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Spillway/Dam to Magnolia Bridge

Having spent the majority of a four-hour paddle in the rain the day before, I opted for a shorter paddle on Wednesday. Ricky drove me to the Spring Creek spillway on US 90, shoving me off

Clear Waters on Spring Creek

about 10:00 a.m., just as the sun pushed through the clouds. (Woo-hoo!) I paddled away on the clear, shallow waterway, the spillway and Mill Pond to my back. From this point, I had a two-mile paddle to Chipola River and then another two miles to the outfitter where I had left my car. (See page 2, map).

What a sweet paddle! If I lived close by, Spring Creek would be my “after work before it gets dark” paddle. This is how I would de-stress from a crazy day. (I never think about work while paddling.) Recent rains had pushed the water over the low banks of the creek and into the woods. However, it remained clear and low enough that the sandy, shell-covered bottom was within an arm’s reach. Fish scurried by below me while egrets waded in the shallows along the banks, searching for a tasty snack. The many fallen trees along this twisting, turning waterway created comfy spots for turtles to sun themselves. Birds sang cheerfully in the trees as I paddled by.

Back on the Chipola River

Less than an hour into my paddle, I saw the very distinct line where the clear waters of Spring Creek met the murky Chipola River. I had passed this point when I paddled the Chipola the day before. The sun still shone, and I was disappointed that the end of the creek had come so soon! I completed the entire trip—about four miles—in less than two hours.

(Outfitter: Bear Paw Canoe Rentals. 2100 Bear Paw Lane, Marianna, Florida 32448. (850) 482-4948)

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Yancey Bridge to Magnolia Bridge

We had not quite reached Yancey Bridge when the first raindrops hit the windshield. Ricky, my ride to the river and Bear Paw owner, glanced at me encouragingly, “Even a bad day on the river is

Raining on the Chipola

better than …” He didn’t need to finish. “Of course,” I agreed.

After paddling Florida rivers for more than five years, I have pretty much exhausted my list of rivers with outfitters located on or near them, leading me to revisit some previously-paddled waterways. This summer, I chose to paddle one of my favorites, the Chipola River in Marianna, Florida. The Chipola originates in Alabama and travels south close to 90 miles—with 51 miles being a designated Florida paddling trail. It passes through the Panhandle and eventually merges with the Apalachicola River which empties into the Gulf. It’s a beautiful river and one of my favorites.

I had paddled the Chipola about five years ago—and what a wonderful experience! I looked forward to paddling it again—rain or shine. My intention was to spend three days paddling different sections of the river. I wanted to re-paddle the Yancey Bridge to Magnolia Bridge trail on the first day (first paddled 7/17/12) and then paddle south of Magnolia Bridge to the Peacock Bridge on the second. On day three, I would paddle Spring Creek which flows into Chipola about two miles above the Magnolia Bridge. (Map, pages 2-3.)

It was spitting rain as Ricky shoved me off– just before 10:00. Twenty minutes later, I heard the first crack of thunder. I decided I would hold off the worry until lightning appeared—but briefly wondered if it would be better to be in the water or under the trees—my only choices—if it did. Heavy rains had turned the aqua blue water into a murky moss-colored waterway coddled by lush green trees. Birds chattered away in the woods as I paddled the dark waterway with no one else in sight; life couldn’t be better! About thirty minutes into my paddle, the steady rain gave way to a brief period of sunshine, giving me time to dry off before it began again.

There is something so peaceful and cleansing about paddling in the rain; there’s no time for other thought, just the mindful experience of listening to the sound of the rain hitting the water and trees. The rain didn’t bother me at all, although I did give myself a mental “high-five” for remembering to bring my rain jacket.

