Tag Archives: Paddling Tate’s Hell State Forest

ON CAMPING IN TATE’S HELL STATE FOREST

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 later to be not so indispensable after all.

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 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 State 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 for restoration, forest lands must still pay the cost of ongoing maintenance and restoration of lands.

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. These burn crews can also include volunteers who have been trained and certified. Volunteers are essential to maintaining a predictable level of maintenance of most state agencies. Those interested in being trained to help with managed burns should contact the Lake Talquin regional office (which includes Tate’s Hell SF) of Florida Forestry Services, Department of Agriculture (850 681-5950).

We have come to prefer state and national forestry for camping 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 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 in. 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 request 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, 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 all road signs. Signs have been taken or pranksters have turned signs such that some are pointing the wrong way. Again, financial resources cannot be put toward our convenience by replacing signs which would sooner than not be vandalized again.

Eventually, 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 for directions on unpaved roads.

It gets more adventuresome doesn’t it? We heard about reports from a paddling group from Missouri we led on the New River from CS 17 to Gully Branch Road. Word was they thought getting to the put-in was more hazardous than paddling the river. Maybe it was the sand; all the roads were passable with a few puddles.

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, fastidious spouses and maybe you). 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 is 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 that this land is being restored to its natural roots. And were the politics to change in the future, the adventures you take them on in wilderness now may be the only times in their lives which this experience will ever be available to them again. If this were ever to happen, wouldn’t you say that you were able to give them a priceless gift?

Know, if you go: If you must call 911, each campsite has an address. First responders will not be able to respond to a campsite number in the forest. Reserve America does not give you this address. The addresses are posted in this blog with the campsite information. Also, cell coverage varies within this very large forest. When you reach your site, check to see if you can get coverage. If not, find the closest spot where you can transmit and receive signals. If you have a teenager with you, they already know that or ask them to locate that spot.

CS 11 – Gully Branch Primitive Camp Site, Tate’s Hell State Forest

Reserve this site at Reserve America, Tate’s Hell State Forest Pickett’s Bay Primitive Campsites. When you get to your campsite, find the closes point for cell connection. If you call 911 give as your address 2295 Gully Branch Road, Tate’s Hell State Forest, GPS 29.95868, -84.71945. First responders will not be able to find you by campsite only. Reserve America confirmation will not give you this information.

When you get to your camp site, check cell phone coverage or find closest cell connection point.

Campsite 11, Gully Branch, is a tent only primitive camp site just a short walk from the day use area on Gully Branch Road. You will have to carry your gear from the off road parking to the campsite which is not visible from the road.

There is a picnic table and a firepit (but no standup grill) at the riverside site.

Because this is in the day use area, a vault toilet is available for use and the covered picnic tables if it’s raining.

There are two such buildings on the south side of the Gully Branch Road. On the opposite side are a small covered picnic table and a large covered group picnic area.

The vault toilet lies behind the two picnic areas.

The landing at Gully Branch is used by motorized boats which usually go down river and paddlers.

A favorite trip with a short shuttle is to put in at CS 17 on East River Road and take-out here at Gully Branch: 6.5 miles of easy downriver paddle with enough of a winding course to make it interesting.

Below Gully Branch road, tides are more noticeable. As the river becomes slighter wider and less winding, winds also can add to the day’s workout.

During the summer months yellow flies at Gully Branch can be fierce.

We find, even when it’s hot, a fire in the firepit at dusk, keeps mosquitoes away.

The photos were taken when the tide was outgoing. Water levels will vary at this site depending on tides.

Trout Creek, Tate’s Hell SF, a great place to learn to paddle.

A very short tributary of the New River, south of Pope Place (CS 9) on West River Road. The put-in is just south and west of the bridge over Trout Creek which lies at the junction of West River Road and River Road, a little over a mile south of CS 9.

It is narrow enough to be protected from wind and has minimum current. However, the tide does affect the level of the creek. If you should ever have to paddle under a log or a large branch going upstream (limbo), note which way the tide is going. You may not have room on the return trip if you paddled up on an incoming tide.

