Big Bend Paddling Tr - Trip #3 Report
(Trip #3)

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Report By:  gbailey    Date: 5/12/2006 
Rating:Trip Rating     Photos: None     Map & Directions: View

Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail (Spring Warrior Creek to Steinhatchee) part 1 of 2

My Report:

by Greg Bailey

The Big Bend was again our destination as Franklin and I left Jacksonville around 4:30 pm Thursday afternoon. Heading west along I-10, Betsy (his auto’s GPS) said we’d arrive by 6:30. Gus and Keith were enroute, coming from Middleburg, while Mabel was ahead of us all as she drove up from Orlando. Mark would be the last to arrive, having a late meeting to attend before he could escape the Jacksonville metro zoo.

Our Thursday night meeting point was a campground located at the intersection of Hwy. 51 and Hwy. 27/98, just about 10 miles outside Steinhatchee. Named the Steinhatchee RV Refuge, it turned out to be a noisy place to camp, with the highways too close and very little sound deafening foliage in place. However, the manager and her daughter were very nice to us and it was a very convenient jumping off place for our trip. The bathrooms were close by but not very inviting, although the leopard skin shower curtains added a unique outdoors touch. All we needed was a place to pitch a tent, no more, no less, so it worked out fine. After securing the tents we all drove to Steinhatchee for dinner, enjoying another fine sunset experience at Roy’s, situated right on the Steinhatchee River. The restaurant was partially filled with hungry tourists / fishermen, many with the tell-tale raccoon eyes after a long day on the water. After reviewing our shuttle plans, a few maps and satellite photos of our planned course, we headed back to our camping Refuge for the night.
Friday morning started cool with a heavy dew, but bright sunshine. Breakfast was available within walking distance at the nearby Chevron Diner, also run by the campground manager and her daughters. It was a busy corner, with lots of sleepy eyed customers stopping in as they headed for work. Breakfast was much like the campground: busy & noisy but convenient nonetheless. Our eagerness to hit the road and experience the remote nature of the Big Bend coast was reinforced with our overnight experience, and we loaded our gear quickly.
Our shuttle plans had Mabel driving to Steinhatchee, while everyone else moved out toward the put-in, Spring Warrior. There we would unload the boats and gear, then drive the cars down to the takeout where Mabel was waiting. However, our first and really only problem for the entire trip made its appearance: a brake lining burning smell from Keith’s SUV. His right rear wheel felt very warm to touch, so we decided it was best to have it repaired that day, so he and Franklin headed north to Perry, the largest town in the area. This took several hours to do, so Mabel and Mark shifted to plan B, left his vehicle in Steinhatchee and drove up to the put-in. Soon thereafter John Bowman and Mike Ansell arrived, both planning to spend the day with us on the water, but not camping overnight. By 1:30 Keith and Franklin arrived with the SUV’s brakes repaired, so we quickly began to load the last two boats with provisions for the next three days. By 2 pm we were in the water, only a couple of hours later than our original plan.

