March 3-9, 2012
Dam to the Bay on the Ochlockonee River
by Doug Alderson
Tornado warnings, fierce winds and sheets of rain greeted more than 30 kayakers and canoeists at Ed and Bernice's Fish Camp along Highway 20, 20 miles west of Tallahassee.
The camp was the gathering point for Paddle Florida's second annual Dam to the Bay Paddle on the Ochlockonee River in early March—six days, 76 miles—and by first impressions, it would be a trip of the damned.
But we knew favorable weather was in the forecast. So, we squeezed tents under pavilions and stayed dry the best we could. We even started a fire along the edge of one pavilion. Sleep was difficult that night as rain battered the tin-roofed shelters.
The next morning was blustery, but skies were a deep blue. Bald eagles, ospreys and vultures soared while long garfish near the water's surface seemed especially frisky. Was this gar mating season?
In the afternoon, a few of us stopped at the historic Langston Ferry site. The ferry ran from 1876 to 1929 in the days before the Highway 20 bridge. People who approached from the west side of the river often blew a conch shell to alert the Langston family on the other side to bring the ferry boat. Charges ranged from a nickel to 20 cents, depending on the load size.
The Stoutamire family manages the site and they have erected a covered bridge Methodist chapel across a side stream with memorial benches honoring family members who have passed. Appropriately, they have included a conch shell on a chain so guests can give the traditional horn blow for the ferry.
Nearing our campsite at the Huey P. Arnold Park after 16 swift miles, some boat anglers told me they had rescued a man in a yellow kayak who had tipped over after hitting a snag. He made a total of three people who took unscheduled swims on this first day due to snags, swift current, and the narrow and twisting nature of the river in sections. The river often moved us along at five miles per hour with only light paddling.
That night, I dreamed of torches floating down the waterway, and these flickering lights soon turned into paddlers. I began to think how rivers were much more than simply paths that nature has made for water to flow downhill.
So many species have evolved in and along these waterways that they are corridors of life and therefore, fascinating places to paddle. The Ochlockonee is especially attractive, flowing through lands now protected by various local, state and federal agencies and sensitive private landowners, keeping the river's natural systems largely intact.
And it is almost completely overlooked by most people in Tallahassee. This reverie was interrupted by shivering as night temperatures dipped into the thirties. Why hadn't I brought my long johns or fleece sweat pants!?
Monday, our second day, warmed to short-sleeve shirt weather in the 70s. The swing in temperatures was astounding.
Ronny Traylor, our trip leader, showed us a small riverside cabin since he knew the owners. Humorous and philosophical signs covered the aged siding.
How many backwoods cabin owners post quotes of Albert Einstein?
A side slough filled with gnarled old-growth cypress added to our day's explorations. These trees were spared the logging boom of the 1920s due to their twisted nature and low wood value. They seemed to emanate age, respect and quiet. Unlike most of the river trees, the green cypress needles weren't popping out yet.
Owl cries echoed across our camp at the remote Whitehead Lake Campground. The river hadn't crested from the heavy rains and there were worries that our boats near the landing would be washed downriver, so we tied them to trees. We also heard that flooding was possible at Ed and Bernice's Fish Camp and that our parked vehicles could be threatened. Paddle Florida coordinator Bill Richards vowed to keep abreast of the danger and rush to the camp to move our vehicles if necessary.
We tried to push the threats out of our mind around the fire as we told stories and jokes and sang a round of "Grandma's Feather Bed" by John Denver. We also humorously observed the various ways people roasted marshmallows. In summary, we easily entertained ourselves.
The landing at Whitehead Lake is separated from the campground by a side stream that must be waded. Overnight, the stream rose from being ankle deep to past our knees, and the water was cold!
We had an interesting chat at the landing with Ben Oneal and Jimmy Sanders of Eastpoint. The duo are deadhead loggers, meaning they pull out submerged cypress and longleaf pine logs in the river after receiving a rather expensive permit from the state.
