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Paddling the Peace River is something you must do to be considered a true Floridian. Every native Floridian I know has done it at least once. Even us Yankees who relocated to the Sunshine State can earn our Floridian cred by paddling a portion (or all) of the 106 miles of the Peace between the headwaters in Polk County in Central Florida to Charlotte Harbor in Southwest Florida. Here’s a confession, up until March, I have never paddled the Peace River.
“I’ll meet you in a few, I need to stop at Walmart and pick up a shovel,” I told Ken as we coordinated our lunch.
“You’re just getting a garden trowel, right?” he asked.
“No, a shovel that you use if you’re going to bury a body,” I replied.
There was a pause before Ken replied with a curt, “What?”
Outdoor writer Ken Perrotte is president of the Association of Great Lake Outdoor Writers and voice behind Outdoors Rambler. Through membership in another outdoor media association, we’ve known each other for years.
Finally Earning My Floridian Cred by Canoeing the Peace River
AGLOW held its annual board retreat around the corner from me in Punta Gorda last March. It was the last media group I booked with my former employer. Knowing I have the inside scoop on cool, fun things to do in the area, Ken asked for something to do before the retreat started. I suggested we fossil the Peace River, something I’ve done with a guide.
Our challenge was, because Ken was driving in from St. Augustine, we needed to head out in the early afternoon. Local fossil hunting guides lead tours departing in the morning.
I’m all for learning something new and was ready to study maps and scour the internet to determine the best place in the Peace River to fossil. Sometimes what we need is right in front of us. And somehow we miss it because it’s so obvious and we take it for granted. Like living in Western New York, I always thought I’d have access to Niagara Falls. It wasn’t until I moved to Florida did I experience the Maid of the Mist, the boat tour that takes you to the bottom of the Falls. The obvious option for this fossiling adventure was hopping in a canoe, paddling the Peace River and digging for fossils.
The Peace River is known for its fossils, mostly from the Miocene (5 – 15 million years ago) to Pleistocene epochs (2.58 million – 11,7000 years ago; the Ice Age). You won’t find dinosaur fossils but those of sharks, mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths, giant armadillos, dugongs, horses, and sea turtles.
Paddling with Canoe Outpost-Peace River in Arcadia
To ensure we’d find something and learn about the river and fossil hunting, I reached out to Trent Anthney, General Manager of Canoe Outpost-Peace River in Arcadia. It’s Florida’s oldest outfitter and their Instagram and Facebook feeds are full of fossil-envy with magnificent finds from customers, including palm sized megalodon teeth. Canoe Outpost-Peace River offers five-mile, 10-mile and 16-mile trips and canoe-camping along the riverbanks.
For this excursion, our trip began at the end, at Canoe Outpost where we parked, signed paperwork, boarded a van, and transported upriver. Another family in the parking lot were preparing for a few nights of camping. The father was planning to magnet fish the Peace, something I’ve wanted to do, thanks to YouTube suggestions. I’ll need to save that for my 2022 goals list.
Although I had my newly purchased shovel and homemade shark tooth sifter, the outfitter rents them along with a shark tooth identifier sheet. In addition to megalodons, teeth from sand tiger, tiger, requiem, snaggletooth, lemon, and hammerhead sharks, along with rays’ teeth are commonly found in the Peace River.
Floating Through Natural Florida
Almost immediately after launching the aluminum canoe from the riverbank, we entered Florida’s wonderful natural world. This section of the Peace River meanders along private land, all of which is minimally developed. Although there’s cell service (AT&T’s my carrier), I felt disconnected from a hectic world. Because Ken needed to take photos, I was at the back of the canoe and held all the power, although he made a snarky comment or two about my navigational skills.
We glided atop the tannin-stained river and past grand trees like cypress and oaks, beaches, and ranchland. I soaked up the warm sunshine and took in the stillness. The only sounds were that of us, other paddlers we passed along the way, and an occasional cry from a bird.
The river needs to be at least 12” below normal to look for fossils and it was below that. This also means the ideal time to look for fossils in the Peace River is February – May before the summer rains begin. (But check with Canoe Outpost for latest conditions.)
Digging into the Crunch
As we made our way toward Canoe Outpost, Trent used his paddle to test the river bottom and find the crunch. The riverbed varies including soft and silty, hard from limestone, and crunchy. The riverbed crunch is where the fossils should be. This is a good time to mention it’s illegal to dig in the riverbanks so stick to the riverbed.
Several times during the trip, we beached the canoe, dug into the crunch, dumped it into the sifter, and looked for treasure. It was also an opportunity to cool off in the river. Sure, snapping turtles and alligators call the river home but we didn’t see any.
At first glance, what’s in the sifter looks like a bunch of random black rocks. But as Trent pointed out, look closely and you’ll find at least one fossil in every scoop.
Bring Your Patience for Fossil Hunting
Fossil hunting is not for those with ADD. It takes patience. When I did as instructed, slowly comb through the scoops, I found fossils. Everyone is on the hunt for megalodon teeth but my curiosity peaked when I learned fossilized sand dollars are found in a specific part of the river’s limestone. We spent some time in this specific spot, found some shark teeth and partial fossilized sand dollars.
This was our last find before heading to Canoe Outpost where the friendly staff helped Ken and I out of the canoe. Although a brief trip, it was a fulfilling experience where I reconnected with natural Florida and after 20-some years, finally earned my Floridian cred.
Nuts & Bolts About Canoe Outpost – Peace River
Canoe Outpost – Peace River
Tel: (863) 494-1215
Canoe Outpost is about a 90-minute drive southeast of Tampa.
All trips are self-guided. The canoe trip we took was the Oak Hill Run and should take about 2 hours without stopping. The fee for this starts at $45 per canoe, plus tax for one or two people. Dogs are welcome, too, woof!
If you’re planning on collecting vertebrate fossils (mastodons, horses, dugongs, etc.) you’ll need a Florida fossil permit. It’s $5 and can take about two weeks to receive. If you’re just collecting fossilized shark teeth or fossils from invertebrates, you don’t need a permit.
Where to Eat
You’re welcome to bring a cooler with food and beverages (no glass on the river).
Ken and I ate a Mexican lunch at:
Los Compadres, Inc.
135 N. Brevard Ave.
Arcadia, FL 34266
Suggested items to bring on a canoe trip to fossil the Peace River:
Waterproof case for your phone (I love my Duk Gear case!).
Water shoes (not flipflops but something sturdy)
Insect repellent (if you’re bug magnet!)
Bag for fossils.
Any snacks you’d like.
In the car, keep a towel and change of clothes and shoes. There’s a shower and changing area at Canoe Outpost.
Here’s a brief video so you can get a glimpse of the Peace River and how the sifter is used.