Tag Archives: Paddling Tate’s Hell State Forest

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.

 

 

Invasive species destruction team – February 6, 2017 – Womack Creek

Womack Creek, to our knowledge has only native species.   We have been given permission to destroy any invasive species on the creek.  We once dug up a taro plant in the upper swamps.  It was small enough that digging it up in the wet soil was easily done.

The Japanese climbing fern, however, requires more careful removal methods.  The underside of the fern are spores (seeds) which can easily be dislodged when ready to seed and spread through the water.  This is why it is preferable to dig them up at the times when the spores are no longer as active.  As an added protection, we were advised to cover the whole vine (where possible with a plastic bag, to the roots.  Cut the plant off at the roots and dig up the remaining root ball, taking up as much of the roots as visible.  Both the vines and the roots, opportunistically, take the path of least resistance and greatest sun and nutrients; uprooting even a single plant can take half an hour or more.

We left the put-in around 10:30 and didn’t return till around 3:40, with a short lunch break at Nick’s Road campsite — a 5 hour day.

It was gloomy and dark when we put-in on the river.

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Womack creek, looking upstream, is on the left.  The Ochlockonee River is on the right.

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But, as always, there is always something which makes one’s day.

These dew-drops on spider webs make for incredible patterns, even more if there is a bit of sun.  We had none then, but the sight was radiant.

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The target — the invasive Japanese Climbing Fern.  We were on a mission to destroy the plants we had located during our trips to the river the previous year.

Cover with bag to keep any spores from falling on soil or water, cut the roots at the base, dig up the roots, clean the soil around the rootbase to ensure all visible roots have been removed.

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Canoes would be better suited for this, but we had two bags and each was transported on our kayak decks.  We were told not to put these bags in a thrash bin, but rather to burn them.  We took them home and burned them in our backyard fire pit until they were totally consumed.

But, all was not work.  The river never fails to give back.

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That gloomy day turned out to be a beautiful.

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The hornbeam trees were budding.  As early as 2012 when we began to monitor the creek for our Florida Master Naturalist project  (www.womackcreek.wordpress.com) the gnarled, hard-sinewed, trunks of these trees intrigued us.  There was a small section of the river that had hornbeam trees on either side, forming a canopy which allowed sun to filter through.   I called it “Hornbeam Boulevard” because it reminded me of the urban boulevards which were so refreshing to walk under on a hot summer day.  Increasingly, these shoreline hornbeam trees are falling into the river and only a few hornbeam trees will remain.  Then,  “Hornbeam Boulevard” will only be memory.

It is hard for someone who respects the ebb and flow and changes of nature not to mourn their decline, but nature is ever changing; forever is never.  At the ebbing of our lives, it seems that the creek may be preparing us for the inevitable, not intentionally, but with a metaphor which may be kinder than the starkness of death.

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But starkness is something not concealed often from us.   This barred owl probably got caught in a fish hook hanging from a bush hooks hanging from a branch on a short tributary of the creek.  The owl may have gone for a fish caught by the hook and got ensnared.  The sounds of these owls at dusk, night and dawn, are part of the experience of camping at Womack Creek campground.  They become reassuring sounds and when in a tent, just before falling asleep, one listens to hear them — almost a lullaby of owl pairs calling to each other.

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We had time and the branches had water, so we explored some of them. All are currently dead-ends, so there is little chance of getting lost, unlike other areas on the Ochlockonee River further north where paddlers have gotten lost in the maze of swamps and branches like this.

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Juveniles of a species, even humans, are often less cautious, more curious.  These two were no exceptions.

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At paddle’s end, we had a glorious blue sky and calm water.

New River: scouting prior to a group trip February 26, 2017

The New River challenges area paddlers.

It runs out of the Federal Mud Swamp Wilderness Area into Tate’s Hell State Forest.  The river is replenished by rain and seepage.  It’s the water source for the evergreens and deciduous trees which line its banks.

Rule of thumb on paddling that river is:  go before the deciduous trees start greening.  Deciduous trees gulp more water than evergreens and when fully leafed a paddler could be pulling his/her boat.  In the summer, before the rains, there are only deep pockets of water in the top 9 miles of the New before it hits campsite 17 in Tate’s Hell.  (In 2017 Tate’s Hell Forestry renumbered its campsites, so what used to be called campsite 7, is now 17. Reservations are now available through Reserve America.)

