Pre Launch Camp
The group spent Friday night 2/15/2013 at Nelson's Landing. It was cold, in the 30's. Nelson's Landing is a campground, boat ramp, restaurant, and biker bar. There was a raucous crowd of drunken bikers there, partying until about 2 AM. One particular guy only seemed to know about one line from each song that was played. He would just shout it out. At least he sang the part during the right moment in the song...
Started early, around 8:00 AM. It was cold but calm and it was set to be a trip of a lifetime for me.
We stopped at the boat ramp just after passing through the locks. That was truly an interesting experience. The doors closed behind us and as we hung on to safety ropes, the water lever dropped 22 feet so that we could access the canal system which eventually leads to the Lake Ocklawaha Reservoir. We met some Boy Scouts here. They were about to embark on a canoe journey to Silver Springs. It was funny to see these giddy kids getting ready for a trip. It reminded me of my youth when my dad, brother and I would go on canoe trips in the Rifle River in Michigan as a part of the YMCA Indian Guides program.
Camp Night 1 14.5 miles
The end of the first day of paddling. My Arms were killing me and I feared I may give up! I did not. I went to bed fairly early and at around Midnight I woke up to use the restroom. My arms, hands, and shoulders felt a bit better and I knew I could do it.
Note to self: Pack Aleve next time.
It was a long day with no current and the wind was in our faces. After dark we heard some unusual noises coming from across the river. It could have been a bear, buzzards landing in the tree tops, or even the elusive Sasquatch. Some Wild Boar Hog hunters were on the WMA behind us, shooting at hogs until after midnight. We could see the truck coming down the dirt road, hearing guns blazing. It is a little intimidating watching headlights coming your way with gunfire.
Camp Night 2 16 Miles
Gore's Landing - $5.00 for all of us to camp in one campsite for the night. Some young guys came and camped nearby. After dark, they left and came back with three girls. Apparently they like to drink and hoop and holler all night. Not a good night's sleep. There is water and restroom facilities available although the water was VERY stinky with sulfur. We saw a wild Coyote cross the campground and when we got up in the morning for day 2 of paddling, we found that a very light layer of ice was on our kayaks. I tried to get a photo, but my camera battery could not take the cold.
Camp Night 3 16 miles
True Primitive Wilderness Camping. The original plan was to stop and camp on a point at river left. The Outward Bound Program had already made camp there, so we ventured on to a spot just across the river. We met a nice family when we landed and the man offered us assistance if needed. A man named "Swamper" drove to the site and struck up a conversation about how he wished he could do what we were doing, but has never been able to afford it. Nice guy. Both he and the other man warned us about the bears here. There is a 400 Lbs Florida Black Bear that frequents the area. I stayed to guard camp while the guys walked to a nearby store for hot dogs and beer. Cold Beer, it was a treat! While we were talking to Swamper, a pontoon boat came to the ramp and a drunk guy got off and staggered right at Sam, asking if he had a truck. Sam looked around, and then at me as if to say, "Me? A Truck? Here? Are you Serious?" The drunk then asked Swamper to give him a ride to the store so he could buy another 18 pack of beer because they already drank one on the way there. The other three folks on the boat, another drunk guy and two drunk women, were yammering about the cold, and that it was 18 degrees the night before. They could have been right, because it was cold. Very Cold! So glad to be off the river with those drunks out there.
Portage Begin - 11 miles
We landed here after crossing the reservoir. The wind was strong and to our backs, but the surface had whitecaps and I had no rudder. As hard as I paddled on my right, and only my right, my kayak would only go right while the other paddlers were able to hold the line and go straight ahead. Instead of wearing my PFD, I started this paddle with it lashed onto the rear deck behind me.
The first part of the day I was confident and relaxed. There were underwater stumps and trees along the way pretty much everywhere. Ronnie and I had to lead the way because we had both had a plastic hull. The other three had Kevlar and Fiberglass kayaks. Striking a stump for them could have caused a split hull and fill the boat with water.