About 1/4 mile east of the bridge is the New River. Paddlers can paddle from upstream on the New and be picked up here, if they prefer not to take-out at an occupied camp site.

We saw a red cockaded woodpecker in the slash pines here several years ago.

This is a perfect place for kayak polo, for those who have shorter kayaks and a floatable ball and some type of “basket” or bucket.

Cash Creek – Four Weeks After H. Michael – November 10, 2018

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.

 

New River Camp and Paddle – March 24, 2018

Photos by David Brashears

The campsite at Gully Branch (not shown) was reserved for those who wished to camp the night before and after the paddle.  Eight of the paddlers chose to camp: either in tents or in their own cars/truck.

A campfire will always draw a circle.

The next day, all campers were ready to go before 8:00 and the non-campers arrived soon after, but the van and trailer did not arrive till 1.5 hours later.   Kayaks were quickly loaded and the paddlers and their trailers shuttled to put-in on FR 22, 10 miles east of Sumatra for the day’s 16.6 mile paddle.

The tree below fell perfectly, leaving ample space, but this was not often the case.

Lunch was eaten ravenously while resting on a small hammock.

And the group continued its paddle.

 

Sixteen plus miles down the New River, Tate’s Hell – March 24, 2018

 

The New River was 48 inches higher than 6 days prior,  when a crew of three scouted it in preparation for an Apalachee Canoe and Kayak Club trip on Saturday, March 24.  Plans were to cancel the trip if the river dropped another foot — that would have created a drag-along situation since the water was barely able to transport the bushwacking crew, even after they had opened channels of debris and removed and cut dangerous obstacles.  Since not all paddlers are trekkers, there would have been an unhappy group of paddlers.

Scouting/clearing crew work prior to these paddles have attempted to be as minimal in their removal of branches and obstacles as possible, since maintaining the wild nature of the river is the reason paddlers like to paddle the upper stretch.

This river can be paddled through only at certain times of the year.  Its source of water is through seepage from points north, but also relying on its water to survive are the many trees which line the water.  When they begin to leaf, the amount of water consumed by deciduous trees can lower the river as much as 18 inches in 1 week (last year’s experience).   The rule of thumb for paddling that river is go before the deciduous trees start to leaf out.  When warmer weather appears, biting flies, unlike mosquitoes, will follow you on water and can have you preferring freezing cold and rain to their pestilence.   Flies are particularly pernicious at the Gully Branch landing when the weather turns warm.

Successfully paddling the upper sections  may require a bit more than basic paddling skills when rushing current chooses the path into fallen trees and debris.  An additional obstacle in high water are the branches which would normally be above a paddler — cuts and scratches are not uncommon then.  The cachet of being away from it all is probably as attractive as any of the other reasons.  As David Morse, trip leader explained, this upper area is “a small outpost of wilderness … there is no road access from the river for about 7 miles.”  Once past campsite 1, about 2 miles from put-in, one is out of easy walking distance to a road until one reaches campsite 17 on the New.   And…the upper 9 miles is a beautiful paddling “trail”.

The river can surprise one, however, as it did last year, when the trip in early March was without a single obstacle with a slower water flow.  Or as one paddler remarked, “A piece of cake!” to the dismay of one of the organizers who had promised the group challenges.

The put-in is a steep, eroding sand path, barely held together by tree roots.  It is off Forestry Road 22, which defines the Apalachicola National Forest and the Federal Mud Swamp Wilderness Area to the north and Tate’s Hell State Forest to the south.  About 10 miles east of Sumatra, the sandy forestry road ends at a guardrail.  The wooden bridge,  which once made getting to the destination easier, was apparently destroyed when fishermen started a fire on a very cold day to warm themselves.  Since then, one of the first challenges for paddlers contemplating the New has been the tediously long shuttle.