It’s been a few years since we’ve done the New, so when a forester asked if we wanted to organize a group, we jumped at the chance.   Put out the notice, limiting the paddle to 15, and within two weeks we had a waiting list.

It’s 21 miles of paddling, but the shuttle from the put-in to the final take-out takes about 1.5 hours. It is not safe, particularly on weekends, to leave cars at the put-in — it is a favorite party spot — beer cans and bottles littering the area.   The bridges across the New further downstream had been recently condemned for structural problems, so we anticipated an even longer shuttle. (By March 3-4, the bridge had been fixed and approved for traffic.)  Without knowing what the river conditions were (there had been a tornado through that area the year before), we assumed that the first 9 miles could take the whole day if we had to portage and/and detour past fallen trees and strainers.  We could be hacking open a trail if winter storms had resulted in downfalls.  It’s a wilderness area — there is no road access after campsite 1 in Tate’s Hell, just below the put-in on FR 22, east of Sumatra.  There is a steep drop off into the water from that site, which, normally would be a safer place to put-in and leave cars parked overnight.

As in other group ventures on that section of the New, we planned it for two days, just in case every challenge was thrown at us.  We would camp at campsite 17 (previously campsite 7) along the river.  There are other campsites along the river, but only a few are easily accessible for kayaks (sharp drops into the water at some, bluffs in others).   Campsite 17 has a lower section which has a sloping sand beach which allows for large numbers of boats to land.  If the river is high, there is a sloping flume, large enough for a canoe to paddle into to the level of the campsite.

March conditions in this area is unpredictable.  If it rains the few days before camping, the rising water levels could cover the higher campsite, as one tired group of paddler/campers found on one paddle.  Soundly sleeping in their tents, the water rose, waking the occupants of the lower tents.  Quickly alarming the group, they had to check that all boats were secured before moving all tents to higher sites on the road leading to the campsite.

Temperatures can get to sub-freezing (in the teens) in north Florida in March.  Another group of of camper/paddlers used up all their wood trying to keep warm.  Sleeping bags deemed suitable for 20 degree only keeps you warm at ambient temperatures above 35, if you’re layered.  Tents didn’t help, so they huddled together around the fire, sending out scrounging parties when the cold outlasted the supply.

These  tales, passed from paddler to paddler,  excite the adventurer spirit in all of us who paddle the New.

Two of us are cautious about taking a group where someone could get hurt, so we insisted on scouting the river the week before the paddle.

We camped at campsite 17 the night before.

In opening up the river, none of us want deep cuts.  We believe in keeping wilderness waterways wild, but we did not want dangerous strainers in fast moving waters to cause harm to an unprepared paddler, or someone capsizing in a bend because branches or bushes blocked a narrow opening.  We anticipated a full day’s work.

This is the campsite the night before and the river, looking downstream.  The deciduous trees were already greening.

The next day, the river was running fast, but the water level seemed good.  We had several limbos, a few pull overs (getting out and pulling boats over large fallen trees across the river), lots of scoot-overs (scooting the boat over barriers in the river with only a few inches of water above them, momentum helps).  There was one sharp bend with a bushy shrub blocking safe downriver passage (to avoid hitting the bush, a paddler could over steer with body away from the bank and capsize) so we stopped for about 20 minutes trying to cut only what needed to be cut to make a safer opening.

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A steep bank to put-in at FR 22.

 

Scouting and clearing didn’t take that long.  Now, it remained for what the week would bring.  We were hoping that the river levels would not drop too much.

Summer temperatures, summer blossoms, Womack Creek 4-14-2015

P1140159Swamp Rose — in a few weeks the many bushes will fill the creek with its fragrance and pink blossoms.

Summer weather too soon.  Thunderstorms or rain predicted for the week and we chanced today’s opportunity to paddle Womack Creek.

