Sunday, July 25, 2010

Lake Santeetlah from Robbinsville, NC

I can't change the direction of the wind, but I can
adjust my sails to always reach my destination.
~Jimmy Dean

It's been five years since I last paddled this lake--way too long! I rented a house right on the lake with a little beach in front, perfect for kayak launching. My friend Deb from Indiana drove down to join me for a couple of days. I got there several hours before she did. I unloaded the car and then took my water hammock down to the lake for some peaceful floating to cool off (of course it was significantly cooler and less humid than the weather I left behind). Here in Florida there are very few, if any, lakes that you would want to flop down in on a water hammock with your legs and arms dangling over the sides into the water, totally unconcerned about drifting away from the dock as the waves rock you back and forth....there's always that pesky possibility of a gator mistaking one of your limbs for a tasty treat. I floated in Santeetlah for over an hour, just occasionally making an effort to not end up in the middle of this large lake. What a joy.

Lake Santeetlah is crystal clear and, even in the heat of July, comfortably cool--not too cold, not too warm. The shoreline is 80% national forest, with no houses or other development, just woods, with a few primitive campsites available here and there. It is surrounded by mountains.

Before we begin with the photos, I want to mention that if your monitor tends to favor greens, some of these photos will likely seem oversaturated with green. The leaves were green, the water was green, the shoreline reflections were green. There's not much I can do about how that green appears on your screen except hope it isn't too bizarre. It's really green around there!

Here is the view from the porch of the vacation rental:

Deb arrived safe and sound. The following morning we headed out paddling. We quickly left the houses and docks behind and had only woods and mountains around us.

This lake has many coves and narrow fingers to explore. We followed along the shoreline, making our way generally clockwise. We came to an area that showed signs of being one of those campsites; there were remnants of a campfire laid out near the water. In most places the bottom of the lake rises gradually and so it's simple to get out of the boat. So we got out there. We had found a styrofoam "noodle" along the edge prior to getting to this point. We took turns using the noodle for flotation and our life vests (which we were both pleased to find would actually support us while floating....good to know....), and were in the water for quite a while. Suddenly we heard a loud splash, and a chocolate lab started swimming toward us. A woman had come walking down a trail carrying a tent and two bag chairs. Evidently you can set up your stuff at one of these primitive sites early, as a way of reserving it. She was going to be camping there the next night with two others and had come in to claim the spot. We talked for a while, she set up her tent and left. We paddled out shortly afterward.

This lake has water-skiers, jet skis, and other motorized traffic on it, but they don't tend to come into the coves, so we had no trouble from them. Aside from their wakes, the lake was very smooth and very easy to paddle. Smelled good, too.

Back at the house, we had a pretty sunset that night.

The next day we headed out to paddle Calderwood Lake, about 15 miles away. There isn't a lot of info with photos out there about Calderwood, so I have decided to post all that separately, so that anyone specifically interested only in the Calderwood post, coming from a Google search, doesn't need to page through all the Santeetlah stuff to get there. The Calderwood post follows this one (or, if you are only seeing this post on your browser page, it's here).

On our way back from Calderwood, we stopped at a scenic overlook with a view of Santeetlah. It was fairly well obscured by the growing trees, but still scenic.

Deb left after those two days. I decided to take a drive along the Cherohala Skyway, which is similar to the Blue Ridge Parkway, only shorter. There are several overlooks you can pull into, each one marked as to whether it provides a hiking trail, picnic area, or photo opportunity (or all three). There was a place to pull over en route to the actual Skyway that offered another, less obscured, view of the lake.

I drove for several miles, stopping now and then. I reached an overlook that offered both a hiking trail and a picnic table, so I stopped to have the lunch I had packed. There were some pretty orange flowers near the picnic table (I'm about as clueless about flower names as I am about songbird identification).

I took the hiking trail to the overlook, which was, again, nearly totally obscured by new tree growth. On the way back, I noticed how full and verdant the woods to my left looked. I have been wanting to get a photo of just greenery to print in a large size, mat, and frame, and this seemed like a good opportunity for that. This is my favorite of the bunch that I took:

I continued on. This was the view at an overlook:

It was getting late and so I decided to turn around at the next overlook. Shortly before the turn-in, I saw this view off to the right side. I pulled into the overlook and walked back to capture this, my last photo on the Skyway:

Lake Santeetlah is a fantastic lake any time of the year, but particularly nice for a Floridian in summer. Cool temps and low humidity, no biting insects, no gators in the water. I know I will be going back next summer... In the meantime, check out the Calderwood post after this one.