A group of paddlers have  been organizing this itinerary annually.  The 21mile, 2 day trip, starts at the FR 22 put-in on the west bank of the New and ends at Pope’s Place Campsite also on the west bank.  The first day’s paddle of 9 miles takes into account the long shuttling time and possibly longer time on the river depending on conditions and ends for a night camp-over at campsite 17 on the east bank.  Campsite 17 has a large sandy area in lower water, and a grassy chute in higher water to accommodate canoes and kayaks and a very large campsite.  The rest of the trip, about 12 miles of easy paddling,  completes the paddle the  next day to Pope’s Place campsite which lies upstream from the junction  of the New River and the Crooked River.

At this point the New becomes the Carrabelle River.  The Crooked River  joins the Ochlockonee River to the east and the Carrabelle River to the west, forming an ideal off-coast section of the Florida saltwater Circumnavigational Trail: Gulf of Mexico, Carrabelle River, Crooked River, Ochlockonee River, back to the Gulf.  

Last year’s paddle continued this 21 mile, 2 day paddle itinerary, except that all paddlers met in Sumatra, drove ten miles east to the put-in with their kayaks, deposited their kayaks at the put-in (with a paddler watching the 14 kayaks) and returned the cars to the final take-out at Pope’s Place Campsite in Tate’s Hell,  on the northwest corner of Carrabelle’s city limits.  There, an outfitter transported the paddlers back to the put-in and they began their day’s paddle to campsite 17, where the outfitter had also transported all camping and cooking gear for the group.   Because of the size of the group, a portable toilet was rented for that site.   Since it is a primitive site there is no water, no privy, only table, grill and fire pit.

New River campsite 17. Group of 14 paddlers camped overnight on March 2017 while doing 21 miles of New River.  Photo by David Brashears.

This year to simplify the logistics,  a 15 plus mile paddle was planned from the usual put-in,  which ended at Gully Branch landing, 6 miles upriver of Pope’s Place Campsite.   Last year’s group had lunch on the second day of the paddle at the Gully Branch site.

No paddle on any river is the same; even more so with the New River.  The water can rise and fall within a week and paddling conditions can change radically.  The water level can also rise overnight, as one group of tenters found.  With that expedition, the tents near the lowest points of the campsite started taking in water when the river rose during the night.  A mass evacuation of tents and tenters in the middle of the night to the long road which accesses the campsite cut any hope of a good sleep for that year’s paddlers.  Rains upriver in the area of the Mud Swamp Wilderness area are welcome, but if they do come the week before the paddle/tent camp at this site and the river is already high, pitching tents on higher ground is recommended.

Anticipating that anything can happen on this river, this year’s planners opted for an 8am meet-up at Gully Branch to give more daylight hours on the river.  Arrangements were made for pickup of all kayaks and paddlers by an outfitter which would then transport them to the New River. Cars would remain at the Gully Branch landing where the paddle would end.   To ensure that paddlers would get enough sleep for the next day’s paddle, the single Gully Branch campsite was reserved for the night before and the night after the paddle.  Five paddlers chose this option and  set up 3 tents and three others had sleeping arrangements in their vehicles.   Four paddlers chose to spend the night after the paddle at the Gully Branch site. 

Any arrangements with a private outfitter should consider forestry rules: e.g. no payment for services can be made within the forest.  When planning a group trip, organizers might wish to contact the Talquin District  Florida Forestry Recreation Coordinator in Tallahassee who has jurisdiction of recreation sites on this particular forest as well as other forests in Leon, Wakulla, Jefferson, Gadsden, Liberty and Franklin counties in north central Florida.  

The Gully Branch campsite is the smallest in Tate’s Hell SF and can only accommodate one tent easily.  It is recommended that groups camping as we did get a permit for using the adjacent day use space from the Tate’s Hell State Forest office in Carrabelle. 

Groups using campsite 17 on the river should consider renting a portable toilet (or bringing camp toilets with compostable/disposable individual bags). The forest floor around the campsite is heavily rooted and difficult to dig deep enough holes — 200 feet from water’s edge and has greenbrier vines which can easily trip one at night.  Compostable/disposable individual toilet bags have been designed with a tight seal and  can be disposed in any waste container.  These insert in sit-on-top portable toilets and are easy to remove once used.  