We came across a few flocks of literally hundreds, perhaps even thousands of Coots with white bills. As we approached, they took off in unison and made the most amazing whooshing sound as they made their escape from the strange creatures gliding through their midst. I could see several of them actually running on the surface of the water, furiously flapping their wings trying to get some lift. Sam got some video on his Go Pro camera. I cannot wait to see the results! It reminded me of Mutual of Omaha's Wild America, National Geographic, or the Audubon Society films I would go see as a kid.
Once we got out into open water, I was scared that I would tip over. I was praying out loud and asking God to calm the waters and provide a clear path for me to get close to shore so I could put on my PFD. My path was clear of all stumps! I was able to get to the edge and don my life preserver. The gang paddled over towards where I was and we were able to stop for a lunch break.
After lunch, the group was again separated but I was able to paddle more confidently now that I was wearing my PFD. Me and Ronnie kept a similar pace, but I had to work extra hard to go where I was aiming. We could see the Rodman dam ahead for about three miles. Paddling is not like a motor boat where you get to where you are going in minutes. I was looking at the dam for about an hour while paddling my butt off to reach it. It felt great to be on dry land at the end of this section!
It was very hot, very windy, and this was a real chore. We had to unload five kayaks and than haul all of the gear to the boat ramp where we would later launch back into the water. We carried the gear in shifts, not paying attention to who's gear was who's. The trek took us up the bank, down a paved road across the dam, over or around a guardrail, down a concrete covered or gravel and dirt hill, across a narrow pedestrian bridge, and across two parking lots. As if that was not punishing enough, then we had to haul the kayaks, which were mostly empty, but still heavy enough to require two people to carry them. A special "Thanks" to Stew for leaving most of your water in your kayak! Ha! Dave ran into "Swampy" here too. He knew we were headed this way and I think he just wanted to see if he could find us again.
Measured here, it is around 1241 ft. That is over a quarter of a mile!
Camp Night 4 5 miles (down and back upstream)
We had planned on making it further down the river, but after a 2 hour portage, it was getting late. We went 2.7 miles down stream and could not find the campsite, so we turned around and came back here. During the night, the most interesting thing happened. A truck backed down the boat ramp and put a small boat in the water. Two persons took the boat very fast down river, leaving the truck and trailer on the ramp in the water. They had no lights on the boat, but appeared to know the river. A few seconds later, we heard the boat slow to idle and the rev back up and it came right back. We all chuckled thinking they remembered that they forgot to park the truck. They loaded the boat back on the trailer and then we noticed two trucks leave the area very quickly. We all recalled seeing a little makeshift houseboat downstream and figured that these guys may have been making a drop or something at the boat. Were they drug runners? We could only speculate. In the morning, Dave and Ronnie met a nice Park Ranger who advised that overnight camping was prohibited (by a giant sign visible as you enter the parking lot from the road, not the pedestrian bridge) and there was a $250.00 fine for ground fires. We quickly extinguished the camp fire and broke down our gear to leave as soon as possible.
I was determined to see what the guys in the boat were up to so I paddled ahead to snoop around at the little house boat, which had appeared abandoned when we first paddled by it yesterday on our search for the original camp site and then back to the dam. As I approached, I noticed a dog on the bank and then I could see the silhouette of a wiry haired man in the window. He had a chair and fishing rods on the shore next to his boat, so I felt better about the previous night's activity. I imagined now that it was just his sons on a food resupply mission for their dad who was on an extended fishing trip. Although, it could just have easily been a mobile Meth lab!
Camp Night 5 3.5 miles
Davenport Landing - Again, very primitive camping. And as a bonus, it was free. This was the original campsite for last night, but due to it getting dark and us unable to find it quickly enough, we went back to the dam. We met a very nice newlywed couple, Duncan and his bride, but I never caught her name. Someone thought they heard him call her Colleen. A very short hike away we found the remains of a former bustling river port. There was also an American Indian Burial Mound there. The Park Service had some real nice signs detailing the history of the site.
