Friday, March 31, 2006

Lake Seminole, Merritt Mill Pond

Another two-night camping trip to Three Rivers. I spent some time paddling the first day I got there. This heron was fishing in the horticulture just beyond the campground boat ramp.

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I took my Hurricane Aquasports Santee XL on this trip. I have not been in this kayak for over a year, since I got the Mystic in December of 2004. The Santee is a handsome boat but very wide at 28”. In current or windy conditions, this is less than ideal. However, on a calm lake that was dredged and created by damming a river, a lake that has a lot of underwater timber that is just below the surface and can create a tipping problem for a 21” wide kayak, the Santee is, in fact, ideal. It’s a fine boat. It’s a bit of a sacrifice when it comes to the distance each paddle stroke yields, and glide, but it more than compensates with its stability in these conditions. So I enjoyed it and we got to know each other again.

I passed an egret that posed nicely on the shoreline.

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I was out about 3 hours on this trip. As I was approaching the boat ramp, a hawk flew overhead and landed nearby. A lucky photo opportunity!

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The next day I drove a short distance to Merritt Mill Pond. This is one of my favorite paddling spots, but it’s too far away for a day trip. However, it’s right down the road from Three Rivers. So off I went with the Santee.

This is such a super paddling area. This water is clearer than the Wakulla or Wacissa. The shoreline is somewhat populated with houses, but there are also natural areas. It’s a nice 1-hour paddle from the boat ramp on Hunter Fish Camp Road to the Blue Springs Recreational Area.

On the way back downstream, I got out to stretch my legs (I like the Santee, but the fact is that I can paddle for 4+ hours in the Mystic with no discomfort and I get kayak butt within the first hour in the Santee. Could be a seat problem; I understand they have a new seat in the newer models). Nice view from the shoreline.

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If I were a fishing person, I would go fishing at Merritt Mill Pond. While I was drifting downstream, I saw a fish THIS big (hold your hands out in front of you, about three feet apart) swim by my kayak. I have seen longer gar on the Wakulla, but overall, this was the biggest fish I have seen for a long time (gar are long, but skinny).

Great paddling on this trip. I had hoped to spend my last day, Friday, on the lake, but it was very windy, so instead I packed up my campsite and headed to Torreya State Park to check out their campground and trails. That story is on Camping Tent Tales.

I’ll be getting out again soon. Stand by.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Manatees Return to the Wakulla!

Well, actually, today it was just a manatee. Perhaps it was a scout. Or an adventurer. But I get ahead of myself.

What an ideal paddling day—in fact, the best paddling day so far in 2006. I’m sure it will be surpassed before long, but for now this was the best. Bright sunshine and just warm enough.

I launched at about 1:00, shortly after low tide. The canoe/kayak rental place adjacent to the boat ramp had a lot of cars in its lot, so I knew there would be other paddlers, which is fun from a novelty standpoint. And there were quite a few, mostly in canoes, with a few rental kayaks as well. Saw a small great blue heron before I had gone too far upriver.

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Very spring-like scenery up and down the river.

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There is a paddling behavior that you can observe now and then on this river from about now till late October. It consists of paddlers either parked in the middle of the river, if there’s no significant current, or circling a small area. This is “manatee-spotting behavior.” As I paddled upstream, nearing the Mysterious Waters dock, I was following (from some distance) a canoe with three people in it. They then started crossing back and forth from side to side. At first I wondered what they were doing, and then it came to me that that resembled manatee-spotting behavior. This is about the time they start to show up, so I figured I would be able to get a few pictures of one. And right about that time, I heard the distinctive pffffffffft-tah sound of a manatee surfacing to exhale and inhale—about six feet to my left. Yikes! Just one, and not overly large, maybe12’ long or so. Probably fairly young since it didn’t have any of the distinctive scars from boat propellers on its back, only a small one on its tail. I had it all to myself, and it was, as they tend to be, completely unconcerned with my proximity.

Photos are a little difficult because of their size and water reflection, but I was able to get these, while at the same time paddling to keep the current from causing a collision between us.


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(Its head is facing away, tail in the foreground.)
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(Again, tail in the foreground.)

And just in case you have always wondered, here’s what a manatee’s nose looks like as it breaks the surface to breathe:


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I have discovered over time that the trick to spotting manatees is to listen for them. Given their grayish color, they tend to resemble underwater logs or sandy areas of the river bottom, so it’s easy to be fooled when looking for them, particularly if they are not moving. But they have to surface periodically to breathe, and that sound can be heard over the water for some distance.

The water was the clearest I have seen it, and more turtles were visible swimming underwater than usual. In fact, while I was drifting very slowly downstream later, two of them swam directly to the kayak about 6" beneath the surface—I suspect they were mistaking me for a log and intended to climb on board. I tried to get a picture of them but the movement of raising the camera alerted them to my non-log status and they darted away. I did capture these two catching some rays.