The winds were blowing from the NW at about 10-15 mph, as we headed directly into the small chop for approximately 10 minutes before making a turn south to run along the coastline. Putting the winds and following seas on our rear quarter made for easy paddling. Gus with his fishing tackle and in his SOT Tarpon, had launched about an hour ahead of us to look for dinner, so it took us almost an hour to catch up with him. The waters were shallow, but with the incoming tide almost high, we had no fears of running aground on any of the feared oyster beds. In fact we saw none the first day and very few the entire trip. The first beach houses appeared in the distance, with first Dekle Beach appearing then Keaton Beach. Dekle had a small collection of maybe 15 beach/camp houses and a boat ramp visible right on the gulf. Continuing along the coast at a moderate pace, Mabel in her bright red Cape Horn decided to go ashore at Keaton Beach so I, also in a Cape Horn, followed her lead. All the others stayed between 1-1.5 miles offshore: Franklin in his QCC 700, Keith in his Current Designs Gulfstream, Mark in his P & H Orca, John in his Looksha IV and Mike in his custom built CLC Cape Charles. As Mabel and I headed to shore we could see the other paddlers offshore easily, but once we stepped onto the beach and walked up the park picnic tables, we lost sight of them completely. They had blended into the sea! While we were on the water, we could see their silhouette against the horizon, but no longer. Since we did not take time to have lunch before we started our trip and it was now around 4:30 pm, it was time to eat something, anything! I finished off a day old Firehouse sub sandwich (belated thanks to Franklin) while Mabel had a PB & J sandwich. The winds were stronger now, but the onshore waves were tiny, less than a foot. I suspect that was because of the very shallow waters and short fetch for the sea breeze. Soon John and Mike arrived at the beach to greet us and end their day of paddling. John’s truck was parked nearby, so their takeout was very convenient. We were resting and eating at a very nice county park, with a nearby pier that runs along a jetty wall protecting the waterway and marinas behind it. Perfect place to come for day paddling trips, with outdoor showers, picnic tables and a hot dog stand nearby.
After our quick energy boost, Mabel and I re-launched into the stiff breeze and quickly caught sight of the others. They had moved on ahead by about 30 minutes and stretched maybe a mile or so ahead of us. No problem though, since our first campsite was only 2.5 miles from Keaton Beach and I had the GPS coordinates and map at hand. Within a short while we noticed a rounded island that appeared to be Sponge Point and as we neared it we saw where the others had parked their boats on the beach. We had paddled almost 13 miles to get here and most everyone looked a bit tired, but since we had plenty of daylight left to setup camp, no reason to be in a hurry. The camp chairs were lined up on the beach into the breeze, while gorp, cheetos and other goodies were being consumed by the limped bodies of our fellow paddlers. The winds were quite stiff, maybe a steady 20 mph, so no fire was possible for the evening. We had plenty of room for the tents, situated underneath a canopy of oaks, with a narrow walkway out to the beach, lined by prickly pear cactus. Later, after preparing quick dinner meals in the breezy wind, some of us walked the island’s beach, waiting for the setting sun to do its magic. Just before sunset Mark, Mabel and I saw a black feral pig, walking slowly among the muck of low tide marshes behind the island. Sponge Point wasn’t really an island, but rather a rounded point, connected to the mainland by marshlands. We could see numerous animal walking trails that led through the marshlands, but none so inviting to temp us humans. At approximately 8:13 the sun set quickly, and almost magically was followed immediately by the rising full moon from the eastern horizon. So close on the heels of the setting sun, the moon was somewhat faint, but full nonetheless and getting brighter by the minute. Sponge Point was a very nice campsite, as good as any I have seen on the Paddling Trail. After a long day everyone turned in for the night, one by one, looking forward to new discoveries over the next two days.
Saturday morning was quite cool, probably low 50s, which was very refreshing. We were in no real hurry to break camp, since we had plenty of water even at low tide, and had decided to depart late in mid morning, so as to arrive at our next campsite at high water time. Dallus Creek, our next campsite, was advertised as being a tough place to get into at the wrong tide time, so we didn’t want to chance it. Departing Sponge Point late meant Gus would have time to fish again, while the others practiced their own R & R routine. I would also have been fishing with Gus, except my rod and reel was sitting high and dry back in Jacksonville, failing to make the transfer from my car to Franklin’s. I was quite upset at making that mistake, having brought no meats to eat for dinner and looking forward to a freshly grilled trout. It was a good thing the others didn’t do the same, having shown little confidence in my (and Gus for that matter) fishing abilities. The waters were flat calm as we pulled away from Sponge Point. Our first opportunity to experience the true aquarium like, clear waters of the Big Bend. With calm winds and smooth waters, it was quite easy to spot the numerous rays and occasional horseshoe crabs, redfish and trout. The horseshoe crabs were into their mating phase, thought to be associated with the full moon cycle, and were always seen in joined pairs. The only distraction we faced this morning was from the obnoxious airboats. Approximately half a dozen of them were launching and rafting together not far from the public park, just south of Sponge Point. Once on the water, they were skimming south along the shoreline, plowing through the marsh grasses, performing sweeping turns and figure eight maneuvers while revving their incredibly loud engines excessively. But they were locals, and what they were doing was perfectly legal and accepted in the area, so all we could do was paddle quietly away. I suspect that the lack of wading birds and other