GA: St. Mary’s to St. Simon’s Island

I stumbled upon the Georgia Blueway Paddling Trail which snakes it’s way along the ICW and through the marshes of Georgia’s coastline. Using this trail, I’ve been able to plan my journey a bit better and keep out of the open ocean and busier ICW when possible.

Tide was out as I shoved off and set down Barrel Creek to St. Mary’s.

A brief stop at the town of St. Mary’s revealed the boat ramp in shambles but an excellent kayak dock at Knucklehead’s Kayak Tours for me to use. He gave me a bunch of good advice in the way a grizzled Vietnam Vet chainsmoking cigarettes only can, then a bumper sticker to add to my growing collection under the rear hatch. The Cumberland Island Visitor center folks let me know the wilderness area of the island was off limits for hunting season so I could only arrange and pay to camp at Sea Camp, a short paddle and then a bit of a walk to camp. Instead, I thanked them and paddled on down the river with the falling tide and then up the west side of Cumberland Island as the tide rose. I passed the historic and stately homes and admired the wild horses I saw grazing on the shoreline. The miles ticked away as the tide helped me northward and I found myself at Plum Orchard around sunset.

There a fisherman who had taken part in the hunt told me I couldn’t camp there. Without a 7 mile paddle to Crooked River, I had no options but sleeping in the marsh so instead I stealth camped behind an old concrete building that had sunken into the marsh from storms.

Overnight the crunching outside my tent in the palmetto revealed itself to be a horse lazily munching away and exploring through the night. Satisfied it wasn’t a hunter or ranger, I fell back asleep to the wind in the oaks.

Making my way off Cumberland Island as early as possible, I continued along the paddling trail and soon found my way to Floyd’s River. Running low on water, I needed to find some and stopped at an abandoned military type place with many no-trespassing signs. Wearing my kayaking gear and carrying my jug, I wandered around down a road to a big dock where a small pumphouse had a spigot. Nobody stopped me and a glance at Google Maps showed this was the planned Camden Spaceport. Critical article here.

The mud here was soft and I sunk to my knees in the sticky tidal soup attempting to get back into the boat. In this region of Georgia’s coast, the tides can range up to 8-9 feet either leaving me paddling through the grass to the marsh edge or dragging the boat up sharp oyster shells and slippery muck to the shoreline. Not easy. There are few listed campsites along this route so I’ve had to get creative a few times in finding a campsite above the high tide line and with some protection.

One night on Jointer Island, I had a great view of the Lanier Bridge over to Brunswick, GA.

The wind would shift directions and the smell of trucks and the paper mill would waft my way. I’m certainly not used to being around big towns after all this time on the water. The following day I crossed the Brunswick River Channel and was about halfway through the difficulty of headwinds and fighting the tide when a large car transport ship materialized below the bridge. These big ships can move deceptively quick so I changed course and let it plow under the bridge, glad it wasn’t producing too high of a wake yet.

A quick stop at the park down by the bridge then I continued on to Southeast Kayak Adventures shop. The dock was destroyed and the marsh at low tide was nearly impassable. I did manage to get out and confirm the shop was closed and then continued over to the Marshes of Glynn Overlook Park where the oysters scraped my hull as I hauled it up on to the high tide line and chained it up below the trash manitee.

Spending the afternoon walking around, I stopped for coffee at McD’s and then headed to Winn Dixie. Just another fine winter afternoon in the south. The loud highway near my tent was an annoyance but the lights flashing on the canopy was like a light show with the many shapes and designs swirling about. Come morning, I steadily made my way to the Frederica River and upstream and across to St Simon’s Island and the historic Gascoigne Park. It was here that the live oak timbers for the CSS Constitution, “Old Ironsides”, were cut and shipped north for shipbuilding.

The next few days will be spent here on the island visiting with my folks and spending some much needed time away from the stresses of winter paddling on the saltwater.

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St Mary’s River

Once deposited on the sandy beach of the St. Mary’s river, I knew there was only 50 miles or so to the Atlantic. A sense of accomplishment was creeping across me as the closeness of the peninsular crossing was at hand. Dustin suggested I camp at the pavillion lean to on the Florida bank. Sure enough an excellent shelter offered a place to pitch the tent out of that evening’s rain.

The current carried me downstream and I had to change my mindset from seeking the eddies and inside of bends from upstream travel. That was until 11am when the tides shifted and all those upstream tricks came back to assist.