This year, load capacity of the outfitter’s trailer and van determined the number of paddlers on the trip: eleven.  This year and last, there was a waiting list.

Nature can be unpredictable, but so can logistics.  The shuttle van and trailer arrived about 1.5 hours after it was expected because the trailer lights were not working and the van and trailer might have been flagged by the police for driving without lights in the darker early  morning hours.   These paddlers already knew how to handle the vagaries of natural conditions as wind, rain, and temperature, so accommodating human logistics and frailties was probably easier for them to do than for others whose lives are ruled by the clock and calendar.

They also know that helping to load and unload kayaks and to carry the boats to the launching place ensure a faster put-in and take-out for all,  particularly at this put-in where the steep, root-bound, eroding sand made called for careful footing while lowering kayaks to the river.   Where a large expanse of the river frontage was exposed the week before, the higher water made for only a small inclined ledge to get into the boats this time.

Put-in, 6 days before, when river was 48 inches lower, photo below.

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With everyone helping, the group of 11 paddlers were on the river shortly after arriving the at the put-in.

The wide expanse of river shown above was brief,  paddlers were soon forced to go single file, avoiding  branches which were not obstacles a week before, and which now could entwine and scratch paddlers.  All last week’s bushwacking efforts were underwater, only the memory of the work remained.   But the trip leader’s canoe carried cutting and trimming gear required of the new river conditions.  A canoe has a  much firmer base to stand up on than a sit-inside kayak, although it still requires careful balancing.

On a dead cypress, a blue heron watched the goings-on below.

Two miles from put-in is campsite 1, which normally is on much higher ground, such that it is hard to take-out or put-in under most conditions of water level here.  This would make an excellent campsite  for paddling the river and a shuttle car could be left here more securely than at the FR 22 put-in, except for sharp drop at river’s edge, most of the time.  Four feet of higher water makes a world of difference.  This time the whole campsite waterfront was a launching area.

The photo below shows how low the New was on January 19, 2018 at campsite 1.  What is not visible, is the deep drop at water’s edge.

Obstacles not apparent last week, frequently challenged the paddlers.  Tree falls under which the scouting party  had paddled without thought became major blocks to navigating downstream.

In the above photos, a treefall provided too little space to limbo under and a deep drop downriver from the trunk and no dry land footing on either side of the tree to haul over the kayaks.  An alternate trail was found by entering a shallow, narrow area of water which was blocked by a  much smaller fallen tree.  The trip leader hauled each paddler over this small fallen tree with the paddler still in the boat.   While capsizing on land is drier than water, the paddlers still had to maintain their balance over this tipsy, bumpy haul over.  But credit must also be given to the trip leader, whose strength and ability to get the kayaks (with paddlers in them) fast enough over the small tree prevented dry land capsizes, the forward momentum overcoming the sideways bobble of the paddler.

Barriers appeared frequently throughout the first 9 miles.  These obstacles, while alternative paths were being analyzed, allowed other paddlers to sit in their kayaks to either contemplate the world around them or engage in bleacher quarter backing.

But each paddler had also to encounter his/her barriers individually.

Nevertheless, everyone seemed to be enjoying the challenges, the beauty of the paddle and the perfect day we had been given.

There were great paddling moments:  the feel of the current and using it to accelerate or go with the flow around the bends —  a sense of being one with water and land and air.

The challenge of strainers is always present in North Florida’s smaller rivers and creeks.  This is what makes the North Florida paddle a test of one’s technical skills.  When the current rushes under a mass of branches, leaves and trunks, depending on speed of current,  it can provide a challenge and/or a danger.  Although the river was running moderately well, it did not post much of a danger —  a capsize would probably have been easily righted and the paddler would not have been caught under a spiraling downward underwater current which is always a danger in fast moving rivers.   It actually was fun.

Anticipating an 8am start, most paddlers had eaten breakfast way before that and were ravenous by the time of the lunch stop, in an off river slough trail, on a small hammock.