wildlife in that particular area was somehow related to those machines though. As we headed south again, Mark, Mabel and I were traveling close to shore while Franklin and Keith were waiting for Gus to finish loading his boat. That allowed us to go slowly and truly enjoy the clear waters and easy paddling. As we neared Big Grass Island, we could see the vast sandy bottom (on the inside of the island) and decided to stop for lunch while giving the others more time to catch us. Mark and I exited our boats in 10 inches of water while Mabel circled the island looking for higher ground. As we stood and waded through the shallows we could see blue crabs, horseshoe crabs and lots of small fish passing by. Finally the others came near and we were reunited as a group again. By this time a small flotilla of power boats had rafted on the inside of the island, enjoying the refreshing waters and abundant sunshine (water temperature 71F). Turning around at the sound of a fast moving center console boat, we spotted a FWC patrol boat making its way toward the anchored boats. Never completely stopping, the officer just idled by the group as if to say “we’re watching – have a nice day”. Specific harvesting seasons and bag limits exist for many Big Bend species, particularly scallops, redfish and trout, so knowing the regulations is a must to avoid hefty fines. After chatting with the FWC officer for a bit, once again we split into two groups, one paddling along the edge of the marsh grasses and feeder creeks, while the others were further offshore. As expected, the waters were shallow, averaging 2-3 feet deep, but no visible oyster beds or obstructions were sighted. Paddling in close allowed us to slide inside some of the smaller islands, typically formed by the sediment outflow of various creeks. The waters behind these islands were quite deep (6-7’) and very clear, and it was here that I missed my fishing gear. We saw lots of swirling, boiling water, as the fish and rays scattered as we came within their sight or other senses.
As we cruised down the coast, passing near Long Grass Point, two large sharks appeared just ahead of us, less than 10 feet from the shoreline, and in only 3 feet of water! The first one was slightly smaller, approximately 6 feet long, but it turned quickly and swam out to deeper waters as I passed just 5 feet behind it. The second shark was larger, probably 8 feet long and I was able to paddle behind it for a few seconds, giving me a very good view of its size, particularly its width. It had a huge head and was most definitely a bull shark. Both were actively feeding right along the edge of the marsh grasses, probably chasing mullet which were abundant. Seeing these aggressive predators might make one think twice about wade fishing in the area. I called out to Mark and Gus about the sharks and Mark was able to come closer and see the dorsal of one as it left the scene. Quite exciting to say the least!
We passed two more large creeks, Big Bear and Clay Creeks, before turning more to the east as we came nearer to where we thought Dallus Creek was located. Because of the shallow waters, very few power boats are able to get close to shore in many places, which makes this entire paddling trail so appealing to kayakers. It was nearing 3:00 pm, very close to high tide, so our timing was right to come ashore. We could see a white marker ahead, with the bright sunshine now more directly illuminating it, and suspected it to be the paddling camp marker. My GPS indicated it was still .94 miles away, but quite visible for such a small sign. Franklin, Keith and Mabel had moved ahead of us, making a beeline for the marker, while the ‘insiders’ still meandered along the shore, noting the occasional osprey, heron and leaping mullet. As we approached the camp and spotted our fellow paddlers’ kayaks, we noted the narrow walkway through the knee-high grass. We pulled ashore and were soon checking out the new scene. The walking path was flattened, but as the paddling trail brochure stated, it looked like a good place for a snake ambush. Of course, snakes don’t do that kind of thing, not to humans anyway, since they wouldn’t know what to do with us after the attack, unlike some of our other paddling acquaintances (alligators and sharks). The Dallus Creek campsite was a pretty cool and cozy place, with a thin canopy of small oaks overhead, and surrounded by palms and marsh grass. With the light winds coming off the water not able to penetrate the surrounding grasses, it was a bit warm though. So Mabel pulled out her blue FEMA tarp, climbed a couple of trees to tie it high, and soon had it spread overhead, casting a very comfortable shade. Our only annoyance was the biting horse flies. Strange thing those pests, the blue tarp overhead seemed to attract them by the dozens, with many resting underneath while the scouts would come by for a quick ankle or leg taste. Since we had another 4 hours or so of sunlight, Gus, Mark, Mabel and I decided to paddle up Dallus Creek while there was still water available, while Franklin stretched out in his hammock and Keith caught up on some reading. The outgoing current was quite strong and the darkened waters made finding the channel a little difficult, but after paddling for 20 minutes or so we finally made it up the creek all the way to the boat ramp. Along the way we passed a little 14 foot john boat filled to overflowing with a family of five: husband and wife, two sons and a girlfriend (or sister). All five of them sat comfortably in white plastic, straight back chairs with flimsy looking legs, as if they were sitting outside under a shade tree. The boat was powered by a little bitsy outboard and once they pulled anchor and starting to move forward, must have had no more than 6 inches of freeboard, evenly distributed all around! Fortunately, there were no winds or waves to contend with in the creek, but it still seems quite odd to be that close to the Gulf of Mexico in such a little boat. In fact, we saw quite a few little boats venturing out into the open Gulf, taking advantage of the smooth waters.

... end of Part 1 of 2

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Special InterestsThe Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail

Post Date: 2/28/2009

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