In early March 2011, I contacted St. Marks Outfitters, located in the small town of St. Marks, to inquire about renting a kayak and paddling upstream from Newport Bridge on FL 98 to St. Marks Spring and back. According to Johnny Molloy's excellent book, "Canoeing & Kayaking in Florida," the distance is six and a half miles, or a 13-mile round trip. Other paddlers had advised me the round-trip was a tough paddle, with the current and shallow water combining to create a real challenge.
Not getting an answer when I originally called, I decided to drive straight to the outfitter's. I arrived just as Mike McNamara, the owner, was driving up. We went inside his office and arranged for a paddle the next day. He checked the tides and recommended an early start to take advantage of an incoming tide that would start coming in at 7 a.m. We agreed to meet around 8:30.
The next morning Mike helped me load an 11-foot Native Watercraft Manta Ray kayak on the Subaru. He warned me about some swift water running over rocks, and advised me to "make sure you start back downstream by noon or 12:30 so you can make it back with plenty of daylight." To me, it sounded as if he didn't expect me to paddle all the way to the spring. I was determined to make it all the way there and back.
The put-in at Newport Park is a concrete ramp with a small parking area. I arrived at about 8:45 a.m. and was in the water and on my way upstream at 9 a.m. The river at this point is wide with only moderate current. Palm, cypress and other hardwoods line the banks, and no commercial or private docks mar the river's natural beauty. Farther up the river, the wooded shoreline became interspersed with swampy areas.
Mike had told me I would probably paddle right past the tributary from Newport Spring (formerly called Brewer Sulphur Spring) without seeing it. I looked for the small stream, and it came into view on my right about a mile from the put-in. Unlike what the literature claimed, I could smell no odor of sulphur.
At several places, the banks showed signs of alligator activity, with mud slicks where the reptiles may have slid into the water. But although there were numerous downed tree trunks on the banks that could have passed for gators, there were no "moving logs" among them.
Birds were plentiful, with several great blue herons, great egrets, and anhinga looking for fish. At times there were hawks soaring, and I thought I spotted an osprey once.
Several small streams entered the river, some of them shallow rivulets with small standing pools. I found several inlets to stop and rest out of the current after long periods of intense paddling.
About halfway up the river I discovered the "large rocks" that Mike had warned me about. The water riffled over them in forbidding splashes. The rocks extended most of the way across the river, leaving a narrow area of shallows where the water grass was bent and laying flat with the current. I decided to try the shallows, but in spite of furious paddling, I found I wasn't able to make any progress.
Securing my paddle and making sure everything in the boat was safe, I got out and pulled the kayak several feet through the shallow current until I found a calm area at the edge of the river. Then I got back in and continued upstream.
There were a couple of other areas with fast-running water over shoals, but I was able to skirt the worst of the current and find calmer water. By now I had been on the river more than two hours, and I paddled harder, determined to reach the spring before the "witching hour" of 12:30.
Then I began to see private docks and summer homes along the shoreline, indications that I was getting closer to the spring. The river had been getting narrow, but now it was wider, with hydrilla and other water plants floating luxuriantly on the surface.
At 12:15, I found the river had become a lake, with numerous "islands" of water plants. The current was still strong where the water cut between the hydrilla, but I could see a stand of large cypress trees in the distance that seemed to border the headwaters. In about half an hour, I had paddled to the far side of the lake and reached a point where the current began to flow in the other direction. I had made it to the spring.
Now I could relax. The current coming out of the spring was fairly brisk, and I found I could rest my paddle and float leisurely. I hadn't slept well the night before, and nearly drifted off a couple of times as I let the river take me downstream.
But I hadn't gone far when I realized the current was slowing. I resumed paddling at a steady pace. I looked for the shoals I had seen, and the large rocks that had been such a challenge on the upstream leg, but I never saw them. Apparently the rising tide had covered the large rocks and diminished the current in the process.
It was after 3 p.m. when I reached the put-in and got out of the river. I loaded the kayak and returned to St. Marks, feeling tired and a little sore in the shoulders, but glad to have completed my round-trip to St. Marks Spring. I started kayaking at age 69, and have been paddling each winter in Florida since then. I'll be 77 in April (2014), and intend to paddle as long as I'm able, as I love the sport.
Shell Island Fish Camp and Marina on nearby Wakulla River
St. Marks is located at the end of SR 363 just off FL 98, about 15 miles south of Tallahassee.
Newport Park has a concrete ramp with a small parking area.
"Canoeing & Kayaking in Florida" by Johnny Malloy