MIAMI -- When fall in South Florida finally starts feeling like a different season -- instead of an extension of the record-hot summer -- many will dust off their canoes and kayaks to explore local waterways. Amid the prolonged economic downturn, some of the best paddling waters may be found fairly close to home.
Here are five of the region's most interesting waters -- all located within a 1 1/2-hour drive of Miami-Dade and Broward counties:
Hard to believe there's a free-flowing, un-channeled river that courses through urban north Miami-Dade County. Welcome to the Oleta, which winds for about six miles from the Sunny Isles Bridge through Maule Lake north to Ives Dairy Road. While much of the river is lined with homes, there is a 1 1/2-mile stretch between the Sunny Isles and Diefenbach bridges that can fool you into believing you're in the Everglades.
You'll pass mangroves uncut since the 1920s; cheeping ospreys guarding nests; narrow spur creeks with jumping mullet, and perhaps even a cruising manatee.
For the sharp-eyed, there's a nondescript shoreline just a brief paddle from East Greynolds Park that holds Tequesta Indian artifacts dating back thousands of years. On a guided trip with Miami-Dade County Parks naturalists several years ago, a group found ancient pieces of tools fashioned from conch shells and some remnants of clay pottery.
You can launch your own kayak or canoe at Oleta River State Park, 3400 NE 163rd St., North Miami; rent a canoe or kayak from Blue Moon Outdoor Center in the park (305-957- 3040), or join one of Blue Moon's guided tours.
The manmade Coral Gables canal, blasted out of the city's limestone foundation in the early 20th century by pioneer developer George Merrick, provides an intriguing peek into the backyards of one of the region's toniest neighborhoods. Paddlers are able to peruse dream homes of every type and style, check out opulent yachts and sportfishing boats, and be barked at by a wide variety of designer dogs.
This water-level tour of the City Beautiful is surprisingly scenic. Many of the homes don't have concrete seawalls; instead they are lined with natural limestone that resembles mini-Mount Rushmore faces with mosses and ferns sprouting here and there.
The bird life is rich: you could spot egret, ibis, heron, cormorant, anhinga and kite. Of course, there's always the possibility of a chance encounter with a manatee.
A highlight for some paddlers is to head west toward the Biltmore Hotel to pause and admire the resort's soaring tower -- and dodge flying golf balls driven by errant duffers. You can launch your own kayak or canoe beneath the Metrorail tracks at Riviera Drive and Ponce de Leon, or join a Miami-Dade Parks Department eco-adventure tour (305-365-3018).
BEAR LAKE CANOE TRAIL
One of the best reasons to take this 1.6-mile jaunt through the heart of Flamingo in Everglades National Park -- besides the spectacular scenery and wildlife -- is to appreciate the volunteer labor that makes the trip possible.
A small group of hardy South Florida paddlers used a lot of the same, crude hand tools employed by the 1920s dredging crew that carved out the Homestead Canal to re-open this deadfall-blocked waterway in 2009.
Rendered impassable by downed trees and sunken logs deposited by Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma in 2005, the Bear Lake trail now is open from the put-in off Bear Lake Road near the Flamingo entrance all the way to Bear Lake and to the loop to Mud Lake, Coot Bay and Buttonwood Canal.
Paddlers are liable to see just about any Everglades-dwelling creature on this trip. The volunteer clean-up crew encountered alligators, crocodiles, flamingoes, pygmy rattlesnakes -- and had a tarpon jump into their johnboat.
The trail can be very buggy; come with long sleeves, long pants and insect repellent. You can launch your own paddlecraft or rent a canoe or kayak at the Flamingo marina (239-695-3101), but you will have to transport it to the put-in yourself.
Not to be confused with the Big Apple river of the same name, this hauntingly beautiful paddling trail is worth the 1 1/2-hour trip to the hidden put-in on Tamiami Trail just a few miles west of State Road 29.
The East River winds through narrow mangrove tunnels and small open bays for about five miles through the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve to empty into Fakahatchee Bay at Daniels Point. Some of the tunnels are so narrow that kayak paddles have to be broken in two to navigate; in others, paddlers must pull themselves hand-over-hand using red mangrove boughs.
The visual rewards are stunning: shaded cathedrals of greenery draped with orchids, bromeliads and ferns open into scenic rookeries with a rich variety of bird life.
Daniels Point is a small turn-of-the-century island settlement that makes an ideal lunch spot. The old arsenic vat used to dip cattle 100 years ago is still there.
This trip is best timed with a tide chart to avoid paddling against strong currents. Because of the many twists, turns and blind passes on the trail, it is best to join a guided tour before attempting this trip on your own. Call 239-695-4593 for tour information.
Flowing 10 miles from the C-18 canal in central Palm Beach County northeast to Jupiter Inlet, the Loxahatchee is more like two rivers than one. The upstream, freshwater section coils through the shady cypress forest of Jonathan Dickinson State Park, providing a highway for alligators and otters and shelter for birds. It splashes over two small dams and leads to a dilapidated boat dock, a few huts and abandoned animal cages in the middle of the woods.
Now part of the state park, this is the former of home of South Florida's own real-life Tarzan figure, Trapper Nelson, who lived off the land from the 1940s until his mysterious shooting death in 1968. It's a great place to take a tour, stretch cramped legs and eat lunch.
Past Trapper Nelson's settlement, the river becomes wide and salty as ocean water washes inland through Jupiter Inlet. Red mangroves replace cypress trees on the banks, and paddlers are almost certain to spot an osprey scanning the waters for a fish dinner.
It is absolutely no surprise the Loxahatchee was the first Florida river to receive a federal "wild and scenic" designation.
You can launch your own canoe or kayak at Riverbend Park, 9060 Indiantown Rd., Jupiter or rent a paddlecraft from Canoe Outfitters (561-746-7053).