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Our airboat zig zagged over eelgrasses and aquatic plants and past startled alligators on the Wacissa River, Florida.
Savannah clutched my arm with a mixture of terror and exhilaration on her face. I grinned and whooped back at her, “This is so awesome!!”
“Just when you think you’ve seen and done it all after 22 years, something comes along unlike anything else you’ve experienced.”
This is the part to my business I delight in – showcasing to you, these hidden treasures and beautiful places in Florida that still can be found, if you just go a little further off the trail.
Adventuring down the Wacissa River was one of the last adventures on our week long road trip of Natural North Florida, filled with memorable Florida adventures like kayaking to offshore islands in Cedar Key and free diving for sea scallops in Steinhatchee.
It was the perfect end to our Florida road trip for our current desires to seek outdoor adventures free from the crowds!
Come with us down below as we journey down the Wacissa River, first on a magical airboat tour, and finishing with a technical and thrilling kayak paddle through the historical Slave Canal.
We rate this as one of the most fun things to do in Florida with kids, and one of our most spectacular outdoor adventures in the USA.
As we walked up to the air boat at the beginning of our trip at Wacissa River Springs, I was magnetically drawn to gaze in wonder at the view in front of me.
A dense, tropical canopy bordered a large body of crystal clear river covered with water hyacinths and bright green lilies.
Kayakers slowly paddled up the river, almost as if in a slow motion dream and a rope dangled from an ancient cypress tree where kids launched themselves giggling into the water.
It was like stepping into a secret High Definition Disney movie.
This is one of the true hidden gems in Florida. No, make that a USA hidden gem.
Even if you don’t go any further down the Wacissa, it is worth visiting for the view alone and perhaps swing yourself off that rope into the refreshingly cool spring waters.
Wacissa Springs is where you board your airboat tour, OR, rent kayaks to deepen your explorations downstream and into the many springs that feed it.
The Wacissa River by Airboat and Kayak
The Wacissa River is a first magnitude clear, spring-fed stream that is fed by about 20 springs at its headwaters.
The river flows approximately 15-miles (19 km) south through a broad cypress swamp before breaking into numerous braided channels which join the Aucilla River, a few miles further south.
The river, usually crystal clear, was slightly brown due to large amounts of rain.
You can explore a few of the springs on kayak at the beginning of the river, the first mile of which can get busy with fellow kayakers.
Our airboat tour took us beyond the paddlers to a world we had almost to ourselves – except for the snapping alligators and turtles.
Captain Brad Cooley from 5 Rivers Adventures was our guide for the day. He grew up on the Wacissa and Aucilla River and was knowledgeable about the area, stopping to point out different types of birds, Indian mounds, and how to identify them, and the bubbles of the spring waters beginning its journey.
He took us into a couple of springs, including Big Blue Springs, a favorite for those craving a refreshing dip who come for the kayaking near Tallahassee.
You’ll find a rope swing up in the trees high above the 40-foot-deep blue green-water.
Brad dived in from the boat so we could see just how deep and clear the water is as he went down .. down .. down.
This magical journey took us down the forested corridor of the river, through tight spaces with overhanging branches, past alligators, turtles sunning, and abundant and diverse wildlife.
Ospreys, herons, eagles, flew from branch to branch leading down the river.
Savannah and I grinned and squealed and silently absorbed the beauty of it for our 11-mile journey. Kalyra sat in the back, solemnly absorbing the experience. She later told me she found it beautiful and amazing but “a little scary!”
Airboat tours turn around at the old railroad used during one of the first logging operations in North Florida.
Brad took us a little further to Goose Pasture, a picnic and camping area, and the starting point for the next part of our adventure…after a delicious picnic lunch!
Kayaking the Slave Canal to the Aucilla River
The first part down the Wacissa was passive adventure, the remainder of the day was about getting low to the water and pumping those arms.
We traded the airboat for single kayaks and canoes and we set off with a few local friends, including guide and local historian David Ward.
