We are thankful that we have Tate’s Hell State Forest to give us wilderness camping experiences within an easy auto drive/or auto-paddle access from our home. We understand, not everyone camps, and not everyone who camps likes primitive camping. Wilderness campers chose to be “inconvenienced” — to make do with what they bring, away from electronics, away from the conveniences of modern life.
However, even we can start complaining — it seems like an antidote to discomfort from phasing in from comforts of home to challenges at campside, particularly if one forgot some “indispensable” item which proves to be not so indispensable after all (later).
Before you start complaining after getting to a campsite, or before someone in your party starts on a long, discomforting wail of what the site does not offer, know this.
This was once a pine plantation. A very large plantation. You will see remnants of that pine operation in the channels which have been cut to drain water and the numerous roads which seem to lead nowhere.
The state acquired it under our legacy program, Florida Forever, to restore lands which are necessary to keep the ecological balance of our state in spite of, and because of, growth.
Tate’s Hell State Forest is an essential natural watershed for both the Ochlockonee and Apalachicola Rivers. The younger among you will have been schooled in the importance of watersheds to our national waterways; you may have to get used to the concept — it’s important if we want clean water.
State lands acquired for restoration and conservation are managed by various public agencies. Every 10 years the managing agency has to prepare a 10 year master plan for the property for which they are responsible. Some of the agencies are Florida State Parks, Florida Forestry Services, the various water management districts, counties and municipalities and state preservation agencies.
In the case of forestry, the principle set by the Legislature is that these lands must be self-sustaining. Like the National Forest systems, logging and sale of wood is an important part of the financial self-sufficiency of the forests.
In the case of Tate’s Hell State Forest, until last September, the chief forester (the person in charge of managing the timberlands, of negotiating which parcels are to be harvested, and enforcing the terms of the contract) was David Morse. David was awarded Forester of the Year in 2017. As well he should be.
Under David’s management, you saw no clear-cutting of woods, but only small sections which have been harvested. A U of Florida forestry graduate (and before that a navy veteran), David practiced sustainable forestry. But there is always a bottom line: once acquired, forest lands must pay the cost of its maintenance.
For those who pass burned out forests, these are set purposely as part of the forest management. By periodically mimicking the natural burns which occur with lightening, the forest undergrowth is cleared and major devastating fires are avoided. When you see what seems to be unsightly burns, consider that this mimics lightening fires, except we set it, to again, try to restore the land.
For us, we have come to prefer state and national forestry for camping. We like to get away from multi-story cities, traffic, noise and a mechanically-fast paced world. Because we are not the primary focus of land management (e.g. to provide recreational “experiences”), forestry lands offers more wilderness than we get camping in state parks, where waking up in our 2 person tent only to face the walls of huge RV’s on either side of our site had become too common an experience.
Tate’s Hell State Forest campsites usually sit alone and are big. Your nearest camping neighbor may be miles away from you. The exceptions are Womack Creek campground with 12 sites; Cash creek with 3 sites, Log Cabin Creek with 4 sites, Rock Landing with 3 sites, Borrow Pit with 2 sites, and OHV (off highway vehicles) campground with 3 sites. There are 57 campsites in that second largest of Florida’s state forests.
While those with congregate sites may have vault toilets and Womack Creek Campground has hot showers and flush toilets, most of the sites are primitive: no water, no toilets. (Womack Creek’s restroom facilities may soon close because the banks along the Ochlockonee River are eroding and now about 1 foot away from the foundation of the building.)
Tate’s Hell’s roads sit just above the water table. When it rains, it puddles or worse. Since the natural drainage is being restored, concrete culverts have been removed and low lying areas are covered with gravel to allow for freer flow of water. For a passenger car, encountering what seems to be a ford, check before driving on. It is always wise to call the Tate’s Hell Office in Carrabelle before you arrive to inquire about road conditions leading to your camp site and requesting alternate routes to the site if the usual way is under water.
You may need to detour — if the natural drainage area seems a lot deeper than you feel comfortable, detour. There are depth markers, but one thing about markers in a system going natural — things change. At one time the markers may have been in the deepest part of that road, but over time that section changed. Don’t rely on the depth markers it, if you’re not sure. Get out of the car and test the deepest part of the drainage field. One of the great things about this forest there is hardly any traffic. You’ll have to walk several miles depending on where you are stranded to get help (cell signals may be weak or non-existent).
And isn’t this what getting into the wilderness means? You are not guaranteed convenience. You’re on your own.
Also, don’t trust the road signage. Vandals have removed or turned signs such that it’s pointing the wrong way. Again, financial resources cannot be put toward our convenience by replacing signs which would sooner than not be vandalized again.
We’re hoping to post coordinates of the critical turn points, but it’s not on our list of priorities right not. Don’t rely on Google directions.
It gets more adventuresome doesn’t it? We heard about reports from a paddling group from Missouri we led from CS 17 to Gully Branch Road. Word was they thought getting to the put-in was more hazardous than paddling the river.
Most of you would question the craziness of anyone who would eschew convenience and shrug off discomfort as a great experience. There are so few places like this in the eastern US (the Apalachians are one, the Adirondacks). Having this forest near us is a gift. Camping here may require more challenges than in the state parks, but it also brings more rewards.
You can respond loudly to the barred owls from your tent as they call to each other at night; there is no curfew to quell your voice. And except in the campgrounds, you have no camping neighbors who can hear you. There is only nature’s night sounds. The only lights are the ones you produce. (If you’ve in a camper, you’ll miss some of this.) And the rhythm of your day becomes more attuned to the natural rhythm around you. It does, indeed, restore your soul.
If you’re not up to the wonders and inconveniences of the natural world, try the state parks.
But first, particularly if you have young children, try it. Young children are very adaptable and see in the natural setting more possibilities than adults do. Start with the campgrounds in the forests where there are vault toilets or bring along a portable toilet if in a primitive camp site (this seems to be a major deterrent to older children and fastidious spouses). And you know, with young kids, when they start balking, get them excited again — show them the infinite possibilities of nature.
We have paddled and camped 50 states and 10 Canadian provinces. We appreciate what we have in North Florida each time we return. Yet, the number of campers, though slightly increased since 2012 have not been overwhelming.
Do people know that wilderness camping paradise in less than 2 hours away?
We would love to see more young families with children camping, paddling, bicycling (sandy roads), fishing in this forest. They are part of the legacy the state has a commitment to — it’s for them and their kids what this land is being restored to its natural roots.