While the practice often disrupts fish habitat, Ben maintained they are "cleaning up what our ancestors left." About ten percent of the log rafts from the logging boom days sank in the river and sloughs and every flood uncovers more logs. The wood from these old-growth trees can be valuable once sawed into boards for siding and mantles.
As the day warmed, we zoomed down the swift-flowing river, witnessing the ever emerging colors of spring. Besides popping leaves, there were blooming wild azalea and titi. Hawks cried, eagles soared—another perfect day.
We arrived at the Mack Landing Campground just after one o'clock, so many of us had time to explore the tortuous and swift-flowing Mack Slough, another wonderland of cypress and tupelo trees. After dark, Mack Slough was the backdrop for the entertaining and edgy tunes of local musician Grant Peeples.
Paddle Florida is known for providing educational lectures and musical entertainment at their evening camps. On this trip, we also learned about water management, wetlands mitigation, bee keeping and other area paddling trails.
Sopchoppy musician Frank Lindamood provided entertainment at another campground.
Wednesday morning began smoothly as the fast current carried us to our lunch stop at Pine Log Campsite in Tate's Hell State Forest, and some people explored the old-growth cypress along Hitchcock Lake (another side slough).
After lunch things went topsy-turvy. Several people were confident they could find the Womack Creek Campground, our destination, so they left before our trip leader on the ever widening river. Perhaps in the spirit of Cebe Tate, for whom Tate's Hell is named, they became lost.
The high water had opened up several side sloughs that resembled the main channel. Plus, a southerly wind and an incoming tide slowed the current to a near standstill. This resulted in several confusing channel choices and some people chose poorly.
Ronny and I chased down one party, but two others didn't find their way to camp until later in the afternoon. In the future, we vowed to be more careful in this section.
After a short day's paddle to Ochlockonee River State Park on Thursday, we had an oyster feast. There's nothing better than a fresh bushel of oysters steamed over a fire. Some paddlers, such as Peggy McTeague, showed off their oyster shucking expertise, to the delight of many waiting with crackers and hot sauce. A perfect setting for a perfect party.
In the afternoon, time was spent either snoozing or walking along high river banks beneath arching live oaks or through some of the best maintained longleaf pine flatwoods in the state.
Red cockaded woodpeckers, an endangered species, are in relative abundance along with an array of songbirds, deer and white squirrels.
Approaching the white sand beaches of Bald Point State Park along the Gulf of Mexico the next morning, we navigated a maze of oyster bars with their associated crying gulls and terns. Ospreys soared and fish popped. Salt air filled the southern breeze—an ideal place to end a six-day paddling journey from the dam to the bay.
For detailed information about the Lower Ochlockonee River Paddling Trail, log onto the Florida Department of Environmental Protection detailed map and trail description in a pdf.
March 12 through 18, 2011 — Paddle Florida's First Annual Dam to the Bay Adventure
by Doug Alderson
The Ochlockonee River was up.
A fierce storm two nights before had created a swift waterway where a lazy river had flowed. Mid-March was unpredictable that way, but the sure thing thirty paddlers could expect on a six-day, 76-mile journey from the Jackson Bluff Dam at Lake Talquin to the Gulf of Mexico was spring beauty in all its glory, and a wild river that primarily flows through undeveloped conservation lands.
It was the first ever "Dam to the Bay" Paddle Florida kayaking excursion. Paddle Florida is a non-profit organization that got its start in 2008 taking large numbers of paddlers down the Suwannee River, working closely with area outfitters, local governments and the Florida Park Service. Since then the group has focused on sponsoring a trip in each of Florida's five water management districts. This would be its northwest Florida journey.
We gathered at Ed and Bernice's Fish Camp along Highway 20, thirty miles west of Tallahassee. The long-time family-owned business is a large circular clearing of land along the river dotted with pavilions and a handful of motor homes. The camp normally caters to anglers in motorboats, but now it was decorated with colorful kayaks and tents. According to the owners, the bustle of activity would attract attention and more business.
