Wednesday, October 13, 2010

More vs. Less

There's a lot of stuff that you can get to enhance your paddling experience. It's true in most outdoor pursuits, and I imagine for enthusiasts of nearly any variety. I'd gotten to this point where I never paddled without the essential safety gear, maps, guide books, flora and fauna guides, binoculars, food, and so on. I didn't get too involved in it (like with GPS and all the other gear you can get) but I did find that I was feeling a bit bogged down by it all. It just seemed burdensome to need to make two or more trips to the car to get everything whenever I wanted to paddle for a while.

Simplicity is one of the things I think we're all looking for when we venture outdoors. We want a basic connection to the visceral existence that we know pre-existed our comfortable, air-conditioned, gore-texed, wrapped in plastic present. I think we need it at a genetic level. This had always been one of my favorite features of surfing, one that I would pontificate about if someone asked me. That is, surfing is an amazingly complicated synthesis of balance, speed, finesse, wave knowledge, timing, placement, weight distribution, trim, but requires so little in the way of equipment. A person, a board, some wax, and a wave. That's it. Body surfing is even more pure in this sense. Man and wave. Yet, there is a great gulf between those who merely do it, and those who do it with grace and skill. In the end, it's not the stuff; it's the man (or woman, I'm using "man" in that ungendered human being sense). Aimee just proofread this and suggested that it could sound like I"m suggesting that I'm skilled and graceful. That's not my intention, and so, with both skill and grace, I hereby proclaim the baseness of my skills. Someday I may achieve hard won grace.

I've long appreciated this about surfing, so I don't know why I got caught up in the "stuff" of kayaking, but I've recently decided to slough some of it off. Perhaps not permanently, or all the time, but most of the time. The last three trips I've taken (the last three consecutive Wednesdays) have all been familiar. I've paddled them at least once before. It's so much nicer to just pull up to the launch, drop the boat by the water, grab PFD, paddle, hat, and safety gear (bilge pump and paddle float) and go. No two or more trips to the car. Just get in the boat with the required stuff and go do what I'm really there for, which is commune with the world. Observe.

Today I sat in the middle of a school of tiny fish, a pod of dolphin 5 or 6 strong fed on whatever was feeding on the minnows, terns plummeted, and 3 manatees surfaced repeatedly mere feet away from me. That's why I'm out there.


Sunday, October 3, 2010

Corporate Cup Challenge

The Great Bike Shop submitted a team to the Corporate Cup Challenge yesterday (local race to promote wellness in the office). Teams consisted of 4 people and four events (one per participant); kayak, bike, run, and strength. I did the kayak event; my first kayak race ever.

Rick from The Wilderness Way was there running the event, which used their boats (had to be shorter than 13'). I came in second in my heat, and fifth overall. The guy who won I know by reputation. I've never paddled with him before, but I have paddled with a pal of his and I found his regular pace to be my fast pace, so he won by almost a minute. They guy who beat me in my heat just out-muscled me. If the course had been longer I think I would have had him, but he was some kind of fitness trainer and stayed about a boat length ahead of me. JC got second in the bike and our runner got third in the run overall. No results yet but I think we're in good standing to place top three.

Attempted to hike to Shepherd Spring today, but had no map and ended up turning back a little short. Oh well, still a beautiful morning to be outside. Cheers.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Giant Turtle Shell

The unbearably hot weather has finally broken and it feels great outside. So this morning I paddled Wacissa headwaters. It was cool and overcast for the whole trip. Saw loads of birds like blue heron, little blue heron, great egret, snowy egret, tricolored heron, wood duck, white ibis, red shouldered hawk, common moorhen, kingfisher, and others. A family of river otter let me sneak up on them (to about 20'). When they finally noticed me they all stood up on their haunches and made a weird sort of coughing noise at me, then disappeared. I poked into several of the smaller springs on the E side of the river, so I saw about 5 in all, including Big Blue. Along one of the spring runs I noticed something huge and white just under the water, which turned out to be a big sunbleached and completely denuded turtle carapace (about 16" long x 13" wide). It's now drying out on the picnic table out back. A wildlife officer busted three guys hunting from a boat for something, and there were some nice folks on the river from Tampa who are on their annual N FL paddling trip. They spoke highly of the Blackwater River and Ti Ti and Whiskey George creeks. Perhaps I'll see them soon.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Full Moon on the Wakulla