At King’s Ferry on the second day on the river, low tide revealed hundreds of timber slabs from the logging days lodged into the bank and grown over by a network of cypress roots. The long straight and rough sawn wood remains from the days of logjams and huge lumber mills that processed the virgin timber.

The White Oak golf course appeared like a strange invasion on the many miles of stunning wilderness. Golf carts whizzed past on manicured greens and the sand pits up there looked much different than the tidal silt coating the shoreline.

A bald eagle perched in a tall pine observed me as I passed. Surprisingly this was the first eagle I’ve seen since the Gulf so there must be abundant fish. Many hawks and turkey vultures grace the inland skies where rodents and small mammals comprise the prey.

Hwy 17 swing bridge that was being remodeled in 2014 when I started adventuring on rhe ruckus and was forced to take I-95 over the St. MARY’S.

The final push to the Gulf found me nearing the roar of I-95 at sunset. Instead of camping in the tidal marsh, I found a vacant lot wedged between waterfront homes and hauled out on sharp concrete chunks at high tide. Later in the AM at low tide this would make for a challenging lowering where I’d tweak my back. The sunset over the marsh was well worth the effort and I devoured a can of pink salmon and carrots/celery.

In the morning I fought the tide for a bit and wound my way through the marsh with the help of Google satellite view to guide me up Borrell (pronounced Brill) Creek to St. Mary’s modern strip mall area.

Here I found a closed restaurant and landing to stash the boat while I ran in to resupply. I dined like a king and picked up groceries to last the next leg of the trip up the ICW and following the Southeast Coastal Paddling Guide.

My next stop is the historic town of St. Mary’s which is home to live oak canopied historic streets and quaint homes beneath Spanish moss. Looking forward to walking around and meeting the local kayaking shop for information ahead. Using my mobile phone I uploaded a few maps for the next section to CVS photo center and picked the maps up for $1. When the library is closed it’s important to think outside the box.

In a week I’m happy to announce a meeting with my folks in Brunswick, GA to catch up. Something to paddle forward to ūüôā

Okeefenokee Swamp

The water level was still so high that instead of portaging around the river sill, I took the leftmost line and paddled hard over it. With a light scrape and a nudge forward I crossed into the Okeefenokee. A broad blue sky appeared ahead making me aware of how sheltered the river had been over the past month.

Following the orange blazed canal route, I headed up the River Narrows, aware of the light current now. At times I felt like I was flying compared to the untamed river flow. I soon left the bald cypress Prarie of grasses and ibis and entered a wilderness swamp with carefully manicured overhanging limbs.

Paddling through the forest was made that much easier by the many mile markers and flagging tape.

My intention was to camp at the Stephen Foster State Park (this one now in GA) but Hope and Eddy, fellow kayakers I met at Mixon’s Hammock told me it was $20/night! I’d happily stay here on the island with the hawks and owls for company than become prey to the park.

Eddy shared his awesome National Geographic paddling map which I took a few pics of. Hope admired my old Prijon and longed for many features that have gone out of favor in modern kayaks. Their boats sure looked sleek and light though!

Stopping in to the state park for water, I was told they didn’t give out the wifi password. That’s been 2 weeks now without connection but I’m okay with that and buy a sticker then move on. The government shutdown meant the Fish and Wildlife Service was not processing new permits for the wilderness portions of the Okeefenokee. Not having a solid grasp on when I’d reach the swamp, I couldn’t reasonably get a date or permit in line. Weighing my options, I decided to charge the swamp and complete the Canal Run route in a day or so with hopes I didn’t run into a furloughed ranger.

A stop at Billy’s Island was a great stretch and opportunity to enjoy the many woodpeckers that inhabit this environment. A homesteading family squatted here until kicked out in the 1930’s. Now that’s a remote spot!

The canal run route, also shown on maps as East Fork of Suwannee River is a narrow and meandering path hacked through the swamp connecting the two wider canal routes. A plan was made in the 19th century to link the Gulf and Atlantic via this canal but later the Okeechobee Lake and canals won over. What remains is a 20 mile paddle of fabulous quality and signage.

I met two other kayakers near Canal Run Shelter and found they were staying there tonight. Still early, I turned onto the wide canal and followed it another 5 miles to the Coffee Bay Day shelter. Here I watched the sun set on coffee bay and the bright moon shine on the lovely swamp. The picnic table had over 20 years of carvings.

