In between the hectic holiday that Christmas usually is and the thought-provoking milestone of New Year we set out on another trip involving paddles and sand. Fine, white sand in this case as we once again found ourselves on "Florida's Forgotten Coast" in the vicinity of Apalachicola. The "we" in this tale consists of Liz, Steve, Philip and myself and, in case you haven't followed the scorecard from other reports, Liz and Steve are spouses and Steve, Philip and I are brothers. In spite of these built-in pitfalls (ask any psychologist) we generally manage to have a good time and this was no exception. Perhaps nature soothes the human beast.
Our meeting place was an old haunt, The Sportsman's Lodge in Eastpoint. Steve and Liz arrived first and secured our two bedroom/one bath with kitchenette lodgings. Philip and I made the trip from my home in Charleston, SC and arrived right at the edge of dark. On the way we had detoured slightly to have a look at and be charmed by the headwaters (springs) of the Wacissa River but more on that later. At the lodge we settled in, staked out individual territories, commented on the condition of the place (but it's cheap!) and turned on the Weather Channel. Our wind-down discussion focused on the next day's destination, St. Vincent's Island.
If you look at your Florida map you'll see that following 98 west of Apalachicola you could, if you were inclined to, veer left onto Route 30 to stay by the coast. This section of 30 is sometimes known as "the miles" as it is equipped with accesses to the St. Vincent Sound that (maybe) fall on the mile points starting from Apalachicola. Thus you have access points known as "6 mile", "7 mile", "9 mile" and so on. Most of these are privately owned and no longer accessible but a few are and we chose one that we deemed "9 mile" for our launch point.
Did I mention it was foggy? I've only paddled in dense fog a few times and I always like it. There is that timeless quality that probably comes with not knowing if you're actually getting anywhere and in the same moment it's both cozy and ethereal. It does present some difficulties though and one was that we were unable to see our destination point. Another was that it wasn't long before we could no longer see our put-in point which made it difficult to landmark for the return journey. But the trip out was memorable. We had the sun dully burning through the gauze by which to orient ourselves and we occasionally encountered oystermen in their boats working their long-handled rake/tongs at what looked like a backbreaking occupation. Our target was a big bayou on St. Vincent that is aptly named Big Bayou, and in spite of the fog we didn't miss it by too much really. Once out of the fog we startled occasional good-sized fish, Red Drum and other unidentifiables. The water was clear, not deep and liberally decorated with patches of underwater grass. It was entrancing.
By paddling partway down the bayou itself we found a nice but gnatty landing site right where "Road 4" comes in. We had hardly ventured out of sight of our boats when we came upon a boar/wild pig foraging in the brush. It kept its distance but didn't seem too unnerved by our presence and we were able to watch him for a while. It was a good-sized hairy specimen. A little distance between us didn't seem to me like the worst idea though intrepid photographer Philip made a valiant but futile attempt at recording his presence on film.
St. Vincent is crisscrossed with a several nice sandy roads making it very accessible to foot traffic. Road 4 took us across the island to a beautiful beachfront, some of it wide open and some including "boneyard" where the gulf has encroached into the island's trees and beach is tangled with their skeletons. We strolled a little ways down before cutting in with the intention of hitting Oyster Pond to see what birds and other wildlife might be frolicking. But dang it, the roads at our feet never quite seemed to match up with the ones we had on our maps. (Good thing it wasn't Lewis and Semanchuk 200 years ago!) We saw some nice island terrain but gave up on making it to the pond that day and headed back for the boats. We figured to come back for a Sambar deer sighting another day.
Bugs greeted us back at the boats so we hurried off for the return trip into a moderate chop and strong wind. Liz once again proved herself the one most capable of thinking ahead by being the only one to don a full spray skirt. The rest of us, paddling with only half skirts came back a little on the soggy side but (hopefully) a little wiser. We had a bit of a time finding our put in as we had been unable to landmark it effectively and paddling through the whitecapping waves and cold wind left us pretty played out.
Back at the Lodge that evening we watched a cinematic masterpiece about the nature of death, true love and guns. Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas starred. Then for dramatic content we tuned in our favorite weather channel meteorologist, Jennifer Lopez who gave us a chilling forecast of thunderstorms, high winds and possibly even hail for the next day. I think we all slept soundly.
J.Lo doesn't lie. With the weather looking ugly we decided on a walk on St. George Island at the State Park. It turned out to be a nice walk on the park's paths. We eyeballed a deer at close range that eyeballed us right back but we didn't see too much else in the way of wildlife. The wind was up and heavy rains were on the way.
