TRAK Unleashed: PADDLERS IN PARADISE

In honor of Valentine’s Day, here is the blog I wrote for Trak Kayaks about our kayak camping trip to the Exuma Islands in the Bahamas. Hopefully we will take the Traks back to the Bahamas in 2017.

By Whitney Sanford. All images ©2014 Whitney Sanford and Kevin Veach used by permission.

After the motorboat drove off, leaving Kevin and I, our boats, and about one hundred pounds of gear off on Big Major Cay (near Staniel Cay), we were on our own for a honeymoon paddling and snorkeling adventure in the Exuma Islands in the Bahamas. This was day 1 of a six-day self-supported kayak trip from Big Major Cay back to Barreterre, where we had started. Although we had done several self-supported kayak trips before, the remoteness of this trip called for new levels of teamwork and flexibility; we were each other’s back up and safety.

We had brought our TRAK kayaks and paddling gear from the US and then rented stoves, camping gear and a local cell phone from the Out-Island Explorers. Our shake-down trip through Florida’s 10,000 Islands demonstrated just how much the boats…

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Losing Cannon Springs

River withclopuds2.jpgTwice last week, I swam in the blue waters of Cannon Springs. I brought my mask and snorkel so I could see the vent and the fish that swam in the hole. Even from the shore, I could see fish in the spring—the water was that clear. The entire Okhlawaha River is beautiful, but its hidden springs are gems that are worth working for. I had paddled south from the Payne’s Landing entrance and north from Eureka West to see the different moods of the river – the twisty s-turns closer to Eureka straighten out as the river widens on its northward course.

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I wanted Liz, my fellow adventurer, to see the Okhlawaha River in its lowered—or natural—state, and especially I wanted to show her Cannon and Tobacco Springs while we had the opportunity. I had told her about swimming in Cannon and tromping up to see Tobacco Springs and knew she would want to do the same. After our shuttle, we pulled her kayak and my paddleboard to our launch—which had significantly more water than it did several days ago. I had heard that the water was up, that they were releasing was from the Moss Bluff dam, and from the shore, the flow did seem faster. We shrugged and pointed downstream, loaded with masks, snorkels, and snacks.

As we floated, I tried to point out the features that Karen Chadwick, boat captain for North Star Charters, had mentioned on my previous trip. We had seen wooden remnants of a steamboat launch, one of the 96 landings on the 135 miles along the trip from Palatka to Silver Springs.Okhlawaha.png

When steamboats traveled the river, there were launches almost every mile, dropping off and picking up lumber and other supplies. The St. Johns and the Okhlawaha were once Florida’s highways, making travel possible before roads penetrated the swamps and forests.

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File photo, Ocala Star Banner

I love looking at maps and charts, and considering rivers as highways ‘flips’ my perspective on maps. When I want to get from one place to another, I search for roads or maybe trails if I am hiking or biking. Before roads penetrated the swamps, though, land travel was difficult, if not impossible. Most people traveled by boat, so the waterlines on the map—not so much land features—are critical. So, the borders, the intersections where land meets water, those draw my eye because those spaces allowed the interaction of people and place.Screenshot 2016-02-07 20.02.27.png

As we floated downstream towards Cannon, I kept wondering if we had missed the spring. The river seemed slightly different, more swollen, and disorienting. Even the gators seemed larger, and we saw several who did not seem afraid of us. In fact, one swam along with us which was not reassuring on an inflatable paddleboard.

 

 

When we reached the entrance to Cannon Springs, I realized how much the water had risen. Only three days before, the spring run was clear, but now it was tannin-colored, and water flooded over areas that had been dry land. We paddled upstream towards the spring and met Karen, Margaret Tolbert and Javed coming back down, their kayaks loaded on Karen’s skiff. Margaret and Javed had been drawing and painting along the river that day. They shook their heads as we passed by. Cannon springs was now brown, its brilliant blue drowned out by the incoming water. I was sorry that Liz did not get a chance to see Cannon in its blue state.

