Tag Archives: Paddling Tate’s Hell State Forest

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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Womack Creek in bloom — see and smell the Pinxter Azaleas now and for the next 3 weeks!

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St. Patrick’s day, at 11:30 pm. It was perfect paddling weather — in the low 70’s.  There was a slight breeze which rippled the surface of the Ocklockonee River, but  the trees, even with the early leaves,  protected Womack Creek.   The colors were spring — shades of light green, tinges of red with a few red maples still asserting its shiny red colors — a continuum of hue.  The bays with their darker, mature leaves added a depth to the colors of the scene.

The woodpeckers were pecking, the ubiquitous kingfisher darted upstream and then down, the resident hawk could be heard and was seen, a great blue,  which now seems a regular in that creek, and both barred owls’ dueling duets and great horned owl sounds at dusk and in the early morning.

Walters viburnum is still in full bloom, but will not be so within a week of 70 degree weather, but the swamp dogwoods will be blooming soon and swamp sweetbells soon after.  The blackberries are now in bloom and are the parsley haws.   Ogeche tupelos are just beginning to start their leaf buds.

The swamp is alive with the sound and activity of life — carpenter bees and honey bees sipping nectar from the pinxter azaleas, nymphs hatching out, dragonflies and both the swallowtail butterflies flitting from flower to flower.

Young alligators — the creek may be a nursery — are never cautious.  One cruised along my kayak, unafraid.  And a young brown water snake, less than a yard long, was out sunning, totally camouflaged against the brown/black branch.   And even young cooters, some no larger than 5 inches,  were perched on logs.

We camped there overnight to save a trip the next day to Eastpoint’s Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve where we were looking forward to a talk on Florida’s freshwater turtles.

Two years ago, on this same week (Spring Break for Leon County Schools), we had met a father and his two sons and their guests here.   We did not camp last year during the spring break (we had taken two mothers and their four children to camp at Nick’s Road Primitive Camp site, which was reported on in an earlier blog).   We did not recognize the older son, he is now a freshman at Leon High School, but he nudged our memory.

This dad has taken his sons to camp and boat and canoe, fishing and hiking and just enjoying the Panhandle’s out of doors from the time they were very young.

The young man related to me that he went camping with some friends overnight and he brought along a Coleman stove, water and some food.  His friends made fun of him with all the gear he had, but they helped tote all that gear 2 miles to the camp site.   In the morning, he got up, and had prepared for them when they got up coffee and spam and other goodies!  Were they happy that he had some camping skills and to know that water and food are essential and he knew how to cook the food.

Mack, a host to end all hosts, had at our campfire a load of firewood and fatwood to start the fire.  The bathrooms were immaculate and freshly painted!   The picnic table was pressured washed clean and the fire pit was clean and ready to start.

The day before a couple from Alaska had camped.  There seem to be more out of town campers than in state.  What a shame — for a north Florida experience without being packed between RV’s and trailers, this is one of our favorite places.

The day we broke camp, Paddle Florida, which we had joined last February to paddle 5 days on the Withlacoochee, arrived with 40 paddlers.  Unlike last year, when every day but one was a rain day, and that brought a blustery winds which make doing Ochlockonee Bay treacherous, this year’s group will have perfect paddling weather.

We checked the New River — it is very low.  We were hoping to camp at Campsite 7 next week and paddle upstream, but it does not look promising.   When it is low there are too many big trees which have fallen over the river to paddle.  When the river is high, one merely paddles over them.   A federal forester, now retired, told us that when the deciduous trees start leafing on the New River, they guzzle up water like marathoners and paddling will require portaging and dragging.

The next day we paddled from the Womack Creek Campground on the Ochlockonee to Crooked River, all bounded by Tate’s Hell land on one side, to Loop Landing campground.  This, too, is another isolated campground which we like to camp — right on the Crooked River.  It’s a 4 mile paddle.  We started out at 8:35 a.m. and never have we paddled the Ochlockonee when it was so calm.  Pinxters are blooming there also as are Devil wood with its white blossoms and blackberries.

We paddled to McIntyre landing on the Ocklockonee which is at one end of the Crooked River.  The posts which once supported a train track on which trains hauled turpentine from one side of the river to the other are still there.   Crooked River connects to the New on the west and is subject to tidal flow from both the Carrabelle River and the Ocklockonee River.  We were against the tide that early in the morning, but it was a short paddle and the sky was blue, the air sweet and crisp  and spring in the air.

We had parked our car and trailer at Loop Landing, which is only 2 miles from Womack Creek Campground — one could walk to get one’s car if one is camped at Womack.

Go paddle Womack now and throughout April — the creek is blooming and there will be a succession of blooms from now on.

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The splash from a little turtle’s jump.

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Parsley haw blossoms.