Beautiful Greens Reflect in the Water

Whether the skies are blue or gray, the entire paddle on the Chipola is a calendar-worthy experience.  I passed limestone banks and cypress swamps with various shades of green reflected in the dark water. I spied great herons, ibis, and even a red-tailed hawk.  I made it to the “ovens” (caverns) about an hour and a half into my paddle and stopped for a stretch. I took a peek into the dark caves but did not wander far inside not knowing what creatures might await me there. No doubt this is a common stop-off for many paddlers. I was disappointed to see the litter others had left.

Back on the waterway, I continued my journey. A gentle flow to the water kept me moving, and I came upon the spring to the left. Five years ago the water was clear, and I was able to take pictures of the spring under water. This time, the water was too murky and dark, and I couldn’t even make out the spring. It had begun to rain harder. I exited the spring just as an owl flew overhead.

It did begin to lightning as I neared the end of my trip nearly four hours later. As much as I loved the paddle, I was happy to arrive at my destination.

(Outfitter: Bear Paw Canoe Rentals. 2100 Bear Paw Lane, Marianna, Florida 32448. (850) 482-4948)

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I call “do-over” on this one. I was never quite sure where I was!

The Put-in at Ochlockonee River State Park

The Put-in at Ochlockonee River State Park

I had hoped to paddle the upper Ochlocknee, a more narrow and twisted river. Failing to find an outfitter who would drop me, I decided on the Ochlockonee River State Park located on the lower Ochlocknee for a put-in. I intended to paddle the short distance from the Park’s put-in to Bear Creek. (Bear Creek connects two parts of the Ocklockonee on a loop.) I would then emerge back onto the Ocklockonee with a short paddle back to the put-in—about a 7.5 mile total paddle according to the Park’s map.

The Ocklockonee River originates somewhere in the swamps of Georgia. Its scape changes as it travels southeast and sometimes southwest and eventually the waterway twists and turns and empties into the Ochlockonee Bay. At the point of my put in, the river creates a camel’s hump. Bear Creek crosses through the hump.

I put-in mid-morning, and although wide at this point, the river was quiet and peaceful and beautiful. I love being the only one on a river; there is nothing else as serene. I paddled south, southwest, the Park on my right–tall straight pines bidding me farewell from the shore. Birds called from the trees; blue herons waded by the water’s edge; and a swallow-tail kite flew overhead, a tasty breakfast in his talons.

After about 20 minutes on the wide waterway, I entered Bear Creek on my left, immediately surrounded by tall swamp grasses. The creek was perhaps 50 to 70 feet wide with no shade, so I was grateful for the clouds overhead. Tall dead trees silhouetted the sky-many with either osprey or eagle nests on top. One tree had several eagles perched in and around the nest.

The sky darkened, and a slight, cool breeze caused me to think that it might rain. Alone on the dark waterway, I paddled, expecting my surroundings to change. Steven, the man at the Park’s guard gate (and coincidentally the son of an author of one my guide books) had told me that I would come to some shade and small cliffs. However, I continued to paddle through the tall swamp grasses.

Something I did not expect—at two points in the creek, I had to decide—go right or left? The first time, I went left. Ten minutes into my paddle as the tall grasses encroached to the point where I could touch them on both sides, I realized I had made the wrong choice. Whoops! Below me in the water I could see a lone fish, long and pointed with spots, his fin above water. He paddled beside me for a bit, but was no help at all.

Tall Swamp Grasses on Bear Creek

Tall Swamp Grasses on Bear Creek

The second time, I turned left first, scouted it out for a bit, then doubled back and went right. This is where I believe I went wrong. However, I can’t tell for certain with the maps I have found. I may have somehow connected with the Cow Creek. I’m not sure, but after about an hour of paddling, I knew I was not on Bear Creek. I checked my location on my phone the best I could (before I dropped my glasses into the water, that is), and it appeared I was in a waterway to the right of where I should have been. I called the park folks, and to their credit, they did not hesitate to tell me that they would send someone out to find me. But I wasn’t going to give up yet. I paddled awhile longer and eventually came out…strangely, just south of where I went in—Cow Creek?

