Saturday, March 24, 2012

Spring Break FL 2012

I was actually halfway lamenting the fact that I had chosen to join my northern Michigan friends, Lois and John, for another paddling trip to Florida; I was regretting not going backpacking. I really hadn't spent as much time on the trail  as I'd wanted this season and it was quickly coming to an end with the warm least nearby weekend trips.

Silly me! The trip was great fun and the weather was perfect. The drought had however taken its toll on the rivers and we spent most of the week on larger spring-fed rivers or their tributaries.  Lois and John serendipitously found a wonderful townhouse for the week. They had arranged to rent a house in Dunellon for the following week and while chatting with the owner it came up that they still hadn't found a house in Tallahassee. The owner, a lobbyist, mentioned that he had a townhouse there that he didn't normally rent, but wasn't using that week and we got it for a steal. It was in a beautiful part of town and was really nice, even had a bottle of wine waiting for us!
Monday 3/12
Our first paddle was on the Wacissa river from the head springs to Goose Pasture, about 9 miles. It starts out as a wide river, with twelve springs contributing to its flow, then braids between islands. The eel grass and other aquatic vegetation was easy to see in the clear spring water. Farther downstream the water became more tannic and we saw  several alligators. A young one about 5 ft swam beside my boat for a ways but the picture I got was unfortunately a little blurry. Another highlight of the trip was going through a long defunct section of dam (no safety hazard) and we could hear "whitewater", actually shallow riffles, in advance :D. The day was mostly cloudy with temps in the high 70's and a little windy. We saw osprey, limpkins, egrets, several types of herons, an eagle, and a few hawks, but no kites, which I was really hoping to see. The mullet were jumping all around, one hit Lois' boat, and it made me reminisce about how delicious smoke mullet is. There were a few other paddlers out to see the springs, but once we headed down river, we had it all to ourselves.
Slipping quietly down a finger of the Wacissa River
Tuesday 3/13
John woke complaining of a painful tennis elbow like strain, so he and Lois decided to go for a 40 mile bike ride,(John rides a recumbent) and I decided to hike. My plan was to try to hike two nearby areas along the Apalachicola River bluffs. I began at Torreya State Park and hiked only two miles before the temp reached 84 degrees. Instead of heading to my other destination, one that required more strenuous hiking I decided to head back to Tallahassee and catch up on some errands that I knew I wouldn't have time to do on the way home.
Overlooking the Apalachicola River from the Torreya Bluffs
Hiking the bluffs. Who says Florida's flat?
Maidenhair ferns along the ravines
Wednesday 3/14
We headed to the Ochlockonee River to paddle what was suppose to be a 15 mile paddle. I thought a trip that long was a bit odd due to John's arm but he was fine. The river started out wide, then narrowed. Fifteen miles is a good day, but this river seemed to go on with no end in sight. John and I had a discussion about what we thought our speed was, trying to calculate when we'd be done, and as the clouds began to mass into cumulonimbus, complete with anvil I started to get a little concerned. Finally we all let out a big woohoo when our vehicle came into view after 6 hrs of paddling, AND, we made it off the river in time to miss the afternoon thunderstorm that dumped nickel size hail in the area, not to mention the accompanying lightning. We saw a couple of eagles, no other paddlers, and a couple of fishermen at the end of the trip. This may have been due to the fact that most sane people don't pick a 20 mile stretch for a day trip :) A few days later, while Lois was on the phone with a local paddler about joining us, he mentioned that the guide book was wrong and that section was actually 20 miles! We had NO trouble believing him.
Windless day on the Ochlockonee River
Bald Eagle on the Ochlockonee
Thursday 3/15
After our marathon paddle the day before, we decided to do a short five mile section of the Sopchoppy River, which turned out to be the best paddle of the week! Swift water, tight turns, a few drag overs, white sand bars, and beautiful tannin-stained water. The swift part isn't visible in the pictures as I was too busy negotiating turns to take any :) Cypress knees formed sentries along the shoreline and the high banks were lined with wild azalea, mountain laurel and ti ti.  This river is rumored to be up for Wild and Scenic designation and I can certainly see why. There was not a house in sight on the entire section and no other paddlers. We drifted in silence feeling a million miles from kind of day!
Looking down from the "put-in" which you can't, btw, get any idea of its steepness.

Some of the many cypress knees lining the Sopchoppy River
Our lunch spot. The Sopchoppy's a typical north FL blackwater river
Friday 3/16
The end of the week arrived all too quickly and for my last river,we decided to paddle the Econfina, which two years before had been at flood stage. We'd paddled through the trees trying to stay in the main channel and not get lost. Unfortunately the gauge showed a measly 30 cfs and the guidebook recommend at least 140 cfs. Lois suggested the Wakulla, which we'd paddled before, and despite the chance to see manatees again, I wasn't in the mood for another wide river. John suggested the next lower section of the Sopchoppy, another 5 mile stretch that only begins to have houses just before the take-out.
This section was a little wider, the banks a little higher, and beautiful. Once again we paddled beneath wild azaleas and fringetree. We had the river to ourselves again and only one drag over. 
The only downside to the Sopchoppy are the put-ins and take-outs. Hauling a boat up a ridiculously steep goat trail covered in slick as owl snot fallen live oak leaves, was great fun and there was no shortage of groaning and moaning, and giggling....I told Lois I was going to enter her in the Sopchoppy worm grunting festival...yes this was on a sign as we went through town! I was just glad I had a fairly light canoe and not a heavy kayak. Putting in was on the other hand, a piece of cake! John made the comment "just pretend you have an unruly German Shepard on the other end, plant your feet, get a good grip and hold on. I was glad for a change that my painters were so long! This is also the man who was at the ready with camera to hopefully catch a shot of one of us as we fell in the river :) Fortunately no one did.
Putting in was much easier than taking out! Picture courtesy of John Heiam
Lois paddling past Fringetree
Mountain Laurel petal on water, Sopchoppy River. Courtesy John Heiam (the real photographer)

Saturday 3/17
On the trip from Texas to Tallahassee I'd taken my time, stopping in south Louisiana to have lunch, grabbing several lbs of crawfish tails on Saturday to take back home. Sunday morning I hiked at a preserve near Grayton beach, then took the long way along the coast and up through the Apalachicola National Forest. 
The trip home was a quick 13 hr drive with just a few stops for gas and stretching. I'd entertained the thought of stopping in Lafayette for the evening to catch Andrew Skurka speaking at the Pack and Paddle, but I was ready to be home.

What I'd started out dreading ended up a wonderful trip and next year Lois and John are talking about heading back to the Pensacola area which is not only closer for me, but if the weather cooperates, I'll get to paddle some of the rivers I missed three years ago when everything was truly at flood stage and not accessible. I'd love the chance to paddle the Blackwater River and to spend another day on Turkey Cr. After two years in the Tallahassee area, I'm ready to move on and explore some new rivers.

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