Need a Break? Take to the Waterways!

Expert View Column , Nature
Need a Break? Take to the Waterways!
By ATD’s Florida Experts, Susan and Simon Veness
Who knew that just 20 minutes south of Walt Disney World, another magical kingdom awaits, this time with none of the make-believe but all of the grand spectacle? The Paddling Center at Shingle Creek, just off highway 192 in Kissimmee, is nature’s remedy for theme-park overload.

The hardest part of a visit to The Paddling Center is deciding between a single or double kayak, a stand-up paddle board, a canoe or the no-effort luxury of a 45-50 minute trek onboard the Duffy, an 8-passenger electric boat driven by a captain. Once that hurdle is crossed, the staff offers basic safety and paddling instruction, and it’s onto the river for an exploration of magnificent Shingle Creek, at the headwaters of the Florida Everglades.

Unlike some rivers we have kayaked in Florida, Shingle Creek has a little bit of a current; just enough to be fun, but not enough to be tiresome. Heading north from the put-in provides a shorter, easier paddle with the mild current against you as you head out, and with you as you head back. If you want a gentle journey, or if you’re new to the sport, this is the path to take…at least for the first hour. After you get the feel of it, the southern route offers exceptional scenery.

Heading south from the launching site is slightly more challenging, as the river narrows and the current gets stronger. But the big payoff for a bit of extra return-journey work is the spectacular Cypress Swamp, where boaters can  weave in and out of the semi-submerged trees for an up-close view of fishing ibis, lounging turtles, and fish darting amongst the cypress knees in water so clear you can see straight to the bottom. Not that that’s difficult; depending on season and rainfall, the water is generally only 1-5 feet deep. Not sure you have the stamina for the return trip from a south-bound route? No worries; The Paddling Center is in the process of creating a downstream pull-out, for return trips by shuttle.

During our recent paddle we took the northern route, having done the southern route on an earlier visit. Exhausted from months of travel and weeks of entertaining family, we were in desperate need of natural beauty without working very hard for it. But even this gentle journey had its thrilling moments. Rounding a bend where the river narrowed, the current increased and created a swirling eddy that gave us a few moments of excitement, trying to keep our kayaks pointing up-river. Nothing challenging, just a little reminder that the smooth-as-glass waterway wasn’t going to just let us mindlessly zig-zag languidly from one side of the river to the other.

That attention-grabbing undercurrent is more pronounced along the southern route, especially once you reach the cypress canopy, and, while you do have to keep your wits about you, there is nothing worrisome about it; in fact, it’s a large part of the fun and the main reason that route is so popular! Rainfall has a lot to do with how strong the current is, so expect more thrills during rainy season, slightly less when the water level is low.

We spent most of our time paddling into small coves, poodling around a bit, then paddling up river again. Had we been less indolent we would have been gliding into the inlets created by submerged tree roots, where flocks of shorebirds were wading.

What can you expect to see? It’s nature, so nothing is guaranteed, but gators, deer, turtles, otters, owls, shorebirds, osprey and other winged wildlife can all be spotted, many of them so unperturbed by paddlers that they quite happily go about their business while you take the time to snap some fantastic photos.

Dedicated nature lovers may want to hire a guide, who will give the full low-down on exactly what you’re seeing, the history of the area, and tips on improving your kayaking or stand-up paddle boarding skills. Reservations for guided tours are required at least 24 hours in advance, and at $55 for 2-hour tours of Shingle Creek, $99 for 3-4 hour tours that visit Makinson Island and Lake Toho, it’s money well spent.

Personal flotation devices are provided for every guest, and dry-bags or boxes are available, so don’t hesitate to bring your mobile phone and camera (in fact, don’t forget to bring your camera!). Light snacks, drinks, sunblock, bug spray and picnic tables are also available, as are clean restrooms. The Paddling Center is open 7 days a week, from 8am-6pm in summer, 8am-5pm in winter.

Although kayaking and paddle boarding are the Center’s main highlight, bicycles with locks and safety helmets are also available for hire by the hour, for a tour of the area’s trails. And just like on the river, the land side of things feels a million miles away, even though it’s in the very heart of Tourist Central.

Bring sunblock, bug spray (depending on season), sunglasses and a hat; wear old shoes (you may need to step in the water to get into your boat or on your paddle board); and bring your mobile phone (you’ll be able to put it in a small dry-bag) so that you can summon help immediately if needed. And don’t forget your sense of adventure; this is pristine Florida at its finest, and a half-day on the river will revive you like nothing else the area has to offer.

Have questions? Ask away! The owners and employees at The Paddling Center are full of helpful information about the flora, the fauna, and the river itself, and if you’re a nervous first-timer with no experience they’ll set your mind at ease and make you feel like a pro. Kayaking and paddle boarding are easy (kids can do it), they’re fun, they’re great exercise, and we suggest you book your visit early in your holiday, because we’re certain once you’ve given it a try, you’ll be eager to come back for more!

The Paddling Center at Shingle Creek is located inside Shingle Creek Regional Park (take the second entrance on your right, going east) at 4266 W. Vine Street (or Highway 192) in Kissimmee. Phone: 407 343 7740; or visit www.paddlingcenter.com.

Expert View Column , Nature