Our paddles dip into the water, propelling us forward past an alligator sleeping in the shallow waters along the side of the riverbank.
“That’s a big one,” says our guide, Tom Herzog, a retired teacher from Wisconsin who moved to Carrabelle, a small dot of a town on the Gulf of Mexico in northwest Florida, in order to indulge in his love of the outdoors and gives guided tours for the creatively named Expeditions in Hell. “But don’t worry you’re perfectly safe in the kayak.”
“But what if I fall out?” I ask. But Herzog just paddles on as we move downstream on the Crooked River in Tate’s Hell State Forest, 202,000 acres of cypress swamps, hardwood forests and wetlands named, so the story goes, after Cebe Tate who spent seven long days and nights lost here back in the 1800s finally emerging to say that he’d been in hell.
A kayak down the Crooked River is one of several stops I’m making on a journey in Northwest Florida following two lane roads that lead to destinations not typically found on a tourist’s itinerary.
I began the trip the day before at Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park, a bit of old Florida with a 1930s lodge that served yummy but calorie heavy Southern food such as fried oysters and soft shelled crabs with sides of macaroni and cheese and hush puppies, swimming platforms set in the crystal clear waters and old fashioned launch boats that meander up the river. The boy sitting next to me on our canopied launch announced that during his last trip he had counted 50 alligators and though I doubted him at first, by the time we had spent 15 minutes going upstream on the Wakulla River, I was beginning to think he might have underestimated the number.
Both the Crooked and the Wakulla Rivers are similar with their jungle like shorelines teaming with the twisted limbed live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, a plethora of birds including herons, white egrets and red winged black birds, brightly colored flowers and alligators in various stages of repose – eyes closed, eyes barely open and eyes bright and seemingly sizing up whatever passes by as possible meal time fodder.