I had put in that morning at 10:45, expecting to return around 3:00. Here, I was back by 1:15. Sadly, I never saw Bear Creek Bluff, and I didn’t have the time to start over again. Thus, my need for a “do-over.”

The red trail on the park map shows my intended trail. The waterway to the south of where I entered Bear Creek (left) I believe is Cow Creek and where I came out.

For some great reading about the Ochlockonee River, try this site.

(Ochlockonee River State Park. 429 State Park Road, Sopchoppy, FL 32358. (850) 962-2771. Stephen Carter)

 

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Olli and Robert pulled my kayak to the edge of the creek at Cotton Landing, just north of Cypress Springs. I looked to the south, at the winding waterway, shaded by cypress and oaks.

A Beautiful Paddle on Holmes Creek

A Beautiful Paddle on Holmes Creek

“Is the entire paddle like this?” I asked. Beautiful.

I’m not sure why it surprised me, but it did. And now, knowing that this would be a great paddle helped make up for the port-a-potty, my only restroom option. A quick stop, and I finished packing my gear into the kayak, secured my cooler, and climbed in. Olli gave me a shove into the water, and I paddled away, smile on my face.

I had almost missed this one, Holmes Creek. For some reason, it seemed insignificant on the map. It originates a few miles north of the Florida- Alabama border. Its length includes about 20 miles of State Designated Paddling Trail between Cotton Landing and Live Oak Landing before it flows into the Choctawhatchee River. I’m not even certain that the portion I paddled from Cotton Landing is part of the official paddling trail. I often see paddles beginning a few miles south, around Vernon.

I paddled, taking in the beautiful forest of cypress, oak, tupelo, and sweet gum which seemed to snuggle and curve around the river. I had seen the water described as “emerald green,” but today it was cloudy and murky; I could not see the bottom of the creek. Robert had explained that recent rains had churned it up. The trees around me were…noisy! The sounds of the birds grew louder as I paddled. “She’s coming! She’s coming!” they seemed to scream.

Ten minutes into my paddle, I spotted the orange dot painted on a tree and paddled to the right towards Cypress Springs (as instructed). Beautiful clear blue-green water and a white sandy beach greeted me. People swam about in the springs, and kids swung from a rope tied to a tree. Others sat atop of a kayak or small boat enjoying the sun. I chatted with some of the locals. Bud and Missy sat in low chairs in the sand, bratwurst cooking in a smoker at the end of their small boat. They let me use a raft, flippers, and homemade viewer to paddle over the vent and get a better look at the

Cooling Off at Cypress Springs

Cooling Off at Cypress Springs

springs. Missy and Larry talked about the history of the springs. Larry said that it is a manmade springs, dynamited and then connected to the creek. (I need to check this out.) I paddled around the springs for a bit, a perfect spot on a hot day.

From the springs, I had about a 3-mile paddle back to the outfitter—1.5 hours. I passed an occasional kayaker or small boat, but the creek remained peaceful. Although the current was light, it required little effort to paddle. My paddle was scenic and lovely. I attempted to find Becton Springs and paddled up another small waterway. Somehow, I managed to miss the orange dot and lost my way for a bit, never seeing the springs. Oh well, a good reason to return someday!

(Old Cypress Canoe Rentals. 2728 Traverse Drive, Vernon, FL 32462. (850) 388-2072. Dana/Olli/Robert)

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Dark Waters of the Blackwater River

Dark Waters of the Blackwater River

I began “Day 2”of my summer vacation with a paddle on the Blackwater River in Milton, Florida. I rented a sit-on-top kayak from the Blackwater Canoe Rental and selected the 11-mile paddle from the Bryant Bridge (north of Milton) to Deaton Bridge. The outfitter dropped me at 9:30 a.m. along with three folks from Alabama.

