This was my first kayak camping trip and I was doing it solo, since my regular paddling partner couldn't make it. This trip was recently written up in the local paper, so I wanted to give it a try. It actually combines two waterways, Bear Creek and the Oklawaha River. Neither river has any development along this stretch until you hit the destination at Rodman Dam, giving you a pretty realistic view of what Florida waterways used to be like.
I drove down from Jacksonville. It was about a 1 � hour drive and then another � hour to get the kayak in the water, which I managed by about 10:30. I started the trip at the public boat ramp in Welaka, on the east side of the St. John's River. The ramp is a little north of the mouth of the Oklawaha and Bear Creek. There were a lot of boat trailers around, so it did take me some time to find a parking place.
The St. John's is narrower here than in Jacksonville, so the crossing was pretty easy. The mouth of the Oklawaha is a bit north of Bear Creek, but it's pretty easy to tell them apart. The benefit of starting in Bear Creek is that being smaller there are fewer boats and a bit more of the primitive feel. Going upstream was not really a problem and I was averaging a bit over 2 � mph. My topo map had shown the connection between Bear Creek and the Oklawaha was close to Rt. 19, but the aerial photo from Terrafly (this is a great website), showed it to be sooner.
The creek has lily beds along the sides or trees that come right to the water's edge. There were no sandy beaches like on the Suwannee. I went a couple of miles up Bear Creek seeing a lot of fish rolling in the water and ospreys with fish in their talons. The creek was getting progressively narrower, which made me a bit nervous since I had my kayak hit by an alligator three times the previous weekend on the Trout River in Jacksonville. On this trip I had tried to stay to the middle of the creek as I could. Finally in one area the river narrowed quite a bit and looking to the left I saw a large gator gliding through the lilies. He raised his head, saw me and took off pushing a pretty good wake into the kayak. As I pushed on the creek became even narrower and completely covered with lilies. Nervously I pushed on slapping my paddles on each stroke, but when I saw it wasn't going to get any better I decided to turn around. I thought I might have to go all the way back to the St. Johns, but heading the other direction I noticed that what I thought had been a little creek coming in on the north side, was actually the cut over to the Oklawaha. I paddled through and was in a wide area of the river with two channels. The one to the right was the main river, while the one to the left was blocked by a huge cypress tree.
From this point on the trip was a very pleasant paddle. There was still no banks to pull over, so when I hit the Rt. 19 bridge over the river I followed the channel under the bridge pilings to the bridge abutment when I could get out and have lunch. It was a hot day, but wasn't too bad on the water. All afternoon I saw more ospreys, rolling gar, herons and egrets, but only a few turtles. There were a lot of people fishing and a fair number of boats, but the boaters wee very considerate. I did pass a couple of "beaches" along the way, but they were always packed with boaters.
After about 12 miles the river widened and straightened. This was the spillway to Rodman Dam. The river actually veers to the left. I took the spillway to the boat ramp at the dam arriving at 3:00. The spillway was just full of gar coming to the surface feeding. There's a little park on both sides of the dam with a few picnic benches and rest rooms, but no other services. The river bypass comes in at the south bank, right by the dam. I took the bypass to see if I could find a campsite. Eventually I did find a small beach with a clearing in the woods where I could set up my tent, but it was definitely a one person location. Sitting on the beach I watched the fish and a series of ospreys go by as well as a small gator that hung around the area all afternoon. After dinner I saw a much larger gator cruise up the river. Amazingly there were no mosquitoes, only some deer flies, so it was a very nice evening. After going to bed I heard a beaver slap a warning and a little late heard a small tree coming down into the water.
After breakfast the next morning I took off. Since it was early there were very few boats out, so the gators were quite visible. For a while I was seeing a large gator every few hundred yards. Some were swimming across the river and some were just motionless in the water. In every case they would just duck under the water when I got within 30-40 feet. There were several times I had to backpaddle to slow myself down to keep from getting too close. I was making just over 4 mph going with the current, so was making good time.
After 10:00 the boats began to appear and I saw fewer gators, but still did see a lot of birds. I passed where I had cut over from Bear Creek and the Oklawaha began to widen out as I approached the St. Johns. Pretty soon it opened up and I was crossing back over to Welaka. I was back at the ramp by 11:45.
This is a great trip if you want to see an undeveloped Florida river with lots of gators and other wildlife. Since it's 12 1/2 miles to the dam, it's too much to do as a one day round trip, but you might be able to start at Rodman and have someone meet you at the Welaka ramp.
Take I95 south from Jacksonville. Exit at Route 207 to East Palatka. Then take Rt. 17 to Satsuma and turn onto CR09 into Welaka. Turn right onto Elm Street (only traffic light) in Welaka. Follow road to ramp.