Hurricane Michael hit Franklin and Bay counties on October 10, 2018. Tidal surges and/or winds extended into other coastal areas, farther inland than had been expected creating tornado-like devastation in Jackson, Liberty, Gadsden and Wakulla counties.
At home, we did not escape the tree downfalls, branches, debris, and damage, though only incidentally to outbuildings. To get a reprieve from the work of restoration, we paddled Womack Creek, Lake Talquin’s Joe Budd area near the mouth of the Upper Ochlockonee, Ocheesee Pond in Jackson county and yesterday Cash Creek.
There is a sardonic side to nature: after a tooth and claw show of what she can do, she can also produce a smiley-faced day as she did yesterday.
The weather had a touch of fall with temperatures in the low 50’s and wind chill even lower because of wind. It was overcast and cold when we launched the kayaks, but the warmth which comes from paddling soon overcame the chill. Within half an hour the morning ceiling opened to full sun, with some clouds. It did not get over mid-60’s yesterday. We had an outgoing tide going upstream and an incoming tide returning with winds against us, but it was an ideal paddling day.
Over a month after H. Michael, SR 65 south of Hosford had sections of tree-falls and fractured trunks, not consistent, but in patches, and debris along the road with trees leaning, ready to fall with the next strong wind.
At the Cash Creek Day Use area and launch site, it seems that the surge extended into the area. Fortunately, the vault toilet was set up on a thick concrete slab which elevated it from the water level created in the surge. One large pine had to be cut down, the trunks neatly piled for campers and day users to use as firewood.
Paddling tree-less marshes, for us, is a late fall to early spring activity. It gets too hot for us in open estuaries when temperatures go over the high 70’s, particularly with high humidity.
Of Michael’s impact on the creek, there is only one small pine tree which has fallen almost completely covering the creek. Unless paddling in low tide, that should not impede your progress upstream — you can make your way among the topmost branches. Some pine trees in that area of sparsely growing pines and cedars may have been damaged or uprooted, but at water level we could not see over the marsh rushes.
Cash Creek, however, has submerged trees and pilings, remnants of swamp road bridges, a reminder that Tate’s Hell was once a pine plantation. The dark tannin-colored water obscures these obstructions.
From experience on similar pilings on other North Florida creeks and rivers, if one gets caught on one, gentle back paddling may be more effective than hard forward paddling, depending on the water current. Hard forward paddling in some situations will fasten the boat even more securely on the pilings. The tops of these pilings have been unevenly cut by the waters, so one could find oneself in a precarious balance. Gentle paddling rather than power strokes should first be tried unless one has extraordinary balance control of one’s craft and body. Sometimes, if one cannot get another paddler to help, one may have to capsize.
One caveat: there are huge alligators on that creek. They, do not seem to be as habituated to humans as in other creeks where fishermen throw their live bait and unwanted fish into the waters before leaving the water. In the summer, children play and swim at the Cash Creek landing.
The creek branches over a mile upstream from the put-in at the Cash Creek Day use area. The one on the right will extend the marsh paddling with occasional pine and cypress trees on dry land. An older fallen tree over the bank can be limboed under, but further upstream additional smaller barriers, some crossable in high water, will be present as the creek narrows into swampland (with more trees).
The above photo was taken in an outgoing tide (shallow), so at higher water levels one would have to flatten out more or do what I call the turtle scrunch, which is more suitable for those of us with short legs: get as much of your body into the kayak with only the top of your head and hands visible (you’ve got to be able to see and you’ve got to hold on to your paddle). Canoers can more easily go under narrow openings.
Barriers such as this probably are good turn around places: it’s not like you don’t have other options for paddling on the other branches or branches of branches on that creek. And, unless you have a gift of getting lost no matter where you are, it’s almost impossible to get lost upstream from the landing. If water levels and barriers can be overcome and if you paddle all the options and back to the landing, it will probably be about a 12.5 mile paddle.
Going upstream, at the first choice of turns, the branch on the left will lead you to Pidcock Road campsite, which, at low tide is more easily accessed by boat than at high tide. It is a beautiful, very large, secluded primitive campsite accessible from Pidcock Road. This branch will take you into swamps with shrubs and small trees (shade) with two additional branches to explore.
When entering narrowing creeks, check to see if you will be able to turn around in your boat or you may be paddling backwards all the way until you can.
Downstream, turning left at the landing, is a different paddling situation. You will need a GPS so you don’t keep paddling in circles and loops, one patch of rushes looks like any other patch of rushes and you can’t see above them. Turning left at the landing will get you, if you manage to get out of the labyrinth of marsh , into East Bayou to East Bay and then the Gulf. There were two boat trailers and two additional boats on trailers getting ready to go downstream when we arrived at the landing.
More convenient to the highway and to the landing, three new primitive camp sites, more typical of state park sites (just enough to accommodate an RV or one or two tents, picnic table, firepit and grill), have been opened right at the Cash Creek Day Use area and landing. What it gives in convenience, it lacks in privacy, however. Witnessed by the thrash of glass beer bottles, six pack holders and other thrash, day users in that area consistently don’t pick up. A newly built vault toilet on concrete slab already is less than clean, not the problem of the staff at Tate’s Hell SF, but day users. If camping there, bring sanitizer spray to clean the toilet seats. There is a sanitizer dispenser, but I don’t expect the dispenser will last long or will have anything to dispense. Bring your own hand sanitizer.
Primitive camping means: no water, no electricity, and generally no toilet facilities. (Interestingly Rock Landing campground on Crooked River (connecting the Ochlockonee and New Rivers) has three (much larger) campsites and a vault toilet, day use facility with pavilion and tables and a boat launch. The toilet there is usually very clean and well maintained by users.)
Reservations for campsites in Tate’s Hell can be made through Reserve America. Call the Carrabelle Tate’s Hell State Forest office (850 697-0010) if you can’t make sense of the way Tate’s Hell Campsites are posted on that site and for confirmation that the site you have selected is what you want.
Not many birds sighted this time, but we saw two species of woodpeckers, one of which may have been a red cockaded. The area we saw it has mainly slash pines, but David Morse, retired (summer 2018) chief forester told us that he has seen red cockaded woodpeckers nesting in slash pine cavities. Also a small flock of small sparrow like birds, which we could not identify. And the ubiquitous buzzards. And one lone coot which lay low and tried to conceal itself in the marsh grass. Usually there are lots of birds in the late fall and winter. This is the first coot (which usually travel in flocks) we have seen on this creek.