Paddle in Peace
This waterway offers one-of-a-kind finds: fossils.
The promise of fossils around every bend of the Peace River sounds as likely as hitting it big with mountain-town panning-for-gold attractions, but give it 30 minutes. Paddlers joining Canoe Outpost, an outfitter in Arcadia, two hours southwest of Orlando, for an overnight river trip can pack doubt, but shouldn’t forget a Ziploc to tote home finds.
“All of Florida has fossils—they’re just more exposed in this area,” says Becky Bragg, owner of Canoe Outpost (canoeoutpost.com). The state has been underwater twice, burying marine and land fossils just below the surface. “Every time we get high water, more fossils are washed into the river.” These nuggets collect along the river’s curves. It’s also in these pockets that the force of the water carves away at the banks, spilling forth an even bigger bounty. “I’ve found a variety of everything, from fossilized deer antlers to mastodon teeth.” Shark teeth are the most common scores, as are pieces of fossilized wood and turtle shells. The Holy Grail is a megalodon tooth, but Bragg says people find those only about twice a year.
The best way to start is to find a black sandbar midstream, just before the river rounds a corner. Or simply dip your paddle into the drink and listen. A shush is just swishing sand. A crunch means big pieces. Serious collectors bring wood-framed screens for sifting, but day-trippers are more likely to scoop up massive handfuls of what lies below. The sand and small debris slide away until only rocks or fossils remain. It’s easy hunting, and kids get hooked quickly—so do adults, so impose a time limit to avoid setting up camp in the dark.
Canoe Outpost operates trips year-round, offering a shuttle service, plus rentals of canoes and camping gear, including tents, sleeping bags, lanterns, stoves, frying pans—you name it. Eight routes are available, including an 8-mile trip where Bragg’s team delivers camping gear, marking it with a flag for easy finding. The most popular trip is the Zolfo Springs to Gardner run, just shy of 20 miles. Overnighting is allowed along the entire right bank of the river, so paddlers set up camp along any patch that looks dry and flat.
The current is mild, allowing plenty of time for eyeing the riverbanks where deer come for a drink in the early morning. You'll find red-shouldered hawks bathing in the water, and turkey vultures by the dozens holding court in higher perches. Of course, wildlife tends to play second fiddle to the patches of black sand that take river-runners not just out of the everyday, but back in time.