Canoeists navigate around an oyster bar at the paddling trails at Weedon Isand.

By Terry Tomalin

ST. PETERSBURG – Every year when the north wind blows, Russell Farrow’s phone starts ringing.

“People want to know if there is any place they can go to get out on the water,” said Farrow, co-owner of St. Petersburg’s Sweetwater Kayaks. “The answer is always yes. Because one thing we have no shortage of is good sheltered, safe places to paddle.”

January traditionally is one of the roughest months on the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Charter boat captains and recreational anglers have a hard time scheduling trips between the cold fronts, one of the reasons people usually drydock watercraft for seasonal maintenance this time of year.

But winter need not chase everyone off the water. Florida’s west coast has dozens of great places to get away from the wind.

The following trips can by made by sea kayak and, weather permitting, canoe:

The Chassahowitzka River

Located about an hour north of downtown Tampa, this short but scenic paddle is one of the best-kept secrets on the Suncoast. Running through the heart of a 30,000-acre National Wildlife Refuge, the Chassahowitzka is fed by freshwater springs perfect for snorkeling and swimming.

In addition to being one of the best birding spots in the country, the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge also is one of the best places in Florida to see a black bear in the wild. Rent a canoe at the Chassahowitzka River Camp Ground, the best access point for the springs, and paddle 7 miles to the gulf. The campground (352-382-2200) offers tent and RV camping.

Weeki Wachee River

This river is famous for its mermaids and is one of Florida’s oldest attractions. Paddlers can take a leisurely trip courtesy of a first-magnitude spring that discharges 16-million gallons of clear water daily.

You can take the river to the gulf, turn around and paddle back, or arrange for an outfitter to pick you up. Trip lengths vary from 4 to 12 miles, depending on where you put in.

Weeki Wachee Canoe Rental, located at State Road 50 and U.S. 19, charges $33 for a two-seat canoe or $24 for a single-seat kayak. Reservations are suggested. Call (352) 597-0360 (The canoe rental is closed Jan. 5 to Jan. 16.)

Pithlachascotee River

The Pasco coast is known for fishing, but head inland on the Cotee River and experience another side of this coastal county. This 5-mile canoe trail, difficult at times because of tight turns and fallen trees, is a challenge for any paddler.

The upper portion of the river (Pithlachascotee is the full name) is part of the state’s Greenways and Trails system. Start at the Rowan Road Bridge and finish at Francis Avenue City Park. If you continue toward the gulf, you may notice tidal influence. Plan your trip accordingly.

Anclote Key

The northernmost island in a barrier chain that stretches to the Everglades, Anclote Kay is a favorite destination of sea kayakers looking for open-water challenges. On a good day the camping area on the northern end of this 3-mile-long island can be reached in a hour starting at Pasco County’s Anclote Gulf Park. But beware, the channel between the island and mainland is no place to get caught if the weather turns bad.

Part of the Florida Park System, Anclote Preserve is managed and patrolled by rangers stationed at nearby Honeymoon Island. The historic lighthouse, recently restored, is worth a look.

Honeymoon Island

It doesn’t matter which way the wind blows, you can find sheltered water somewhere around Honeymoon Island. Honeymoon and nearby Caladesi islands were one island until the hurricane of ’21 split them.

Hurricane Pass, which separates the islands, is notorious for strong tides. Don’t get stuck paddling against it.

The sheltered east side of the island is known for flats fishing and birds. But if the weather is calm, paddle the gulf side and stop midway. You might have the beach to yourself.

Caladesi Island

Caladesi Island is consistently ranked as one of the top beaches in the U.S., and the 3.5-mile canoe trail on the bay side of the island offers a rare glimpse inside a mangrove forest.

The island is accessible only by boat or passenger ferry, so plan the crossing from Honeymoon into your trip. Start on the beach and follow the channel markers into the state marina. The canoe/kayak trail is clearly marked.

Anclote Key, Honeymoon Island and Caladesi Island are managed out of the same office. Call (727) 469-5942 for information.

Fort DeSoto

The 10-mile circumnavigation of Mullet Key (the island on which the 19th century fort sits) is a favorite race route for outrigger canoe crews. Sea kayakers will find this trip a challenge because, one way or the another, they have to fight the tide.

Mullet Key is a favorite starting point for the crossing to Egmont Key, a trip that should be attempted only by experienced paddlers. A more moderate trip would be to launch at Fort DeSoto’s boat ramp and go west to Shell Key. Call (727) 582-2267.

Weedon Island

Long a secret playground for St. Petersburg’s paddlers, Pinellas County has recently begun sponsoring organized canoe tours through this maze of mangrove islands.

The southern portion of the canoe trail starts near the pier and snakes through some of the best fishing areas on the west side of Tampa Bay. The northern portion of the trail starts in a mosquito-control ditch and finishes near Gandy Boulevard.

If particularly energetic, start at Gandy Beach and follow the route of the Annual Weedon Island Power Paddle, which benefits Tampa BayWatch. Call the Weedon Island Preserve and Cultural and Natural History Center at (727) 453-6500.

Upper Tampa Bay Park

Much of this 2,144-acre Hillsborough County Park sits on peninsula that juts out into Old Tampa Bay. Because of easy access, the landmass was settled by a succession of Indian tribes.

Head into open water or venture up Double Branch Creek, a favorite destination for anglers in kayaks. Finish early and be sure to visit the Nature Center run by Hillsborough Community College. Call (813) 855-1765.

Hillsborough River State Park

Paddling a canoe along the upper Hillsborough, it is hard to believe this is the river that flows through downtown Tampa. From its origins in the Green Swamp, the Hillsborough twists and turns for about 55 miles before emptying into the northern end of Hillsborough Bay.

One of the most scenic stretches flows through Hillsborough River State Park. A 30-minute drive from downtown Tampa, the park also offers overnight camping and picnicking. Call (813) 987-6771.

CapMel Staff
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