HOMOSASSA SPRINGS, FL — The turn-off to the Chassahowitzka is a half-developed intersection marked by an old-timey fruit stand on the northeast corner and a shiny new Publix plaza across the highway. If you didn’t already know (or anticipate) what was at the end of Miss Maggie Drive, you’d drive past the light without a second thought.
But if you turn west at the fruit stand then wind around through a tired neighborhood of cinder blocks and singlewides for mile and a half, you’ll run out of road at the Chassahowitzka River Campground. One of Florida’s great wonders is now just beyond your windshield in the green depths of Chassahowitzka’s first-magnitude head spring. On a cool and drizzly weekday in January, we found a wood fire at the picnic area and hot coffee in the trading post.
A friend and I launched our kayaks without much of a plan. The Chazz is famous for its side creeks and hidden springs, and the fishing is generally pretty good. But the highlight of the day was only 50 feet away. In the deep head spring at the launch site we immediately found ourselves paddling among a pod of wintering manatees enjoying the relative warmth of the spring water.
Local guide Carla Bernhardt loves the Chassahowitzka because she finds the place peaceful and healing. I get it. Surrounded by those manatees, slowly ascending and descending like zeppelins, watching a nursing mother and child, being followed by a curious juvenile as if my kayak was a 14-foot, candy red manatee — the usual weekday stress melted away into a moment of pure peace.
After a lingering visit with the manatees we paddled upstream and hooked left into a shallow creek fed by a cluster of springs called the Seven Sisters. The shallow creek is pockmarked with caverns, many of them barrels full of little mangrove snappers. At the end of the creek a visitor from Wisconsin peeled down to his skivvies and snorkeled from one cavern entrance to an exit a few yards away.
Following the current back downstream through intermittent drizzle, the cool air drew a mist off the river. The current was relatively swift as we floated past waving ribbons of eel grass framed by palms, cypress and red cedar. We didn’t get as far as the salt marshes of the Gulf (about 4 miles downstream), so instead of catching redfish or trout we occupied ourselves by feeding the ravenous and consistently undersized mangrove snapper.
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The lower portion of the Chassahowitzka winds into the a 31,000 acre wildlife refuge that was created to protect migrating waterfowl. It is a popular birding destination, and famous as a wintering location for a population of re-introduced Whooping Cranes.
With lots of kayaking options on the Nature Coast, the Chassahowitzka has something of its own flavor. “The Chazz is special because it is a shallow, spring fed, natural ecosystem that is largely alone with its accessibility of myriad spring-headed creeks,” Bernhardt says. “These springs are ever changing and hidden.”
“I discovered the river by being on it, day and night, looking in every nook and cranny. When I had a problem, I’d go on the river and — Bada-Bing — perspective came! Being a nurse, I shared this aspect with the newly bereaved and others that agreed about the positive experience of nature on the soul. The sheer exhilaration of leading a client to a hidden spring surrounded by forest is so satisfying.”
Bernhardt specializes in trips for novice kayakers, who find the Chazz an easy paddle with a first-rate, “Amazon-like” experience. In addition to the manatees the refuge abounds with wildlife. “More experienced paddlers can go further out to remote creeks that offer different scenic vistas and challenges in both endurance and navigation.”
Chassahowitzka Kayak Rentals & Camping:
Guide Carla Bernhardt is aiming at nothing less than world peace, one kayaker at a time! Offers rentals and custom tours. Kayak rentals from $30 daily.
8501 Miss Maggie Drive
Chassahowitzka River Campground
Offers boat launch, kayaking, kayak rentals, camping, picnicking and fishing. Kayak storage available. Launch / parking fee of $5
8600 W Miss Maggie Drive
Chassahowitzka, Florida 34448
Phone (352) 382-2200
The Chassahowitzka Hotel
Lodge-style hotel specializing in an “Old Florida” experience, rates from $72 nightly.
8551 W. Miss Maggie Drive
Chassahowitzka, FL 34448
Phone: (352) 382-2075
Carla’s Top Five Nature Coast Kayak Destinations:
- Chassahowitzka River
- Waccasassa River
- Ichetucknee Springs
- Suwanee River
- Wekiwa River