On March 1, the river will start to rise again to flood stage as the Rodman drawdown comes to an end. The Rodman/Kirkpatrick dam will again create the Rodman Reservoir or Lake, and the banks along the Okhlawaha where I saw fisherman, birds, and gators will be submerged for another three to four years.lotsofegrets.jpg

The Rodman Dam was initially built as part of the larger Cross Florida Barge Canal project. The Cross Florida Barge project was stopped in 1971, in large part by efforts of Marjorie Harris Carr, and Cross Barge area has become the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway. The Rodman Dam, though, has remained in place, a point of controversy between groups who want to restore the river’s natural flow and those that want to maintain the reservoir.

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Even if the Okhlawaha River were restored to its natural flow, the land needs time to heal. In constructing the aborted Cross Florida Barge Canal, giant crushers rolled along the banks, uprooting trees and shredding the landscape. Landowners along the river lost their property and never regained access to their land, even after the project ended. Today you can see the ruins of the Strange house, now on Greenway land, and imagine the wonderful view of the river they must have had.Lizinhouse.jpg

Slightly downstream of the Strange House lies Payne’s Landing, yet another reminder of loss and heartbreak. In 1832, the representatives of the Seminole and the US Government signed the Treaty of Payne’s Landing in which the Seminole would leave their cattle, relocate to Oklahoma, and received compensation after resettlement. By all accounts, many of the chiefs were bullied or tricked into signing the treaty and refused to leave Florida, a chain of events that led to the Second Seminole War.

We took out at Payne’s Landing and reversed our shuttle. Despite the flooding of Cannon Springs, the day was spectacular, a sunny winter day in Florida, and we were happy to be on the water. Most people are happy at the take-out, and they should be. Whether fishing  or paddling, a day on the water is usually a good day. Nonetheless, there are somber undertones — Payne’s Landing, the crushers, and the incipient re-drowning of this landscape makes me think about the river’s history and the people who have called this home.

Searching for—and Finally Finding—Cannon Springs

riverand clouds3 copy.jpgI had started to wonder if Cannon Springs and the Okhlawaha River was going to be my holy grail. Starting in September and lasting until March 2016, the Rodman reservoir on the Okhlawaha River is drawn down, the river-lake levels lowered substantially. This draw down occurs every few years—to prevent fish kills and reduce the vegetation that obstructs the water—and exposes the natural flow of the river.  The lowered levels on the Okhlawaha River offer us a glimpse of the past and a future that could be—without the Rodman Dam. I was especially interested in seeing those springs like Cannon that reveal themselves only during these periodic drawdowns.cspring4 copy

My first attempts to get on the river resulted in a series of major errors—locking the keys in the car at the remote Kenwood boat ramp, battery-less GPS and camera, and less than complete information about boat ramps. (I am now my own case study in fieldwork errors for my Religion and Fieldwork class.) As more and more spectacular pictures adorned my facebook feed, I was even more determined to see—and swim in—Cannon springs.

Finally, I made it—twice in one week. Armed with the GPS coordinates, my husband Kevin and I found the elusive put-in across from Payne’s Landing. We turned down a sandy road, lined with ‘NO ATV’ signs, and bumped our way through the small Hog Valley community towards the river. We launched and pointed our boats upstream. The entrance to the Cannon Springs Run was approximately one mile south of Payne’s Landing, and the entrance had been described as ‘unmistakable’, a tree-lined clear passage. I was also hoping to find Tobacco Springs situated between Payne’s Landing and Cannon Springs.

The river at Payne’s Landing is broad with an expansive vista. Several fisherman sat on the east side of the river, where the draw down has exposed the beach. The day was overcast, but warm, a seemingly auspicious start to our journey.  Some parts of the shore had healthy trees that have survived the flooding, while other patches revealed the desolation of a dying landscape.

