The Peace River

Canoe trail

Here you may find the elemental freedom to breathe deep of unpoisoned air, to experiment with solitude and stillness...

Come on in. The earth, like the sun, like the air, belongs to everyone — and to no one. — Edward Abbey

Officially, the Peace River Canoe Trail begins at Fort Meade and ends 67 miles later, at State Road 70, just west of Arcadia. Above Fort Meade, the river is often too shallow to navigate. After Arcadia, you can continue to the Charlotte Harbor estuary, where it fans out and mingles with the Myakka and Caloosahatchee.

As any paddler knows, time on a river is time well spent. That’s particularly true of the Peace, whose dark, dreamy waters can soothe the spirit and invite quiet contemplation.

If your goal is simply to see it, you can launch a canoe or kayak at one of its 11 public boat ramps, then paddle upstream a mile or two and drift lazily back to your point of origin. You won’t find a more tranquil and relaxing setting, or a better way to spend an afternoon.

But if you’re seeking a little solitude and a spiritual connection with the river and the wilderness through which it runs, you might try an overnighter, like the trip from Zolfo Springs to Gardner.

It’s 23 river miles from the canoe launch in Zolfo Springs to the pickup point, a concrete boat ramp at Gardner. The journey takes about two days, just time enough to experience the Peace River at its most serene and scenic best.

A canoe and a river are a magical combination. Without a water body to float it on, the most elegant canoe is just a waste of good garage space. But in its element, it’s the perfect conveyance, part sedan chair, part Huck Finn’s raft. And nowhere is a canoe more at home than on the smooth, sheltered surface of the Peace.

This isn’t a trip for everyone; thrill seekers would probably find it dull. The river winds through cypress swamps, shady hammocks and hardwood forests. There are no rapids to run, no whirlpools to watch out for — only the canoe and its inverted twin, the wavering image of the paddle rising to meet itself, and the wheeling reflections of the clouds and trees.

The bottom is mostly firm white sand. Although the current rarely exceeds four miles per hour, it picks up speed in the meanders, carving more sand from the outer banks and sweeping it downstream. The sand settles on the inner bank of the next curve, altering the river’s course one grain at a time. Or it heaps against water logs and snags, forming tiny islands in the shallows.

You won’t hear the sounds of civilization between Zolfo and Gardner; you’re far from the nearest highway. Within a mile or two of the canoe launch the power lines flanking the river veer away, and the wilderness asserts itself. After that there are few signs of human activities. The bluffs and wetlands that once echoed with the shouts of foremen and the thuds of the miners’ picks and shovels have long since been reclaimed by the foliage and seasonal floods, and the further the river takes you, the more profound is your sense of isolation and freedom.

The halfway point is marked by a high wooden bridge, a reminder of the river’s human stewardship. There are plenty of campsites nearby — glittering deltas and gently sloping sandbars ideal for beaching a canoe and pitching a tent. But be on the lookout for uninvited guests. Secluded sandbars are especially popular with alligators looking for a spot to take some sun.

Black vultures like them too, when they’re not roosting in the treetops or riding the thermals. Like mourners at a Viking funeral, they congregate on the beach, waiting patiently (as only vultures can) for something to happen. In the baking heat of the afternoon they take to the sky, wheeling and soaring on the rising air. (If you’re tempted to envy them, think of it this way: they’ll never know the quiet joys of canoeing.)

The latter half of the journey is pretty much the same as the first. The river is just as stately and free-flowing, the solitude is just as perfect and the scenery just as dazzling. Let the river set your pace and you’ll reach Gardner by early afternoon. The boat ramp is on the left, just past the mouth of Charlie Creek.

Don’t be surprised if the world you return to seems strange and a little unfamiliar. That’s just the river’s parting gift. If you’re lucky, the spell won’t be broken for days.

Next section: Charlotte Harbor