The Florida Outdoors: Peace River

By Dr. Rob Norman

A couple of my outdoor buddies, Ed and Arnold, and I have made it a goal to kayak the entire Peace River over the course of several separate adventures.

The Peace River originates at the juncture of Saddle Creek and Peace Creek northeast of Bartow in Polk County and flows south through Hardee County to Arcadia in DeSoto County. The river meanders southwest into the Charlotte Harbor estuary at Port Charlotte in Charlotte County, a total of 106 miles. The section we traversed most recently goes from the Heritage Peace River Landing to Fort Meade Recreation Area and includes one of the most primitive and wonderful parts of the entire Peace River.

The area is filled with amazing history. The Peace River was called Rio de la Paz (River of Peace) on 16th century Spanish charts and appeared as Peas Creek or Pease Creek on later maps. The Creek (and later, Seminole) Native Americans call it Talakchopcohatchee, the River of Long Peas; the river’s banks were covered with wild peas. Charlotte Harbor, with its abundant wildlife and fishery, supported the Caloosahatchee culture (in early historic times, the Calusa). As you listen to the rippling water, think back to the days of the Spanish explorers, Native Americans and first settlers and then come back to the present to take in the beauty of where you are paddling. The Peace River now supplies over six million gallons per day of drinking water to the people in the region.

The Peace River Canoe Trail, 67 miles of the total river, is officially designated as part of Florida’s Statewide System of greenways and trails. Along the banks one can see the scars of 19th century phosphate mining of the river banks, but much has been absorbed by the river and covered by lush vegetation. The river changes flow and character along the way. At times the river is narrow and rolls swiftly between high banks. Around a gentle curve, the river may widen and the current shift you over with its whimsical whorls of water. The Peace River is split by tiny islands (either going right or left around the island will get you further downstream), joined by numerous creeks, and populated by sandy beaches and sloping banks that provide excellent resting or camping spots.

One of the highlights of our adventure was a side trip to investigate a raised area along the shore to look for artifacts. As I wandered along a cypress sink and over the muddy slopes, it was quite humid and my arms were feasting sites for ravenous mosquitoes. I explored the ridge that had been created by dredging a canal that connected with the river. After about 20 minutes of exploring I eyed my first prize, an object about half the size of a banana that rested on the hillside. When I picked it up for closer examination, I realized it was a rib bone from a Metaxytherium floridianum, or Florida dugong, a cousin to today’s manatee. The bone is at least two to three million years in age and perhaps much older. During further investigation I found shells and other artifacts.

As you paddle along, look all around. You will be surrounded by cypress trees with moss beards, horizontal cabbage palms that dip their trunks in the water before jutting up and out from the shore to capture maximum sunshine and water, wading birds such as herons, ibis, and egrets feeding on the banks, a turtle or gator on a log, perhaps an otter swimming alongside you, and soaring hawks overhead.

Here is an important point. Before you head out to the river, make sure you plan your trip ahead and get the correct coordinates. Be patient. Being on the river is the reward, but often you can experience the frustration of any explorer by getting caught in driving down the incorrect roads and doing wrong turns on the way to get to your put-in and take out spots. We generally have a set-up where we arrange to have vehicles on each end of the route so we can paddle downstream. When we finish we put the kayaks on a vehicle and drive back to the beginning of the trip to unload one of the kayaks and get back into our vehicles and head out. All of this seems simple, but requires clear communication and good directions to maximize your time on the water. Get out on the river!

More peace in later stories…enjoy the Great Florida Outdoors!