We decided to take an evening stroll down the dirt roads, probably about a mile or two, looking for any signs of a Florida Black Bear. We found some rather disturbingly large piles of bear "scat" on the roads. Disturbingly large. We never heard any bears or saw anything. The next day we took some lunch and snacks and went on an exploratory hike. It was likely a 3-4 mile trip. Ronnie made sure to mark the path at every turn to help us to not get lost. It worked very well.
After the reservoir paddle (with the agonizing wind and waves) we decided that we should get an early start the next morning so that when we hit Lake George, we would not have a problem. The weather forecast was for 10-15 mph SE winds, which would have put it into our faces. We started the early shove-off bidding at 6:00 AM but finally settled on a Midnight start. We planned on a 20-27 mile paddle lasting somewhere around 10-12 hours. I immediately settled in for a nap, which did not last very long.
Earlier, a man drove into camp with a beautiful homemade cedar strip kayak on the roof of his car. He was David from just outside Waynesville, GA. He was a nice fellow, a retired carpenter in fact.
Dave, Stew, and Sam's friend Jack had a campsite at our planned final destination, Salt Springs. He and Kevin came to visit here though, since it was a relatively short drive. They brought beer and pulled pork. I ate a sandwich, but stopped at only one beer because I knew it was going to be a tough next several hours and did not want anything that could slow me down in my system.
We talked for a bit and then they left. We talked to Dave the solo paddler a bit more and then told him about our midnight paddling strategy. He said to be careful on the river because there are some side streams that dead end into downed trees.
The moon was nearly full when we went to bed at around 7:00 PM but it was also a bit overcast. We were expecting the light from the full moon to help with navigation.
The Midnight Paddle
Interesting story... On my previous extended-day canoe trip (December 2004) I fell out of the canoe and almost drowned only 45 minutes into a 3-day trip. I had previously told the guys this story and after passing the 45 minute mark on day one, they all congratulated me on a job well done.
I was very nervous about this midnight paddle, but I tried not to show it. I agreed to it and once Jack and Kevin left in the hours before embarking, there was no getting out of it, I had to go forward. So be it. We were all up and packing up camp at 11:00 PM. Most of us had already packed up most things except for the sleeping necessities before laying down to go to sleep. I had known that it was going to be warm the next day, so I packed up everything but my tent, flashlight, and the clothes I intended to wear:
Shorts, T-shirt, and Paddling jacket. I used the jacket as a pillow and slept on the bare floor of my tent. At around 9:30 PM I woke up freezing. It had gotten cold again! I ran down to my kayak and got out my fleece long-johns, my hoodie, and a long sleeve shirt. I returned to my tent and went back to sleep.
I was making nervous conversation with Dave while packing up the kayaks at midnight, preparing to shove off. I was imagining myself as Will Ferrell's character in "Elf" and he told the story of his journey from the North Pole to New York City. I said I would tell my 7 year old how I went through the twirly whirly forest and winding rivers, etc. Everybody pushed off and I was straddling my kayak getting ready to push it back into the river and plop down in my seat. A feat I had done only once or twice before. For most of this trip up to this point, I had been able to have one of the others push me back after sitting in my kayak with dry feet. Not this day because everyone was already in the water.
When we first arrived at this camp I landed my kayak in a small rut in the narrow beach which I believe was created by a spring flowing from the side of the hill. As I shoved back and was sitting down, the kayak listed sharply to the right and water rushed into the cockpit. "Was this really happening?" I thought. It was dark, and cold and now I am going in the river before we even get started. I fell partially in but landed on my feet as I watched my kayak roll over beneath me. I was having a flashback to the Canoe trip in 2004 and beginning to slightly panic. I just knew I was going to cause everyone to have to forfeit the trip and we would have to reset camp and call Jack to come get me.