After waaaaaaayyyy too long off the water, Aimee and I took a trip with the local outfitters/livery last night. My friend and coworker JC and friend wanted to go and it seemed like a pleasant way to get back out and mostly avoid this heat. We launched from the US 98 bridge over the Wakulla (indigenous word for "mysterious waters") at about 7 and got out at the Fort a few miles down a little after nine. Highlights for me were chatting with the guides and the huge storm that was firing a few miles away mingling with the sunset and full moon that eventually appeared from behind the clouds. It was kind of a large group, but mostly pleasant folks, expertly led by friendly and informative staff of The Wilderness Way. They have to do a lot more work than we used to at SMKC, due mostly to not having a waterside local and therefore having to load a trailer and set up a shuttle for most all trips. It sounds as though I might be able to do a little work for them at some point? We'll see. No other big plans due to the heat and the amount of work we've been doing around the house, which is mostly of the painting variety. Someday I'll get to paddle more regularly and post more stuff. For now....

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Wakulla Beach to Yonder Island

How's this for convenient water access?

Short trip from Wakulla Beach this morning. I got down there at about 10 and while I was gearing up a bald eagle soared by. If you look real close at the photo you can see that there's an island behind my truck. I don't know what it's called yet, but I've got a FB msg in to someone who'll probably know, so for right now I'm calling it Yonder Island. As you can see, the launch at Wakulla Beach is pretty nice. You get off the coastal highway and drive 5 or 6 miles down a long sand road through the forest. Aside from the occasional beer can it's a lovely semi-tropical maritime forest of live oak, palms, pine and other trees. Sections of it are swampy. Most of it is owned by the gubment, so there are few homes or other man made structures. At the end of the road it opens onto the above beach and you pull right up to the water's edge, unload, then park far enough away that a high tide won't wash your car for you (about 50' or so). There was just enough onshore breeze to keep the heat and bugs down and chop up the water slightly, but it was plenty manageable. I didn't really know how far away that island was, but I guessed it couldn't be too far, and I was right. It took about 30 minutes to cross (against wind and incoming tide), and I guessed 1.5 or 2 miles based on that. I got right up next to the island, which is a typical low cord and needle grass sandbar with a few stunted trees on it, and made my way around slowly so I could see what there was to see, which wasn't that much. There was a pair of oystercatchers at one end, lots of hermit crabs, a Southern stingray (stingaree, as Mr. White would say), and random single sea squirts that weren't attached to anything. At other points on the trip I saw a bald eagle, laughing gull, loon, and willets. I was off the water a little after noon. It was a short paddle, but a nice one and a beautiful day to be out there. Cheers.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Spectacular Bike Ride!

From the St. Mark's Rail Trail trail head just below town to St. Mark's National Wildlife Refuge. Perfect temps, a little breezy, blue skies, beautiful day. I stopped at The Wilderness Way in Wakulla (the town of) and spoke with those folks for a while, and they graciously answered all my questions about trips and put-ins and equipment and such. Then I got off the trail onto Bloxham Cutoff Rd (SR 267) to Newport and then on down the Lighthouse Rd. all the way to the end. It was marvelous.

Bike is definitely the way to see the wildlife refuge. In a car you'll drive by too many things while you go from spot to spot, and you can cover more ground on a bike than by foot. On a fat tired bike you can ride all the dikes, and there are miles and miles of them. I had the good sense to bring my field glasses (knobblers) and a bird guide, so I just went through at a leisurely pace to see what I could see. What I saw was: common moorhen, American coot, cormorant, lesser scaup, redhead (duck), little blue heron, snowy egret, tricolored heron, brown pelican, pied billed grebe, old turkey vultures, a pair of adult bald eagles with a juvy in the nest, laughing gulls, Forster's terns, kingfisher, eastern kingbird, boat tailed grackle, mockingbird, indigo bunting (!), red winged blackbird. I also saw a plant called a Horrible Thistle, not quite in full bloom yet, but deserving of its name.

