Brevard Paddling Destinations Offer Unique Experiences
By Robert Hughes // June 8, 2012
BREVARD COUNTY, FLORIDA – It’s clear to anyone who has driven the causeways to the beaches that Brevard County has a wealth of possibilities for kayakers and canoeists.
But while the Indian River Lagoon offers spectacular open-water scenery its entire 72-mile stretch across Brevard – and then some – the more intimate nooks and crannies along its edges require some exploration. And it helps to know where to look.
The lagoon is known as the nation’s most biologically diverse estuary, and its islands and tributaries offer quiet and often shady ways to enjoy the scenery without much concern for crossing paths with motorboats.
Dolphins and manatees also know this and they are frequently the paddler’s friendly companions in this area, as are an incredible wealth of other animals, including shorebirds, sea rays, gators and even the occasional otter.
On the border
Brevard also holds the distinction of being on the border of two of the world’s eight ecozones, with the Neoarctic to the north, comprising the rest of North America, and the Neotropic on the south, which includes practically the rest of the Western Hemisphere, including all of South America.
The most striking visual definition of that border is seen most clearly on Merritt Island and Mosquito Lagoon where the Neotropical mangrove thickets’ northern limit hits the saltmarsh grasses’ southern range. Being conscious of that globally important distinction can add to the experience of paddling in Brevard.
Paddling through mangrove tunnels is an experience unique to southern Florida and the Thousand Islands just west of Cocoa Beach is the best place for that outside the Everglades. It tops our list of favorite places to paddle in Brevard County.
“I have actually gone back in there just to get lost” Andrew Saracino, Rockledge [/sws_pullquote_right] “I have actually gone back in there just to get lost,” Andrew Saracino of Rockledge admits. “I’m pretty familiar with the section that’s closest to Ramp Park, but farther back, there’s an area I don’t know well, and I’ll just try to paddle as deep into it as I can. It doesn’t matter that I don’t know where I’m going: You’re never that far from open water, but it sure seems like it.”
“I have actually gone back in there just to get lost.” Andrew Saracino, Rockledge
The Thousand Islands is indeed a small area – maybe 3,000-square-feet in its southern section — but with twisting paths throughout the mangrove thickets, it can offer hours of exploration. Ramp Park, near the west end of Fifth Street South in Cocoa Beach, offers easy access, with the closest island just a bullfrog’s leap away.
“I come out here a lot, and I haven’t come close to exploring all of it,” said Saracino, who’s already looking forward to his next personal “Lost” episode.
There’s another section of the Thousand Islands on the north side of Minuteman Causeway to discover, but its access is more difficult.
Our second paddling spot offers quite a different experience from the Thousand Islands and its scenery is quite different from anything you’d expect to see in lowland Brevard.
A paddle up Turkey Creek can start on the lagoon, but most people seem to prefer the Goode Park landing in Palm Bay off Bianca Drive.
And while it begins with familiar gator-haunted saltgrass marsh, it quickly takes the paddler into a beautiful swamp forest with strikingly high and white cliffs within Turkey Creek Preserve.
Dwight Ruttledge of Satellite Beach, who serves as secretary of the Space Coast Paddlers club, likes to visit Turkey Creek not only for its beauty, but because of its ease and convenience.
“It’s a friendly place, and it’s easy to use their dock,” he said. “People like to explore the park there; it’s a nice way to break up the trip and have lunch.
“It’s an easy paddle unless the water’s up, and on the way back, you can just sit back and float your way down.”
Turkey Creek Preserve has miles of easy, shady walking trails to stretch a paddler’s legs.
The longest paddling experience away from the lagoon’s open water can be found on St. Sebastian River with its mouth on the line dividing Brevard and Indian River counties.
The river has two branches totaling seven to eight miles and both can be accessed from Dale Wimbrow Park near Sebastian.
The southern stretch of the river snakes its way more than three miles on such wonderfully sharp switchbacks, you’ll get the impression you could portage across the thin necks of land quicker than paddle on the water.
But paddling is the way to go, as the jungle-like scenery is amazingly wild for its close proximity to beachside.
The northern section of the St. Sebastian is less well-traveled, but it offers three-plus miles of paddling, with a boat dock providing hiking access into the St. Sebastian River Preserve.
Those are just three of the most popular and diverse places to paddle a boat in Brevard County out of dozens of spots where an intimate, close-to-both-shores experience can be had.
Basically, the types of paddling environments fall into three categories:
• The lagoon’s islands – mostly mangrove south of Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge and saltgrass marsh to the north, with their fascinating mixture in between. Ulumay Preserve on Merritt Island and Samsons Island in Satellite Beach present mangroves.
Mosquito Lagoon offers a maze of sandbar-marsh islands, with one marked course at the Shipyard Canoe Trail near Cape Canaveral National Seashore.
• The creeks that wind west from the lagoon into the mainland. Turnbull Creek just north of the Brevard line is another exceptional waterway, while other smaller ones like Crane and Goat creeks offer surprising scenery.
• The St. Johns River and its unending chain of lakes and bays.
As for the St. Johns — which quite literally takes a mile to give you an inch, as it falls less than 360 inches in elevation over its 310-mile course to the north — its southern-most reaches here in Brevard are its wildest. However, since the area is reclaimed farmland, it’s a treeless (and shadeless) stretch bordered by rather monotonous shrub and grass.
The wildlife, however, is superb, with Neotropical birds galore, and absolute mobs of lazy gators when the water level is low.
A popular put-in spot is Camp Holly Fish Camp on U.S. Hwy. 192, three miles west of I-95. From there, it’s an eight-mile paddle (across such wonderfully named spots as Lake Hell ‘n Blazes) to where the river’s source used to be. However, where the trickle of water through sawgrass marsh used to form the beginning of the mighty St. Johns is now a broad canal that runs all the way south to Blue Cypress Lake in Indian River County.
That lake is also a beautiful place to paddle (and another of Ruttledge’s favorites), but the tall banks of the ruler-straight canal make for a less visually interesting way to get there.
A popular put-in for paddling to the north on the St. Johns is at Lake Washington Park at the west end of Lake Washington Road in Melbourne.
From there, the river meanders with unending opportunities to explore side waterways that lead to a glorious nowhere. And it also takes you through more of the river’s endless chain of lakes, which widen like the lagoon in many places.
A close and easy access to a smaller-lake paddling experience is another of Ruttledge’s favorite haunts – the canal-connected Fox and South lakes just west of Titusville.
“It’s another easy paddle with easy access, and bird watchers love it,” he said.
Last but not least is one spot that may not be on any local paddler’s list, but deserving of a mention because of its unquestioned uniqueness: The Brevard Zoo.
The Brevard Zoo is the only zoo in North America that offers kayak paddling through an animal exhibit, and the wildlife on exhibit on its circular waterway includes giraffes, lemurs, camel, ostriches and impala. Talk about biodiversity.
The paddling trips cost $6 per person (two-for-one price for zoo members), last 30 minutes, and come with an informative guide. And since it’s a circular route, it’s impossible to get lost – unlike some of the other paddling surprises this county offers.