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Heading south, we heard shots which continued for about 15 minutes—target practice, we assumed, so we paddled on, but a bit unnerved. Soon after, the batteries in both the GPS and the camera failed. Three inauspicious signs, but we kept going. We settled into a rhythm against the slight downstream flow and saw woodstorks, ibis, egrets, and a variety of herons—and of, course, gators.

We paddled mostly in the center of the river, avoiding the vegetation near the banks where gators like to hide. Kevin paddled into the vegetation once and heard the unmistakable splash of a startled gator. After about half a mile, the wide river narrowed into a series of s-curves, and dark lines on the trees along the bank told us what has become the new normal for water levels— the flood stage caused by Rodman/Kirpatrick dam. lines copy.jpgFinally, we spotted what had to be the entrance to Cannon Springs. Everyone said that the entrance to the Cannon Spring Run is unmistakable—a tree-lined corridor, and they were right.

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The water cleared quickly as we paddled up the short spring run. First we saw several vents that are part of the larger Cannon Spring system, then the blue spring itself.  The spring is relatively shallow so the vent is visible. I pulled out my mask and snorkel and dove into the clear water to see the vent. (Swimming in January is a major benefit of living in Florida.)

 

Seeing Cannon Springs once was not enough, so when I saw the Aquaholics trip down the Okhlawaha River scheduled for the following Saturday, I immediately signed up. I met the group at 9 am at Eureka West boat ramp, and after shuttling cars to Payne’s Landing, we floated downstream. Karen Chadwick, boat captain for North Star Charters, joined us in her kayak for the float and offered both historical and environmental perspectives on the river and its ecoheritage. She is also Vice President of the Putnam County Environmental Council and member of Florida Defenders of the Environment has been working to restore the Okhlawaha River to its free-flowing state, carrying on Marjorie Harris Carr’s environmental legacy. As we floated downstream, Karen pointed out historical features that I would have otherwise missed and also led us to the elusive Tobacco Springs.

We saw a number of milled logs, remnants of the days of logging the surrounding forests. She also pointed out the wooden remnants of a steamboat launch area. When steamboats travelled the river, there were launches almost every mile, dropping off and picking up lumber and other supplies. The St. Johns and the Okhlawaha were once Florida’s highways, making travel possible before roads penetrated the swamps and forests. Just a few wooden remnants are visible now. steamboatlaunch2.jpg

Then, finally, Tobacco Springs! Kevin and I had looked for it, but never found it. Not surprising – the spring run was clogged with water lettuce. Our group of intrepid kayakers (and my paddle-board) pushed our way through the vegetation until fallen trees blocked our path. We dragged our boats onto the bank and walked a several hundred feet through fairly dry muck. The spring was worth it – deep and not as clear as Cannon Springs, but full of fish. We peered down into the spring from the ruins of an old dock. None of us dared swim here, given the possibility of alligators in the cave below.

 

Just beyond Tobacco spring, we explored the ruins of the Strange house on land that is now part of the Florida Greenway. Dr. Strange built a house on the Okhlawaha River, complete with pool, patio, and river-front view. The family lost access to the land during construction of the never-completed Cross-Florida Barge canal. Tragically, Dr. Strange and his grandson were killed when their truck rolled into the river.strangedoor copy.jpg

 

I found my grail – Cannon Springs and Tobacco Springs, gifts from the current drawdown. I hope to get back out again soon. Karen said that the river has already risen, and starting on March 1, 2016, the reservoir will continue to fill, rendering these springs almost imperceptible. The exposed beaches will be submerged again, drowning nesting areas for birds and turtles. I’d like to paddle this section of the Okhlawaha River again, just to see what it is like when the water floods again, but I have a feeling that I will be disappointed. River withclopuds2.jpg

