Peace River & Canoe Camping

Early cartography was part knowledge, part guesswork. But that didn’t stop a Spanish map maker from tracing an approximate path for a river that he knew emptied into Charlotte Harbor. He would have no way of knowing what the river looked like 106 miles north at its headwaters north of modern day Ft. Meade, nor would he know the lazy meandering path the river would follow, but he rather fortuitously inked Rio de la Paz, which translates in English to, the “Peace River”. Perhaps until that day, the river was a straight, overflowing rushing disaster of a river, lined with jagged rocks, underwater snags, and dangerous reptiles at every turn. Then, understanding that it would have to live up to its new moniker, the Peace River slowed up and added some lazy hairpin turns. The reptiles and downed trees would stay, but it turns out that these would only add to the allure of the river. The Peace River provides what its name suggests, a feeling of escape from the hustle of everyday life and a bit of indulgence in nature.

The history of the Peace River is relatively recent, really only going back 5,000 to 10,000 years. Before then, the river, and nearly all of South Florida, was the bottom of a shallow sea. This shallow sea made an excellent nursery for a variety of species for millions of years prior, and the banks of Peace River are teeming with fossilized evidence. The rushing waters have eroded away the top layers of soil, exposing millions of sharks teeth, whale bones, and manatee elbows. I’m pretty sure manatees have elbows. No? Oh, well, other manatee parts then. This is all mixed together with a layer of shells and gravel that makes fossil hunting downright easy, if not reminiscent of “Where’s Waldo”. Except Waldo is a small black pointy object among thousands of other small black objects.

A quick look at a satellite map will show you that for much of the river, especially the inland sections, civilization is a long way off. If not for the occasional beer can or discarded camp supplies, it easy to imagine your canoe as a Seminole dug out two hundred years ago, or a Calusa vessel on a warpath to attack strange white men (it was the Calusa that would fatally shoot Ponce de Leon with a poison arrow).

Like many of the rivers in South Florida, the Peace fluctuates drastically with the seasons.  It’s well known that there are only two seasons in Florida, wet and dry, and these have a profound impact on the Peace River experience.  During late spring time, after a temperate but dry winter, the river shrivels up to a creek that is barely passable in many areas. Inches of water are all that separate canoeing from hiking when the river is this low, and the current slows down to a crawl. This is when the Peace River offers some of its most peaceful paddling, and when fossil hunting and fishing are both excellent. Like good barbeque, low and slow is the key to easy fossil hunting. The dozens of fish species in the river are also forced into deeper holes, and finding these make catching fish a whole lot easier.

Daily downpours in summer throughout the Peace River watershed accumulate quickly and can cause the river to swell to more than 10 ft above normal levels. With the influx of fresh water, the current increases considerably and makes for a less leisurely ride but adds a bit of excitement to the mix. While it’s possible to get where you’re going a lot faster with fewer paddle strokes, this type of canoeing or kayaking should be reserved for experienced paddlers only as the likelihood of flipping, tipping, or careening out of control into a jagged cypress snag goes way up.

The DoFloridaRight crew made our way from Zolfo Springs the Peace River Canoe Outpost at Gardner, a 19.2 mile paddle spread out over two days. Making the trip in late April afforded us some very low water which did make for good fishing and easy fossil hunting, but slowed us down to a crawl any time we weren’t actively paddling. We were able to find nice big sandy banks for setting up camp with relative ease, although the good ones are few and far between.  The bugs were negligible, but we were prepared for the worst just in case the deer flies, mosquitoes, and no-see-ums decided to grace us with their presence. We paddled about 5 hours on the first day and 4 hours on the second, with the first of the two having many more breaks. 

Click here to read about the rest of our Peace River Canoe Camping Trip

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