Paddles With Otters, A High Water Mark
The Silent Otters that is, as in the north Florida paddling club.
We had the great fortune several years ago to make our acquaintance with the Otters and they have guided us to the best of north Florida paddling every year since. This year was no exception.
Our acquaintance with the Otters began with a search for a Gainesville area paddling club, a club membership suitable as a bon voyage for our friends Dave, Anita and Paul as they relocated to Florida. A suggestion of the Silent Otters initiated a series of e-mails with Sandy Hubbard, then the President's Consort for Life. An increasingly humorous series of e-mails in fact, as Sandy tried in vain to convince me that (as I recall her words) "Maybe your friends would be happier with a more serious club".
Sandy - now that you've paddled with Dave, Anita & Paul for three years and met various visiting Duckheads, do you see why I was so certain the Otters would be a perfect fit?
4/14-15/03 - Little Pine Island, Gulf of Mexico
Bill Escue, Bob Kerckle, Diane Hollingsworth - OC2. Mike McCrea - OC1. Tyler McCrea - K1. Cooper McCrea OC2 & K1, Dave Maneval - K1 & OC2 (boat swapping)
We launched from Shired Island Park (Florida Atlas & Gazetteer page 69, A2) and paddled out Shired Creek and into the Gulf of Mexico, our first ever paddle on the Gulf. As we paddled further out from shore into the gulf the wind and wave conditions because reminiscent of Assateague, and at times we were forced to paddle in Z-tracks off the wind.
Heading south in the gulf we soon came to a likely lunch break under the swaying palm trees on Big Pine Island. While camping is not permitted on Big Pine (it's a wildlife sanctuary) it makes for a shaded and restful stop off.
Reboarding our boats we soon arrived at Little Pine Island. Well, actually somewhat past Little Pine Island to the next tiny spit of land southward. Call it No Pine Island. Or perhaps Twin Palm Island, as two diminutive palm trees offer the only shade on the sand. Not to worry, we'd come forewarned with our own parawing and poles.
No Pine is a teeny, tiny patch of sand at high tide (when we arrived) that continuously and wondrously changes shape as the tide recedes into a long, lazy S. At low tide the island is easily 10 or 20 times as large and the exposed sandbars reveal various artifacts and critters - old pilings and foundations, teeming hordes of fiddler crabs scuttling back into the salt grass, ghost crab burrows dug and re-dug, horseshoe crabs tracing eccentric racecourses across the sand, whelks huddled together in a tight circle (feeding?, mating?) and bizarre fist-sized clams that Dave foraged by following their necks down armpit deep in the sand. Impromptu chowder; a Duckhead Tradition.
And, most especially, birds. Great flocks of birds. All manner of birds, feeding in the shallow all around. More birds than you could shake a stick at, which Cooper delighted in doing; slowly stalking and then suddenly charging enormous gatherings of gulls and terns to watch hundreds of birds lift off en mass.
Tyler's attempt to take a low-water swim ended abruptly and painfully as he encountered an oyster bar and emerged from the water sliced and diced. Fortunately the outdoors life has conditioned him to such travails and he continued to solo paddle throughout the week despite a long and deep gash across his palm. Several of our boats suffered similar shavings with curly cues of plastic dangling from their bottoms at the take out. Oyster bars are tough on boats. And bodies.
As the tide fell we were essentially trapped on our ever-growing island, as it would have been a long and oyster bar hazardous walk out to reach a boatable depth of water. I credit Otter Bill with having planned our arrival and departure times to coincide with high tide, and Bill's astounding experience with local conditions and store of local lore and legend was acknowledged with a few handmade guide trinkets from the Duckhead shop
Tuesday morn saw us lingering, dawdling and wandering as we waited the rising waters, until, on the early afternoon's high tide, we had sufficient water to slip the bonds of our island paradise and paddle back to Shired Island. While it might have been interesting to see No Pine Isle during Thursday's full moon and perigee tides, there might in fact have been nothing there to see. We'll have to plan a tidal trip somewhere for this October's unusually tides.
NOTE - Bill's longtime paddling partner Bob became the 400th person with whom we have paddled since we began keeping track back in '97, and was awarded the traditional century-mark prize of a Duckhead hat.