On arrival we received a t-shirt, a packet of information from different sponsors, a water bottle and other goodies. Participants pay a registration fee and an optional meal plan fee. For this trip, the caterer was the Doobie Brothers Barbeque and Catering out of Bristol. The father/son team would have to set up their portable kitchen at three remote Apalachicola National Forest campgrounds, one Tate's Hell State Forest campground, and the group camp at Ochlockonee River State Park.
For each event, Paddle Florida spends between $4,000 and $22,000 on food alone, depending on the group's size. Add to that the costs for a large rental truck to carry gear, port-a-potties, gasoline, entertainment, campground fees and what each participant pays for food, gas and lodging before and after each trip, and Paddle Florida provides a boost to local economies.
While some set up their tents or gathered in small groups to chat or paddle to the dam to wet a fishing line, I pored over maps with Bill Richards and Jan Corcoran, co-founders of Paddle Florida, and our trip leader, Ronny Traylor. Traylor is a retired recreation director for the Apalachicola National Forest and probably knows the river better than anyone alive.
"My goal is for everyone to have a good time and not get lost," he informed us. "I've tied some pink and white flags at the confusing turns and side channels we'll need to take to our campgrounds. We just want everyone to stay in sight of the paddler in front and back."
The Ochlockonee gives the appearance of a wide, easy flowing river from the Highway 20 Bridge, but it quickly narrows and becomes fast and tortuous in sections, with numerous side streams and sloughs. In places bluffs and long sandbars line the shores; in others the river banks disappear into thick swamps dominated by cypress and tupelo gum trees with little dry land. Near the Gulf of Mexico the river widens and paddlers are greeted with vast salt marsh prairies on either side and mazes of tidal creeks.
A team of us had scouted the river the summer before, and Richards obtained the necessary special use permits for group camping from the agencies managing the campgrounds where we would stay. This was likely the first group of this size to paddle the river since Creek and Seminole Indians in the 1800s. It took some careful logistical planning.
Part of Paddle Florida is educational. Each evening there are lectures and/or musical entertainment. On the first evening, we heard from Robert Lide with the Northwest Florida Water Management District, speaking of their efforts to restore the hydrology of Tate's Hell Swamp. Wwe also received safety instructions from Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) officer Lane Bentley. On other nights there would be talks about Florida's designated paddling trails, restoration of the Kissimmee River, and FWC recreation opportunities.
Musical entertainment—a Paddle Florida mainstay—would be provided by folk singer Raiford Starke, often described as "the human jukebox."
Of course the real showcase of any Paddle Florida trip is the featured waterway. When we embarked on a cool Sunday morning, the river cloaked in a rising mist, a bald eagle kept an eye on us from a perch in a tall snag and two otters romped playfully along the shore. Great blue herons flew overhead.
Over the next several days, we would spot various ducks, alligators, turtles, water snakes, wild turkeys, woodpeckers, wading birds and graceful swallow-tailed kites. Endangered Atlantic sturgeon are now swimming up the river to spawn, but we didn't see any of the primitive looking fish leaping out of the water.
Plants, too, put on a show along the river as spring unfolded with each day—bright green cypress needles and gum leaves, red maple seeds, striking red bud trees and the white and pink blossoms of wild azalea.
And with each day, our small community of paddlers became more cohesive. People grew closer through the long hours of paddling together, sharing meals and group camps, and in a few instances, rescuing each other after accidently tipping over in the river. Jokes and funny stories flowed freely. Previous or current professions didn't matter—fireman, physician, Army helicopter pilot, economist, contractor, commercial pilot, pharmacist, teacher, librarian, manufacturing engineer, dental assistant, substance abuse counselor—everyone was on equal footing.
