- Associated Press - Sunday, June 15, 2014

ON THE SLAVE CANAL, Fla. (AP) - Likely, it started as a natural stream, a cool, clear sandy-bottomed tendril snaking through the swamp, connecting the Wacissa and Aucilla rivers.

Some say the Spanish may have been the first to cut it bigger. But it would be prominent Red Hills plantation owners in the early 1800s, captivated by “canal fever” and eager to get their cotton more quickly to ships in the Gulf, who schemed to make it wider, deeper.

Their slaves would do the back-breaking work, braving the heat, bugs and snakes.

“It was obviously terrible work,” says local outdoors author Doug Alderson.

It would be 20 years after the Wacissa and Aucilla Navigation Company was created in 1831 before the digging actually began. By the time it was finished in 1856, it was obsolete. Railroads had arrived in Jefferson County and the canal - still too shallow in parts - was abandoned without ever being successfully used to ferry bales to the coast.

The effort, however, was not wholly wasted. More than 150 years later, the roughly 3-mile-long Slave Canal serves today as one of the finest stretches of paddling stream in the Southeast.

“I’ve not seen anything like it,” George Cole, a Monticello resident and Suwannee River Water Management District Board member said from the seat of his kayak during a recent canal trip. “It has the natural beauty and the history of being cut out of the wilderness.”

Getting to the Slave Canal isn’t easy - a fact made all the more challenging in early May, after torrential rains made the gravel road to the Goose Pasture boat launch in southern Jefferson County impassible. The 50-yard-long pond covering the road was at least knee-deep, and while our driver wanted to gun it, cooler heads prevailed and we instead we launched our kayaks at the Aucilla River Nutall Rise Landing near U.S. 98, setting out to paddle up the canal and back down.

The water was high. Even with experienced guides, it was hard to keep from straying off the channel into the submerged floodplain (as happened once on the trip). Peaking piles of moss-covered limestone boulders heaved into place by its builders to define the canal helped show the way.

In the last decade, there was a move to change the canal name to something more politically correct, but local people succeeded in convincing officials to keep the name to honor and remember those who toiled in the swamp.

Like the famed canopy roads of the Red Hills, the trees on the banks of the Slave Canal arch over the water and touch. Cypress, sweet gum, red bay, Florida maple and the state’s signature sabal palms crowd the narrow waterway. Because of the flooding, the water, usually vodka-clear, looked like sweet tea. The land surrounding the canal was last logged in the 1920s, but there are spots nearby so remote they never saw the ax, and centuries-old cypress still grow.

The kayaks glided past the tops of submerged smaller trees, where brown and banded water snakes clung to branches. All manner of warblers and other songbirds filled the quiet with their bright song, joined now and then by the low resonant croak of a bullfrog.

Indian mounds - hundreds of them - litter the floodplain surrounding the canal. Five hundred years ago, the area was far more populated. Goose Pasture, the remote, undeveloped camping area where most people launch to paddle the canal, was the location of a large Indian village.

Back then, the woods were full of native people hunting and fishing, but days can go by now without the footfall or paddle stroke of a single human being. It is an ancient, wild and magical place, where one can easily become lost.

“You have to be real intrepid to come back here,” said David Ward, a Jefferson County native and local historian who practically grew up in the swamp, camping there for week-long stretches as a kid, living off the land.

Ward, one of the paddlers on the trip that day, recounted the story of a 20-something couple who got turned around and had to spend the night in the canal. When they finally found their way back to Goose Pasture the next afternoon, he said the young people were shell-shocked.

“They looked like they’d seen a ghost,” he laughed. “Spending the night out here in a canoe would be a scary proposition for them.”

But what might be scary for some is precisely what Ward says makes the place so special.

“It’s hard to get here. It hasn’t been altered,” he said. “It’s just a wild part of our world that’s still here close by.”


Information from: Tallahassee (Fla.) Democrat, https://www.tdo.com

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