We spent the afternoon holed up at the Lodge with torrential rains and high winds making an adventure out of just going outside to see if the kayaks were still there. We looked at maps and chose possible destinations for tomorrow. By evening we were suffering cabin fever and it being New Year's Eve and most of the rain having passed we headed over to St. George for dinner and excitement at Finni's Grill & Bar which was recommended (sort of) to us by a pair of our lodge neighbors. Finni's, it turns out, was having a private party and having forgotten our formal attire we ended up settling for BJ's Pizza which hit the spot. There is a restaurant, The Liar's Den, right on the water at the Sportsman's Lodge that looked like just the perfect atmosphere but it was closed due to a serious-sounding dispute between the Lodge and the Franklin County Public Works Department involving sewer violations and money owed. In fact, if you intend to visit the Lodge in the future it would be advised to call ahead and make sure they still have running water.
That night, in lieu of fireworks, we spent some time looking at the stars, which beats fireworks every time for me.
High winds again but the rain had stopped and we decided for the day's paddle to be on an inland waterway -- Whiskey George Creek. Ya gotta love the name! We put in at the Route 65 bridge and paddled upstream against a light current. This section of Whiskey George is a beautiful, intimate, winding creek with plenty to feast the eyes on while paddling. Unfortunately we ran out of creek in about an hour and a half as it disintegrated to become one with the rest of Tate's Hell Swamp. The creek offers limited opportunity to disembark and roam inland but we did manage to a couple of times and were rewarded with a sighting of a purple crayfish, which is a new one on my list. There's one spot on this section of the creek where a dirt road comes down to the water. It's a designated campsite (reserve ahead) and is the only sign of civilization we saw since leaving the Rt. 65 bridge.
Stage two of the first day of the year found us visiting the Dwarf Cypress Forest in Tates Hell. This is a sort of surreal forest of stunted cypress trees not very tall but that are around a century old. They're also known as "hatrack cypress" and they're believed to be stunted due to the poor nutritional content in the soil. There is a boardwalk that allowed us to walk out and look over these trees. It's a good place to just sit and gaze.
Near the entrance to the Sportsman's Lodge is an inviting sign pointing towards the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve. After leaving the hatrack forest we split up to run separate errands with the idea that we would meet and look into this intriguing-sounding place. The reserve isn't easy to find following the signs but we all managed anyway and luckily so because there we met Carla "CJ" Boyce who quickly became our frontrunner for government park employee of the year. (Granted it was only the first day of the year but she's a strong contender anyway.) Carla was a goldmine of information and maps and just what we were looking for. She answered numerous questions and provided us with a variety of maps of the area (more of which Carla and company are putting together as you read this) and offered to take us on a carnivorous plant hunt in the AM. We made it a date and headed back to the Lodge as the early winter night fell.
We kept our date with Carla and were treated to volumes of information about local flora, fauna and history as well as a muddy trip into the reserve to look for carnivorous plants. The hunt was only marginally successful with the finding of one dead Sarracenia leucophylla pitcher (Philip tells me) but fun nonetheless as Carla continued to pour out information in response to all the questions we could come up with. She's a credit to the research reserve. The reserve is one of several in the US set up to protect and study the estuarine areas which are basically where our country's fresh water and salt water meet and mix. These reserves help protect some of the best kayaking spots around.
Next we headed to St. Joseph's Bay and put in at a shallow kayak launch site off of Cape San Blas Road for a pleasant paddle around Pig Island. St. Joe's Bay is a very nice body of water (73,000 acres) separated from the Gulf by the very narrow St. Joe peninsula. Totally salt water, it is home to extensive sea grass beds that provide the basis for a wide variety of wildlife. It's one of the only places to go scalloping in the state (check for season) and will sometimes even host manatees in the summer months. The water is clear and paddling over the grasses is a joy. From a distance we watched rafts of both Hooded and Common Mergansers floating by and we passed a dock loaded with Brown Pelicans and cormorants in various stages of drying their wings and squawking at each other. A look over the side offered a view of waving sea grass, darting fish and patches of sandy bottom. At one point nature called us in for a pit stop and we found that sea urchin shells are common along the water's edge. They look like finely crafted pieces of art to me.