On my way out I notice an armadillo coming out of the brush ambling towards the road. I slowed down (he didn't) and came to a stop a few feet short of him. Aside from a couple pauses to look me over, he didn't seem that impressed by me, so he carried on across and passed about 3' in ahead of my front wheel and then waddled into the tall grass on the other side. Stupid animals, them. They're by far the most common roadkill around here. Cute in a funny looking kind of way though, so I was pretty entertained.

The bald eagles must be a fixture down there. I've seen at least one every time I've been on the property (except with Mike a couple weeks ago, but we only touched on the end of the road to eat our lunch). The nest was up in a tall pine tree maybe 50 or 75 yards off the road, but clearly visible. It was huge and dominated the top of the tree. The juvenile was also huge, and was very active and bounced around in the nest a lot, fluttering its big wings and facing into the wind (working up the courage?). They were a highlight.

The ride out was pleasant but uneventful up until the last 5 miles or so, when I started to cramp a little and my ass started to go numb. But that's alright. Just over 50 miles round-trip. I came home and cut a salad out of the garden and Aimee made dinner while I took a shower. Chicken Marsala, the freshest salad possible with homemade honey mustard dressing, bread, and red wine. Damn y'all. That's a good day. Sure to be a good night's sleep now too.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Merritt's Mill Pond

Some customers in the bike shop recently told me about a lake an hour W of TLH called Merritt's Mill Pond, which was notable for being spectacularly clear. It's located right outside Marianna FL (page 32 in your trusty FL gazetteer, B1). MMP is very linear, never more than 100 meters wide, and runs roughly 4 miles NE to SW, beginning with Blue Spring at the N end and terminating at a dam. The water is, in fact, super clear where it comes out of the earth at the spring at a rather voluminous rate, enough to create some current the length of the lake. If you didn't know better, the flow and appearance of it would convince you it's a river.

With the help of a local or two, I found a sandy launch spot at the end of Day Loop Rd just down from the park at the spring (only open Memorial to Labor Day). I paddled the short distance up to the spring and spoke with a couple cave divers who were about to go down. The whole of N FL is world renowned for cave diving due to all the water that carves its way through the soft limestone (see previous posts about Lake Jackson, Leon Sinks, the St. Mark's River, the Wakulla). There was a 10'x10' swimming platform out in the middle of the spring, so I moored up to it and scrambled on. I stripped down to my trunks and dove into the cool clear water. It's 69 degrees year round, which is what I would call refreshing; you don't want to hang out in it too long, but it feels good to jump in for a minute. After that I layed on the platform and enjoyed the feeling of the sun on my skin for a while. When I'd had enough I headed S all the way to the end and then back up.

As a paddling destination, MMP isn't that great. Yes, it's very clear, but it's not that large, and aside from the water clarity, unremarkable. There's a lot of cypress stumps just below water level, which I ran into 7 or 8 times in my kayak (it'd be murder on a motor boat). It wasn't unpleasant, but I wouldn't drive the hour again just to paddle. With the park at the spring closed, though, a boat is the only way to access it, which keeps the crowd down. So maybe a place to escape the heat in the off season? Florida Caverns State Park is nearby, so maybe coupled with that.

I saw a huge flock of cormorants (you can see the double crest for which they're named right now, breeding plumage), great blue heron, great egret, red shouldered hawk, turkey vulture, crows, kingfisher, osprey, and one very large bass. I really will get some photos from the last few trips up soon; my hard drive is full and I've got to make some room before uploading new photos.

Minus the sliding board and such, it's a nice spot.

From the spring looking SW

Monday, March 8, 2010

St. Mark's River, Fort to Lighthouse

After hemming and hawing a little about where to go for the Geezer's second day we settled on putting in at the San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park (the fort) down in the little town of St. Mark's. In addition to the little museum they run there's a public boat ramp and a nice grassy spot which makes for a great kayak launch. I had heard, again from Georgia at The Wilderness Way, that from there you could go about 4 miles downriver to a spoil island that made for a great lunch spot, and then either head back up or carry on towards the wildlife refuge, depending on conditions and your inclinations.

