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A Prehistoric Panhandle Paddle in 2016
By Sue Cocking, Guy Harvey Outpost Travel Journalist
About 160 years ago, slave laborers braved swarms of mosquitoes and hordes of gators and venomous snakes to dig a three-mile-long canal connecting two rivers in Florida’s Panhandle region. The aim was to make it easier for plantation owners to ship their cotton to the Gulf of Mexico quicker by creating a navigable waterway out of a shallow swamp.
The Slave Canal never served its intended purpose because it never was wide or deep enough for most boats to travel. However, the esthetic and historical value of this manmade waterway today makes it one of Florida’s outstanding paddling destinations. It’s a must-do for kayakers and canoeists visiting the Tallahassee area.
I recently spent a half-day paddling the Slave Canal with five companions– all Tallahassee area residents– including Guy “Harley” Means with the Florida Geological Survey. We put in on the Wacissa River at Goose Pasture Landing, steered across ribbons of eel grass to the river’s right bank and fairly quickly found a small sign with an arrow pointing us to the Slave Canal. Almost immediately, we were enclosed in a cool, green, shady forest, floating gently with the current on a narrow stream amid the background sounds of woodpeckers and the occasional heron squawk. Beneath my paddle, I spied schools of mullet and several bass and bream.
Means has spent quite a bit of time both on and underneath these clear fresh waters. About 20 years ago, he and his brother Ryan, a biologist, were diving here and found a spear point dating back about 12,000 years. They made many follow-up dives and found even more Paleo Indian artifacts, leading to designation of the spot as the Ryan-Harley archeological site– now studied by university scientists from across the U.S. Just a little ways to the east in a sinkhole on the adjacent Aucilla River, archeologists have found stone tools and mastodon bones that they say prove that North America’s earliest inhabitants lived here much earlier than previously believed–about 14,550 years ago. That site is called the Page-Ladson site for the diver who found it and the owner of the adjacent land.
“One of the oldest known human-occupied sites in the Americas,” Means said.
Back then, sea levels were much lower than today, Florida’s land mass was much broader, and people gathered around what was probably a sinkhole for their fresh water supply. For food, they hunted huge mastodons, giant sloths and beavers the size of black bears that roamed the region before going extinct, Means said.
Today the only obvious signs of humans –besides the occasional discarded beer can–are the limestone blocks that have lined the Slave Canal since its construction in the 1850s and several upland mounds scattered with oyster shells. We ate a picnic lunch at one of the mounds– the highest ground we could find.
Deadfalls blocked our path in several spots, requiring us to step over or limbo underneath them. We crossed one tiny set of rapids.
The best thing about paddling the Slave Canal — especially on a weekday–is the solitude. It’s too narrow for motorboats and we were the only paddlers around. Both banks of the canal are uninhabited so when we heard a crashing in the woods, we knew it had to be some kind of wild animal–probably a hog or a deer.
Several hours after embarking, our party emerged from the shade of the canal to its confluence with the Aucilla River where we had to paddle against the current for a short distance. We took out at Nutall Rise– about five miles from where we had begun. Had we continued on for a few more miles, we would have arrived in the brackish waters of Apalachee Bay and then the Gulf of Mexico.
The short paddle seemed more like an exploration than a trip along a well-worn path. And the area definitely warrants a return visit- to check out the upper reaches of the wild Wacissa and the myriad other rivers that crisscross the Panhandle.
Sue Cocking chronicles the Guy Harvey Outpost travel and adventure experience in regular blog posts on GuyHarveyOutpostNews.com/. For 21 years, Cocking covered the full spectrum of outdoors adventure opportunities in South Florida and beyond for the Miami Herald, including fishing, diving, hunting, paddling, camping, sailing and powerboat racing. She is a certified scuba diver and holder of an IGFA women’s world fly fishing record for a 29-pound permit.
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