If you are going to be in the Robbinsville area and would like to paddle this lake, I know of two public access points (I'm sure there are many). There is a marina north of town---head out 129 about 7 miles from town until you come to a set of two signs that say Lake Santeetlah and Thunderbird Mountain and turn where they indicate. The marina is a right turn just ahead; you will be able to see it when you have the choice of turning right or left. You can also head up 143 toward the Cherohala Skyway (turn off 129 at the Chevron gas station about 2-3 miles north of town). There is a really nice little public access boat ramp on the right that is in a very quiet cove.

Since our days are all going to over 95 degrees as far as the forecast predicts, it could be a while before the next post! Stand by.

Calderwood Lake near Robbinsville, NC

The simplification of life is one of the steps to inner peace.
A persistent simplification will create an inner and outer
well-being that places harmony in one's life.
Peace Pilgrim

My last visit to Calderwood Lake was in 2005 (link to that post is below). I have been waiting for five years to get back to this lake. And this time around I took a lot more photos (last time I was with someone who freaked out at the depth of the lake (400 ft.) and the water temperature (about 50 degrees) and insisted on getting out after about 15 minutes, hence the few photos)!

My friend Deb, a far more intrepid paddler, joined me in NC for some paddling. I was very excited at the prospect of finally returning to Calderwood to go farther than a few hundred yards. I made a point of warning her about the cool air temperature and bone-numbing water temperature I had encountered last time.

A quick note about the photos in this post: It's very green on this lake. The trees are green, the water is green, the foliage reflections in the water are green. If your monitor tends to favor green, these may look oversaturated. Not much I can do about that, but I did want to mention it in case these photos look strangely tinted. They look fine on this end.

We got to the lake and pulled up to the large, gradually-sloped boat ramp.

I hopped out of the car and walked over to put my foot gingerly in the water. Wait....what is this? The water was no colder than the Wacissa on any average day. I had also noted that although we got there at the same time of day and the same time of year as last time, the mist that had been rising off the water last time was also absent. Interesting, and I felt foolish for all my warnings about it.

We launched easily, with no worries about cold water. The bottom of the boat did not chill my feet, as it had last time (I recalled having to wrap them in my paddling towel--I always paddle barefoot).

Calderwood Lake is 8 miles long. The shoreline is completely undeveloped, with a few primitive campsites here and there. There is no discernible current. The water is supernaturally clear. Off we went.

After a short time of paddling, we came to the sound of waterfalls coming from an inlet. We paddled down it to investigate. It was on the left side and turned out to be Slickrock Creek. The water gets shallow and the inlet is fairly narrow. Here are the falls as we approached them:

We had the little creek to ourselves and paddled closer to the falls, hovering around there just enjoying the sound and scenery.

Deb decided to get out and maneuvered her boat into a rocky area. I have discovered that the shorter you are, the harder it is to get out of a kayak in water of any depth. I'm short; it was obvious that I was not going to be able to just swing a leg over the side of my boat and step out, so I stayed in the kayak and enjoyed the view from there. As I recall, Deb decided not to get out after all--there's a reason for the name Slickrock. We finally paddled out of the inlet to continue on the lake.

As I mentioned, this water is incredibly clear. I dipped my paddle in and took a photo of it to try to demonstrate this. You can't really tell, but my paddle blade is about two feet into the water.

The shorelines of this lake are forest and slope steeply upward, with some very rocky areas.


We passed what looked like a picnic table on the left side of the lake; we were paddling on the right. We turned around to head back shortly after that and pulled up to the spot with the table. It turned out to be a campsite, complete with the table, two tent pads, a metal fire ring, and a metal hanger that was not tall enough to keep food away from a bear, but might work against a raccoon. Not sure what that was for. There was even a rope by the water to tie up a boat.

I would estimate that campsite to be approximately 3-4 miles from the boat ramp.

The views on this lake (which is really just like an 8-mile river with no current) vary with every bend and of course change completely when you turn around. It's a beautiful paddle for every minute.