 

There were two limbos, but one had  branches spaced close enough to pose a danger if the current pushed the paddler away from the intended path, causing a capsize or a gash.   Trip leader Morse’ tools were put to good use throughout the day.  Below, he had to hold on to the trunk to keep his canoe from floating away with one arm, cutting with his left hand only.  Try that — it takes a skill, strength and practice.

His loppers also did duty cutting paths through strainers which blocked the whole river.  Work like this is easier done from a canoe — one could not do this without chancing capsizing in a sit inside kayak.

Immediately after a very sharp left turn in the river, a big tree which had fallen over the river and under which the scouting party the week before had paddled easily under, now required a haul-over.  No option existed as in the first haul-over.  Fortunately a small section of  land was available to do a safe haul-over.  (Under higher waters this option might have been either a scoot over, if the river was over a foot higher, or breaking open a trail through greenbrier (smilax) laced trees.)

With two Davids doing duty:  one on each side of the log, the paddler approached the log, got out of the kayak on a carpet of leaf over mud and sand and clambered over the big tree while his/her kayak was carried and pushed over the log and then pulled into the downstream waters by the other David who stabilized the boat to enable the paddler to paddle downstream.   This was an easy task for the paddlers, but requiring a bit of lifting and hauling on the part of the two Davids — 11 pull-ups weighing probably anywhere from 38 pounds to possibly 50, depending on amount of gear and water the paddler was carrying in the kayaks which were hauled over.

At this fallen tree, soon after the last paddler’s kayak was hauled over and the 9th paddler off down river, the kayak of David the downriver log assistant followed the 9th kayaker down the river, sans David  — a paddler-less kayak.  It was retrieved and restored to David, not without some paddling finesse on the trip leader’s part.  Lacking the recommended rope,  holding on to it and paddling with one hand upstream was difficult until David Morse finally found a short strap in his canoe to fasten to the kayak.  On trips such as this,  having an attached rope makes for easier put-in down the steep inclines (and getting out of the river on steep inclines)  and easier retrieval of an errant  kayak or towing a tired kayaker.

Today’s trip on the upper New called for an extra rest stop. This was initially planned for Campsite 17, but it was being occupied by campers, so the group took out on a sandy stretch just upstream from it — a short break.  According to the previous Recreation Director of Lake Talquin District, Marti Miller,  campers should be aware that paddlers have a right to land or launch at these sites.   With a group as large as ours, the choice made by our trip leader was considerate of the campers since we did have a satisfactory resting place.

Downriver of campsite 17,  the remaining river was an easy paddle, without any obstructions, allowing each paddler to set his/her own pace.   Along the banks, the golden club plant in bloom were partly submerged. Swamp lilies should be blooming in three weeks, a bit late this year.  The most common flowering plant on the upper stretch was American holly.   Unlike Womack Creek, the New has less diversity and fewer blooming shrubs and plants.

The last paddler  and sweeper  arrived at Gully Branch around 5:30.   Paddlers who chose to leave for home still had daylight to break camp.  GPS readings varied, due to differences in path taken,  but we have decided to go with the 16.61 reading of one of the David’s, an engineer.  We didn’t hear any complaints about that extra 1.51 miles when the trip was estimated to be 15, however, that last mile and a half was, for those who had never been on this paddle and/or who had never paddled that distance,  a very long stretch.   Ed, who was sweeper, probably heard echoes of  his children’s laments, “When we will get there ….?”

The night was much warmer, but a campfire warned off the few mosquitoes for the 4 remaining paddlers.  As it was the night before, the sky was without clouds and allowed a growing new moon to illuminate the area.

Eight of this year’s paddlers did last year’s paddle. Of the three new paddlers, one had expected to paddle last year, but got sick and could not participate, the other paddler found out too late to join the group.  He had paddled this river several years before with the trail club. For two this was the first time on the river.

