In early 2002, I am invited to give my “Road to Ruin” speech (regarding urban sprawl and traffic congestion) at the annual Florida Sierra Club conference being held in Ocala. It is a 3-day weekend. An obvious opportunity for a multi-day kayak trip in central Florida.
My paddle group agrees. We need to paddle the Econlockhatchee (“Econ”) river east of Orlando. It is about the only important, attractive river we’ve yet to kayak in this part of Florida. It turns out to be an excellent decision.
At the conference, I am having lunch with two of the attendees. One informs me of a person she knows who has “insanely” gone scuba diving in the Silver River, even though the river is teeming with alligators. I choose not to let her know that I had done the same thing only a few months before.
My speech concludes. We head out to the designated intersection where we are to meet the third in our group. While waiting, I struggle into the brush on the side of the road to change out of my suit and tie, and into my kayak shorts. We drive off to our overnight motel we’ll use before the adventure.
A great irony awaits us. My speech had, in extensive detail, described the ruinous, bankrupting fate that awaits a community that builds large-capacity, high-speed arterial roads (the “50/50 road”) in its urban area in a hopeless effort to avert congestion. That no force on earth can stop the inevitable march that such a road brings toward the downward spiral of strip commercial development.
Within an hour of my speech concluding, we find ourselves driving down Colonial Drive east of Orlando. Colonial is unquestionably the most horrifying, seemingly endless form of “Anywhere USA” strip commercial development that I have ever seen in the nation. Not coincidentally, it is a 50/50 road. Illustrative of the auto-oriented, unwalkable misery of our motel along this stretch, we discover that buying a bag of ice the next morning requires over a mile of driving along a congested road, back-tracking and making U-turns. This despite the fact that the Big Box supermarket we go to for the ice is ACROSS THE STREET from our motel.
The next morning, on our drive to the kayak put-in point, we are appalled to find that a state road, running perpendicular to Colonial, has ignored the lessons of Colonial Drive. The scene is ugly. Millions of public dollars have been poured into widening the state road, thereby locking that road into the same strip commercial fate as Colonial. The region is being ruined-at enormous public expense. We have met the enemy, and he is us…
Our desired put-in point for the kayak adventure, we’ve been told, was currently closed off for construction. Sure enough, we arrive at the bridge and are greeted by “No Trespassing” construction signs. We scoff and drive on. After all, we don’t need no stinkin’ badges…
We fully load our kayaks with the camping gear, water and food for the two-day odyssey. The weather is unseasonably warm. Too warm for camping. I am thankful that I had earlier decided not to bring along my long pants or polartec.
Day 1 is a 4-hour, 9-mile paddle which starts at a bridge. We are greeted with a welcome silence-nearly free of road noise, planes, or other evidence of nearby civilization. At approximately the 2-hour point, we come across an older man fishing for bass. At lunch the day before, we had been warned of this mysterious man who “owns the river” for as long as anyone can remember. In a crusty, salty voice, he tells us he’s fished this spot in the river for 20 years. We are over a hole that is 50 feet deep. He has caught 10- to 12-pound bass in this location. He warns us, with a chuckle, that our “Snow Hill Bridge” day 1 destination will not be reached until sundown from where we are.
And that our intention of camping downstream of the bridge is not possible, as it is entirely posted cattle pasture, and we’ll get in a heap of trouble if we try camping the river banks there.
Soon afterward, we see a disconcerting sign along the riverbank: “Survivors will be prosecuted for trespassing”
Despite the warnings from the Mystery Man, we arrive at a pleasant, white sand beach downstream from the bridge at 3 pm. We have several hours to pitch our tents and build a campfire. Lots of nearby firewood. It does not appear that our campsite has been used previously. Life is good.
Thinking ahead, we have brought along a sixpack of “black and tan” microbeer. Having forgotten to bring along my bottle opener on my last kayak trip a few weeks ago, I have made it a point to bring it along this time.
I triumphantly pull out the opener. We all eagerly look on with parched throats as I prepare to uncap the first bottle. The bottle opener snaps in half. Damn. But we quickly regroup. One of us discovers we can use his folding chair to pop off the caps.
We break camp first thing the next morning-a morning which brings a brilliant sun and light breeze. In front of us is 3 more hours of quiet, calm kayaking.
Several Great Blue Herons and a Bald Eagle are spotted. We notice that more so than any other river we’ve been on, the “Econ” has a quite large population of Kingfisher birds. An unusually large number of alligators are seen by us-some are shockingly large, as they slowly slip underwater when we approach.
The banks of the river are often flat or gently sloping sugar white sand (oddly, much of the river banks are free of trees and covered with grassy vegetation. Yet at one stretch on day 2, we pass by the tallest river bank I’ve seen in Florida. Much of the river bottom is a visible white sand through the tannin brown water.
Overall, the character of the river reminds one of the Suwannee River in north Florida.
On the section we paddled, the river is mostly modest in width, although not “tight”. Much of the river shows oak and palm tree canopy, with many trees having fallen into the river without blocking boat passage (a bearded, beer-bellied man asks us from a river bank what we had thought of all the chainsawing he had done upstream to allow passage. We thank him for his good work, but are unable to reward him, as he asks, by offering him Busch beer.
The modest river width alternates back and forth from more narrow to much wider river, then back again-particularly on the section we paddle. Along this stretch, we notice several white sand bars that appear to be ideal camp sites (this was less so downstream of the bridge, where we saw quite a large number of “No Trespassing” signs). On this upstream section, we find many stretches with a noticeably swift current, which makes the paddling relatively technical, since there are a number of large tree logs in the river that must be evaded.
The river is alive with a healthy population of wading birds, barred owls, and red-shouldered hawks. The surface crackles with frequently flying mullet, leaping for their insect meals.
We spot an enormous number of creeks that join the “Econ”, and a large number of ponds and marshes that flank the river.
For the entirety of our 18-mile paddle, we see only 2 or 3 homes (seasonal flooding makes it difficult to build near the river). The river remains almost entirely free of development. The serpentine “Econ” is remote from towns and is one of the most undeveloped rivers in Florida, despite being only a short distance east of Orlando and the “Mouse.”
As the river approaches its confluence with the mighty St. Johns River, it begins to strongly zig-zag back and forth. For the last hour of our paddle to the Rt 46 bridge, we travel approximately 200 feet as the crow flies, yet we paddle about 3 or 4 miles back and forth toward the St. Johns.
More About the “Econ” River
The “Econ” is a blackwater stream that originates in marshes to its south. It is located in Osceola, Orange and Seminole counties. Designated as an Outstanding Florida Water, the “Econ” is the second largest tributary to the St. Johns River. Until the 1970s, the main land uses around the “Econ” were grazing and agriculture, primarily citrus groves.
Because wetlands abutting the “Econ” River support an abundance and diversity of aquatic and wetland-dependent wildlife, special regulations are now in place to require more stringent stormwater treatment and other measures designed to protect the river. To preserve some of the undeveloped land along the river, local governments and state agencies have bought many parcels and are working together to buy additional land in the river’s basin.
The river is bordered by cypress/hardwood swamp or lowland with an occasional area of pine/palmetto reaching to the river’s edge.
We were told that the river often contains an “intolerable” amount of portaging between Rt 50 and Rt 419. We therefore opted not to do that upstream section.