We stopped again in Slickrock Creek on our way back--I had noticed a very shallow area that even a shortie like me could get out in. This time there was a tent set up on what we now saw was a tent pad. There was a canoe on shore as well. We wanted to stretch our legs so we chanced intruding and got out. While we were sitting in the water (which was still Wacissa-temperature), a man and his dog walked back from the falls area. We chatted briefly (this was the gentleman who told us the lake was a mile and a half long and his dog, still sporting puppy fuzz, was six years old) and then got back in our boats and headed out. I would choose that as a camping spot because of the falls and shallow water, Deb preferred the other campsite.

Speaking of camping, you can set up a small camper right near the boat ramp, basically along the side of the road. When I was there in '05, the roadside was lined with campers (some people even had tents set up there). This time there was only one camper:

Here is the boat ramp as seen from the lake:

As we approached the ramp, still a short ways out, I noticed my feet getting cold. I put my hand in the water. It was freezing. The cold was coming through the bottom of the boat. We got out at the ramp and I walked back into the water. My ankles almost immediately stiffened up from the icy water. Ok, that's what I was talking about! Deb barely experienced it at all, which I see as a good thing. I mentioned this to several people over the next few days and the general consensus was that the power company, which owns and is located on this lake near the boat ramp, must have released warm or hot water at about the time that we launched, and that water, perhaps aided by the sun, warmed the lake near the surface for as far as we paddled, only dissipating at about the time we got back to the ramp. Very strange.

To get to Calderwood Lake from the south, follow Hwy 129 north towards Tail of the Dragon, heading north from Robbinsville. You will pass Tapoco Lodge (to reopen in 2011!) on your left. Shortly after that you will go over a bridge and see the large power plant on your right. Immediately after crossing that bridge (start braking when you are on it), turn onto the unmarked road to your left. No sign is visible from the road but after you make your turn, you will see a white sign to the left, and the lake to your left. This is how the road looks, though this is the view as you drive out toward 129:

If you are coming on 129 from the north, first: congratulations on making it down Tail of the Dragon. I have never been farther north on 129 than Calderwood, so I don't know what landmark there may be to tell you that road is coming up on your right. Hwy 129 will be curving left at that point and it may be hard to spot. However, you will see the bridge and power plant and can turn around before or at Tapoco Lodge, if you miss the turn into Calderwood. When we were there this time, there was a porta-potty set up, and of course a woodsy trail. When I was there in '05, the cold air coming off the lake made a light jacket necessary.

The previous post from this lake is here.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Surprise Rookery!

I'm youth, I'm joy,
I'm a little bird that has broken out of the egg.
~Sir James M. Barrie

I spend a fair amount of time driving on Hwy 90 east of Monticello, Florida, which is near my home. At some point last year I noticed that there was this one patch of trees alongside the road that always held a lot of egrets. I noticed recently that there were even more this fact, hundreds. They appeared to be mostly cattle egrets.

This afternoon I was driving by again and, since I had my little point-and-shoot camera in the car, I stopped to take a photo or two of them. Apparently they are used to cars whizzing by but not people walking along the roadside; several flew from their perches. I discovered that there were not only nests in the trees, but a few seemed to have baby egrets in them!

It's difficult to get a good photo of an egret with a point-and-shoot camera, particularly in the sunshine. They usually come out overexposed due to the white feathers. So I got back in the car and drove home, got the big camera, and went back.

There was a lot of greenery between me and the birds, and the nests were obscured by branches, but I was able to get a few photos.


These three were perched on top of a tree, perhaps on guard duty.

Now that I know that this is an actual rookery, I will keep an eye on it next spring, when there might be more young ones in the nests.

Meanwhile, I'm off to NC soon. Stand by.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Herons on the Wacissa

High from the earth I heard a bird;
He trod upon the trees
As he esteemed them trifles,
And then he spied a breeze,
And situated softly
Upon a pile of wind
Which in a perturbation
Nature had left behind.
~Emily Dickinson

I read an article online recently that offered tips on avoiding boredom in your outdoor activities. The item related to paddling suggested that you not return too often in too short a time to the same place to paddle. Hmmm. I can't agree with that. I can see how burnout could occur if you kept going someplace that had nothing particularly new to offer from one visit to the next...but how many bodies of water are like that?

