Kissimmee points the way toward adventure in real Florida. Previously, I associated Kissimmee with theme parks and other attractions of the mostly manmade kind. But when a friend from the area told me that there was so much more to see here and directed me to a hidden address for adventure, I had a feeling I’d be in for a very different experience in the real Florida.
When I turned off the road, it was as if I had suddenly entered a different world. Tall pines and oak trees draped with Spanish moss surround The Paddling Center at Shingle Creek, where kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards were ready for rent. What was this secret outdoors oasis, I wondered.
Among the many excursion offerings were an adventure challenge, a voyage full of absolute beauty with a challenging twist, and a Stand-Up Paddleboard Tour. However, I opted for a two-hour Cypress Forest Guided Eco-tour to explore Shingle Creek’s southern route and was directed to the water’s edge to wait for my guide. The sunlight sparkled on water a dark tannic brown, stained by cypress trees and fallen leaves, and the whole setting beckoned with mystery. I was already wondering what sights we’d see as we moved through such a raw and natural environment.
Bill Durkin, a soft-spoken Tennessean who relocated to Florida, arrived with two kayaks at the water’s edge and introduced himself as my guide, telling me a bit about Shingle Creek as we prepared to paddle the waterway’s southern route. The creek got its name during the late 1800s and early 1900s when cypress trees were logged along its shores. I learned that cypress wood is extremely weather and insect-resistant, and it was harvested and shipped from the area to make shingles for roofs. Back then, the creek was known as the place where the shingles came from. The nickname stuck.
As we paddled beneath an old single-gauge iron railway bridge that was once used to transport the cypress wood, Bill shared some other interesting facts about Shingle Creek. For example, its headwaters started “as a trickle in the woods” about 20 miles north from our location, and the creek was fed entirely by rainwater. “Shingle Creek is the northernmost headwaters of the Florida Everglades,” Bill noted, explaining how the creek flowed south to Lake Tohopekaliga, then onward into the Kissimmee River and finally the Florida Everglades. It was amazing to me that this relatively narrow and short waterway surrounded by the world’s most important theme park attractions eventually end up in the world famous River of Grass.
We stuck close to the creek’s edge to look for wildlife—alligators, otters, barred owls, and white-tailed deer were just a few of the critters that can be seen in and along Shingle Creek. As we turned a corner, Bill directed me backward into an area dense with foliage and where the water narrowed to just twice the width of our kayaks. I had a feeling he had a surprise in store, and I felt my senses go on high alert. “A mother gator has her nest back here,” Bill said, “Don’t get too close to the edges, but let’s stop here and have a look.” As we scoped out the shoreline for baby alligators, an almost perfectly camouflaged tricolored heron surprised us, suddenly hopping along a branch stretched over the water.
When I saw bubbles coming up from the water ahead of us, I wondered if it was newly hatched alligators. But the babies and the bigger alligators that dwell there eluded us. This mysterious place, it seemed, was keeping some secrets hidden. But just knowing the mother alligator was most likely out there somewhere watching us watching for her was enough to keep my adrenaline pumping.
That boiling-water look, Bill told me as we approached the action, was caused by Whirligig beetles swimming in circles, alarmed at our arrival in their territory. The beetles carried a bubble of air under their shell so they could dive down and breathe underwater, safely out of harm’s way.
It was fascinating to see how Shingle Creek changed during our three-mile out-and-back paddle along its banks. At first, the waterway was wide with relatively high, sandy banks and a mixed-forest canopy of oaks, cypress, palms, and pines. Overhead, I heard the eep-eep-eep call of the ospreys that made their nests in the highest parts of the trees. At one point, we paused to watch a red-bellied woodpecker that knocked its beak against a tree trunk in search of an insect snack.
After a bend in the creek, the riverbanks dropped down to our level as we paddled. We’d entered a flood plain, which also explained the sudden change in vegetation. As we paddled on, cypress trees—now protected here and no longer logged for shingles or anything else—began to dominate. Their knobby knees stretched above the water’s surface near the sides of the creek. Cypress trees withstand flooding better than other trees, which was why they dominated the flood zone.
In Florida’s mostly flat terrain, it would seem difficult to feel dwarfed by nature, as one might be in the mountains. But I marveled at how tiny I felt in that immense and beautiful landscape, under the canopy of cypress trees that stretched like skyscrapers above me. “It’s like a time machine out here. Once you get away from the road and the development, you forget that the outside world exists,” Bill remarked, and I wholeheartedly agreed.
We continued deeper into the cypress maze, and I scanned the water’s surface for alligator eyes and their telltale ridged backs, my every sense working acutely in this Jurassic world.
“We’re paddling through a flooded forest,” Bill explained, as we gingerly maneuvered our kayaks through patches of duckweed, gliding through the cypress trees and exploring a timeless landscape that must have been just how Florida looked to the Native Americans who first settled here.
I realized that while I could have paddled the creek on my own, having a knowledgeable guide made the experience so much more rewarding. “Despite being surrounded by all this development, this is a very healthy ecosystem with a lot of wildlife,” he said, telling me about the largemouth bass, longnose gar, sunfish, and blue fish that populate the creek. Just then, a large shadow moved through the water under me, and I could only wonder at what it was.
Unfortunately, Bill told me, there are invasive species here, too, and not just the bamboo groves we saw lining the shore. The bright pink eggs deposited at the base of trees might have looked like a patch of chewing gum from afar, but the eggs belonged to an invasive species of apple snail. The snail’s colorful eggs have a toxin that makes them unappealing to predators, further increasing their chances of survival.
We saw Florida “cooter” turtles, recognizable by their yellow-striped throats, everywhere along the river. The turtles were quite social and loved to gather in groups to soak up the sun. But like me, they seemed to have their senses constantly heightened in this environment, too. We watched them stretching out their long necks and appendages almost anyplace there was a tree branch or rock in a patch of sun along Shingle Creek. Social as they were, the turtles seemed wary of humans—and other less visible threats, too. Whenever we paddled too close to them, they’d disappear into the water with a sudden plop.
As we made the leisurely paddle back to the Paddling Center at Shingle Creek, we came across two large angled trees, which made an X over the water as we approached from the south. I snapped a quick photo and thought how fitting the image was. X marked the spot for a special place with natural treasures in real Florida. It was a place full of mystery and wonder, a tucked away wonderland in world famous Kissimmee that I hadn’t even imagined existed.