It was obvious from the sign that the Weeki Wachee River trip would be a different experience. It said “Water temperature: 72 degrees.”
For a battered canoe veteran used to ice-out conditions on the St. John and Allagash rivers, it was a shock, even after being in Florida for five weeks.
The self-elected “captain” of the Upside Down Canoe Club, the esteemed Jefferson Phil, decreed early in the game that the death-defying trip north would be made only during the third week in May.
This, he explained, was to celebrate the very brief margin between ice-out and the explosion of the black fly population, which can make life so very miserable. Many years, we were closer to the ice than the bugs. On several occasions we scooped ice from the river to pack our vital supplies. We slept on the ground in subfreezing temperatures.
Since I dragged my Ocean Prowler 13 kayak some 2,000 miles to Florida, I used it whenever I could. I had driven by the spring-fed Weeki Wachee River dozens of times. This time, I would explore it.
Obviously, the Weeki Wachee would be different from the mighty Maine rivers. Let me count the ways.
The current on the St. John literally would take your breath away when you left the calm safety of Baker Lake. For the next 10 furious minutes, you wondered why you left home and hearth for this frigid washing machine. Once, we lost two paddlers for the entire trip after only a few hundred feet of that current. They literally wrapped their canoe around a rock, a feat that took a winch to repair.
On the Weeki Wachee, the current was so subtle that I had to ask which way I was supposed to go. In my defense, a tour boat (tour boat!) was going upstream, which threw me off.
As I dangled both feet in the water paddling (downstream) I considered the temperature of the St. John when Boston Leo tipped us over in the widest part of the river, one day after ice-out. I have never been colder in my life, not even at the top of Sugarloaf in February.
On our four- and five-day trips up north, we would go days without seeing another soul. On the Weeki, I was trapped in a guided tour group at the start. They took the opportunity paddling through the pristine wilderness to conduct a loud conversation about their possessions, every foot of the way.
We gratefully parted company when an alligator stumbled toward the river. They decided to go back and harass the gator. Honest to God.
In my haste to leave them (and the gator) behind, I snagged a bungee cord on a tree branch and was trapped. Now, I feared that the gator would eat its harassers, then turn to me, an innocent party. I was grateful when the tree branch broke and I glided away, grateful for my extended life. I have no idea whether the gator attacked that crowd, but I prayed that it would be so.
There are very few gators on the St. John or Allagash rivers.
There are also precious few houses along those Maine rivers. On the Weeki, the first few miles of the 7-mile trip are gorgeous wilderness with exotic birds that even Rockland ornithologist “Brain” Willson could not identify. Then a number of enormous houses pop up along the river. One manse big enough for an airport hangar advertised a “must sell” situation, for a mere $650,000. The screened-in area was larger than Cobb Manor, including the barn.
I made the tactical error of making the trip on a weekend. The closer to the end of the trip, the more populated the river became. Half the paddlers were coming upstream against the mild current. Tour boats playing “Pop Goes the Weasel” lent a surreal note to the trip. At first, I thought it was an ice cream truck.
There are few paddlers going upstream on the St. John.
There are even fewer tour boats, music or not.
The Maine rivers have rapids and white water that will shake your connection to your canoe, gear and appreciation of life. The biggest “rapids” on the Weeki come from the wake of those jingle-playing tour boats.
The population on the river continued to grow as I neared Rogers Park, the end of the trip. Many of my new friends wore brief bikinis, and, distracted, I found myself stuck on several sandbars.
There are few, if any, bikinis on the Allagash.
There are also very few snakes. It wasn’t until a woman on shore started talking about “water moccasins” that I realized I had scuppers in the bottom of the kayak. It suddenly occurred to me that a water moccasin could easily swim through the scuppers and come in to say a venomous “hello.”
As always, it was a great sight to see the mighty Tundra waiting for me at the end of the trip, three hours later.
Which rivers are better? Well, I will never sleep on the frozen ground or do the Allagash or St. John rivers again, a concession to creaking old age. But I will do the Weeki again at the very first opportunity.
On a weekday, of course. With the scuppers carefully blocked.