Paddling around the back side of Pig Island we saw an American Kestrel from a distance and halted for a close-up show of a Reddish Egret and Tri-color Heron and their gawky/graceful movements as they eyed us back and hunted for food. Later we pulled in near the pelican-laden dock and walked a dirt road leading into the island. Lots of bird life present and active here and Steve and Liz identified a pair of Hermit Thrushes in the shadows of some of the islands large oaks. Overall, it's a nice little island and worth checking out if you should be so lucky as to find yourself paddling in this bay some time.
The Cape San Blas lighthouse is right on Cape San Blas of course, which juts into the Gulf at the south end of St. Joe's Peninsula. We couldn't pass up a visit being this close and the 15 MPH speed limit on Eglin Air Force Base offers a rare opportunity to quadruple the speed limit. (My brothers always think of these things.) Of course we would never try such a thing especially on government property and with kayaks on the roof of our vehicles but let's just say that theoretically it can be done. The lighthouse is a steel tower arrangement with a couple of houses under renovation at its base. The brochure in my hand told me that it was built in 1918 and that it has been moved seven times due to erosion of the Cape. Any lighthouse is cool. We took pictures.
Out on the beach at Cape San Blas we found lots of Portuguese Man of War (Men of War? Man of Wars?) scattered up on the sand like so many colored napkins after a lawn party. We watched our step. Darkness arrived too early again and we headed back to the Lodge to listen to J.Lo predict high winds for the next day. Well meteorologists can be wrong, you know, so we weren't worried.
"When strapping the kayaks down the straps kept flying out of my hands. A strap held loosely in the air would hang parallel to the ground." So reads Philip's note of the morning conditions that greeted us. One of the Lodge's residents suggested gleefully that the wind "is gonna blow yer asses to Cuba!" While he seemed woefully misinformed about the direction of the wind and/or Cuba we had to agree with his sentiments. Our plan had been to revisit St. Vincent's but we headed to The Red Top Café for breakfast with serious doubts. The Red Top offers the standard American breakfast fare along with a little local color from our fellow patrons. I'm not sure we ever did hear the rest of that story "...'bout the time I got pulled over by that Statie..." coming from the next table, but no matter how long we dawdled over breakfast it wasn't long enough for the wind to change it's mind. Still, stalwartly refusing to give up on the idea of St. Vinnie's we drove to our previous put-in (which may or may not be "Nine Mile") and took a look at the churning sound. Then we gave up.
Instead we took a walk on more government-owned land, this time the St. Joe Bay State Buffer Preserve. This is near the southeast corner of St. Joe's Bay on Route 30. The land was recently purchased by the state and we found a nice parking area and some marked trails to follow while eyeballing birds. Bluebirds and Robins were everywhere and they seemed to be feeding on the berries of the Bitter Gallberry bushes that seem to grow wherever there's open area. We kept our eyes and ears open for signs of Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers but they remain unchecked on our list.
A trip up to Presnell's Marina two or three miles up the east side of the Bay (on Route 30) netted Philip a new pair of boat shoes and we heard about houses being built on Black's Island which sits about a mile and a half out into the Bay surrounded by seagrass. In spite of the reports, it struck me that Black's might be worth paddling to on some future trip, perhaps during scallop season.
Midday found us touring Apalachicola, sending a few postcards and scratching around for more maps. Philip scored a map which shows some of the roads in Tate's Hell Swamp, and we played tourist in the Orvis store. Apalachicola is a historic city and has a lot of charm. It's worth a look around especially if the alternative is being "blown to Cuba".
We polished off the afternoon with a long walk in St. George Island State Park. The temperature was none too high and the wind was still showing off so we opted for the back side of the island. Following numerous animal paths through patchy wood, old dune and wetland we made our way to the water's edge where we found more Purple Sea Urchin shells. Another Bald Eagle was sighted (we saw them daily) and we surprised three young raccoons ambling along the beach looking like a scrawny band of hoodlums.
Cutting across the wet interior of the island Philip observed sphagnum moss and alerted us to the likelihood of carnivorous plants in the area. Sure enough Steve located some Sundews (Drosera capillaris). Sundews are carnivorous plants that attract insects to a sticky substance on its leaves. Sort of like the original flypaper. This part of the island's interior is a lowland area protected behind tall dunes. There is a pond with a sign warning caution against becoming alligator food. In another pond I watched a Pied-Billed Grebe disappear and reappear over and over.
This was our last night at the Sportsman's Lodge. We spent it sorting, packing and of course tuning in J.Lo for the weather report. The next day's plan had us heading to St. Mark's National Wildlife Refuge about fifty miles away at the narrowest point in Florida's panhandle. It's a top birding spot that Steve and Liz had enjoyed once before and we were looking for some kayaking opportunities there as well.