Sam asked if I was ok, since he was right next to me and had witnessed most of the fall. I noticed that nobody seemed to be making too big a deal out of what just happened, so I put on my big boy pants and poured the several gallons of cold water from my cockpit, sponged it out, and got back on my horse.
Looking back now, I should have changed into dry clothes, but I did not want to delay the others anymore. We were underway by 12:15 AM. After under a mile of paddling, we came to a fork in the river and had to chose which way to go. We went one way, then stopped and went the other. As we paddled down the selected trail, we had some serious tree obstructions and I noticed that none of them were cut to make a navigable path. I became suddenly very uncomfortable and began to question myself as to what I was doing there. Why had I agreed to this? After seeing that this was clearly not the right path, Dave and Sam agreed to turn around and go the other way, Thank God!
I felt like we were on the correct path now and all was right in the world, but this journey had just begun.
We were now paddling in a very wide, heavily traveled body of water, the St Johns River. The current flows from South to North, but it was not noticeable due to the width of the river.
The moon was now low in the sky and it was dark and I was cold. The water coming off of my paddles was somehow finding its way either down my sleeves or down my back. I was becoming very tired and sleepy. Ronnie and I were in the back of the pack. The other three would paddle ahead and the only way we knew where they were was that Dave wore his head lamp backwards, using his red light. The three stronger paddlers would occasionally stop and we thought a rest was in store for us, but as soon as Ronnie and I caught up, they began paddling again.
I wondered if perhaps I could nap while the strongest paddler, Sam, towed me behind him. I closed my eyes and immediately felt insecure about my balance and thought that if I were to fall alseep, I would certainly be in the water. I can't imagine how difficult it would be to flip the kayak back upright while full of water out in the deep, rather than standing on shore, as I had already done once on this leg of the trip. I decided against asking anyone to tow me.
Still dark and cold, with dark clouds looming overhead, we paddled on. I had to pee so badly. The other guys used a bottle to relieve themselves when we stopped for a snack break in the middle of the river but I could not bring myself to even try. I was wearing 2 wet layers of pants and a jacket and I felt that if I tried this tedious maneuver, I would certainly roll over. My confidence was low. Peeing would have to wait. Besides that, the pain I was experiencing might keep me awake and drive me to keep going no matter what.
As I paddled, seemingly alone in the middle of a dark, cold, and wet abyss, I started thinking if this is what Hell might be like. I was very sore and very tired. I was not able to move from my seat, and my actions were monotonous. Right, left, right, left, right left, went the paddle blades into the water. The three faster paddles were far ahead and Ronnie was somewhere nearby, but I could not hear or see him. Dark and miserable solitude, this IS what Hell is like. I was in Hell, but knew that if I could survive, I would soon be in Heaven...on shore, eating, sleeping, warm, and dry. Paddle on. Paddle on.
Rest Stop - 20 miles
This was the first place that we found where we could actually stop and get out of the kayaks to stretch our legs. I was finally able to pee! Five and a half to six hours in a kayak without being able to stretch out your legs is a long, long time.
It was a very short stop because we knew we were close to the end. Dave was freezing because he did wear shorts and had not put his cockpit skirt on until we were well into the St Johns River. This caused him to take on a bit of water from the splashing of his paddles. The wind had been calm but it was quite cold out and getting colder as the trip went on. "It is always coldest just before the sun comes up".
Another reason for the short break was that Sam saw something in the bushes-perhaps a bear or hog. He just got a glimpse of the eyes reflecting his light and could hear movement. We did not waste any time getting back underway. Dave thought was only about another mile and a half. It turned out to be five.
Herd of Manatees
It was just getting to be daylight as we approached the spring. We saw so many fish and Manatees. I had several of them swim very close to me, under my kayak in fact. I had never seen one in the wild and certainly not from a small plastic boat just a few feet away. Sam was in front of us all and when he got over a pod of manatees they all of a sudden exploded into what I can only describe as a stampede! They broke the surface, causing Sam's kayak to become unstable and nearly tip over! They fled in a thunderous rush of splashing water and charged ahead of our group in a matter of seconds. This was a first for me. Who knew they were so agile and fast?