Building community in an outdoor setting was what motivated Richards and Corcoran to create Paddle Florida. The idea first gelled in 2006 when they took a long distance paddling trip down the Suwannee River with two other friends.
"About halfway through we determined that people would love to do this if they didn't have to carry their gear and cook their food," said Richards, who has a background in sports management and tourist development.
The template for the logistics was modeled after the annual Paddle Georgia and Bike Florida trips. "We had 160 people on our first event down the Suwannee and I knew we were onto something," he continued. "When you think about it, it doesn't get any better than this for nature-based tourism."
Corcoran added, "I do this because I love paddling, love people, and I get out of the house. I enjoy getting to know a variety of people from all over."
On the Ochlockonee trip, there were numerous participants from the state of Florida—Jacksonville, Miami, Dunnellon, Inverness, Ponce Inlet, Naples, Sebastian, Eustis and Tampa—but there were also people from Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Virginia and Wisconsin. For its eleven trips and counting, Paddle Florida has had over 350 different people from 26 states participate, and many are repeat customers.
Sharing a river he has known all his life is what motivated third generation Florida native Ronny Traylor of Bristol to volunteer as the trip leader. "This is an opportunity for people to explore a river they would normally not do on their own," he said at our last night's camp at Ochlockonee River State Park. "I love to see their faces as they discover new things and new places and hear their stories in the evening of what they've seen and experienced that day. I've enjoyed watching the community grow and see the interactions and the bonds that are developing. There is awesome camaraderie here, and we support each other."
Traylor paused for a moment as he scanned the golden marsh grass of the lower Ochlockonee floodplain. "I enjoy what I've had here all my life, but I enjoy it more when I can share it."
Bill Detzner, a special education school teacher on spring break from Miami, appreciated Traylor and Paddle Florida for the opportunity to experience a river "I never even heard of before."
"This is a great place to see wildlife and to unwind and relax," Detzner added. "It's a very calming experience to paddle along like this. I met a whole lot of new people and now have the resources to do this with my wife and friends on my own when I retire in five years."
On the trip's last day, we paddled toward the gaping mouth of the Ochlockonee Bay, the water a dead calm. The sun rose slowly through clear skies; a nearby osprey stirred in its bucket nest of sticks in a dead cypress snag and unseen birds sang from the vast marshy expanse on either side of us.
As I paddled alongside a man I had met six days before, he confided that he had lost his older brother to a stroke just the day before and would be going to his funeral directly from the landing at Bald Point State Park.
After offering my condolences, I suggested we dedicate this beautiful morning to his brother. He wholeheartedly agreed. After paddling quietly for awhile, the man relayed how they had fished this very river when he was a young boy and that his brother was a bit upset with him for catching the bigger fish.
"He was fourteen years older," my companion said with a chuckle. "I think it hurt his pride."
"You need to share that story at the funeral," I suggested. He smiled and nodded.
After paddling beneath the mile long Highway 98 Bridge, we could see the spit of Bald Point ahead and the vast Gulf of Mexico beyond. This Paddle Florida journey was about to end, but I felt confident that many more would follow and that the Ochlockonee River would again showcase its wild beauty to a growing community of paddlers.
Ochlokonee adventure began at Ed and Bernice's Fish Camp with overnights at Pine Creek Landing, Whitehead Lake, Mack Landing, Womack Creek and Ochlockonee River State Park. The journey ended at Bald Point State Park, 76 miles down the river.
Dam to the Bay — the Ochlockonee
Days 1 and 2 — Ed & Bernice’s Fish Camp to Pine Creek Landing
More detailed route map.
Day 3 — Pine Creek Landing to Whitehead Lake
More detailed route map.
Day 4— Whitehead Lake to Mack Landing
More detailed route map.
Day 5 — Mack Landing to Womack Creek
More detailed route map.
Day 6 — Womack Creek to Ochlockonee River State Park
More detailed route map.
Day 7 — Ochlockonee River State Park to Bald Point State Park
More detailed route map.