Everglades Part 1: Paddling a Re-inhabited Landscape

On December 31, our kayaks packed and loaded, our group of six left the Ranger Station at Everglades City and headed for Lulu Key. Lulu Key  straddles the borders of the Ten Thousand Islands and the Everglades.  Interestingly, though we wanted a wilderness paddle, to spend New Years Eve ‘away from it all’, we entered an area that has hosted waves of residents, from the Calusa to turn of the century homesteaders and outlaws to contemporary visitors. stillwaters3All of us are experienced wilderness paddlers, but we went with Don McCumber and Mike Akerman of Everglades Area Tours to learn more about the human and natural histories of this region. We all knew that Don is a self-proclaimed story-teller, and, over the three days, Don regaled us the strange and bizarre habits of people, plants, and animals.

I had just finished reading Killing Mr. Watson by Peter Mathiesson, an historical novel about Ed Watson—farmer, entrepreneur, and possible serial killer who homesteaded on the Chatham River in the Ten Thousand Islands. Mr. Watson apparently killed his hired men instead of paying them—a rather chilling austerity measure, and this book depicts the wild west character of life in this remote part of Florida in the early 1900s. As I read the book, I recognized some of the rivers and keys from previous paddling trips, but I had yet looked into the region’s history before.  The store on Chokoloskee Island run by Ted Smallwood, a character in Killing Mr. Watson, is now a museum about Chokoloskee history.

Camp Lulu Key is relatively easy to find because it is on the exterior, on the gulf. Without map, compass, and gps, it would be easy to get lost. And, for several hundred years now, people have come to this area of Florida to disappear, escaping the law or persecution, among other things.Fakahatchee area.42 From Lulu Key, we paddled north, inward, first to West Pass, matching the shapes on our charts to the land masses we passed. We wove our way through passes and channels, all lined with mangroves. The subtly different shades of green alerted us to the narrow channels between islands.

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We rode the incoming tide to Fakahatchee Island, home to a small fishing community in the early 1900s. We beached our kayaks on the boat landing, after receiving permission from the two men who were camping there. Anderson GravestoneInland, we found a small cemetery with headstones mostly from the Daniels and Anderson families. The islands hold other ruins but the ubiquitous mosquitos discouraged us from further exploration. Although there has been no official settlement on Fakahatchee Island for decades, the island shows evidence of recent habitation.Fakahacheecamp4 copy

We left the boat ramp, circumnavigating the island counter-clockwise and saw the cistern and the pilings that once supported the fish-house, where the homesteaders kept their fish on ice. Today, pelicans and other birds appreciate the perch.pelicanonmangroave

The other side of the island exposed the layers of shells that the Calusa had much used to build up the island, centuries before. Fakahatchee was one of the higher elevations among these low-lying islands, and the mounds laid by the Calusa provided habitat for turn of the century settlers and later campers.

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After we left Fakahatchee Island, we wended our way back through the mangrove islands, now fighting the tide, and finally reached our camp on Lulu Key in time for the sunset. I was glad to be back in the open, on the gulf. The interior is beautiful, but its convoluted and quiet passages remind me that the Ten Thousand Islands and the Everglades can still provide refuge for those who wish to slip away into the wild.

Christmas Eve in the Springs

Sunrise on the Homosassa River.  A hawk’s cry pierced the early morning stillness, interrupting my reading. I had been reading a particularly dense book on religious experience and the body, preparing for an upcoming

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class. I tried to return to the abstract world of ideas but the hawk’s cries anchored me in this placid morning. This is a perpetual dilemma for me—wanting both experience nature and writing about it at the same time.

The day before we paddled upstream from the Last Resort, just a short distance to the Homosassa headsprings. We paddled downstream to the to the confluence of the Homosassa and Halls Rivers, then upstream in search of the headsprings. The paddling was not difficult, although we realized later that we were against the tide in both directions. The weather was unseasonably warm, even for Florida, and we caught some of the winds from the large weather system moving through north of us.