Boning claims that the Blackwater is among the most pristine of Florida’s rivers. Blackwater comes from the Choctaw word “Oka Lusa” which means “water black.”  At lower levels, the river is tannin-colored (rusty looking in the lowest spots) but turns black at deeper levels.  The Blackwater River begins its journey in the Conecuh National Forest in Southern Alabama.  It flows about 56 miles south, then west, on its way to the Blackwater Bay. When it reaches Florida, it passes through the Blackwater River State Forest.  The Blackwater River is an Outstanding Florida Water; thirty-one miles are Designated Florida Paddling Trail as well.

So, I paddled away on the tannin-colored water under clear, sunny sky, waving goodbye to the folks from Alabama who had been nice enough to invite me to join them. I took in the scenery and sighed—to my right, a high sandy bank, etched throughout the years by the twists and turns of the river, topped by tall, straight pines.

For over two hours, I paddled in silence, little sign of life. A couple lazy hawks flew overhead, and then I saw low-flying aircraft from the nearby Eglin Airforce Base—a strange reality check. Briefly, my mind flitted to a scene from the African Queen, but then they were gone, and I melted back into my seat and took in my surroundings: white cedar, cypress, water oak, pine, wax myrtle, and magnolia.

The river offered an occasional shady spot and a light breeze, only minimal relief from the sun. The sides of the river alternated with white sandbars on one side and sandy banks on the other—similar to the Perdido. High waters and storms had scooped out the banks, leaving tree roots exposed. A sandbar beckoned me; I stopped for a quick stretch and a dip to cool off.

Occasional Shade on the Blackwater

Occasional Shade on the Blackwater

About 2.5 hours into my paddle, tubers appeared in their blue, green, pink, and yellow tubes, decorating the white sandbars like sprinkles on a cake. My spiritual retreat ended, as I paddled past wading sunbathers and sandbars adorned with umbrellas and coolers. Teenagers stood on high banks while from the water below, others dared them to jump.  I couldn’t watch.

Four hours after my put in, I passed under the Deaton Bridge, and pulled my kayak out of the water. My outfitter connection awaited me there.

(Blackwater Canoe Rental. 6974 Deaton Bridge Road, Milton, Florida. (850) 623-0235  or (800) 967-6789)

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Sandbars on the Perdido River

Vacation time had arrived at last, and this summer, I planned to return to the Panhandle for three paddles. It was long overdue—I had originally scheduled it for July, but I fractured my wrist (handstands) and had to delay my trip. My cast came off Friday, two days before I left for the Panhandle.  I figured a few days of paddling would be good therapy.

I chose the most westerly river I could for my first paddle: the Perdido River. In Spanish, Perdido means, “lost” or “lost river.” If you look at the map, the Perdido River draws the north-south boundary between Florida and Alabama, and there is so much history here as the Spanish, British, French, and of course, United States, struggled to gain possession of these lands. (Boning) The Perdido originates in Alabama and travels about 58 miles from Alabama to Perdido Bay—which is part of the Gulf.  It includes nine miles of Florida Designated Paddling Trail from Barrineau Park to Adventures on Perdido. The Perdido is also an Outstanding Florida Water.

Adventures on Perdido (formerly part of Adventures Unlimited) is the only outfitter on the river.  Linda and Dave are the owners; theirs is a small mom and pop outfitter in the middle of nowhere. They have enough canoes to meet the needs for busloads of vacationers, but I found the choice of kayaks limited. A sit-on-top would have been nice under the hot sun (and Linda’s recommendation), but theirs were too small to hold my cooler and supplies, so I opted for a sit inside. As it turned out, it had wacky tracking, and whenever I stopped paddling, the kayak turned right–a bit like that crazy cart I sometimes get at Publix.