We were on the water around 10:30, slightly before low tide, so we had the last of the outgoing to carry us down. Warm temps and almost no breeze. We found the little island, and it really is a nice spot for a snack, or to overnight (it's designated as a camp site on the FL circumnavigation trail). We decided to go ahead and make the run for the lighthouse to eat lunch. By this point the sea breeze kicked up pretty good, and so that last mile or so was pretty arduous. The corner of the Refuge that you naturally end up at (on the Lighthouse Pool trail) has a fine little sandy beach for pulling onto, and a covered picnic table for lunching, which we took advantage of. After lunch we wandered around the lighthouse a little before heading back upriver. For the trip back up the tide was coming in, and more importantly, the wind was to our back. It chopped the water up pretty good. There are a bunch of oyster bars that are only a few feet wide, but are arranged in long arcs across the river, which can be a hassle for a kayaker, and a nightmare for a motorboat/sailboat, especially at night when you can't see them.

Birds: common loons, American coot, common moorhen, boat-tailed grackle, great egret, great blue heron, snowy egret, laughing gulls and several other gulls and terns, brown pelican, American white pelican (a first sighting for me), cormorant, ring necked duck, and others I'm sure but that's all I can recall right now.

I took a few pictures, but they'll have to wait until tomorrow because I'm tired and full and ready to fall asleep again. Geezer takes off tomorrow and I'm off, so I could paddle, but I don't think I will. A day of relaxing might be pretty nice. Cheers.

Venerable St. Mark's Light, begun in 1829, moved to present location in 1842.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Wacissa Spring to Goose Pasture

This one is going to be short and sweet because I've had a full day on the water and I'm full of dinner and a cocktail or two and I'm about to crawl into bed for what's bound to be a very restful night of sleep.

My very good friend and former coworker from SMKC days, Mike aka The Geezer, is down visiting for a couple days. He got in last night and we made plans to do the whole Wacissa River today, which is about 10 miles. So this morning we loaded up two cars and he and Aimee and I drove out to the spring (about a thirty minute drive) and unloaded. Then we set up the shuttle, which is a pain in the ass. From the spring it's 15 miles on FL 59 to the coastal highway (98), and then a few miles to cross the Aucilla and turn down some poorly maintained and unmarked sandy roads to the take out at Goose Pasture Recreation Area. It's about 45 mins each way, when you know exactly where you're going, which is tough without the signs (it's not impossible, but I was glad there were a couple people along the way to tell me I was headed down the correct road; important note: when you get to the fork on Goose Pasture Rd you want to stay to the left). The morning started off very chilly (frost on the cars) but warmed up so it was comfortable for Aimee to watch the stuff and read a book and watch birds while we set up the shuttle. We finally got launched a little after 11.

The river was beautiful; pretty clear despite all the recent rain. Temperature was perfect at 65 F and there was just a little S wind every now and then in the open sections. We checked Big Blue Spring for a sec and then headed downriver. Found a lunch spot just above the old dam about halfway down for a nice break in the shady woods. Finally pulled into Goose Pasture at about 4. Along the way we saw a few gators, lots of big turtles (cooters? I'll have to check the books tomorrow), little blue heron, great egret, snowy egret, common moorhen, American coot, kingfisher, red shouldered hawk, greater yellowlegs, eastern phoebe, brown pelican, cormorant, turkey vulture, heard a few barred owls (who cooks for you!?). The great egrets are in their breeding plumage and have long delicate plumes and bright green lores. They were nearly driven to extinction at the turn of the 20th century for those plumes because ladies just had to have fashionable hats.

After we pulled out Aimee spent another hour or so patiently waiting on us to get Mike's car back down there to load up. It's a great trip but a very involved shuttle. Not one I'd want to do real regularly for that reason, but the river itself is lovely.

Big thanks to Georgia at The Wilderness Way who graciously answered all my questions and offered advice and unsolicited updates on the status of the dirt roads at Goose Pasture. Go rent a kayak or take a trip with them.

