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Ecotourism on Florida's Space Coast

A Kayak/Canoe Passage Through Puzzle Lake on the St. Johns River

February 2, 2004
By Jay S. Barnhart, Jr.

Click on a picture to see enlargements.
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Puzzle Lake kayak trip - 7
While living in Miami-Dade County (1983-1999) I became interested in the St. Johns River as a result of pursuing and fishing for the American Shad, Alosa sapidissima, a little publicized species that, like salmon, ascends to the headwaters of many rivers in order to spawn.

Shortly after moving to Brevard County in 1999, I attended a conference in which Bill Belleville, author of the book River of Lakes was giving a presentation regarding the research and labor that had gone into the production of his book about the St. Johns River. Excited by Belleville's story of traversing the entire St. Johns River from its headwaters down to the sea, I began to undertake a quest which would allow me to emulate that passage, which I have now completed, except for traversing the stretch from downtown Jacksonville to the mouth of the river at Mayport, Florida.

The trip through Puzzle Lake began on Monday morning, February 2nd, 2004. We started our journey at the Hatbill Park boat ramp. I was accompanied in a 17' Mohawk Canoe by my son-in-law, Ed Bennett. My neighbor, Paul Sprague, brought his Folbot canvas covered kayak. Paul was apprehensive that a large alligator might have little difficulty in sinking his craft and making a meal of its occupant.

On 4 previous occasions I attempted to go through Puzzle Lake using a small outboard motor powered boat; twice from the upstream side and twice from the downstream side. On each occasion I found myself lost, disoriented and bewildered by the array of complexly braided channels, as well as blind oxbows, dead end lakes, and "just-plain-ran-out-of-water" situations. On one occasion, as dusk was approaching and a storm was forming, my partner and I had to remove the motor and carry the boat and motor about 110 yards to get back into the main river in order to reach the ramp before darkness and glowing orange eyes became realities.

For the present adventure, I copied and assembled a series of aerial photographs of the area, which can be downloaded from I also familiarized myself with the use of a Magellan SporTrak Map GPS unit with fresh extra batteries for the GPS. Having no intention of spending the night in Puzzle Lake, I also brought along a set of daytime and nighttime signal flares, 2 Bic lighters, a compass, my fully charged cellular phone (there was adequate signal pickup throughout the trip), and a fully charged VHF Marine Radio.

It soon became apparent that my GPS map screen did not always faithfully portray the river as it appeared in reality or on the aerial photographs, since the cursor sometimes showed our position to be over dry land. Nonetheless, the GPS coordinates that I saved were quite dependable for several return trips that were made in the subsequent weeks. As water clarity in this region was less than 6 inches, we occasionally went aground without being able to see the river bottom. Since we had no electronic depth finder, simple sounding with a paddle seemed quite effective. Several observations made throughout the trip were helpful and reliable.

  1. A hard gravelly river bottom sensed by the sounding oar meant that we were in a main river channel. If the paddle began to encounter soft mud, it was time to seek another course;
  2. Wherever large alligators were lying on a bank it meant deep water was alongside;
  3. Deeper water was on the outside of most, but not all, river bends;
  4. Best not to go where wading birds are standing, or where barely visible blades of grass penetrate the surface of the water.
  5. Good depth was usually available around Giant Bulrush clumps;
  6. Best to avoid entering a branch that has Cowlilies on both sides; it usually becomes a dead end.
  7. PVC pipes planted by local fishermen were a big help in marking passable channels, if we stayed very close to them;
  8. Moving Water Lettuce indicated where good water was flowing. Unlike Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' "Hyacinth Drift" in her book Cross Creek, we did not encounter any floating water hyacinths.

About 2 hours out, we stopped and had lunch on an island that was crisscrossed by large 'gator tracks. Caught several lively American Shad, using small "shad darts".

The widest part of Puzzle Lake seemed to have adequate depth for canoeing/kayaking throughout, but the entrance and exit areas are very complicated and seemed to offer few and very obscure opportunities for passage.

During the trip I recorded over 120 GPS waypoints, and have been fairly successful in returning to these passages when using a small outboard powered aluminum boat.

Once we had reached the mouth of the Econlackhatchee River, the course was pretty obvious, the goal being the SR46 Bridge. Even so, with the low river level at that time, there was one area where it would have been possible to walk across the main river from shore to shore without getting your knees wet.

It's amazing to think that steamboats somehow plied these waters all the way up to Rockledge Landing in the 1880's.

Distance traveled; 16miles
Time 8 hours

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