At 9:30 a.m., Dave dropped me at the Perdido River Wildlife Management Area access, just south of Barrineau Park.  From here, I paddled south with Alabama on my right and Florida on my left—how cool is that? I spent the next three hours alone on the tea-colored waterway under the hot August sun.  The wide river (often about 50 feet wide) and tall palms, cedar and cypress offered little shade! I made do with the sit inside kayak and flung my legs over the sides—not very ladylike, but it was very relaxing and much cooler with my feet dipped in the water.

A Peaceful Perdido River

A Peaceful Perdido River

The river was quiet—no people, no animals, no gators or snakes. Three hawks flew overhead and disappeared. I took in the beautiful white sandbars and the high sandy banks while I snacked on trail mix and fruit. However, as beautiful as these all were, the condition of the river was disappointing. Dead wood in the water collected trash all along the river—reminders of inconsiderate humans. Although the Perdido Wildlife Management Area includes 15 miles of frontage on the river, portions are also owned by individuals (evidenced by many plastic chairs on sandbars) and gun clubs. I wondered who was responsible for keeping it clean.  This river had so much potential, but it seemed neglected.

Truthfully, I can’t say that Perdido makes my “top ten” list. However, is there anything better than to paddle down any Florida river in the midst of nature?

(Adventures on Perdido. 160 River Annex Road, Cantonment, Florida. (850) 968-5529 or (888) 863-1364)

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I drove down a long leaf pine-lined country road to reach Adventures Unlimited, the outfitter for Coldwater Creek.  I felt “at

Tea-Colored Coldwater Creek

camp” when I arrived.  Young boys directed me through a crowded parking lot.  Teens and families had lined up for the bus to the drop off.  Bold signs directed me up the stairs to the office, and more signs sent me out the back door and down to the storage area to pick out my life jacket and paddle.  It promised to be a busy day on the river!

Coldwater Creek originates in the Conecuh National Forest in Georgia.  Eighteen of its 28 miles are a state-designated paddling trail.  Its cool waters travel south through the Blackwater River State Forest and eventually join the Blackwater River as one of its major tributaries. (Carmichael)

I boarded the bus with about 10 others—all carrying coolers and other supplies for a fun day on the creek.  The Adventures Unlimited folks dropped us at their privately-owned property off Christmas Tree Road—giving us about a 7-mile paddle back to the outpost.

Paddling away from the put-in, I could see the sandy gravel bed of the creek through the shallow tea-colored water.  The sun shone hot, and I dangled my toes in the coolness beneath me, silently thanking the AU staff member who talked me into a sit-on-top kayak. Lush foliage surrounded me—tall long needle pines, oaks, and cypress.  A magnolia tree peaked out here and there.  I paddled around a bend in the creek and faced tall sandy bluffs. An “ahhh” moment.

However, soon enough, I realized the thing about paddling on the weekend—it’s not a serene, peaceful paddle and the only wildlife to be seen comes equipped with coolers.  Wide sandbars poked out into the creek, creating perfect nooks for family get-togethers. Children splashed in the water while their parents chatted and sipped cool drinks.  Tubers began to show up in large groups just past the Springfield Road put in—about four miles from my AU destination.  I quickly learned to maneuver around them, 20 or more at a time.

So many of these folks traveled by canoes, and with the loads they carried, I understood why.  However, the low water level meant frequent portages for canoers, no doubt.  Even in a kayak, dodging the deadfalls and scooting around the wide sandbars challenged me, and more than once I got out and dragged myself to deeper water.

Shallow Waters of Coldwater Creek

But what a beautiful creek!  Paddling this gravel-lined waterway, I could feel the downhill flow (a 2.8 gradient), and I sometimes felt as if I was sliding down someone’s flooded country driveway.    As I neared the end, I took a sharp left at a fork in the creek, where, for just a few moments, the swift waters hastened my journey and then delivered me safely back to the main waterway—a fun ending to my day on the creek.

(Outfitter: Adventures Unlimited Outdoor Center. 8974 Tomahawk Landing Road, Milton, Florida. (850) 623-6197 or (800) 239-6864)

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