4/16/03 - Ichetucknee River & Springs
John & Meggie Vanderhoer, Bill Escue and Sandy Hubbard - OC2. Anita Wright, Dave Maneval, Diane Hollingsworth & Mike McCrea - OC1. Tyler McCrea, Cooper McCrea - K1
We knew that the Suwannee was still running high from week ago rains in south Georgia, draining the sodden Okefenokee. High enough still to wash out the usually abundant sandbar campsites along that river, high enough to back up water into various Suwannee tributaries, so we elected to put in at a private Otter-accessible launch at the bottom of the Ichetucknee, downstream of the last public take out at Rte 20/27 (Atlas & Gazetteer page 64, A2) and paddle upstream to the springs.
This plan also had the advantage of needing no shuttle, and of returning to the launch site for a picnic lunch at day's end - especially important since no food or beverages are allowed in boats paddling the Ich.
Although the river was still noticeably high, with submerged picnic tables at the launch, the 233 million gallons of water that issues forth from the springhead 6 miles up river meant that there was still some flow and that the water was still nearly crystal clear. Our upriver journey took us to Mill Springs, Coffee Springs and Mission Springs, with Dave continuing to solo paddle up into the usually canoe-inaccessible springhead itself while others frolicked in a side spring.
We encountered just a couple of other paddlers; a team of volunteers dedicating their day to the ongoing efforts to rid the Ich of invasive water lettuce and a tandem canoe pair engaged in mapping vegetation for the State with a GPS and on-board lap top. Nice work if you can get it.
Happily, only a few tubers - the Ichetucknee might best be avoided during the height of summertime weekend tuber season, but mid-week and early-spring it's one of our favorite destinations. Although the facial expression and body posture of tubers asking "Seen any alligators" and being told "Not that many, all water moccasins keep them pretty well in check" is a sight to behold.
4/17/03 - Sante Fe River - Bill Escue, Tyler McCrea - K1. Mike McCrea, Dave Maneval, Lucy Maneval, Rikki Maneval OC1.
Rainbow Springs - Anita Wright, Diane Hollingsworth, Cooper McCrea - K1
Thursday's paddling venues saw us dividing to head in opposite directions, with Anita, Diane and Cooper heading south to Rainbow Springs for an "off" day of writing and spring snorkeling. Somehow, although it wasn't in the plans, all three ended up continuing their consecutive paddling streak by kayaking the springs anyway (Atlas & Gazetteer page 71, D2).
Meanwhile, the other half of our party headed north to paddle a prime section of the Sante Fe between Rte's 27 and 47. Attractions along this run include Poe Springs, Lily Springs, Blue Springs, Ginnie Springs and many smaller named and unnamed springs (Crack in the Rock, Will's) and various sinks.
Ginnie Springs would make for a fine camping base for local paddling, snorkeling and scuba diving, with sites on the river's edge and several nearby springs.
Another, uh, attraction along this section is Ed. Naked Ed. Lily Springs is also known as Naked Man Springs, for the longtime presence of Naked Ed. Naked Ed is a gentle soul who lives in a thatched hut at the springhead. Amongst Ed's touches are some nicely hand-lettered signs along the spring with his thoughts about man's place in nature, the sounds of the forest vs the sounds of obnoxious boomboxes and, my favorite, one about having been born with the least expensive and most comfortable swimsuit ever known.
Ed cares for the spring and surrounding area, keeps things clean and pristine and chases off the yahoos. Thanks Ed, it was a pleasure meeting you. I hope you are sitting on your deck by the springhead even now, pishing birds and chuckling about the rest of us with our washers and dryers.
Other attractions along this stretch include cave divers emerging from the springs in a cascade of air bubbles beneath the canoes and the soothing slow-motion ballet of canoes parked atop a sinkhole, gently twirling and spinning ever so smoothly in eccentric circles.
Paddling into a sink slough is quite odd. At first, with the Santa Fe running high, the current flow out of the slough, but somewhere along the way it begins to draw inwards. Going from paddling "upstream" to paddling "downstream" abruptly, without changing direction, can be disconcerting at first.
After a short and easy shuttle we stopped by Adventure Outpost Outfitters and Guide Service in High Springs
to visit with Otter proprietor Lars and check out the shop. A fortuitous visit, as I came away having at last found a home for the 1963 Trailcraft canoe frame that has hung forlornly in my shop for years, and for the similarly constructed "Jesus Shoes" as well. Just wish I could be there when Lars tries out those Jesus Shoes for the first time. Eyewitness Otter photos would be appreciated...
