Saturday, September 24, 2005

Montauk Gets on the Water; Suwannee River; Withlacoochee River

I am not a patient person by nature and it was making me crazy having this brand new kayak in the driveway rather than on some water. It's not really a sterling idea to go out to paddle when there is a 400-mile wide hurricane churning up the Gulf right below you. NWS was predicting 70% chance of showers or thunderstorms, and 10-15 mph wind. However, here at the house the sky was blue and the air was perfectly calm so I loaded up the Montauk to head for Lake Talquin--same put-in spot as visited recently.

It's about 70 miles W-SW of here. When I got there, gray clouds were moving in fast from over the lake and the wind was blowing. The lake was very, very choppy, not my favorite conditions for a fun paddle. Clearly a case of the boat being more capable than the paddler. However, the boat ramp is in a somewhat protected cove, and since I was already there, might as well at least get on the water.

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I paddled to the right, planning to just circle the small cove counterclockwise and then come back. This whole outing told me very little about how the boat handles in the conditions in which I would normally be out. However, it did inform me of some interesting things.
  1. The boat travels well inside the car, saving me money for a trailer and making it so much easier to load and unload.
  2. It fits me exactly as well as the Mystic while on the water.
  3. The small day hatch behind the seat is wonderful. I can open it and access anything inside of it while on the water, and then close it securely.

During my short paddle around the perimeter of the cove, I spotted a deer (running away from me into the woods, not its best side) and a great blue heron. When I got to where the cove joins the lake, I turned around and started back the other way. When I was across from the boat ramp, the wind had started coming into the cove from the lake, bringing some waves in with it. I decided to see how the boat would handle crossing with the wind and small swells coming in from the side. It did so superbly with no weathercocking whatsoever (skeg was halfway down).

The plan is to get back out this coming week to give the boat a proper trial. I couldn't really judge how easily it turns since the wind was such a factor.

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This morning dawned sunny and calm and I decided to check out the Suwannee River at nearby Suwannee River State Park. The Mystic was going this time, the Montauk just seems like overkill on a relatively small and very calm river; it strikes me as better suited for lakes and for Apalachicola Bay when it finally cools down enough to take it camping.

I have been paddling this area of the Suwannee since my first kayak (a 9'5" yellow ex-rental Necky with a cockpit the size of a bathtub that I got for $100 and an old computer). The boat ramp is excellent and at this park you can actually drive right down to the water (as opposed to that at Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park in White Springs, see earlier post). The current during my time on the water ranged from almost nonexistent to about 3 mph--no problems there. It's a very pretty river, with high banks on both sides and many sandy beach areas interspersed along the way. I saw two boats within the first 10 minutes and no others until I was on my way back downstream some 3 hours later. And it's Saturday! I saw one house, and the guy who lives there (presumably) was doing some clean-up work near the river. We chatted as I passed. He said he often sees deer, bears, foxes, and coyotes--mostly early in the morning and at dusk. He also told me how to get to a somewhat decrepit but usable boat ramp near his property, which would put me 2 hours upriver from the state park and let me see more of the river. I'll be checking that out some time.

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I stopped at one of those sandy areas to stretch and have lunch. While I was walking along the edge looking in the water, I noticed how interesting the colors of this river are at the edges. It's filled with tannins, giving it a rust color that is very dark in deep areas (referred to as a blackwater river). The edge colors are very pretty, though.

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On my way back downstream I was passed by several paddlers in a spread-out group, most likely doing a float, possibly from nearby Gibson Park in Jasper. It's a 4-hour float from there to the state park where I put in. These guys had a nice setup to protect the passenger from sun...

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Around the time these boats were passing going downstream, a power boat passed me going upstream. The guy in it told me I had to go up the Withlacoochee, that the sturgeon were all over the place and it would be easy for me to see them in my "little boat." The Withlacoochee joins the Suwannee just a stone's throw from the park boat ramp, so I decided to check it out. This is another river that I spent a lot of time on in my early kayaking days.

It was 93 degrees out and by the time I turned onto the green and clear Withlacoochee, I had been on the water for 4 hours. First priority was to find a place to go for a little dip. Within 5 minutes of paddling I saw two large sturgeon. These fish can grow to 6-9 feet long--these were only about 4 feet long. Here's an interesting article from 2002 on Suwannee River sturgeon and their jumping habits, sometimes injuring boaters. Good thing I hadn't read this beforehand.

I found a nice area and got out to cool off in the water. At about waist-deep I started making Ricky Ricardo-like ay-ay-ay noises because the water was so cold, so that was good enough. I paddled upstream in the nicely slow current for a total of about 30 minutes, then realized that this river needs to be done separately. I recall that when the water is low, as it was today, there are some shoals that cannot be paddled about an hour upstream. If that's still the case, I can finish the day on the Suwannee--I'm not big on portaging around shoals (unless there is someone along to help carry the boat!).

Saw two more large sturgeon on the way back down. The water is clear and relatively shallow near the confluence of the two rivers, and the bottom sandy, so the fish are easy to spot (regardless of the size of the boat).

Another super day, and a place to return to often. I hope the levels and currents on both rivers stay this way for awhile.

Stand by for the next trip report.

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