The following day found me on the water bright and early and hoping no officials came around asking about me. The reflection on the Lakes was spectacular.

The broad canal route was mostly open to the sky but some sections had overgrowth canopy and Spanish moss touching the surface.

A side trip 2 miles to Cedar Hammock was worth the view and gator sighting. Spotted 9 mostly small gators on the short morning paddle. By 11AM I had reached the end of the canal at the Okeefenokee Adventures outpost. There, I had a hamburger at the cafe and arranged a ride to the Traders Hill Boat Ramp 7 miles away. The grand total? $20! How cool is that.

A big thanks to Mark, Dustin and Nichol for making this dream a reality.

Suwannee River: White Springs to Okeefenokee

Leaving White Springs after a gut filling breakfast at the Fat Belly Cafe, I headed out into the current appreciating the swiftness. Each subsequent bend seemed to bring more frothy white foam meaning the Big Shoals river feature, the largest whitewater class II in Florida was ahead. Approaching the tongue of swift water I was careful to watch the shoreline where trees were swirling with fast water and stadium waves at the trunks. Branches whipped up and down in the turbulent floodwaters as the fall line was now below 10 feet of water. Paddling up to the main flow from the eddy, I nosed my long bow into the wave and soon found myself paddling as hard as I could but making no headway upriver. Water coursed along my boat and a brown wave appeared at my bow where I was surfing the channel. Judgi ng a ferry too risky since the opposite bank was a nest keepers and strainers I returned to the portage trail and unpacked the kayak for a haul around the rapid. I later learned that the river falls 9ft in this section alone!

Back in the water, it was another 3 or 4 miles until the current slackened some. For a while I was worried it would be this tough paddling all the way to Fargo, GA . It was not.

There were pine forests on the river bank and not much else. This area was once frequented by Crackers and the logging industry that finally made turpentine products in camps around these parts. The old dirt highway on the west side of the Suwannee named the Woodpecker Route could be heard in the night from camp. Just as the sun set on my camp at an old bridge site boat ramp, who shows up but my old friend Lee from Fowler’s Bluff! What are the chances. In his travels up and down the state he has been trying to stop and meet me where possible. Having missed me at Gibson Park by a few minutes, he made his luck known tonight with a gift of candy and long conversation. Howdy to Duffy and all my friends downstream at Fowler’s.

Finally arriving in Fargo, I bumped into Jim from Lake Powell who was preparing his kayak and gear to go down the Suwannee to the Gulf. It was hard to do but I parted with the excellent guide that had served me well. I knew he’d need it and we caught up with stories and information at the Suwannee River Cafe. It’s for sale ya’ll !

In the morning I put in as a crew of three set out in Jethro rowing rigs (two canoes lashed together and oar propelled)to complete the river in 7 days. A big undertaking.

The river grows narrow and braided below the tree canopy and soon hard to follow in sections. I refer to my GPS often and soon meet Jim about 6 miles up river who warns me about a section 4 miles ahead and to watch for a Submerged blue barrel marking the Griffis Fish Camp.

It was a solid 14 mile day but I made it to the fish camp and set up before sunset. There I met the great couple Dave and Sheila from NC who offered me coffee and later paid for my camping! Too friendly. Across the way was a group from St. Augustine including the Cheney family. They fed me dump cake and melted banana treats as we sat around the warm fire and watched the wolf moon lunar eclipse turn umber overhead. Come morning, they loaded me up with food supplies, a huge gift that wound up serving me well ahead. I’d need all that food to get me into and through the swamp. It was chilly and just above freezing when I left for the remaining 3 miles to the Suwannee Sill where the river is dammed at the swamp. There I ran into a kayaking meet up group.

And finally at the Sill! 242 miles from the Gulf.

Suwannee River: Dowling Park to White Springs

I stopped in Dowling Park to pick up a shipment at the post office. When I inquired, the post mistress had a shocked look on her face and said she delivered the two items to a resident with my same name! Fortunately after a few phone calls, I walked over to the apartment building and met my döpplenamer, a retired former minister and similarly bearded looking more like Santa than I. After a lunch at the Village Cafe , I was ready to get back on the river and saved my packages for opening later.