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Gators were out enjoying the day as well, several on the banks as well as crossing from one side to the other. As usual, they were small ones.


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No sign of my merganser from the last trip, and, much to my regret, no sign of any male wood ducks. It was last March that I got my first picture of one, on this river. There were, however, several ospreys swooping around and diving into the water from great heights, splashing loudly on impact. And the usual contingent of cormorants, some less shy than others.

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I stopped and turned around just short of the upper bridge. When the tide is out and the water is shallow, the current can be a challenge in that part, so I decided to head back to the boat ramp. I passed the manatee again—it had made some progress moving upriver. Two women in kayaks passed by while I was hovering around it. They had never seen one before—it’s always fun to be able to witness someone seeing these giant creatures for the first time, particularly when they are in a kayak several feet shorter than the manatee! There’s always that combination of wonder and hesitancy to get too close…

I drifted downstream on the outside channel that passes the small island near the power lines. I was the only person in the area. It looked fake; like a ride at Disney, where the vivid yellow wildflowers and the bright green ferns growing out of holes in the driftwood-like dead logs along the bank just somehow appear to have been purposely landscaped to such perfection that it just doesn’t seem real. All that was missing was an animatronic alligator slowly moving its head to follow my progress, maybe with an accompanying roar for the little kids.

I got back to the boat ramp a little after 5:00. I need to get back here again soon. We've got some brisk and breezy days coming up. Stand by.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Wacissa River

I was suffering from some serious paddling withdrawal—too long between paddling trips! This was a beautiful spring day here in north Florida and a perfect time to go back to the Wacissa River.

When I got there, I found that there were three people about to launch in a three-person SOT boat. I’ve never seen a 3-person kayak before. I went over to them and commented that it was a great day to go paddling. They said that they had just rented the boat, and had never paddled before. We talked briefly about the river—they were not aware of the Blue Springs inlet, and they wanted to know if there was any place to get out and picnic on Cedar Island. They set out a little before I did, and for a short time I was following them.

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However, between their having three people paddling one boat, and my slow progress in order to not startle birds, they soon pulled ahead and out of sight.

There were some young blue herons (still white) not too far from the boat ramp. These little birds are so impressive.

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It was a very peaceful day on the river. There was a bit of a wind blowing upstream, and the usual current. I wondered how the other kayakers would do paddling upstream against the wind on their way back to the boat ramp.

I drifted downstream and decided to see if they found the place on Cedar Island, which is 3 miles downstream of the boat ramp, to get out for their picnic. As I approached the island, I spotted their bright green kayak at the little place where you can get out. I decided that since I also had to paddle upstream against the wind, I would skip going around the island and just head back.

A short time later I saw the first limpkin I have seen here in 2006! These birds are all over this river in summer, both in the shoreline greenery and in the trees, but they have been totally absent all winter. So seeing this one (and only this one) was fun.

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I went into the Blue Spring inlet on the way back. For the first time ever on this river, I saw a deer run from the river’s edge into the woods—that was pretty cool! A little further in, I saw two otters dart along the shoreline, making a lot of noise in the leaves. And yet, no birds in there. Strange. This river is different every time.

My #1 photographic goal on every paddling trip is to see (and, ideally, get a picture of) a male wood duck. I gather they are common in some places, but not the waters I frequent—so I don’t get to meet this goal very often. I was very close to the boat ramp when I saw some duck-like birds in the surface-level greenery. They weren’t moorhens, there was none of the characteristic head-bobbing motion of those birds. I turned the camera on and paddled closer.

It was a male and female wood duck pair, much to my utter amazement. Only got one picture of them before they flew off (these are some very shy ducks).

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It was a great day on the river today.

Before I close this post, I have another book recommendation. I have been reading The River of Doubt by Candice Millard. This is (to quote the jacket) “the true story of Theodore Roosevelt’s harrowing exploration of one of the most dangerous rivers on earth.” It’s pretty much a paddling adventure. It’s very well-written and reads like a novel, but is all the more interesting because it is true. If you are a paddler (as I assume most readers of this blog are), this is a book you might really enjoy. Check it out.

Meanwhile, our rainy forecast has cleared somewhat and so I hope to not have to go so long between paddling trips. Stand by for the next report.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Ochlockonee River, Sopchoppy River, Wakulla River

This was another 2-night camping trip to Ochlockonee River State Park near Sopchoppy, Florida. I have in the past disparaged the paddling around this park. There are three directions you can go from the boat ramp. I had tried two of them, both of which were ultimately somewhat boring as far as scenery and bereft of wildlife. I took option #3 this time, which was to turn left out of the boat ramp and right when I got to the Ochlockonee River. A couple from Vermont who were staying in the campground launched their canoe shortly before I set out, and I followed them for the early part of the paddling trip.