The Halls River is a hidden gem, and we had never heard of it. The Halls River has few public access point, so perhaps that is why we had not yet heard about it. The Homosassa and Halls are close, separated by a line of trees, but seem like entirely different ecosystems. The Halls River meanders, bounded by grasses of the tidal flats. The Homosassa reminded me of the rivers and springs of the Ocala Forest, with trees, hammocks, and scrub.Halls River

We paddled upstream for several miles against its weak flow until we came to a large pool, thinking this might be where we would find the headsprings. Then we found clear water streaming into the pool and continued upstream, though several pools and narrow streams. The river was ours except for one fisherman in a small kayak. Kevin in grassFinally, we saw signs with green arrows, pointing to the two headsprings, marking narrow, overgrown passages navigable only by kayak or paddle board. We found one spring easily, a small vent filled with fish, but could not get through the grass to find the second one.

We had taken our time, swimming and exploring, relaxed and calm on this beautiful day. At the Halls’ headspring, we realized that sunset was in two hours, and both of us picked up our pace.  As I paddled downstream, I wondered how I maintain this state of peace and absorption into my surroundings—being in my body, focusing on water, manatees, and rivers. Even writing about water is a distraction, and I hope to find a balance between reflection and writing. At this moment, though, The tranquility of the Halls River, however, drew me in, as if I had melted into this landscape.

The sun broke out for our final day of paddling on the Chassahowitzka River, putting in at the Chassahowitzka River Campground.Chaz cave

We swam around—but not through—the caves at the headspring, up Baird’s Creek to the “crack”, then around the arms of Salt Creek. The arms of Salt Creek feel primeval and remote from any peopled landscape. I had paddled far up one narrow arm and saw a small head in the water swimming quickly straight at me. An otter fortunately, but a clear reminder of my place in the food chain in the swamp.

I had been wanting to paddle the Chaz, as the river is called, for a while, and this exquisite river lived up to its reputation. We swam and paddled all day, seeing manatees, a wood stork, kingfishers, and my friend, the otter.

Chaz woodstork

Days like this make me glad that Florida is my home and remind me that those of us who live here are entrusted to care for this fragile landscape. I know that many others feel that way—I saw two men in a small houseboat insuring that paddlers did not touch the manatees that swam near their kayaks.

Trees from the Chaz

It was Christmas Eve and time to get back home. Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and new classes are coming, but I know that, amidst the hubbub, I can draw upon the peace and stillness of sunrise over the Homosassa.

In William Bartram’s Wake

On December 4, 2015, 42 people set out in canoes and kayaks to commemorate the 250th anniversary of William Bartram’s travels through Florida. Bartram first explored Florida in 1765 and returned in 1774, enchanted with its peoples, plants, and animals. He recorded his journey in his book Travels which has become a guide for adventurers, poets, and scientists. Bartram fell in love with Florida over two centuries ago, and Paddle Florida designed the Bartram History Paddle to help us see Florida through Bartram’s eyes. The Paddle Florida route: Screenshot 2015-12-15 16.13.05

The night before we left, we camped at Salt Springs, one of the few sites that Bartram visited twice. Sam Carr and Dean Campbell, our Bartram liaisons, explained what we would see on our journey and the hazards. The wind had been blowing from the northeast for several days, and the wind and waves would make our journey north across Lake George rougher than expected. I was paddling a 17’ NDK Pilgrim Explorer but many others had shorter boats, less suited for rough water.  By that evening, we decided that only a few of us would make the journey across Lake George and that most would paddle down and back Salt Springs run, known by Bartram as Six Mile Run, and meet us at the following night’s camp.