As it turned out, we changed our Wakulla plans (see previous post) because we couldn't time it quite right for the tide, and we returned to the Wacissa. We are far from bored with the Wacissa. And the birds are coming back! Actually...only some of the birds, but in numbers. I was amazed at all the green herons on the river. Normally I can take six paddling trips and not see even one, and on the seventh trip, I'll see one but it will fly away long before I can get a photo of it. Not only were they everywhere on this trip, but they were not shy at all. This one became a bit alarmed when a little blue heron landed near it, and up shot that long neck!

I love it when these long-necked birds look right at me.

Another bird that we saw often on this trip was the juvenile night heron--lots of them. This one peered at me from the shoreline.

We drifted downstream, this time under clear blue skies. I had just finished saying that I wondered if there were any great blue herons around when I spotted this one across the river and went over to it. It was drying its wings as I approached.

As I got closer, it folded its wings and watched me--

--and then flew into a nearby tree and posed some more.

I saw an adult moorhen with chicks around it swim into the shoreline vegetation, and a little farther downriver spotted this mother wood duck with its babies.

After we turned around and headed back upstream, I saw this pair of female woodies perched on a log that is very popular with them--it's not uncommon to see several woodies in this spot.

This immature tricolored heron (adults are not as red) was fishing near the back entrance to Blue Spring.

This was apparently a good day for wing-drying. This young night heron was a little more shy about it.

It was great to see so many birds again on this river. The next paddling trip(s) will be during an upcoming visit to North Carolina. Stand by.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Finally back to the Wacissa!

Summer afternoon - summer afternoon; to me those have always been
the two most beautiful words in the English language.
~Henry James

DH is on vacation this week and we decided to go paddling on the Wacissa. We have had a break in the weather humidity-wise, so this seemed like a good idea. It might have been slightly better had we gotten an earlier start.

When we got there, around 2:00, we put my kayak in the water first. When it was settled nicely, the thunder began. Gray storm clouds appeared overhead. We stood around a while trying to decide what to do. Three-fourths of the sky was blue with white clouds...should we just look at those and ignore the others? At about that time a limpkin landed nearby. I was flabbergasted but thrilled--maybe they are returning to the river! The camera was still in the car, and we were deciding what to do, so no photo of the limpkin.

The thunder quit so we decided to head out but not go far from the ramp, just in case. We got the other kayak in the water and headed out downstream.

The first bird we came to was a tricolored heron. Given the lack of birds last time I was here, I wasn't going to pass any by without a photo, so I took one of this guy while I was still at a distance.

He stayed there (as you may already know, all birds are "he" to me, for simplicity) as I drifted past, showing off his gorgeous colors.

There were quite a few snowy egrets out and about--all of which seemed to be doing more flying than fishing. They may be new to the river and not used to boaters; and there were a lot of paddlers and motorboaters out today. We passed this less-timid snowy standing in a spot of sunlight while we meandered downstream.

As we were passing a section of grassy reeds, I spotted a yellow crowned night heron near the river's edge and paddled into the lagoon-like area for a closer look. It was drying its wings, in that most peculiar pose they strike.

I thought I would try to get a little closer, so I continued forward. Over to my left I saw this very young little gator stretched out on a log, no doubt watching me out of the corner of its eye (while looking oh-so-unconcerned).

By the time I got to the vicinity of the heron, it had tucked its wings in and just stood there watching me, looking very skinny.

While there had been no more thunder, the sky was getting quite dark and it seemed like a good time to turn around and head back. So we did.

We came to another snowy egret fishing in some of the surface greenery. This was one of the more timid ones, and at about the time I got the camera up and ready, it decided to take off.

It headed across the river,

and landed on the other side, well away from us.

We heard a noise behind us and glanced downstream. We could actually see the rain approaching, a gray curtain drawn between the sky and the water and moving upstream. Paddling in a thunderstorm is a very scary thing. However, paddling in rain without thunder (or, hopefully, lightning) is wonderful, particularly on a hot summer day. The camera had to be tucked under the kayak deck, wrapped in towels, so I didn't get photos of the other night heron or any of the turtles we passed, but it was fun being on the river in the rain. It had quit by the time we got back to the ramp, but the sky was still very threatening, so we loaded the kayaks in the truck and called it a day. I looked for the limpkin but no luck.

DH seems to be in full paddling mode now and is talking about getting to the Wakulla River sometime this week, weather permitting. We'll see. Stand by.