We shall see who will return to try another face of this river next year.  We already have the scouting team (4 and the shuttle driver) — the volunteer scouts/bushwackers seem eager to go in 2019, even if there the next annual paddle date has not been set.  As one paddler suggested:  why not have a scouting paddle and have a pre-scouted paddle.   One thing for sure: neither will be the same experience on that river.

Interested paddlers with skills beyond basic (to avoid getting caught in strainers in fast water with narrow openings) and  stamina to do a 15 mile paddle with uncertain conditions (e.g. portages, scoot-overs, haul-overs) can contact marylyn_feaver@comcast.net.  When the announcement for next year’s paddle goes out, you’ll receive it.  However, membership in the Apalachee Canoe and Kayak Club may be required (a $10 annual fee which is mainly to cover the cost of paddle insurance.)  Shared cost in 2017 was $40 (requiring rental of portable toilet , 2 campsites,Pope’s & campsite 17, security for gear and outfitter’s fees).  In 2018, with fewer expenses, the shared cost was $20 (outfitter fee, tip, 1 campsite for two nights).

 

Cash Creek – Beautiful November Paddle

 

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Cash Creek on the west side of Tate’s Hell empties into the Apalachicola River.  The road to the day use area is off the east side of State Road 65, just south of the Apalachicola National Forest and on the northern edge of Tate’s Hell State Forest.  There is a covered picnic shelter with picnic tables, fishing dock and boat launch, with sand on one side for easier canoe and kayak access.   For paddlers, this creek offers your-choice-of-length paddling.  One can go left from the landing to the Apalachicola River through an estuary dominated by reeds or turn right upriver through a reedy estuary then woody swampland.  The current is more marked by tides and wind than down or up-river flow.  All of the paddling to the Apalachicola  has no shade.  Upriver, one paddles anywhere from one mile to one and one half mile, depending on which branch one takes, in estuary before reaching deciduous and slash pine shade.   Beyond that one can go as far as the water level and creek depth and blockages allow.  Normally, that would be around 9.5 miles if one took all the options.  The kiosk at the landing has a large map of the creek and forest area. 

The nearly half mile sandy road to Cash Creek Day Use Area is lined with slash pines and an occasional long leaf pine and opens into the parking area and boat launch and day use pavilion.  We had not paddled there for a year and were anticipating a good paddle with clear sky, 72F temperature and a slight breeze.  The tide was going out.

Big surprise — a new vault toilet structure had been built in our absence.  Very clean, not smelly and a tremendous improvement over the portable toilets which were never maintained by the septic service.   And in the fenced in day use area, bear proof trash containers, firmly imbedded in concrete.   Another improvement over the easy to tip over by animals and kicked over by humans garbage cans.   Thanks to Marti Miller, Talquin District Recreation Coordinator, for having these constructed and installed — the previous accommodations were gross because of negligence by the contractor.

The tide was against us and the slight breeze was from the north, north-east, against us as well.  On a Wednesday, we were the only users of that facility.  The mullet were jumping and other fish (bream?) surfaced — the fishermen would have had a field day today.  Randy, the former host at Womack Creek Campground in Tate’s Hell, assured us that one could catch mullet with a hook. Netting is the usual way they are caught.  The splash in the photo below is of a mullet landing in the water after a magnificent jump.

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There are two major branches and usually we take both.  Today we decided to try the one on the left first and were surprised that a section which was always too low or too debris-filled for us to continue was open and we paddled another .8 mile beyond where we usually were stopped.  There are two option on the left branch — we try to paddle both.  One can’t get lost, these branches dead-end and require retracing one’s way back.

The fall flowers are gone —  last aster flowers peek out from the reeds.   Leaves and red berries are what add color to the landscape.  Florida maples are turning and are the dominant red-orange combinations on the creek.   Unlike Womack Creek on the east side of Tate’s Hell, and which empties into the Ochlockonee River, the tupelo trees on Cash creek are not yet turning and if they are do not have the red-yellows of Womack’s ogechee tupelos.   A single stem of swamp lily was seen in an opening in the reeds.13-P1060298.JPG

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The ferns, also, add to color.