Driving to St. Mark's took us by Harry's Restaurant in Carabelle and again we enjoyed a decent breakfast there. Then later along the route we spied what we were keeping our eyes peeled for: a roadside seller of Tupelo honey. We lucked out as this seller also had jars of Mayhaw jelly on hand. Nothing like sampling the local flavors!
It's around two hours drive to St. Mark's Refuge and that put us there right around low tide. That meant long stretches of mud flats separating us from the water. This combined with the rules prohibiting boating on refuge waters left us with few options for wetting our paddles. Fortunately the Refuge has miles of paths, trails, dikes and roadways to walk and it was sunny and breezy and generally a pleasant day for eyeballing the critters. So, after snapping a few pictures of the lighthouse like good tourists, we started.
We walked 5 or 6 miles stopping often to identify (or not) various birds and spent an especially long time figuring out that the non-descript warbler we were watching was an Orange Crowned Warbler. Such is the practice of birdwatching. So many birds are strikingly beautiful and the ducks are among the most so. In St. Mark's we saw Blue-winged Teals, Buffleheads, Ring-necks, Northern Shovelers, Lesser Scaups, Common Goldeneyes and American Widgeons amongst the ones we could identify. There were lots of other birdwatchers but the refuge is so spread out it never really felt crowded. Alligators were out soaking up the sun and we watched raccoons, otter and an armadillo that bumbled along the path in that comically dopey way that all armadillos have mastered.
Eventually we wore out and started thinking of the next day's plan of paddling the Wacissa River. We collected some info and a topo map from a St. Mark's ranger and got some good tips over the phone from pleasant folks at The Canoe Shop in Tallahassee (850-576-5335). After perusing the lodging and dining options in the town of St. Mark's we chose to head to the La Quinta on the edge of Tallahassee for the night. The restaurant next door, Capri, provided us with a good meal and even Budvar (Czech Budweiser, nothing like the watery American imitation) to go with it. Satiated, we looked over the shuttle route for tomorrow's trip. It was cold outside but J.Lo assured us the next day would be pleasant enough and we crashed in the anonymous digs of La Quinta.
By some odd coincidence the headwaters of the Wacissa can be found in the town of Wacissa which can be found along Route 59 southeast of Tallahassee. If you were traveling east on Route 98 and turned left/north onto 59 you'd go about ten or twelve miles to a stop sign. Take a right and you'll find yourself in a small park at the headwaters of the Wacissa. Like the more famous and nearby Wakulla River (where the original Tarzan movies were filmed), the Wacissa is a spring-fed river. This not only makes for very clear water but also a fairly constant water supply and fairly constant temperature. When we arrived there was a surreal mist rising off the water in slow swirls. It's a beautiful river. Philip and I ran a shuttle to Goose Pasture landing which is around 9 miles down river from the headwaters. The shuttle was an easy one with the roads (some dirt) in good shape and took about 45 minutes.
There are at least a dozen springs around the top of the Wacissa. Underwater holes from which 70° water bubbles up in a constant flow. About a mile downriver on the left side is perhaps the largest, known as Big Blue Spring. It hosts a great-looking rope swing and there's a swimming platform anchored there as well. If only it had been warmer...
One fun aspect of paddling up to the spring is that the water is only a few feet deep as you approach and as clear as it is, it's easy to become entranced watching the sand and limestone bottom as you cruise along. Then you hit the spring and it drops off, cliff-like to a depth of 45 feet or so. Looking down into it offers bubbles and mineral particles flowing out of impenetrable depths. Cool. Only a mile downstream and already I wanted to come back to this river. The wildlife is great too. We saw Limpkins, Bitterns and a Solitary Vireo along with the usual players all in idyllic settings. We watched Osprey and hawks, saw turtles and otters and also a few of the not-rare-enough full-throttle-boater species. There were really very few motorboats on the river but I suspect this is not the case in warmer weather. We met a few fellow kayakers as well.
On the second half of the run to Goose Pasture the Wacissa tends to 'break up' a little as it threads it's way south. There's lots of opportunity to split off from the main channel on a finger that later rejoins the main. Those fingers can be kind of nice and allow for some more intimate moments with a 'small creek' feel and a close up view of wildlife. On one such jaunt I had an otter 'chirp' loudly at me; no doubt telling me to get my ass out of his territory. I'd never heard an otter make such a sound and didn't know they could. It was an educational moment.