During the night, I slapped a mullet with my paddle and caused it to jump right next to my kayak. That was a bit startling. The moon set at 4:30 AM and we had to use our headlamps once we had entered the river. I saw what I thought was a big log in the river, with what I thought was a fishing lure reflecting my headlamp, so I paddled towards it. As I got really close, I said, "What is this? A lure?". Stew had already passed it and said, "Yeah, a live lure!". As he said this and I was preparing myself to reach for the lure, I saw a second amber tinted reflection about three inches to the left of the first. Suddenly, I realized that I was not merely feet away from a log, but it was a very large, very alive, very awake alligator staring at me. I never changed course so fast in the entire trip! After paddling some more, a Largemouth Bass, probably no less than 11 inches long jumped in the air just ahead of me. His hang time was so long that I paddled under his arcing path and he was actually over my bow as I passed beneath him. If only I had been expecting that, we may have been able to have fish for breakfast. I literally was close enough to smack him with my paddle!
Final Destination! 5 miles (91 total including the backtracking by the dam)
We arrived just after sunrise at around 7:05 AM on Friday 2/22/2013. I lagged behind on every section of the paddle form day one. These guys were all very experienced paddlers, triathletes, etc. As we approached the bank at the boat ramp though, I got this sense of accomplishment that was so overwhelming and I wanted to have one little paddling victory, not that it was a race. I put my head down and paddled furiously towards the shore. I think the other guys didn't even notice because we were all so tired and elated to have arrived. My kayak hit the shore first and I was out of my boat by the time the others were hitting the shore with the bows of their kayaks. I did not draw attention to the fact that I finished first, but I did finish first! I was taking off my PFD and heard a splash and cacophony of laughter and screeching behind me. Ronnie was getting out of his boat and slipped and fell in at the last second. He made it six days paddling and went overboard in the last possible second of the trip. A memory I am sure he will cherish forever!
Jack and Kevin, and another friend, John had planned on paddling out to meet us and join us on the way in, but they thought we were going to arrive in about 5 hours, so they were all still asleep. Dave and Stew walked in to their camp site and woke them up. Jack made a great breakfast of scrambled eggs with some added ingredients. I was a zombie at this point and can't really recall what it was. The rest of our group drove back to Nelson's Landing to retrieve Ronnie and Sam's vehicles while I took a much deserved nap. I slept for a couple of hours and had a nice sub sandwich that Sam brought back for me for lunch.
Sam, Dave, Stew, and I went to the local store and bought a bottle of champagne for the newlyweds we met at the previous camp. We thought it would be a nice gesture to bring it to them and it was only a short drive away by car. Upon arriving back at the camp, we found their camp site to be still there (we knew they were staying until Sunday) but they were off somewhere in their Jeep. Dave put a "Paddle Across Florida" contact card and the bottle of Cold Duck at the door of their tent, took a photo of it for his blog and we left.
When we returned to camp, we found Ronnie basking in the sun with a wide smile. He had been swimming with the Manatees in the spring. He said it was a wonderfully amazing experience. He said that they were so large and graceful. I was slightly jealous that I did not bring a bathing suit or towel on this trip.
Dinner, again compliments of Jack, was an awesome Tortellini Soup. It reminded me of my youth and some of the meals prepared by the Italian side of my family. I got the basic recipe and will definitely be making it at home.
After getting some rest, I pondered the week past. I overcame some incredible challenges and believe I will look at adversity differently from here on out. I was definitely out of my comfort zone and learned a lot about kayaking, camping, and myself. I made some new and wonderful friends and plan to do this again and again. What river lies ahead? Only the future knows.
If you decide to do a trip like this, hang your food in trees to keep it from bears. There is a stiff penalty if a ranger finds you not doing it. Worse if the bear finds the food.