Gulf Hammock Wild Hog Canoe Race is the Ultimate Waccasassa River Challenge
Brightly colored kayaks and canoes lined up on the roadside on State Road 24 in the Saturday morning hours of April 15, 2023. Shuttles continued to arrive, dropping off participants for the 46th Annual Gulf Hammock Wild Hog Canoe Race.
At 9:30, they slipped into the water, 2 by 2, their watercraft catching the current to propel them toward the adventure ahead.
Tannin-stained water rushes through the narrow river, cutting through the wild Florida landscape. The Waccasassa River is a 29-mile river fed by two second-magnitude freshwater springs: Wekiva Spring and Levy Blue. Stretching from the inland Waccasassa flats out to the salt marshes of the Waccasassa Bay in the Gulf of Mexico.
Men, women, and even children gather each year, some from other areas of Florida and others from out of state, to tackle a grueling 15-mile section of the river for this charity paddle race.
The Gulf Hammock Wild Hog Canoe Race is an annual not-for-profit event hosted by Keith Maynard & Daniel Maynard of Gulf Hammock, Justin Maynard of Williston and Dave Kunkleman of Dunnellon. All of the proceeds benefit of The ARC of Levy, an Adult Training Center for persons with intellectual and developmental challenges.
The Ultimate Waccasassa River Challenge
154 boats were entered in this year’s race with 12 divisions of paddlers. Woman’s Kayak, Senior Kayak, Youth Class, Parent/Youth Class, Woman’s Canoe Class, Senior Canoe, Mixed Class, Men’s Kayak Class, Recreation Class, Experienced Class, One-man Canoe Class and Paddleboard Class.
The launch point is on the Waccasassa Bridge on State Road 24, where contestants drop their watercraft and park their vehicles at the finish line of the Highway 19 bridge, three miles south of Otter Creek. Each division was released at intervals from the start line, with the start time recorded.
From there, paddlers navigate through the winding Waccasassa River, complete with tangles of stumps, fallen logs, overhanging trees, shallows, and giant trees in their path, along with sharing the tight waterway with over 150 other watercraft and their protruding paddles.
Compared to the intermediate paddle trail on Juniper Run in the Ocala National Forest, the race section of the Waccasassa is 100x more challenging, with tighter turns and numerous obstacles. Staying in the boat is for the entire race is not an option, as paddlers have to drag their watercraft over any water obstacles they cannot slide under.
Along the river, supporters await to cheer the paddlers and a mid-point volunteer logs in the passing participants. Then it is on to the finish line, where the after-party celebrations await.
Family Traditions Thrive at the Annual Wild Hog Canoe Race
Usually a participant, Martha Johnston stood on the sidelines this year to help with the food preparations which begin the night before. A circle of smokers is set up near the wooden house the on the Maynard family land at the race’s finish line. Martha tackled the river for years in the adult/youth division with two of her grandsons in the past.
“It’s about bragging rights in the family- who beats who with the best time,” she said with a smile, remembering when her grandsons were little. The boys are both grown now, but still compete in the annual race. This year, one of those grandsons flew in from Oklahoma just to take part in the canoe race.
Martha is not alone with this family tradition. The Gulf Hammock Wild Hog Canoe Race is a long-running community event that has been drawing more and more attention with each passing year.
The Grand Finale
The speed of the race can vary year to year, dependent on the river levels and flow. The river was low this year, and it took from a 1:53:45 time all the way to over eight hours for the paddlers to complete the demanding 15-mile Waccasassa race. Participants race against their own start time and within their division.
As the participants reach the last stretch at the Highway 19 bridge, they are greeted by crowds along the river’s bank. The final obstacle, a log positioned across the waterway which requires pulling their watercraft over, is an annual tradition that provides added entertainment for the bystanders. After tackling the last challenge, paddlers have to be back in their watercraft to finish the race.
As the paddlers approached the blue finish line banner stretched over the river, and the smells of smoked barbeque and sounds of blue grass filled the air.
The After Party of the Annual Wild Hog Canoe Race
All paddlers are given a race t-shirt at the end. Each of the winners receives a commemorative wooden Wild Hog Race paddle, and, of course, those all-important bragging rights for the year.
Food tents and vendor booths dot the landscape at the after party. Children run through the colorful bounce houses and explore an unusual petting zoo filled with local critters. Families and friends gather to sip sweet tea, eat, listen to the live music, and reminisce about past races, make plans for the next race, and show their support for this annual tradition on the Waccasassa River.
The Annual Wild Hog Canoe Race benefits the ARC of Levy
The sole purpose of the Annual Wild Hog Canoe Race is to raise money to benefit The ARC of Levy. Forty-six years of hard work and dedication by the Maynards and other local families, volunteers, and sponsors.
The ARC of Levy was created over 50 years ago by families and locals who wanted the developmentally challenged the opportunity to live, learn, work and play. Today, The ARC of Levy County (LARC) has over 120,000 members and 1,000 state & local chapters.
Bragging Rights for 2023
First Place Winners in each division were:
- Woman’s Kayak: Jean Lunt
- Men’s Kayak: Norman
- Senior Kayak: Francavilla
- Mixed: Keener & Siple
- Parent/Youth: B. Johnson & E. Johnson
- Youth: Maxxon & Canova
- Women’s: Wetherington & Quincy
- Senior: Morris & Self
- One-man Canoe: Edwards
- Recreation: Forstall & Vinson
- Paddleboard: Gonzalez
- Experienced: Spacek & Mire
A list of all the 46th Annual Wild Hog Canoe Race winners with their paddle times can be found on their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/WildHogCanoeRace