There are only two federally designated “wild and scenic” rivers in Florida: the Wekiva, which is close to home and familiar, and the Loxahatchee, about 150 miles south, near Jupiter. If you like the Wekiva, you’ll love the Loxahatchee. It’s worth the drive.
The “wild” section of the river is actually quite short, about a mile and a half, tucked into a crook of land between Florida’s Turnpike and Indiantown Road, west of Jupiter. There’s easy access to the good paddling from Palm Beach County’s Riverbend Park (on Indiantown Road, less than a mile west of the turnpike).
Driving into the park, you’ll be hard pressed to imagine what could possibly redeem any river carving through this landscape. By and large, it looks like every other place in Florida: strip malls, housing developments, a golf course under construction. You’d be just as likely to discover Shangri-La in a Wal-Mart parking lot.
Canoe Outfitters (9060 W. Indiantown Road, in Riverbend Park) can set you up with a canoe or kayak and point you to the water. If you have your own boat and get there after Canoe Outfitters closes, fear not; the Loxahatchee – a Seminole name for “river of turtles ” – is easy to navigate. Paddle left from the Hunt Camp canoe launch to find a series of beautiful, if boring, canals that are wide and well marked. Going left is hardly worth your time, however, considering what awaits if you take a right instead.
A few hundred yards downstream, the river ducks under Indiantown Road and everything changes. The waterway narrows, the banks grow lush with vegetation and trees close in to create a canopy overhead. Turtles and birds abound. No feeding the alligators.
Past the first rapids, easily bypassed via a wooden walkway, the river meanders in a series of tight “S” bends that can be a challenge if your paddling skills are rusty. Even so, there’s nothing threatening about the Loxahatchee. If you’ve never paddled before, you could still bounce from bank to bank as you float downstream, taking in the sights, and be none the worse for the wear. The current runs at about 2 to 3 mph, so plan on working a little harder going upstream than down.
In either direction, the Loxahatchee is no place to be in a hurry. Giant cypress seem to grow right from the river itself, inviting you to ponder the wonder of a tree so rot-resistant it was once used to make water-supply pipes. Be quiet and listen to the branches rubbing together as they move in the breeze, a sound that’s exactly like a door with a squeaky hinge. Turtles slide into the coffee-colored river, fish jump, woodpeckers hammer away; it all goes on less than a mile from a construction site – and within earshot of the turnpike. Traffic is the other, less welcome, soundtrack on the Loxahatchee. Nevertheless, this is an incredibly peaceful spot.
At one point I stopped paddling for a few seconds to snap some pictures and my boat got caught in a gentle eddy. I circled round and round, the front of the kayak facing the direction that the wind and water pointed it, for 10 minutes, sometimes inching slowly upstream against the current, then nosing back down, only to be caught up in the motion again. The GPS track for that section of the river looks like a series of overlapping triangles, because the machine is too crude to trace the boat’s lazy circles. I never lifted a paddle.
There’s also history along these banks. The last battle of the Second Seminole Indian War was fought within the boundaries of what is now Riverbend Park. Farther downstream, past Florida’s Turnpike, there’s a state preserve called Trapper Nelson’s camp, where New Jersey native Vincent Nostokovich
came to find his piece of Florida paradise. Nostokovich built a zoo on his land and lived on the fish and animals he caught there until committing suicide with a shotgun in 1968.
Beyond the turnpike, however, the Loxahatchee widens again and paddlers have to do battle with powerboat wakes. Eventually, the river’s fresh water becomes brackish as it mixes with the tidal flows of Jupiter Inlet.
For that mile and half, however, the Loxahatchee is something outside of time and space in contemporary Florida. See it before it’s gone.