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Nick’s Road landing — always a great place for lunch on Womack Creek.  Picnic bench, grill and fire pit.   Also a great place to camp — away from it all (from April through September, bring mosquito repellent).

P1130378New River at Camp Site 7 — very low for March.

 

 

Valentine’s Day Paddle, Womack Creek and all its branches, blue sky, crisp day — what more could we ask for.

The day was glorious, though cool, wind from the north with some chop on the Ocklockonee, but once within Womack Creek, the water calmed.

P1120511We were looking forward to seeing more buds on Womack Creek.  But it is mid-February — it was a hope.

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At the first cove on RR, a single golden club plant with one bloom stalk and two others still nestled in its leaves.

P1120519We didn’t expect the pumpkin ash buds, still tight, but promising blooms in two weeks.

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And in the first mile upstream, in a secluded, but sunny spot pinxter azaleas were blooming.  The first of the season and an early bell weather.  The other pinxster buds are still tightly closed, waiting for more consistent spring weather.   This was a Valentine’s Day gift!

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Not to take these little blossoms for granted, they were already in bud when we last paddled Womack Creek.  Now throughout the whole creek and all of its branches, the Walter’s Viburnum blooms are opening up.   The earliest of spring flowers in the North Florida wetlands.

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And the hornbeam trees were full of blossoms.

P1120527Alders putting out their leaves.   As the regular rain cycle has resumed, these alders have taken over many areas previously taken by False Indigo and Azaleas.

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And sweetgum leaves will be bursting out soon.

And bald cypresses are now in flower.

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P1120562The Florida red maples are starting to develop seeds.   On Womack creek it seems many of the maples are either male or female trees, although maple trees can have both male and female flowers on a single tree.

And the deadly water hemlock starting with new growth.

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Insect cases, one case already emptied, the other still incubating.

We decided to explore all the branches of Womack creek.  About 2.5 miles from put-in on RL is a branch as wide as the main channel which flows past Nick’s Road Primitive Campsite.  We took this branch first — we had not been on it for a year. It narrowed after about 1 mile and ended as do all these branches into a tangle of mud, branches, trunks — an impenetrable and not navigable dead end.

Exploration in the branches of rivers in north Florida requires saw and clipper.   Downed trees  block further clear navigation, forcing a portage in muck, branches either overhanging or dead can be cut through, strainers (collections of branches in the water like a dam) can be loosened and opened up.  Some trees do not fall directly into the water and allow, depending on water level, for limbo paddling — one gets pretty good at what we call the “turtle scrunch” — receding into one’s cockpit with as much of one’s body and head close to the height of the deck to get under low trunks.   In slow moving waters this is easy; in fast moving waters failure to coordinate and place one’s kayak properly can result in a capsize.

With limbo logs, one has to note,  where the creek or river is tidally influenced, whether one is going upstream in high or low tide.  If one barely makes it under a log on an outgoing tide,  on return in an incoming tide plan B will need to be pursued.   We learned this on Trout Creek, a small tributary of the New River, which drains from the Dwarf Cypress swamp.  We were on one of our exploration trips which required, as usual, cutting through a path up river and found ourselves in an incoming tide on the way back.  The space was barely enough for the kayaks, sans paddlers.

P1120567This required cutting.

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And beyond that, more obstacles.

P1120570A lot of situations like this.

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Often ending like this, slough 1 or slough 2.

From put-in to Nick’s Road Primitive Camp Site which is a sunny spot with a picnic table, a fire ring and a grill, is 3.75 miles.  This is a good place to have lunch.

But upstream, there are two branches, each of which have increased in navigability in the last 3 years which were wetter than the previous 4-5 years.  We were able to get up to the furtherest point we have ever paddle on the branch on RL (about 1.2 miles) and got much further up the second branch on RR than we have ever been before.

These creek  branches were equally as challenging as the first branch, but we were amply rewarded:   an otter, a white tail deer, a pair of barred owls, a hawk in this section.   And we were 1.2 miles from hway 67, where Womack Creek crosses to the northwest before we had to stop. This is the closest we have ever been to hway 67 on the creek.

Here are the photos:

P1120584 One has to be willing to hope for the best.

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But it wouldn’t hurt to test the depth of the water occasionally.

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A sharp saw a necessity when one decided to explore small branches.

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There’s always that last barrier one is willing to cross.

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Nothing convinces more than a series of obstacles in close proximity that its time to turn around and go downriver to take-out.

Today’s paddle was 11 miles.  Our normal paddles on Womack Creek runs from 7.5-8.5 miles, upstream and downstream.

We put in at a temperature of 56 F and took out at 60 F.  The winds had picked up, the tide had turned, and we were ravenous.

The sky remained cloudless, the air crisp — in the protected waters of Womack Creek the 10-12 mph winds were not felt.  A bit of chop leaving Womack into the Ocklockonee, but it was a short paddle to the take-out.

What did you do on St. Valentine’s Day?

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