Paddling upstream in the dark on Rock Springs Run with loaded paddleboards—an auspicious start to our SUP camping trip? Jill, Janice, and I had set out for three nights of camping in the Wekiwa River Basin, just north of Orlando. Our destination, Otter Primitive Campsite, was several miles upstream. The calm, clear waters of the Wekiwa River and Rock Springs Run seemed like an ideal site to try out a multi-day SUP trip, and fortunately Jill and Janice quickly agree to almost any adventure.
We arrived at Wekiwa Spring State Park around 4:30, later than we’d intended. Within an hour, we had ferried our boards, firewood, and gear down the hill to the boat launch. Although the three of us are experienced kayak campers, loading paddleboards with gear presents a different challenge than loading kayaks. We packed efficiently like backpackers and were pleasantly surprised at how well the gear fit on the boards. I bought my 12′ Fanatic Ray because its thick rails and quasi-displacement hull make it suitable for touring with gear. I loaded a mesh bag full of camping gear and smaller dry bags under the bungee cords on the bow and placed the food on the stern, behind my feet. Janice and Jill both packed their gear into larger drybags. We each carried a 10 liter MRS dromedary water bag on our boards—much more than we actually needed.
To reach Otter Camp, the first of the three campsites on Rock Springs Run (heading upstream) meant paddling a short distance down the Wekiwa River until we reached Rock Springs Run, then 2-3 miles upstream. None of us had paddled loaded boards before, and we were all surprised at their stability. Finally we launched, trying to make the most of our final hour of sunlight.
The downstream section of the Wekiwa River went fast as the current moved us along. The sun’s light illuminated submerged logs that could snag a fin—a paddleboard hazard that kayakers do not face. We reached the confluence of the rivers quickly, but once we turned upstream we realized that our journey would take much longer than we anticipated. Low water conditions made the current swift, and we eddy-hopped back and forth across the river to avoid the swiftest parts. Rock Springs Run was shallower and twistier than the Wekiwa, and the clear water made it difficult to determine depth. At a slower pace, we continued upstream, appreciating the river’s beauty in the fading light.
Eventually the last of the sunlight disappeared, and we could see the moon’s rays through the trees. We put on our headlamps. [Note to self: either leave earlier or pack the headlamps on top.] Paddling upstream in the dark added an entirely new dimension to our trip, but it was strangely calming, especially after weeks of election-related noise. The only thing breaking the calm were occasional peals of hysterical laughter when one of us got snagged. We all knew that alligators lurked in the area, but none of us dared to actually mention this fact. We aimed our lights at the shore, hoping for signs of our campsite. After two hours of paddling, we arrived at Otter Camp.
Our home for the next three nights, Otter Camp has room for up to 10 tents, two benches, a large locking bear box to store food in, and a campfire ring. The site overlooks the river, and it is hard to believe that we were in the outskirts of Orlando. Over the next two days, we paddled up and down the Rock Springs Run, and friends came to join us. Exploring it during daylight, the stream seemed like three different rivers. Slow and wide towards the top, twisty and fast in the middle, and wide and open towards the bottom. We saw egrets, limpkins, herons, kingfishers, and ibis—and one hawk. Lots of turtles and no gator sightings until we paddled Juniper Spring Run on Sunday.
On Sunday morning, we packed up and reversed our route. With lighter loads and downstream current, the trip took one hour. Overall, I was happy with my gear selections and my paddleboard. I cover less distance on my paddleboard than I do in my kayak (NDK Pilgrim Expedition), so I’ll need to account for that on future trips. Using a basecamp worked for our shake-down trip, but the Wekiva/Rock Springs Run/St Johns area several options for moving camps daily. Sections of the Florida Circumnavigation Trail are also appropriate for a paddleboard. Even though our trip did not have the most auspicious start, our ability to adapt to—and laugh at— our circumstances set the tone for the trip. I think we got as much of a workout from laughter as from paddling. The only question is where to next?