That night as I prepared camp,I took time to carefully unwrap each treat and gift in a package from great friends Don and Tracy. The highlight was a hand knit sleeping cap which nearly brought me to tears with the time and thoughtfulness. It fits great! Now all four of my hats have been gifts from friends and family. Know you are keeping my head dry and warm.

The flood waters were subsiding out on the river and within a day, I had paddled past the confluence of the alluvial rich and equally large Withlacoochee River. A park at the former mansion site for Governor Drew served as my camp for the quiet night. I’ll act as if I never saw the “No Overnight Camping ” if bothered but only the owls hooted at me.

The greatest risk at the moment is entanglement among the dense vines and limbs that sweep the swift black waters. My rudder has a tendency to get hung up on twigs, Spanish moss and the occasional vine so I’ve got to be careful in tight areas below trees. Virtually paddling through a canopy has its risks and the more conservative line in higher current is often safer. Another hazard is downstream floatsam such as logs, tires, blue barrels and dock parts. A log jam must have broken free as a minute long procession of trees and inner tubes floated down the main channel. A frothy white mixture of leaves and foam snaking down the river is a marker for the strongest current and visually the first distant sign of which way the river is turning around the next bend.

The trade off with flooding is that many camps are either closed or not charging for camping so I’ve had a pretty cushy experience each night. The excellent river camps that were open had showers and electricity to accommodate this weary paddler. Walking through trails under long leaf pine forests at sunset, I sipped my black coffee and reminded myself to be present in the beauty of this environment. A river otter slips in and out of the murky swamp below, a buck snorts through the rows of planted pine and I clumsily return an owl’s hoot.

This tree house is available to rent overnight via Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park. How cool is that?

A brief stop at the Steven Foster cultural Park was a nice break for coffee Wi-Fi and be listen to their Carrilon bell tower.

Unfortunately they weren’t allowing campers so I continued another 2 mi up river as darkness came upon the waters. The sound of tires on bridge joints sounded around a bend and soon I had reached the highway wayside park 171 miles from the Gulf of Mexico in White Springs. From here I’ve got another 60+ miles to the Okeefenokee with a stop in Fargo for resupply.

Suwannee River: Branford to Dowling Park

The remarkable river camps along this section made excellent overnight stops.  Equipped with showers, sleeping platforms and electricity, these were a welcome treat after 10 miles of daily upstream paddling.  The sunsets this time of year are fabulous.

A heavy 2″ rain storm rolled in last week so I spent an extra day at the Adams Tract River Camp while the rain drummed down.¬† I had enough food and water so it was just my job to keep the mind active and the coffee steaming.

After the rain, I found the meadow beneath the oaks dotted with wild turkey and deer feeding on acorns and mushrooms.

These Innocence Flowers bloom between Dec-Mar and dot the river banks and low hardwood forests.  Additionally oak buds are appearing and spring feels like it is just around the corner!

 

While preparing to go to bed and with my headlamp on, I noticed what I thought was broken glass wedged between the floorboards of the sleeping porch.¬† Upon further investigation and using a wooden pry tool to extract it, I was surprised to have found a diamond!¬† This is the second diamond I’ve found “in the wild” since my travels began, the other a silver diamond ring in the forests of east Texas.

In this common tree full of buzzards, I spotted a light colored or albino with white markings. Quite unique.

The historic Drew Railroad Bridge last operated in the 1920’s and has since been left in the “open” position for up and downstream travel.¬† The rusted relic reminds me of the many aged bridges through Appalachia.

Afternoon thunderstorms sometimes threaten but the faster they come, the quicker they go!

The karst limestone geology of this area allows for the development of sinkholes and springs which bubble to the surface.  While camped at Lafayette Blue Springs Park, I took a stroll down their trail which connects the many springs and sinkholes that pop out of the forest.  The entire network is linked underground by a series of caves which are frequented by divers during warmer weather.

Some of the old relics along the way are worth pulling into the shoreline trees to snap a photo.¬† Any guesses on what model car this was?¬† 1930’s coupe?

When packing my boat in the morning I have to be extra careful not to squish some of the local wildlife that may take up residence.¬† The dragonfly mating on my boat’s bow, frogs decorating it at night and turtles and snakes along the shore make me feel like I’m in spring already.¬† The warmer weather this past week and forecast of more mild temps is really making the days go by more easily.

