The diverse and wild waterways that course through Northwest Florida offer a refreshing way to spend a day of adventure on the water.
At the heart of one of the most diverse ecosystems in the country—and just an hour’s drive from the region’s white-sand beaches—are wild rivers and creeks that flow through the woodlands and bubble up from natural springs. The mostly rural region between Pensacola and Tallahassee is known as a haven for paddlers of all skill levels.
Many have discovered the popular Apalachicola and Choctawhatchee rivers, but the Ochlockonee and Chipola rivers flow here as well. Apalachicola Bay, Econfina Creek, Holmes Creek, Lake Seminole and Merritt’s Mill Pond add even more diversity and are favorite paddling spots for locals and visitors from throughout the region.
Debra Gay loves these waters. She makes a living sharing them with others through Econfina Creek Canoe Livery. She has seen interest—as well as her family business—grow in popularity.
“My husband and I started in 1985,” Debra says of her business in Youngstown, midway between Panama City on the coast and Chipley to the north. “It was just me and my husband. We started out with 15 canoes. We cleared a trail down to the creek. We did it for a long time by ourselves. Then our children helped us, and now our grandchildren work here.
“Canoeing wasn’t as popular back then. Kayaking was unheard of. Very few people had their own canoes. For many years, it was locals. Now I have people who drive here as a destination, from Montgomery and Atlanta.”
Econfina Creek is remote and swift-flowing. Its upper portion is a favorite of more experienced paddlers.
A 24-mile-long designated paddling trail on the creek has been described as “the most exciting canoe trail in the state.” While the upper trail has the steepest fall of any designated canoe trail in Florida, the lower portion—where Debra’s business is located—is enjoyable for paddlers of all skill levels.
The number of customers has increased through the years, and the landscape has changed, but Debra’s love for the water and natural areas here remains constant.
“The water here is awesome,” Debra says. “It’s pure and free-flowing. This is one of the most beautiful places God created. I just love it. I was born at Tyndall (Air Force Base), and I’ve been here all my life. I’ve been really blessed to be able to spend my life here.”
Debra also considers it a blessing to see others enjoy time on these waters. The paddlers she sees are primarily family groups or friends looking for a day of fun together.
“We have a whole lot of families, larger groups or just couples,” she says. “We see Scouts, church groups. We encourage church and school groups.”
Some people stop and snorkel or find a place to picnic. Some use the trip to mark a special occasion or come away with a special memory.
“We see a lot of proposals,” Debra adds with a smile.
Trips are available by reservation only. Paddlers can choose from canoes and single or double kayaks.
A typical leisurely paddle takes three to 31/2 hours, but time for picnicking, swimming or snorkeling can be built in. The livery shuttles drivers back to their vehicles.
After Hurricane Michael, the landscape changed dramatically in some spots. Many area creeks and other waterways were blocked by fallen trees. Slowly, most were cleared and are now open—albeit with some noticeable differences in the surrounding natural habitat.
“It’s still beautiful, and you see different things,” Debra says, noting Hurricane Michael’s wind and water opened up new areas.
Just as those new views were being discovered, the livery was faced with implementation of COVID-19 restrictions on group sizes and mask requirements in shuttles.
But Debra says the current season looks bright for her and all who enjoy paddling Econfina Creek. Plans are for Econfina Creek Canoe Livery to stay open through October, welcoming visitors to share the waters Debra calls home.
“I’ll never take it for granted again,” she says. “We are really blessed.”