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While the water looks quite calm in that picture, the wind kicked up a bit shortly after I took that, and reached about 8 mph. A bit brisk, and we were paddling against the tide as well. It was fine; great exercise.

However, shortly after rounding that point of grass that is just ahead in the photo, I came to what appeared to be an inlet going off to the right. The water looked calmer in it and I decided to explore it. It looks peaceful, doesn’t it?

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There was no wind, it was pretty and green and utterly, utterly still. I learned later that (as far as I can tell), this was actually the Sopchoppy River (hey Scott, I got on it after all!). It was serene, although it had elements of if-something-happens-to-me-in-here-they-will-never-find-me to it as well. The couple in the canoe had not taken that right turn.

It went on forever, seemingly—given that I thought at the time it was an inlet. And then I saw a large alligator slide into the water from a bank just ahead of me. I find the gators at the Wakulla and Wacissa to be preferable for not just their size but their tendency to stay in sight as you go by. I paddled on, a tad nervous but also enjoying it too much to turn around just yet. Another gator had been sunning on the water’s surface and it slowly sank out of sight. Boy, I hate it when they do that.

After about an hour I decided that if this was an inlet, or a side channel that might connect back to the Ochlockonee, it wasn’t ending or connecting soon enough. So I turned around.

Shortly after turning around I saw the BIGGEST alligator I have ever seen—possibly including the monster ones at Okefenokee. It was half out of the water on an inclined bank so I could only see from its nose to about its armpits (whatever those are called on gators). In fact, I would not have seen it had I not noticed the smaller gator in the water next to it sink below the surface, which caused the big one to move its head. I’m sure my mouth dropped open. Its shoulders were at least two feet across, if not more. I’ve always taken a lot of security from the information that gators tend to not want to bother anything larger than they are, and my 14’ long kayak, with my torso height added and paddles for width, has always made me bigger than any gator I have encountered. Not this one. It slid down the bank and then made a great show of splashing when it turned around to face me. Meanwhile, I was trying to remember whether there were any underwater limbs or obstructions in this area that could tip me over. It was not that much fun right then.

But I moseyed along unmolested. Another alligator acted as escort for awhile. Then an otter went running from far up the left bank toward the water and dived in and submerged.

I was still somewhat glad to get out of there. I’d like to go back again, but not alone.

On the way home the next day I passed over the Wakulla River at about 1 pm. The tide was fairly far in, it was a very warm day with sunshine and white clouds, so of course I decided to unload the boat and get in more paddling time.

It was perfect. If not for the lack of leaves on the trees, it could have been a warm June day. I passed under a bald eagle, who watched me from his high perch draped with Spanish moss.

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Great egrets were perched here and there in the shoreline greenery (which is coming back in a big way!). This ibis was all alone, fishing among the leaves.

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I saw a normal-sized alligator sunning along the bank, and this little one (no perspective here, but it was probably not even four feet long) just watched me go by.

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And then I saw it. Let me give you a little background on this duck--a male red-breasted merganser. Two Wakulla trips ago I saw this duck (or one like it)—never seen one like it on the Wakulla. I could not get a picture of it as it kept swimming into the shoreline horticulture. Last time I went I was able to get a picture, but it was swimming so fast that I had to anticipate it to get any focus, and ended up with only the front 2/3 of the thing in the picture, which just doesn’t count. Well, here it was again. It was swimming upstream in the same direction I was going. It was diving underwater a lot—the water is so clear that I could watch it swim around before it emerged. I stayed with it, at a distance. At first it kept looking over at me and putting more lateral distance between us. But after about 10 minutes of moving side-by-side, it must have decided I was not a threat. It got very close to the boat when it surfaced a few times. I took a lot of pictures before finally deciding to move on and let it dine in peace. Here are three of them that I like. Very, very neat duck.

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I didn’t go all the way to the upper bridge, though I got close. On the way back I passed this dock with these three chairs on it. These chairs are always on this dock, and they have always reminded me of Papa Bear, Mama Bear, and Baby Bear’s chairs—I thought maybe when the trees greened up a bit I might get a picture of them. Well, it appears that the Bears have a pet egret. So I took the picture now.

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It was a nice, quiet float downstream. I saw two people in a canoe and otherwise it was just me and the birds. Fairly close to the boat ramp I saw a small duck swimming around, diving underwater and coming right back up. It was not particularly shy. It was a very cute pied-billed grebe (thanks, Kim, for the i.d.). So of course I took some pictures of it.

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Land-based pictures—deer, songbirds (unusual for me), and a scenic shot—and an accounting of the camping portion of this trip are posted on Camping Tent Tales .

I want to thank Chris of the Sea Paddler website for the link to this blog. They have a wealth of information over there related to kayaking, so if you are surfing for some great paddling sites, drop in on them!

Our weather is turning perfect again and I plan to spend as much time as possible on the water! Stand by for the next report.