Living Sanibel: The Peace River
By the time the Peace River finds its way to Charlotte County it has already traveled more than 100 miles from its beginning on the southern end of Lake Hancock in Polk County. The total length of the Peace River has been estimated at 133 miles, with the river basin encompassing some 2,400 square miles of drainage area. It is considered by many paddlers, kayakers, and naturalists to be one of the finest rivers to navigate in all of Florida.
Although it is possible during periods of high water to run the entire length of the river, most outfitters and paddlers avoid the 15-mile stretch from Lake Hancock to Ft. Meade. This section can be extremely shallow, and coupled with numerous snags and windfalls, it is more trouble than it is worth. From the put-in at the Ft. Meade Outdoor Recreation Area to the takeout at DeSoto County Park on the outskirts of Arcadia, the river is 57 miles long. Just south of the Ft. Meade put-in, where Bowlegs Creek joins the Peace River, the water levels are generally high enough to traverse the rest of its length throughout the year. Because of the distance involved, it is impossible to paddle this section in a single day. Numerous campsites and takeouts are accessible along the way. For day-trippers, one of the most popular legs of the river is from the put-in just west of the town of Gardner to the DeSoto County Park, is an easy distance of 13.5 miles.
South of Arcadia the Peace River widens considerably and the current diminishes. Roughly 10 miles downstream, near Ft. Ogden, the river is influenced as much by the rising and falling of the tides as it is by its freshwater outflow, and canoeists can easily find themselves paddling upstream against an incoming tide. Approximately seven miles south of Ft. Ogden the Peace River widens considerably before entering Charlotte Harbor. When it passes under I-75 it is close to a mile wide, and care should be taken to avoid being caught in summer thunderstorms or winter cold fronts as the wind can be quite treacherous.
There are several outfitters that are more than willing to help you plan your trip, from a one-day leg to a weeklong journey down this spectacular stream. The upper stretches of the Peace River have very little development as the river winds through pastureland and lush riverine forests. Ancient live oaks spread out over the stream, and alligators and fish thrive in the freshwater. Although it is popular to swim in the Peace River, care should be taken since alligators occupy its entire length. Fishing is a popular in the river; bass and bream populate the upper sections, and snook and redfish are found farther down as the river approaches Punta Gorda.
Fossil hunting is also a popular activity along the Peace River. The best time to find fossils is during periods of low water, which means you might have to drag your canoe or kayak on occasion, but the lower water exposes the best sites for screening for shark’s teeth, camel and mammoth teeth, and a host of other finds. The fossils found here date to the Pleistocene period. All you need is a simple kitchen sifter or a large square screen (12 inches square is sufficient) and a shovel. It’s much like panning for gold: you dig up a scoop of sand, mud, and gravel, drop it into the sifter and wash out everything but the larger sediments, then comb through what’s left looking for mastodon teeth or bone fragments.
The Peace River does not have an official designation such as a wilderness river, and because of its length and size it is not a state or regional park. It is more of an amalgamation of various county parks, bridge ramps, and recreational areas that work together in making this an easy place to spend a day, a weekend, or a week. The website at www.canoeoutpost.com/peace includes pertinent information such as current water levels, recent snags or downfalls that might hamper navigation, links to maps of the river, popular put-in locations, and more.
One of the nicest things about the Peace River is its slow but steady flowing water and sublime scenery. The river valley cuts through the surrounding limestone. Sightings along the banks of the Peace include white-tailed deer, otters, turtles, and a multitude of birds from bald eagles to great blue herons.
The Peace River suffers from some pollution issues arising from the phosphate mines located near the river valley north of Wauchula, and though troublesome, they are not to the point where they have seriously impacted the river. The permitting of future mines upstream has become more restrictive, and hopefully these issues will be resolved in a manner that will never make the Peace River anything less than what it is today-a true Florida treasure.