Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail #2

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Greg Bailey | FSKA
Published Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Initially the weather forecast didn't look real good - 15-20 mph winds for day one, followed by 10-15 for the next, then 5-10 on our final day. A cold front was to pass through with shifting winds around the clock through Sunday. As so often happens, the front was very slow in coming and we had onshore winds 15-20 for the entire time.

Franklin, John McNeil and I met Mabel, Sonja, Gus and John Norris at our launch site around 9 am Friday morning. It was a nice place to unload our stuff next to the concrete ramp and along the banks of the lower Aucilla River. After shuttling our vehicles down to Spring Warrior Creek (45 mile drive each way - safe place to leave vehicles) we made it back and into the water around 12:30. 

We hit the open Gulf about an hour later to face the 15-20 mph winds, quartering on our starboard bow, as we headed SE. Gus and Sonja had decided earlier to start an hour or so ahead of the rest of us during the shuttle period, and soon we had caught up with them as we slugged our way down the coast.

Two and three foot seas had us stretched out a bit at times so we made several stops to re-group. Mabel's dog was getting a bit wet as it rode up front, so we stopped in the marsh grass to pump her boat dry and rescue the dog (ASPCA where were you?). Outfitted with its own PFD, he was never in any real danger and in fact looked kind of cool with his little head poking out from the front hatch.

With blue skies and sunshine, and in spite of the strong persistent winds, we eventually made our way the 12 miles or so down to the Econfina River and found the campsite without much difficulty. Now out of the winds and paddling with a burst of speed, someone (name withheld) just flew by the site and had to be tracked down to reverse course. Although the site was marked with the white crossed paddles sign, it was still easy to miss, situated along a non-descript section of the river's edge. It sits to the left as you enter from the Gulf, approximately 2 miles from where the mouth of the river meets the Gulf.

The river's bottom at that spot is muddy so unless the tide is high, you'll exit onto mud, 4-8 inches thick. So we unloaded and placed our 4 tents around the area, packed somewhat close together to allow room for a fire in the fire ring. Plenty of firewood was nearby and soon we had a nice, compact FSKA fire to protect and comfort the weary paddlers. We talked about the weather forecast and three paddlers decided to stay the next two days along the Econfina river and private campground, not wishing to battle the projected 15-20 winds and expected cold front. So we hit the sack once the fire died away and fell asleep to the sound of the roaring winds coming in from the Gulf. Then things got interesting.

Around 3 am I awoke to thunder, lightning and heavy rainfall. Turning over I noticed a bit of water under the tent, surrounding my sleeping pad. As I became more awake and aware of the situation, I realized we had water underneath the tent, actually lifting up the ends of my pad and other stuff inside! I asked Gus if he also had water on his side and he said yes, several inches it seemed.

I unzipped a door and could see things floating next to the tent and under the vestibule! It looked like 3-4 inches of water was surrounding us. Thinking fast of several possibilities I told Gus that we should stay inside the tent until water comes in (via the doors), since the floor was sealed and would keep us dry if the water didn't get over 5 inches or so. I quickly packed my clothes into a dry bag and prepared to abandon the tent if necessary. The water wasn't cold so I was mainly worried about floating ants and snakes. To say nothing about our gear floating away, like paddles, pfd's etc.

I had everything packed in my boat but it wasn't tied down, since it was sitting on ground level with the tents. Gus decided to take a walk out anyway to check on the boats (and his new paddle!), and came back soaking wet, and reported that the river was overrunning the bank and most of the campsite was under water. The only dry areas were near some tree trunks. Hoping the water would not continue to rise, we sat still for two hours, since 3 am was 12 hours since the last high tide, ergo it is now high again. The rain-squall came in at the same time and helped push the tide ever higher. By 5 am the waters had receded enough to allow us to relax and go back to sleep. At first light we walked out to review the carnage.

Three of the 4 tents had water debris marks high along the sides and only mine seemed totally dry inside. Fortunately, we had no gear float away and actually had a hard time seeing where the water came through the woods. The campsite floor was littered with wood debris that settled down smoothly, with no mud and very little sloshing water under our sandals. No sign of ants or snakes seemed to confirm that maybe they knew the area better than we did.

After a quick breakfast we decided to pack up and paddle .5 mile up the river to the State Park boat ramp and review our situation. Arriving at the busy ramp, we exited the river and parked our boats in a nice grassy field by several covered picnic tables.

With the front expected to hit that afternoon and now that several in our group had wet gear it was decided we'd all stay put along the Econfina and camp at the alternate site for kayakers, a grassy area operated by a private campground operator. It was a long walk, probably 200 yards to carry our stuff, but we had no other choice if we were to stay there. To kill some time before the cold front was to arrive, we paddled up the Econfina river towards US highway 98, and really enjoyed that beautiful route.

Highlighting our time was seeing a large bald eagle swoop down just ahead from a tree arching across the river. It left in a hurry and actually dropped a few down feathers, which we scooped up in our hands from the water. The river near the campground has a small, varied collection of older river houses, mixed with several beautiful, elevated homes, followed by several miles and 1.5 hours of solitude, with increasing outcroppings of limestone rocks along the way as we moved upstream. Lots of towering trees with spanish moss and 4-8 foot high creek banks along the way.

Several technical areas through downed trees made paddling 18 foot sea kayaks interesting, but not really difficult. We finally stopped when we reached a shoal area, with 4-6 inches of bubbling water over the stones. Reversing course and now paddling with the current, we returned a bit quicker, and could hear the approaching storm's leading edge of thunder and lightning. Arriving back at the boat ramp, we walked back to our tents to make them secure, and then decided to drive out for a steak and some seafood, not having a good place to cook in the rain. And the front reportedly had spawned a few tornadoes to our NW, so eating out was an easy decision.

By the way, since our cars were stationed at the end-point, we had to improvise once again for our transportation needs. Earlier in the day we met a very nice woman from Canada who LOANED us her car. First she had to unpack it enough to fit three of us, which was no easy job, with it was loaded to sustain her for several months as she traveled the state with her canoe. She paddled with us on our Econfina trip while others in our group drove her car down to Spring Warrior Creek and brought our cars back. It is amazing how many really nice people we meet on our trips, always willing to help when the need arises.

So, we spent our 2nd night on the Econfina, this time in a much dryer site. The next morning (Sunday), we had no winds and lots of nagging gnats, so we packed our stuff quickly and drove through rain for 3 hours to get back to Jacksonville / St. Augustine. Despite the wind, rain, thunder and lightning, high water and bugs, we still had a memorable weekend, one during which we proclaimed Mother Nature to be the winner. Sometimes we win, sometimes we don't. But we can always paddle again tomorrow. 

Last update Friday, January 16, 2009

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