Under Darkening Skies: Meeting the Challenge, Ocklawaha Odyssey, Part 2

The skies darken Photo credit: Jill Lingard

Our final challenge: Orange Springs to the Rodman Dam campsite. Although we only had six miles to paddle, dark skies loomed overhead and paddlers hunched over cell phones assessing the possibility of rain. The Paddle Florida truck was loaded with gear, wet from the night’s rain, and we waited, some more patiently than others, for permission to launch.

Today’s paddle would take us across Lake Ocklawaha, or the Rodman Reservoir, over the barely submerged stumps of drowned trees. Karen Chadwick warned us to follow the channel markers and avoid taking the shortcuts that looked so tempting. Hitting a submerged log could lead to a dangerous capsize. I paddled through this tree graveyard last spring after the drawdown and was struck by its eerie beauty (Requiem for a River).

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“Hold my beer”
Danger lurks below
Photo credit: Henry Dorfman

At 8:45, Bill cleared us to launch and we retraced our path from Orange Springs to the main channel of the Ocklawaha River. During our paddle from Eureka to Orange Springs, the character of the river changed: it widened and became choked by vegetation. Without a little push from the river current, this final paddle across Lake Ocklawaha was destined to be a slog under any circumstances. We embarked, all hoping to cross the lake before the impending storm.

The route was obvious in the beginning—a clear line of channel markers led the way. After we passed the Kenwood boat ramp on the left, our goal—Rodman Dam campground—lay exactly due east across the lake. Easier said than done, however. As most of the group entered the widest part of the lake, the skies darkened and a squall passed overhead. The winds picked up and it was difficult to see more than several boats lengths ahead. I followed my compass heading to the east, trusting my heading was correct.

Clouds gather Photo credit: Henry Dorfman
The deluge begins Photo credit: Henry Dorfman
Rescue at sea Photo credit: Henry Dorfman

The wind, waves, and rain challenged everyone. As I waited by a channel marker trying to guide paddlers in, I struggled to hold position against gusts that threatened to capsize my boat. The storm passed, everyone arrived safely to the campground, and skies brightened for a final group meal, catered by Backwoods Smokehouse and Grill. The sunshine and abundant food left everyone in good cheer as we returned to our cars and said our final goodbyes to new and old friends.

After the storm Photo credit: Fred Haaser

The storm challenged everyone, including rescue boaters, and several people asked how they might improve their skills. How can strokes and edging help you control your boat in the wind? Where can you learn rough water skills to prepare for the open waters of large lakes or coastal waters? There are many pathways to improve paddling and safety skills. Learning self-rescue techniques, including the roll, provides the capability and confidence to tackle bigger challenges.

Classes and certifications:

ACA (American Canoe Association) and Paddlesports North America (the American version of BCU, British Canoe Union) offer certifications and sequential instruction in kayaking and other paddle sports. Their webpages show the skills required for the different certifications and list instructors and programs that teach these skills. The sites mentioned below offer ACA and PNA/BCU programs in the southeast.

Symposia and instruction in the southeast:

The East Coast Paddlesports Symposium, held annually each April in Charleston, SC, offers a range of on and off-water classes and the opportunity to demo equipment. Many retailers bring boats, paddles, and other gear, and this is one of the best places to see a wide range of equipment. Classes are held on the lake and on the more challenging waters near Folly Beach.

Sea Kayak Georgia located on Tybee Island, and Savannah Canoe and Kayak offer private kayak and paddle board instruction and expeditions. The waters around Tybee Island provide a good instruction to rough water. Dale Williams of Sea Kayaking USA , also on Tybee, offers more advanced instruction.

Each October, Ronnie Kemp and Marsha Henson of Sea Kayak Georgia bring in world-class instructors such as Dale Williams, Nigel Dennis (Sea Kayaking UK) and Eila Wilkinson (Tidal Waters) for their symposium. Sea Kayak Georgia’s symposium offers instruction and assessment for PNA/BCU three and four star levels.

Russell Farrow of Sweetwater Kayaks in St. Petersburg, FL provides instruction in and around Weedon Island. Their annual symposium in March brings in world-class instructors, offering classes from rolling to Greenland-style paddling.

For those who have caught the kayak surf bug, Cross Currents Sea Kayaking offers the Kiptopeke Symposium in the rougher waters in coastal Virginia.

This list is not exhaustive. Opportunities for instruction abound in the southeast and beyond. Playing and surfing in rough coastal waters is safe and fun once you have mastered some basic skills. So get out there and have fun!

Fun in the surf


An Ocklawaha Odyssey with Paddle Florida

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Ocklawaha River

On December 3, over sixty intrepid kayakers gathered in Silver Springs State Park for a four-day adventure down the Silver and Ocklawaha Rivers. Our journey began in the crystal clear headwaters of the Silver River and ended in the murky waters of manmade Lake Ocklawaha near the Rodman Dam. Our float down these rivers helped us better understand the lives of those who once made the Ocklawaha home and contemporary controversies over the fate of the Ocklawaha River.