Note: while we had no problem following the river through these splits, the word is that below the Goose Pasture area the channel is often hard to follow and some foreknowledge of the river is advised.
We reached Goose Pasture landing after five hours of meandering, lollygaging, putzing around and sometimes paddling (my kind of trip). Sunset was not far away but we still had time to overload Liz's Honda with four kayaks, change clothes and take a last look at the Wacissa flowing by.
Goose Pasture looked like a nice camping spot and I imagine it's well used in warmer months. There's a small launch there likely used by motorboats. The river can be paddled another 4 or 5 miles downstream to a canal that takes you to Nutall Rise landing on the Aucilla River.
Back at the headwaters we rearranged persons and gear in the dark and headed out to put some miles away before settling in at a motel somewhere between Tallahassee and Jacksonville.
Elvis and Credence Clearwater Revival tunes accompanied our breakfast at Everbody's in Jacksonville (266-9458). On our way out of the state we of course loaded up on obligatory oranges at one of those giant gas plaza/tourist trap places on the interstate. The oranges were great.
While we figured we were done paddling, there was yet another place to check out. Butler Island Plantation just a little south of Darien, GA along Route 17 is part of the Altamaha Waterfowl Management Area. While there isn't much to see of the original plantation house (there's a tall chimney still standing), there is a nice visitor center and the grounds provide good opportunity for birding. It's a little odd as it's right off Route 17 and I-95 is audible in the background but it's the site of an old rice plantation and a number of the rice fields are still managed for the benefit of the wildlife. There is an interesting infamous tidbit of history concerning Butler:
The "Golden Age" of Ante Bellum plantation life may be seen to peak in the late 1850s and may be personified in the Altamaha delta by Pierce Butler. Irish-born, Butler's plantation became the most vilified in American history after his marriage to the brilliant English actress Fanny Kemble. Kemble's later book would recount the horrors she witnessed during a stay at Butler Island plantation and become one of the most famous abolitionist works in American history. Pierce Butler would later divorce Fanny Kemble, but their fiery relationship entered Southern mythology in the 1930s when Margaret Mitchell arrived in Darien to research her first attempt at a novel, "Gone With The Wind". Borrowing from the place name "Rhett's Island" and Butler's notorious character she created the quintessential rogue, Rhett Butler.
Maybe I'll have to see that movie one day.
At this point Philip and I felt the call to continue to our respective homes and separated from Steve and Liz who made use of a viewing platform on the grounds to spot more exotic avian wildlife. All in all this trip was another fine break from life's rut and a general refresher of sanity.
Related links and info:
Courtesy of Steve and Liz, here's is a list of the birds we sighted.
|St. Mark's Refuge|
|Ring-necked Duck||Carolina Chickadee|
|Greater Yellowlegs||Lesser Yellow Legs|
|Tree Swallows||Semipalmated Plover|
|Great Blue Heron||Gallinule|
|Osprey||Common Yellow Throat|
|Pied-billed Grebe||Mocking Bird|
|Belted Kingfisher||Great Egret|
|Louisiana Heron||Boat-tailed Grackle|
|Snowy Egret||Brown Pelican|
|Lesser Scaups||Double-crested Cormorant|
|Savannah Sparrow||Ruby-crowned Kinglet|
|White Ibis||Orange-crowned Warbler|
|American Widgeon||Blue-winged Teal|
|White-eyed Vireo||Yellow-bellied Sapsucker|
|Glossy Ibis||Common Goldeneye|
|St. George Island|
|Downy Woodpecker||American Oystercatcher|
|Northern Cardinal||Palm Warbler|
|St. Joseph Peninsula|
|Common Loon||Royal Terns|
|Herring Gull||Common Merganser|
|Brown-headed Nuthatch||Hermit Thrush|
|Black-bellied Plover||Snowy Plover|
|Reddish Egret||American Kestrel|
|Solitary Vireo||Yellow-throated Warbler|
|American Bittern||Red-shouldered Hawk|
|St. Vincent Island|
|Eastern Phoebe||Red-bellied Woodpecker|
|American Robin||House Sparrow|
|Ruddy Duck||Mourning Dove|
|Tate's Hell Swamp|
|Eastern Bluebird||Song Sparrow|
|Harris Neck Refuge|
|Tufted Titmouse||Wood Duck|
|Red-Shafted Flicker||Black-Crowned Night Heron|