It’s best to take this trip with an experienced guide. Even though the Slave Canal is marked, you could easily get lost among different channels branching off so its best to take this trip with an experienced guide.
Our kayak trip began on a wide section of the Wacissa and slowly narrowed as it disappears into a small group of streams, tributaries, and river swamps just west of the Aucilla River.
Connecting the Wacissa to the Aucilla is what is known as the Slave Canal.
It was decided in the 1830s to build a canal to connect the Aucilla and Wacissa to enable transportation of the cotton down to the Gulf.
Slaves were made to do the back breaking work of building a 2.7 mile canal out of the limestone. It was abandoned after the Civil War for more efficient railroads.
Blocks of limestone remain on the bank and serve as a reminder of the arduous task they faced in the heat and humidity with snakes, alligators and mosquito threats of malaria and yellow fever.
It was a poignant trip, bringing awareness to their experiences and a reminder to continue to stand for creating an inclusive and equal world.
There are also several Indian Mounds along the river, indicating that humans occupied this region more than 14,000 years ago, as discovered via artifacts found in the archaeological digs conducted by the Aucilla Research Institute.
These woods were full of native people hunting and fishing and it is said the Slave Canal was probably once a Native American secret trading passageway.
You can jump off the kayaks to explore the mounds, but the thickness of the mosquitoes and heat kept us paddling.
We like to say the challenges of our travels are there just to enhance the story, and those mosquitoes and high humidity just gave us a more interesting story to tell.
This adventurous kayak or canoe trip is stunning.
The water is clear and shallow and although the paddling was easy as the current was flowing fast in assistance, it was quite technical. We had to artfully navigate around fallen logs, narrow sections, and overhanging branches.
Ancient oaks and palmettos draped with Spanish moss provide a canopy over the river, and this has become one of our most memorable places to visit in Florida!
Alligators sat watching on the banks, one even crashed into the water with a loud tail slap just ahead of us. We all missed it except for Savannah, who was head-alligator spotter in the front of the canoe with David.
In the middle of the trip, after several technical paddling sections, I was happy we decided Savannah would be better kicking back in the canoe than paddling her own kayak.
She was thrilled to come eye to eye with an alligator and forced him to go underwater in fear!!
That’s a story she has to tell for life.
My favorite part was David’s expert advice,
“I’m not too worried about snakes and alligators in this area. If a snake drops into your kayak, you can just kind of flip it out with your paddle. It’s the wasps you must worry about. If they come after you, the only thing you can do is dive under the water with the alligators. Watch the hanging branches as that’s where their nests are.”
Meanwhile, I’d just gone under about four hanging trees. Never mind because my mind was still stuck on the “if a snake drops into your kayak” bit.
I steered clear of those branches for the rest of the trip even if it meant crashing into other kayaks and logs and nearly upending myself with the alligators.
This is why I travel.
For adventure, memories and stories will be told around the campfire for years to come.
This was an adventure I got to experience with my children, and if you’re looking for adventurous things to do in Florida with kids, put this on your list!
The battle to keep Kalyra focused on the moment, rather than freaking out about the spider crawling on her canoe and the mosquitoes biting every part of her, was intense at the time, but we overcame it, and grew together.
The last 500 yards were tough as we paddled against the swift moving current of the Aucilla River racing towards the Gulf of Mexico.
Kalyra dug deep to find the last bit of strength after a mentally and physically demanding 5-mile route to get herself home. I was worried she’d get swept away, but I couldn’t stop to help as I’d do the same and be useless.
It was an important parenting growth challenge for me – to let go and trust that my child can do it and give her the opportunity to dig deep and find her own power.
So I just shouted out encouraging words “You can do it, Kalyra!”
As we loaded the kayaks onto the truck, I hugged her.
“I know that was tough for you Kalyra. I am so impressed by what you can do. Push aside the trauma of it and instead take the true power from it.
It showed you what you are truly capable of and just how strong and powerful you really are. Now imagine what you can do with that knowledge with the rest of your life.
She ended that adventure with a smile.