On our first morning, we paddled six miles down the Silver River. Some paddlers saw monkeys and a couple rare manatees that make it past the dam. Herons, ibis, and anhingas sunned themselves on this warm December day. After lunch at Ray Wayside Park, we continued down, or up geographically, the north-flowing Ocklawaha. The river was surprisingly clear—perhaps an effect of the drought.

Herding cats for a photo Photo credit: Henry Dorfman
Manatee on the Silver River Photo credit: Henry Dorfman
Monkey on the Silver River Photo credit: Henry Dorfman
Sunning bird Photo credit: Henry Dorfman


Sixteen and one-half miles down river from our start, we set up camp at Gore’s Landing. That night, Peggy MacDonald, Executive Director of the Matheson History Museum in Gainesville, Florida, and I spoke about the Ocklawaha River and its springs, in anticipation of our forthcoming exhibit at the Matheson: “The St. Johns River and Its Springs.” In her book Marjorie Harris Carr: Defender of Florida’s Environment, Peggy describes Carr’s efforts to stop the Cross Florida Barge canal. The canal was never completed, but the Rodman Dam on the once free-flowing Ocklawaha River remains, creating an artificial reservoir called Lake Ocklawaha. The high waters have dramatically altered the river’s ecosystem, drowning trees and disturbing habitat of fish and fowl. Captain Karen Chadwick and filmmaker Matt Keene (River Be Dammed) were also present to discuss contemporary efforts to free the Ocklawaha.

Sunday’s paddle from Gore’s Landing to Eureka was a quick 9 miles, and we reached camp by lunchtime. The Ocklawaha was still remarkably clear, but we all knew that would change as we reached Lake Ocklawaha.

That night, University of Florida archivist Flo Turcotte spoke about acclaimed author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, moonshine, and life on the Ocklawaha River. Rawling’s novel South Moon Under depicts the lives of the Jacklin family who lived in the scrub along the Ocklawaha and relied on their moonshine income as farming and trapping became less economically viable. Paddling through the dense scrub made me realize how tough their lives must have been. After the talk, Flo passed out samples of moonshine, which would help power us up for Monday’s 13-mile paddle to Orange Springs.

On Monday, most people made the short detour to see the Cannon Spring, one of the lost springs drowned by the flooded Ocklawaha. Karen said that this spring captured the imagination of the public and was one of the most valuable tools in the initial efforts to restore the Ocklawaha. Later, during the 2015-6 drawdown, images of Cannon spring on social media introduced many to this once-hidden gem, and scores of people visited Cannon during its short window of visibility (Searching for—and Finally Finding—Cannon Springs. After the drawdown when the waters rose, many would mourn the re-drowning of this treasure (Losing Cannon Springs).

Entrance to Cannon springs Photo Credit: Henry Dorfman
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Cannon springs freed


Flooded Cannon Spring–2016

After our side trip to Cannon Springs, we searched for our lunch stop, just past the sign for Payne’s Landing. The Treaty of Payne’s Landing in 1832 commemorates some of the worst episodes of our nation’s history. The treaty forced Seminoles to relocate to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears. Further, escaped slaves would lose the protection they had gained by joining with the Seminoles.

After this point, the river became slower, wider, and clogged with vegetation. The Ocklawaha River is lowered every three to four years to eliminate the vegetation that makes the river impassable. Although the drawdown ended less than a year prior, the main channel was already blocked. Fortunately, Paddle Florida Executive Director Bill Richards had arranged for help from Mickey Thomason with the Office of Greenways and Trails.  Possibly for the first time in history, kayakers cheered the sound of an airboat.Florida’s version of a snowplow, an airboat with a rake attached to the front, cleared a route through the thick vegetation, and we paddled single file through the narrow path that remained open only briefly.

Photo credit: Henry Dorfman
Airboat to the rescue Photo credit: Henry Dorfman
Photo credit: Henry Dorfman
Photo credit: Henry Dorfman

Paddling through the weeds was difficult, but a tailwind pushed us towards our camp at Orange Springs. The day was sunny, but winds signaled that the weather would be changing. Fortunately, the rain held off long enough for us to enjoy a concert under the stars by Whitey Markle and the Swamprooters. Hearing him sing “The Poor Old Ocklawaha” reminded us that this still beautiful river—and all the wildlife that lives in and around it—will suffer as long as the dam remains.

Before going to bed that night, everyone checked their tents and tightened stakes and lines. We had all heard reports of rain and storms, and we wondered about the next day’s paddling conditions. To be continued in Ocklawaha Odyssey, Part 2.





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