Having arrived at Dowling Park for a resupply, I’m happily surprised that 113 miles of this river are behind me and a little more than double that to go.¬† The flood level has fallen but is still in a very high state of flow.¬† Once I pass the¬†confluence of the Withlacoochee River in 20 miles, I’ll be dealing with about half the flow. though in a more narrow channel. My next resupply and update will be in White Springs, about 70 miles upstream.¬† Thanks for the support and input along the way!

 

 

Suwannee River: Fowler’s Bluff to Branford

The kindness of Treasure Camp’s owner, Duffy, who bought me my hamburger for the night was wonderful.¬† The folks also had a tasty breakfast and I spent an extra hour sipping coffee with the old timers around the communal table. The boat ramp was closed by the county with sign and tape so I slid my kayak into the water beside the grassy park where I spent the night on the front lawn of the closed motel.¬† Back in the water, it was clear things were flooded as I was frequently paddling beneath arching live oaks and into submerged forests.

A dense fog advisory blared on the weather radio each morning and often took until noon to burn off.¬† The cooler pockets within the woods often kept the humid and cold air like a refrigerator and offered nice breaks during the warm days.¬† An unseasonably warm heat wave has meant days in the 80’s and nights in the mid 60’s for January!¬† I’m loving it though for paddling.

This bird feeder caught my eye, seeing as it was at eye level in the flood.¬† From inside a spooked but dry and clever squirrel peered out. This one’s for you Dad!

Folks had told me that red ants float during times of flood.¬† I didn’t believe them.¬† One morning at the Joe Anderson Boat Ramp (I have a friend by that name), I noticed a writhing red mound in the water.

The swift current in the main stream of the river meant the flooded bottomland forest often made for easier paddling.  It was almost a game narrowly slicing between vines, prickers and overhanging branches to make a route back to the open water of the main channel.

The wildlife along this section has been rich with many daily appearances of gar in the water, snake sin the trees and turtles on the logs.

A nice oyster mushroom in the wild at eye level.

This nice boat ramp was closed to the public so I was inside the locked fence for the night.¬† I didn’t feel like anyone would bother me but the few folks who came by to inspect the high river level chatted with me like I was a zoo animal. David Attenborough could have narrated a piece about the Wild American and his smoky twig stove.¬† The sunset view through the fog was pretty spectacular.

This clever soul put his shed on pontoons!  Now that is a lifetime Craftsman warranty!

Gornto Springs, another closed river park and swimming springs. I paddled right into the spring and up to the shelter for the night of New Year’s Eve.¬† A sunny afternoon in the mid 70’s was a treat for sure to wind out the end of the year.¬† I washed up and enjoyed a few podcasts while I cooked dinner.¬† Later at night owls hooted in the trees and fireworks popped in the distance, sounding much closer over the water.

Last night I found myself at the only bit of dry ground at Dorothy Land Boat Ramp.¬† The pad was only 6″ above the river but I had a feeling the level was falling and in the morning saw it was a few inches below where it had been the night before.

Historic Branford, FL lies 76 miles upstream from the mouth of the river and is my night 7 stop and resupply.  This is by far the largest town I have come to yet and has all the amenities necessary for a trip.  The steamwheelers once  traveled the Suwannee for commerce and transportation until the railroad overtook them. This old depot stationed sits poised at the intersection of river and railroad tracks, now converted to a Florida State Trail.  The trail brought me to the library and where I now update the blog.

The nitty gritty is this upstream paddling business is HARD WORK!¬† The gauges show that the river was flowing at over 30’000 cf/s down near Suwannee when I began. Now we’re at roughly 12’000 cf/s on a much narrower and banked river.

Yesterday I passed the Santa Fe River which is ripe with springs but still the current seems to grow stronger.¬† The river is narrowing into limestone shaped geology and courses swiftly in some bends to where I almost cannot make headway.¬† Despite the efforts, I have been able to make about 10 miles each day and count on the ample ramps, campsites and stops along the way for a dry camp.¬†¬†At the moment I’m hoping the slackening floodwaters will assist in my upstream progress but fear that their rate of decrease won’t match my upstream progress.¬† There may come a point where I’ll need to “phone a friend” to drive me up to the Okefenokee if need be.¬† We’ll cross that bridge when we get there but for now, I’ll try for 10 miles a day and keep my head held high.¬† Next update in Dowling Park if I can make it there!