OCKLAWAHA RIVER, FL — Deep under the shade of cypress, swamp maple and sable palms, central Florida’s Ocklawaha River runs clear and cool, even now in the stifling heat of summer. Out here on a weekday afternoon, far removed from the sound of civilization, you can kayak through a forest so thick you’ll wonder if you’ve drifted back into another age.
For taking the trouble to venture out, you’ll be rewarded with plenty of interesting sights: Alligators silently patrolling the shoreline or sunning themselves on the snags. Reptilian long-nose gar — some of them half the length of your paddle — swimming alongside your kayak. You might even spot a rhesus monkey or two. They’re not native, but they seem quite at home in this jungle.
All this can be had for a reasonable price and a modest amount of effort. The Ocklawaha Outpost in Ft. McCoy offers canoe and kayak rentals and it’s the perfect jumping off point. Here you can rent what you need for a day trip or an overnight adventure. They also provide snacks, sporting goods, and a nice picnic and camping ground.
“I grew up on the Wekiva and Rock Springs runs, and I’ve never seen as much wildlife as you’ll find on this river,” said Larry Reiche, who owned the Outpost. “People see bear, deer, turkey, otters. A couple of people — and I really believe them — say they’ve seen a panther.”
The most popular kayak trip takes in 8 miles of the Ocklawaha from Gore’s Landing to the SR 316 overpass — the stretch that is least traveled by motor boats. Reiche will drop you off at Gore’s Landing, where you can follow the current north along the edge of Ocala National Forest. Along the way, you’ll pass just one home, sitting on a bluff as you pass Eaton Creek. On a mid-week trip, a friend and I paddled for hours without seeing another human being.
The Ocklawaha originates near Weirsdale at the southern edge of Marion County and winds its way north for 110 miles before merging with the St. Johns River south of Palatka. The “c” in the river’s name only received official endorsement a short time ago, Reiche said.
But as remote and narrow as this river seems, it was once a popular route for riverboat cruises on their way to Silver Springs. At the Outpost you can take a look at some of the old double-decker paddleboats that once plied these waters. Reiche told of one post-Civil War riverboat operator by the name of Hubbard L. Hart who won a fat government contract to keep the Ocklawaha clear for commercial traffic. It was a great deal, considering that his Hart Line represented the only commercial traffic on the river at that time.
Moving at a comfortable pace, the kayak trip takes about three hours. After paddling for an hour or so you’ll find several suitable places to stop for lunch. We noticed a few mosquitoes only when we wandered ashore. On the river they left us alone.
Near the end of the journey, we encountered a flipped canoe that was half full of water. Its two former occupants were floating alongside, trying frantically to recover their belongings. A flotilla of soda cans began to stretch downriver as we approached. After a few clumsy attempts to help right the canoe, we decided to float together the rest of the way since we weren’t far from the Outpost. Besides, in the heat of summer there are worse disasters than flipping a canoe in a cool river. That is, as long as you remember to leave your valuables at home.
Ocklawaha River Kayak Rentals:
WHERE: The Ocklawaha River Outpost is located at 16260 NE 152nd Place in Fort McCoy, Florida. For info, call 1-866-236-4606.
WHEN: Departure times for day trips: 10 a.m., 11 a.m., and 1 p.m. Return must be made before 6 p.m. weekends and 5 p.m. weekdays. During the summer, the 10 o’clock trip offers the best chance of avoiding afternoon thunderstorms. Allow at least 3 hours. The Outpost is closed Tuesdays. Reservations are recommended, especially on weekends. The cost starts at $44 for a two-person canoe with shuttle service. Overnight trips, canoe shuttles, and camping are also available. (Or check out more Ocala Camping options nearby.) Kayak rentals start at $34.
Other Canoeing and Kayaking Options:
Though rentals are not available at Ray Wayside Park, it’s also a good place to begin exploring near the junction of the Ocklawaha and the Silver River. Wayside Park is located 4 miles east of Silver Springs on Highway 40. The parking fee is $4.25 per vehicle.