The zip-zip of tents coming down awoke me at 5:30 am, way too early for any hope of coffee. By 8:30, the group had eaten and was eager to head down the Salt Run. As we neared Lake George, the spring’s clarity gave way to the darker river water of the St. John’s River, the lake being just a wide spot in the river. The wind picked up somewhat as we left the sheltered spring run and neared Rocky Point, another Bartram site. The Bartram Trail in Putnam County committee, led by Sam and Dean, had created Bartram maps and posted Bartram QR coded signs that we would see along the way. Rocky Point would be our last chance to turn back. None of us wanted to turn back though.Rocky point

At Rocky Point, we crossed Lake George to the west—or lee—side of Drayton Island. Bartram had camped on the east side of the island. Drayton Island has houses on it and a twice weekly ferry serves the island’s residents. The wind was strong, and the paddling difficult, although all of us who crossed had seaworthy boats. Bartram traveled with a boat that he described as essentially a canoe with a sail, and I wondered how such a boat would handle in these conditions. Bartram wrote about storms developing while he was on open water, and our summer squalls can be fearsome. I lamented the loss of our lunch stop on Drayton Island, especially later after hearing that Dean’s sister had baked cookies for the group.  We continued north, seeing few people or boats, until we reached our destination, newly-built fish camp Renegades on the River. After the day’s isolation, I was not Santa expecting on a jet ski, but the fire pit and the tiki hut were more than welcome.

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On Sunday morning, only a short paddle from Renegades, we visited Mt. Royal, where Sam read an excerpt from Travels. We climbed on top of the mound and Sam described Bartram’s lament that the area had been degraded by settlement in the 15 years between his visits. William Bartram was a Quaker from Philadelphia and, unlike many of his peers, was concerned about the destruction of the environment and of native cultures. Perhaps this explains why William Bartram and his Travels draws so many followers.

We continued north on the St. Johns River, hugging the eastern shore hoping to find the springs detailed on our maps. For most of our journey, the western shore appeared remote and wild, and the eastern shore was dotted with houses, fish camps, and towns. In Bartram’s time, the St. Johns River divided the British side from the “Indian” shore, and the British encouraged settlement in their territory. Paddling north, we saw Welaka Springs, Johnson Springs, and Satsuma Springs, all on the eastern side.

Satsuma Springs lies on private property, and the owner kindly allowed us to visit this spring. From our conversations, it is clear that she is a true caretaker, or steward, of this spring, as Naked Ed protects for Lily Spring, and they are models for the rest of us. Satsuma is a sulphur spring, and I quickly took the opportunity to soak my tired muscles. The spring seemed warm in comparison to the air temperature, and getting out was much harder than getting in.

The sun came out, and the wind died down for our last two days of paddling. We made our way along Murphy’s and Dunns Creeks, past several Bartram sites including Spaulding Lower Store and the Seven Sisters Islands. Several paddlers remarked on the size of our creeks, that they would be called rivers anywhere else. Still, the twists and turns of the creeks were a pleasant distraction from the wider and straighter St. Johns River. Both days we stopped for lunch at the Georgia Boys Fish Camp which has existed for over 60 years. Visiting places like this fish camp remind me that Old Florida holds so much rich history—you just need to get off the main roads.

We ended in Palatka, under a cloudless sky, nothing like our first two days of paddling. We were treated to a fish fry at the St. Johns River Center, which features exhibits about local history and environment, a fitting end for our journey. These past four days of immersion into Bartram’s travels on the St. Johns River have whetted my appetite for more. I’ll be back.

As a child, I spent my summers playing in the tidal areas of Tybee Island near Savannah, Georgia. When I moved to Florida, it was like coming home to an ecosystem I loved and missed. Florida’s rivers, barrier islands, springs, and ocean waters are our wilderness, and my husband Kevin and I spend as much time as possible exploring the waters by SUP, kayak, and sailboat. I have kayak camped in the Keys and the 10,000 Islands, surfed my kayak in the Atlantic, and recently learned to SUP surf. We are longtime volunteers with Paddle Florida. Even though Florida is blessed with what looks like an abundance of water, its rivers, springs, and aquifer are threatened by pollution and over-consumption, among other things. So while I enjoy playing and surfing, I also work to protect Florida’s waters.

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