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St. Johns River from Hatbill Park
west of Mims, Florida USA
Kayaking or canoeing the St. Johns River is a special experience. The St. Johns is noteworthy not only for its spectacular natural beauty but also as a perspective on Florida's long and colorful history. Native Americans used the St. Johns River and its tributaries extensively for transportation. Before railroads or roads, the river later served as a major artery for paddle-wheel boats. Over 300 miles long, it is the longest river in Florida and one of only 14 American Heritage Rivers in the USA. This rare northern-flowing U.S. river begins in the marshes of Blue Cypress Lake and ends at it's mouth on the Atlantic in Jacksonville.
The first land-accessible kayaking and canoeing sections of this river are upstream (south) of Melbourne, Florida through Lake Hell N Blazes and the two Sawgrass Lakes.Hatbill Park is located on the secondary, eastern channel of the river. One can proceed upstream, southeasterly during high water and turn north after about a half mile go up through a chain of three small lakes (Ruth, Clark, and Loughman) or continue upstream as far as water levels permit.
I elected on this trip to go west to the main navigation channel on the river (half mile) turning south and proceeding upstream. The locals have installed helpful PVC pipe channel markings at this point. (One could go north at that point to access the Puzzle Lake area via either of two channels. That would be better done as a one-way paddle with provision for a pick-up at the launch ramp on SR 46, as it's a long
paddle to Puzzle Lake with an upstream return.)
I continued upstream (south) to and through Lake Cone to the point where the river enters Lake Cone, almost 6 miles one way from Hatbill Park.
GPS: N 28 33.481 W 080 57.782
The flood plain is 1.5 to 2 miles wide in this area and nearly devoid of large trees except for some scattered high mounds. The banks are covered with very tall grasses for most of this route and there are no landings except for Orange Mound about 1.2 miles from the launch and at Bear Bluff on a secondary channel where airboaters have erected a nice little shelter in a copse of small trees.Two forks are encountered on this route; stay right for the main channel. On the first fork encountered on the return paddle, I went right to take the secondary channel to Bear Bluff. This is a nice area for a break, but you're only about 1.7 miles from the take out at this point. There are airboaters on the weekends and an airboat tour operation out of Loughman Lake Lodge which may be encountered on weekdays.
The channel is about 50' wide until it doubles in width at the second fork, about 2.3 miles out. This is a beautiful, serene stretch of river to paddle, but it requires focus and a sharp eye to see much of the wildlife due to the heavy cover. The gators are wild and shy as well and, except during nesting season. Gators typically disappear under water as soon as they decide you are larger than they are.
I'd had my fly-rod, I could have caught a washtub
full of large, aggressively feeding panfish
and schooling bass.