Our last visit was 16 days ago and so much has happened on that creek: the American wisteria, a thickly clustered and fragrant native species, bloomed in the interval and deprived us this year of their blooms and their scent.   All but the last few pinxter azaleas have bloomed, but the stalwarts in the shade still can outshine the swamp dogwoods which peached their peak in the interval.

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Spring memories can easily fade when these flowers are stepping into the spot light.

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Blue flag iris in a short branch of the creek.

P1140166Swamp sweetbells.

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When the patch is all in bloom the cow creek spider lily resembles a merry troupe of dancers.

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Swamp dogwood, a few stands still blooming, but most are going to seed.

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False indigo, a favorite of insects.

P1140184The source of the non-sugaring tupelo honey, Ogeche tupelo blossoms beginning to bloom and a few honeybees have already found them.

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Clematis crispa, you’ll have to look to find them — this year they are less clustered along the vines.

P1140213But you won’t have to search for these; with their bright yellow faces, they call for attention.   Narrow leaf evening primrose.

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A few Virginia sweetspire still blooming.

P1140256A sure sign of summer, spatterdock.

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and…highbush blueberries!  Each bush differs in taste, some tart, some sweet, some tart-sweet.  This calls for sampling.  This year the bushes are loaded, so sample some, there’ll be enough for the birds.

P1140170Another sign of early summer — carpenter bees on Virginia sweetspire.

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A colony of busy wasps.

Not many birds today, but…

P1140231Tah dah!!!   A beautiful juvenile little blue heron.

There are more blooming plants and trees on this 3.75 mile of Womack Creek than almost any other creek in the Panhandle.

The last trip we destroyed what we hoped is the last of the invasive Japanese climbing ferns (3 locations).  Today we dug up the first of the invasive taro plants, off the shoreline requiring some slogging to get to it.  To our knowledge Womack Creek has no exotics, only native plants and trees.

Paddling to Loop Camp landing, Crooked River, Tate’s Hell – 3-18-2015

The afternoon Florida freshwater turtles presentation at the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve was not until 2pm, so we knew we had time for a short paddle from Womack Creek Campground landing on the Ocklockonee River  to Loop Campsite landing on the Crooked River.  We had camped overnight at the Womack Creek Campground and paddled Womack Creek the day before.

At 8;35 AM, we have never paddled the Ocklocknee River when it was so calm.  For three miles on this beautiful blue-sky day, a tinge of coolness, but no wind.  Quiet.  Along the eastern bank of the Ocklockonee, the residents were not outside or were at work. We had the whole river to ourselves.

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We passed the rest house at the Womack Creek campground where Mack recently repainted the sign, so passing boaters could see that this was a public campground.

Wild olive or Devilwood were blooming along the way, along with pinxter azaleas and blackberry.

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At a bend in the Ocklockonee are pilings, remnants of a railway which carried turpentine across the river.  On river right of the Ocklockonee is McIntyre Landing.   The Crooked River is at this junction and continues west (crookedly) until it joins with the New River into the Carrabelle River.   This river has tidal flow from both ends.

At the mouth of the Crooked River is a little island.  This houseboat has been mired on its banks for at least 4 years.

The photo above shows how calm upriver Ocklockonee was from this junction.

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This photo shows the Crooked River at the junction.  The tide was going out, but without wind and with still a crispness in the air, it was an easy paddle to Loop camp site.

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We’ve heard more cardinals in Tate’s Hell recently.

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A mile from the Ocklockonee, Loop camp site appears.   It is one of our favorite places to camp.   Last year while one of us was preparing dinner, the other, sipping tea, saw a big otter pop its head from the exposed roots in the water of a pine tree and quickly swim away.  When the Ocklockonee floods, this campsite can be covered with water.

P1130444Lots of room for tents, an RV or a trailer and lots of room for kids to play.

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And a nice launching area.   When camping here, remember that paddlers who want to use the landing do have a right to do so and also to park their cars along the road.  There is more than enough space in this and other single primitive campsite in Tate’s Hell for several tents.  The rule applies to all Tate’s Hell Campsites:  on the New, on Crooked River, on Ocklockonee River.

On the way out, we received a beautiful farewell.

P1130447Titi are blooming everywhere in Tate’s Hell and beekeepers and bees are busy.

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