Birds, migratory and resident, were present.  Buzzards, crows, hawks, a single wood duck which we surprised into flight, and flocks of small birds which we have not yet identified. Kingfishers, usually seen in Tate’s Hell’s creeks and rivers, were noticeably absent.   Only a single Gulf frittilary butterfly, two sulphur butterflies and a few dragonflies were seen.  We did see flies alighting on the Silvering blossoms — the first time we have seen flies on these blooms.

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Silvering is a late fall bloomer, after the asters.  On Womack Creek they were still in bud about 2 weeks ago.   There were only a few of these plants on Cash Creek.  For those who suffer from hay fever, this is a plant you want to avoid.

The estuary creek turns narrower and narrower and increasingly tree and shrub-lined.

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Then, the trip ends:  one’s way is blocked, either by too shallow water or tree-falls or debris dams.  The trick is to be able to turn around in the narrow spaces when this usually occurs, particularly when paddling 14′ and 15′ kayaks.

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Along one branch is a beautifully gnarled cypress tree.

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Late fall, when the leaves are gone, is a good time to see bird nests.  The one below was nestled in laurel greenbrier vines, its berries gave the nest a festive look; the other was securely constructed in a small shrub.

Off Pidcock Road is a very large campsite.  This tipi looking tent with 2 chairs at the picnic table was a colorful addition to the landscape. Downriver from the campsite, a row of pilings which once supported a bridge is still in the water.  At very high water,  these pilings obscured by the tannin tinged water.  One can easily find oneself caught on one of these logs.  Today all but a few were visible, but one submerged piling held one of our kayaks in place until it was dislodged (without capsizing).

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One doesn’t see many large deciduous trees along the creek, but this is an ogeechee tupelo tree with Florida maple growing between its trunks.

One of the paddling options is a straight canal, either a former road bed or a drainage canal dug to drain water from what used to be a pine plantation before the state acquired the land for restoration and conservation.   The forests (Apalachicola and Tate’s Hell) are part of the Apalachicola river watershed.  The North Florida Water Management District has been given the task to restore Tate’s Hell’s forest back to what is used to be before it was developed for tree farming.   Roads  no longer needed are being left to return to nature and gravel has replaced culverts, creating natural drainage systems even on roads which are still used.   After heavy rains, some of these roads may not be passable. It as it should be, to allow for natural passage of water through the land, the reason for restoration of  an important river watershed.

The canal above is where we saw a mother bear and her cub (on a tree) several years ago.  When the mother bear saw us, she made a sound.  The cub climbed further up the tree; the mother bear quickly gave another sound, the cub went sliding down the tree and quickly was hidden in the shrubbery below.  I thought about that cub when the Florida Wildlife Conservation Council allowed for the first bear hunting in Florida.  The subsequent year, bear hunting was not resumed.

We rarely make it past the bridge on Pidcock Rd., but today, we were able to paddle under the bridge.  To the right the creek was blocked by a small tree which had fallen over the creek.  We could have scooted over it had we needed to, but immediately beyond that was a debris dam.  We decided to turn back, but the creek looked navigable beyond that.

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We chose not to explore the last branch and headed back to the put-in.

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Driving to the creek in the morning, we could smell and see the smoke of a managed burn in the Apalachicola National Forest to our east.

Returning to the put-in, the easterly winds had driven the smoke to the west.  In the waning light of the end of the day, the sun caught the clouds and the smoke to create a delicate palate of pastels, which unfortunately was not adequately captured in the photo below.

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Cash Creek rarely disappoints us.  This was a glorious day and the temperature only got to 76F, perfect for paddling an open estuary.   Our paddle today was 10.8 miles.

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We were told that a campground with a few sites is planned near the put-in.  This would enable paddlers to camp there and paddle several other creeks:  Whiskey George and Doyle Creek in Tate’s Hell State Forest and Graham Creek and Fort Gadsden Creek in the Apalachicola National Forest.  We look forward to having those campsites.