Now to bed to rest up for another one tomorrow. Cheers.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Kayaking in HELL

Not that sulfurous lake of fire and brimstone, but on the Crooked River in Tate's Hell State Forest near Carrabelle in Franklin County, Florida. Tate's Hell came by its name about a hundred years ago, so the legend says, when a man named Cebe Tate pursued a Florida Panther into the swamp and became disoriented. He spent several days wandering in that wilderness, lost his gun, and was bitten by a water moccasin. When he stumbled out of the forest and into a couple of locals, who questioned him on his identity, he is said to have replied "My name's Tate and I've just been through Hell."

It's really not so bad, though I wouldn't want to spend a night out there lost and unprepared (lows are in the 20's down here lately).

I drove all that way down there because the rivers up here are still high from all the rain and the forecast called for enough wind to keep me out of the marsh. It wasn't so much the wind as the combination of the wind and the cold. I don't mind either one that much within reasonable bounds, but both of them at the same time is no good. So I figured that I could find some small tidal swamp crick where I could hide from the wind and not have to run any rapids. This morning that was the extent of my plan. I didn't know where I was going to put in or even what the name of the stream would be. I called the forest service office and they said they had some maps, but I gathered that those folks didn't paddle and thus couldn't offer much in the way of information beyond where the boat ramps are. There's a livery in Carrabelle that I'd noticed previously called Expeditions in Hell (great name, I stopped and talked to a very nice lady there named Rama and she kindly suggested a few options and even gave me a map of the area (on sturdy waterproof paper with launches highlighted, no less). I took her first suggestion, the Crooked River. I put in on SR 67 just a few miles N of Carrabelle where the road crosses the river. From there I paddled E about 5 miles, to Crooked River Recreation Site #2, and back. I passed Rec Site 1 and both looked like great places to car camp. Birds were OK, mostly woodpeckers and kingfishers and the occasional green backed heron. It's a pretty narrow river, 20-40' across, very dark from tannin, through the forest, which is very swampy. The wierdest thing about this river is that the E end flows into the mouth of the Ochlockonee near the Gulf and the W end into the Carrabelle River. Both ends are tidally influenced. So there's no real direction the "river" flows. The section I was on changed directions several times. There are several launches that make for pretty easy access to the whole river. My section was about 10 miles total on an out and back trip in about 4 hours.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Lake Jackson

We've been here for six months now and today was the first time I've been on Lake Jackson, despite its being only a couple miles from our house. It's a pretty good size urban lake that disappears every few decades when the silt plug in the limestone karst gives way and the lake goes into the ground until a new plug builds up and about a lake's worth of rain falls out of the sky. It's up now as high as many people have ever seen it. I've checked it a couple times now, but either didn't have a boat with me (just looking at the launches) or didn't find it appealing. Aimee's been bugging me to go since we got down here, but I wasn't excited about paddling on an urban lake that could turn into a giant flushing toilet. Besides, the part you can see on North Monroe Street looks like one giant lilly pad (not much water to speak of). On Sunday we went to the state park down the street from the launch on Crowder Rd to check out the Indian mounds and walk the nature trails. Afterwards we drove down to the boat ramp to look at the lake and see what there was to see. It was a pleasant evening with no wind and there were lots of birds, and for the first time I thought it might be nice to paddle there sometime.

Prospects for paddling were bleak today, as there was a 100% chance of rain, and it could last all day. It was already falling when I woke up at 7 this morning, so I pretty much gave up on it, especially after seeing the huge green and yellow mass on the radar. I ran errands and did responsible stuff for a couple hours. Then by noon it had started to clear and by one the sun was out and it was mid-50's and there wasn't any wind to speak of. I was on the lake by 2.

I didn't really go far, but I spent about 2.5 hours out poking into the swollen marshes and fingers watching birds. The birding was fantastic. I saw: pied-billed grebe, double crested cormorant, great blue heron, great egret, snowy egret, tricolored heron, white ibis, hooded merganser, turkey vulture, osprey (hit the water twice and caught a fish on the second try), American coot by the hundreds, killdeer, greater yellowlegs, belted kingfisher, eastern phoebe, tree swallow, European starling, yellow-rumped warblers (aka butterbutts), red-winged blackbird, grackle, and I'm probably forgetting some because that's a lot and I didn't bring a pen/paper with me, which I should in the future. Add that to all the warblers, wrens, cardinals, robins, chickadees, woodpeckers, and hawks I saw in the backyard this morning and that makes for a pretty good birding day.