4/18/03 - Suwannee River State Park
Lime Sink Run/Suwannee River/Mouth of the Withlacoochee River
Dave Maneval, Anita Wright, Rikki Maneval, Diane Hollingsworth, Cooper McCrea - OC2. Mike McCrea, Lucy Maneval - OC1. Tyler McCrea K1
After setting up camp we had enough time for a short exploratory paddle of the nearby waterways. The Suwannee was still running high and fast, so we probed back into the far reaches of Lime Sink Run before heading down the Suwannee and up the Withlacoochee. A worthwhile explore it was too, revealing that the current on the Withlacoochee running fast and strong, just begging for a downstream trip the following day.
Friday evening saw a regular Otter fest, as Otter President-for-Life Gerry Trouba, Sandy, Ed & Dee Dee joined us for a cookout and 45th birthday gathering for Gerry. A ceremonial present was passed from the Duckhead Grand Admiral to the Otter President, joining our two clubs in like-minded pleasures.
4/19/03 - Withlacoochee River
Saturday saw us again divide and conquer. Diane, Tyler and Cooper headed off the nearby Spirit of Suwannee Music Park
to score tickets for the weekend's String Cheese show, while our paddling contingent Mike McCrea, Lucy Maneval, Dave Maneval, Rikki Maneval - OC1. Anita Wright - K1 elected to float the delightful currents along the bottom 11 miles of the Withlacoochee (Atlas & Gazetteer page 53, B2). That's the northern Withlacoochee, not the more southerly river in Florida of the same name. Go figure.
And a delightful day it was, floating swiftly along without the least effort. Thanks goodness for Sandy's caution about the shoals below the Rte 141 bridge. Forewarned, we finessed our passage through these fearsome lower Withlacoochee rapids.
No sooner had we wheeled the boats back to the campsite than Paul and Jessica showed up. We wheeled a canoe back down to the put in for them and they disappeared into the depths of Lime Sink Run.
Our ticket scorers bagged the biggest success of the day, returning with 8 All Access/VIP passes to see Government Mule and The String Cheese Incident play multiple sets over the course of the weekend.
Having been fortunate enough to see and hear the Cheese play for several years now I am always impressed with their musicianship, and with their obvious joy in playing. The more I see and hear Diane's brother Kyle on the keyboards the more I've come to appreciate what a phenomenal player he really is. Kyle's grace with fan worship is also remarkable, or perhaps just a testament to the gentleness of a Quaker upbringing.
I do sometimes wonder about Tyler and Cooper's eventual attendance at a concert when they finally come to appreciate that not always do you see and hear live music from backstage and sidestage and enjoy unlimited access, free food and drink and mingling with the players. Tyler and Cooper have never been to a concert where they were not VIP'ed. That first regular-folk show, seated in row 97 (upper deck), is going to be a teenage letdown for sure.
Wishing we could have stayed longer - not just longer but that we could have gotten on one more river (the seldom watery enough Alapaha) and returned on Sunday for the second evening of music - we reluctantly exited stage right to return to our campsite and prepare for Sunday's 15-hour straight shot home.
4/20/03 - Departed north Florida at 8:30, arrived home at the Mason Dixon Line at 11:00. Not too shabby.
Half a dozen rivers, a dozen or more springs, and nothing but sun and shorts and tee shirts and Tevas for a week. Best of all, paddles with Otters. A special thanks to Bill for blowing off work for most of the week to accompany us. Come up to Maryland sometime Bill and I'll do the same.
Well, best of all was a week with old friends Dave, Anita and Paul. Here's hoping that they managed to get in a float on the rarely paddled Alapaha, even if without us, and that they returned with friends in tow for more VIP treatment at the String Cheese shows on Sunday.
That fifteen hour drive is sounding better and better.
Denouement - Dave, Anita, Paul and not-Jessica (yes, I was correct in my prediction, Paul did manage to switch girlfriends for the 2nd show) *did* return for Sunday's shows, reporting a more jazz influenced set, with more covers, including an extended jam of Jungle Boogie (seen that - what fun).
Although they did miss the gospel choir Sunday service, deciding instead to scope out a 20+ mile run on the Alapaha. Good to go next time; just add the Alapaha to my growing Florida wish-list, along with seeing the space shuttle lift off while paddling my canoe in the Ula May Bird Sanctuary from just outside the security perimeter.
Just a fifteen hour drive...hmmm...