Tour the Choctawhatchee River

May 25, 2023Beach Life Magazine, Emerald Coast

Welcome into a watery and forgotten world.

Kingfishers dive and swoop, skimming the surface of the water, encircling each other in a dance before alighting on a low-hanging branch. Osprey nests top bare, skinny trees, framing the horizon like a child’s drawing—the nests far too wide and heavy to rest safely among the treetops. Two bald eagles sound a cry above us, perhaps startled by the sound of the engine amid these tranquil backwaters of the Choctawhatchee Bay.

We’re entering the Choctawhatchee River on Backwater Tours’ small boat, weaving through a snake-shaped waterway bordered by high marsh grass. It’s a dizzying approach to a river that winds its way all the way up into Alabama. A river steeped in history, lore, and natural wonders.

After a thrilling toggle back and forth among the winding mouth of the river, we enter a wide, calm channel that feels a million miles away from the white-sand beach and emerald green and azure waters of the Gulf.

The boat slows, and a wide, natural grin spreads across the face of Captain Andy Coleman, our guide for the day. The stiff formalities of earlier are gone, and as the boat rests in the river’s swift-moving waters, it’s easy to see why he’s passionate about sharing this still-relatively unknown place with people—he loves it. He loves every inch of it.

“We have a large time out here on the river,” he says as his boat begins to work its way upriver. He points out a sunning turtle, a bald eagle’s nest, and a heron taking flight ahead.

“There were no bald eagles here. Absolutely none. I started seeing them in the 1980s. Now, I know of 16 bald eagle nests. We have a much healthier ecosystem. The ospreys are plentiful, and we have otters now, which are a great indicator of clean water.”

Capt. Andy began giving these tours in 2014 and is now joined by alternate Capt. Jimmy Parris, which works well because Capt. Andy can now point out sights and curiosities while Capt. Jimmy navigates. Most tours wind their way up to a captivatingly quiet cut-through that runs deep into the swamp, past old cypress stands. Capt. Andy explains these perfectly straight waterways are remnants from the 1800s, when men with oxen-pulled carts would travel deep into the swamp to cut cypress and timber, which would then be floated downriver.

Instead of the usual 3-hour tour, we’re in for something a bit more special—an all-day adventure that works its way up into Bay County and to a small spring that feels like a local secret.

Along the way, the river widens, and riverfront fish camps, bed and breakfasts, and ramshackle houseboats dot the shoreline. A kingfisher swoops by a rope swing, and we strain our necks looking for giant sturgeons beneath the water.

“How do you like my river?” he yells over the roar of the motor. “Can you believe how few people are on it?”

As we get closer to the spring, the riverbank begins to change, and we notice pale pink and white wildflowers lining the ancient limestone shores. These shores give way to unbelievably wide cypress; we glide silently past one that is as wide as a refrigerator is tall. Within the new cypress growth and lumpy, bumpy landscape of the swamp, tiny white wildflowers bloom. It feels as though we’ve somehow slipped from an angler’s paradise into a quiet fairyland.

Capt. Parris skillfully guides our boat through a shallow, narrow waterway lined with these mammoth cypress that leads to the spring. Once at the spring, we dock on a small sand beach and stare, amazed, at the bubbling, crystal-clear water in front of us.

“We love to show off our favorite places,” Capt. Jimmy says as he hands out the paddles for the SUP boards. Capt. Andy never wastes an opportunity at the springs and gamely jumps into the 68-degree water. “I like to stay in one spot with a mask,” he explains. “You’d be amazed at what goes by you!”

With the SUP boards unmoored from the top of the boat, it’s now time to experience the force of the spring for ourselves. The experience does not disappoint. The bubbling spring is forceful but gentle as it pushes our boards back and away. Beneath us, schools of fish dart and river grass sway.

Capt. Andy surfaces from watching the fish and points to the sand beach. “This is the best place in the whole world to eat a watermelon,” he says. “You sit in the shallow water there and eat it.”

Once we’ve grown tired of paddling the spring, it’s time to reboard and begin the long ride back to the dock at Point Washington. It’s a bit sad to say goodbye to these woods and this crystal-clear spring. It feels as though, just for a little while, we were granted special passage into a watery and forgotten world.

Recent Stories

Explore and discover all of the Emerald coast.

Sandcastle Kids: Healing Hearts

Sandcastle Kids: Healing Hearts

Sandcastle Kids, a South Walton 501c3 nonprofit, carries out their healing mission by providing all-expenses-paid vacations to families experiencing a diagnosis of childhood cancer. As you can imagine, these families undergo tremendous mental, emotional, and financial...