There were lots of huge (almost fist-sized) snails that seemed to be associated with clumps of vegetation. Further research suggests that they are the Florida Apple Snail and the biggest snail in North America. I'll take a photo next time.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Back on the Water

It's been over two months since I was last on the water, mostly due to poor weather whenever I wasn't working and traveling for holidays. Beyond the bad weather though, I've felt a sort of general malaise and lethargy. Perhaps I've been suffering from that seasonal disorder thing. The good side of it is that I've gotten lots of little projects done around the house and several books read and we've been taking the time to cook elaborately. The bad is that I haven't had the will to get outside. I tried last week; even loaded the boat up and drove to the closest launch, but found the river way too high for comfort. I then checked a second spot, Lake Jackson, and despite the decent day and pleasant launch, I wasn't motivated.

Today I got motivated. I left mid-morning and drove an hour S to Wakulla Beach, from which I've paddled once before several months ago. I noted at the time there being plenty of marsh to explore from the launch, and despite the preponderance of marsh time in NC, I'd had very little down here of late, and wished to reconnect, as it were, to the roots of my paddling experience. I launched a couple hours before high tide and in a bit more wind than was really fun. There wasn't much chop to speak of, but it took awhile to get out of the open and into a creek small enough to hide from the wind. From the launch you can either go right or left, with several creeks for exploring each way. Today I went to the right, around the point and back up as far as I could get up the nearest of the major creeks that way. It was pretty tough to find a channel, as there are loads of oyster bars and it was very shallow even at higher tides. Eventually though I managed to find the mouth of a creek and make my way up. After a while I noticed the predictable change from cordgrass to needle rush as I got nearer to the forest, but I also noted that the water was getting much clearer and that there was still plenty of outward flow despite the incoming tide. There is a spring in that area somewhere, which for a bit I thought I was on the track to find, but now I think there was enough water trying to get to the sea from all the rain in the region (all the rivers are up and low areas along roads are flooded) that it was overpowering the tide. Spring or not, the path narrowed to 6' or so and the mud turned to rocks, which was highly unexpected. The water was slightly dark from tannin, but very clear, and there seemed to be hundreds of fish trying to get away from me. As I really got into the woods (palm and cypress) there were signs posted which closed the area ahead from late fall to late spring for nesting eagles. I was curious as hell to keep going, but figured the eagles must need the space, and I don't need a ticket from a wildlife officer, though I doubt anyone would have been any wiser had I continued.

Along the way I saw several alligators (they must not like this cold) and a raccoon foraging for shellfish. I got to sneak right up on the coon cause I was downwind of him and he was walking away from me. He could neither hear nor smell me and didn't turn around and see me until I was almost on top of him. Then he scurried into the tall grass. There were tons of birds that you'd expect in that setting, and a few good surprises: brown pelican, great blue heron, great egret, tri-colored heron, miscellaneous gulls and terns, willet, yellow-legs, grackle, lots of peeps, hooded mergansers, cormorant, osprey, a juvenile bald eagle.

After I turned back I poked my nose into a few little side creeks, but none too far. I really wanted to find a good lunch spot and thought I had when I saw a little beach on a island under some palm trees, but there were signs closing that area til spring as well. Bird habitat. That's fine. So I ate the nabs in my PFD pocket and saved the sandwich for the drive home. The access (this is mostly for my memory) is at the end of Wakulla Beach Rd, which sounds pretty obvious. Thing is, there's no sign from the coastal highway, US 98, that says "Wakulla Beach Rd." At least not that I could find. So, from Woodville highway turn right onto 98, cross the Wakulla River and then turn left down the sand road that's opposite Tripplet Rd (on the right). It's a long sand road that could use some maintenance, but was passable in my truck in 2nd gear. After it dries out some there's beautiful walking/biking paths (unpaved) through the forest there. Worth a look.

Looks like I'll be paddling with the Geezer again here shortly...


Post Script: Upon further research I've found that the area I launched into is known locally as Goose Creek Bay. I was not on the Shepherd (referencing Shepherd Spring) Creek fork, but rather on Gander Creek. Maybe next time I'll wander up and try to find the spring.