story. We spotted a half dozen gators, and twice as many turtles (mostly red-bellies) soaking up the sun and gearing up for the carnival of spring. At this time of year, we get a great demonstration of the subtle differences a few fractions of a degree in latitude makes on the environment. Here, in the Ocklawaha valley, red maples are a bit greener and more of their ripe, red samara (seeds) have dropped than those in the next valley to the north, along the Santa Fe. Elm leaves are bigger, newly unfurled ash leaves are a bit longer, the dust of oak pollen is more apparent. The forests of the Suwannee are just a shade less green. Fewer flowers have dared open and unopened buds are not as plump. But in either place, there’s no mistaking it – spring is here!!

Oct. 3, 2006 - It’s hard to believe the entire summer season passed without a chance to explore these quiet backwaters. Our last trip was a celebration of re-emerging spring foliage, while this trip was heavy in the subtle signs of autumn. All of the hard work of summer – producing flowers, attracting pollinators, developing seeds – is now paying off. Seeds, nuts and fruits decorate branches of many swamp plants. Dogwoods formerly greenish-white fruits are now purple. Female hollies are brilliantly decorated with orange berries, while the males rest – their work long done. Tupelo, haw, and bay trees all boast the fruits of a successful season. Less showy, but no less important, are the dried seeds of ash trees that hang heavily in dense, brown clusters. But, of course, for us passing human guests, it’s the show of colorful foliage that highlights autumn paddling in these forests. While we’re far from “peak” here in central Florida, there are signs of the coming season. Weakened red maples, tupelos, dogwoods and even poison ivy are showing their first inclination to give up the summer, while cardinal flowers and swamp lilies are in full bloom. No sign yet of the true harbinger of fall – climbing asters – but it won’t be long. Several gators and assorted birds made good company on this days exploration.

Feb. 05, 2008 – The forests of the lower Ocklawaha are alive with the smells and colors of spring, and Bear Creek is as good as ever. However, a few new downfalls have elevated the difficulty and added about 1/2 hour to the trip. For the pessimist, that’s a half hour more work – for the optimist, it’s an extra half hour to enjoy the woods.

June 15, 2008 – A few trees have fallen across Tusintak Creek, which made for a bit of a workout. There is an alternate route that we can take on our next trip to avoid these obstacles. Aside from that, the creek and river are looking great. Cardinal flowers are blooming in the couple of isolated patches where they grow on this stretch.

July 6, ’08 – Water levels were a bit low, bringing some of the submerged logs closer to the surface. A couple of spots that were easy scooch-overs before, now require getting out of the boat and doing a pull-over. Aside from that, the creeks were all as beautiful as ever. Motorboats were amazingly scarce on the brief section of the wide Ocklawaha that we paddle. Only saw about three motor boats – amazing for a holiday weekend!

CURRENT WATER LEVELS (on St Johns near Bear Creek)

(Journey Home)