Big Bend Paddling Tr - Trip #4 Report
(trip #4)

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Report By:  gbailey    Date: 2/24/2005 
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Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail (Steinhatchee to Suwannee) Part 1 of 2

My Report:

The Big Blow on the Big Bend

by Greg Bailey

Note: By now most of you have probably heard about the two kayaker deaths that occurred during the time of our trip to the Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail. The two individuals were not with our group but yet were in the same area, approximately 8-10 miles south of our last stop. Our condolences go out to both their families and the families of the others involved in their trip. At first I thought it would be out of place and inappropriate to write about our experiences, both the good and bad on this trip, knowing the misfortune that the others experienced. However, in the end I felt that maybe writing about it could provide more insight into what can go wrong on extended paddling trips, and how vital it is to plan and prepare for the unexpected.

The Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail extends for 105 miles along Florida's Big Bend area, starting near the Aucilla River and ending in Suwannee. The trail is divided into four trips and we had chosen trip #4, launching at Steinhatchee and finishing in Suwannee. We planned to paddle three days and tent camp the two nights in between, at permitted primitive campsites along the way. Our group of seven, Franklin, Jon, Gus, Bob, Larry, Mabel and myself, had agreed to meet in Steinhatchee sometime early Thursday evening, since many of us were coming in from different directions. We had reserved a local chalet (singlewide MH), with sleeping for seven, two baths and a big map table.

Our first inkling that we were in a different part of the world occurred when we realized that nobody's cell phone could get service. Jon's work schedule was uncertain so we were unsure if he could make it by our planned in the water departure time Friday morning. With no cell service, Mable volunteered to hunt down a pay phone (killed my prepaid phone card by the way) to ascertain what Jon had decided. Gus was the last to arrive so we headed out to eat at one of the local seafood restaurants and enjoy the last bit of sunlight. The restaurant was located along the Steinhatchee River and we could see out to where it emptied into the open Gulf of Mexico. We were all very excited about the paddling days ahead, and couldn't help but wonder how far out we'd have to venture to avoid the dreaded oyster beds. We had been advised to move offshore a safe distance before we could turn south and head down the coastline. The channel markers extended out a mile or so, and it was difficult in the fading light to see the farewell buoy.

After a night and early morning of persistent rain showers, we were up and anxious to get started. Our chalet was parked not far from the river's sandy edge and we unloaded quickly and quietly, knowing we still had a two-hour shuttle for our vehicles. The winds seemed mild at the time, slightly from the north, northeast so we were anticipating nice paddling conditions, even though we were experiencing occasional rain showers as we stowed our gear. Larry and Bob stayed with the loaded boats, while the rest of us drove off to Suwannee, hoping to return in 2 hours.

Arriving in Suwannee, we spoke to a few locals, one of which informed us that the Chamber of Commerce building and parking lot really didn't exist, and that we would have to park our cars someplace else. Within minutes we found the public boat launch, landed the cars along the roadside and everyone jumped into mine for the return trip. Our return trip took a little longer since we had to make a stop at Hardees, and bought out their remaining breakfast sandwiches. Gus was mightily impressed with their biscuits, and vowed to visit again for breakfast.

It was around noon when we arrived back in Steinhatchee to find Larry and Bob right where we had left them, albeit with less water on the riverbank. They had enough time to paddle up the Steinhatchee River and reported that it was indeed quite scenic and probably worth a day trip itself. Within minutes we were all in the water adjusting our sprayskirts and noting the wind and currents for the first time. We had a trailing wind, from the northeast, blowing into a strong incoming tide, so we were slow to gain momentum. After paddling out past four or five channel markers it appeared to me that we had enough water to cut off the point and head south. Some of us did, some didn't. A few in our group were still thinking about oyster beds and took a longer swing out into the Gulf before turning. Our route took us down past endless salt marshes and through lots of ribbon grass. With consistent overcast skies we were unable to appreciate just how clear the waters were, but during occasional stretches we could see it was indeed gin clear in some areas. The salt marsh stretched out a far distance from the nearest tree line so we had at times a brisk, rear quartering wind to contend with, but nothing too difficult for our group. Bob was able to use his newly installed rudder to counter any weather cocking, while Larry had to adjust his strokes and leans to do the same. Within a few hours and after confirming with the GPS, it was determined that our campsite was not far away. In fact, we could see a small, distant white marker ahead that was the only sign to point the way to Sink Creek. With the low lying marsh and reeds it was difficult to tell exactly where to cut through until we had almost paddled past the creek's entrance. However, once we recognized it we modified our course and proceeded slowly up the narrow creek, where we located another sign, this one with crossed paddle blades designating the official Saltwater Paddling Trail camping spot. As advertised, the campsite had room for only 4 tents and unfortunately, it was not protected very well from the north / northeast winds that were now blowing consistently at 20 mph. We had no other place to go though, so we all proceeded to setup the tents, which was a little difficult given the conditions. We had a few hours before nightfall, so while Mabel gathered firewood, most of the guys sat around and prepared to cook dinner. Mabel did an excellent job and later that night we all appreciated the big, hot fire as we hand dried our wet paddling clothes. It really is nice to have dry paddling clothes to change into each morning, especially since the water and air temps were still cool. Larry's "meal by day" packed food was very impressive not only for it's variety but it's quality as well. His homemade lasagna (made at home by Cynthia, of course) was simply incredible. By 10 PM, everyone was ready to get some rest and so we decided that our departure time the next morning would be 10 am. Paddling distance for the first day was around 8.5 miles, with approximately 3.5 hours spent on the water.

The first thing we noticed the next morning was the lack of water in our little creek. We had hoped to paddle the short distance up to the creek's headwaters to see the springhead, but with the water so low it appeared that might be impossible. I was loaded and in the water first so I decided to take a look, stepping easily among the oysters and stones into the deepest water. Paddling very slowly, in a few moments I arrived at the spot where the spring's waters exited the ground, wondering along the way if I would have to get out and walk, since the tide was still receding. The spring had a slow flow, but was noticeable by the dark deep pool, surrounded by what seemed like a concrete or stone perimeter (sandstone?). Nearby there was a very impressive looking forest of old oaks, with hiking trails intermixed, but overall nothing to write home about, so I headed back to find the others. Finding the others was easy, but finding water was becoming very difficult. We eased our way out in a serpentine fashion until we could see the open gulf waters again, but then it got really shallow! As in, get out and walk a while, shallow! We walked and sloshed our way straight out toward the gulf, through an inch of water and 4-5 inches of marsh goo, with a little sprinkling of seashells and small crabs thrown in. Someone estimated the walk to be about 300 yards, all the while pulling heavily loaded kayaks on harnesses behind us. Of course, Mabel, the firewood gatherer, did the walk in her bare-feet (sans sandals)!

Once we hit deeper water we headed south again. With an anticipated distance of 14 miles for the day we headed for the Pepperfish Keys, hoping to stop there to stretch and have lunch. Passing to the inside of those low lying islands, the flooding tide pushed us along quickly as our course heading switched to the southeast. With more overcast skies and now moderate beam seas, we were making good time but the scenery wasn't changing much. The marshlands had us paddling out away from the wind breaking forest again, and the winds were blowing maybe 10-12 mph from the east now. Passing between the Pepperfish Keys and the mainland, we noticed lots of small rocks scattered along the bottom, in waters that were averaging 3 feet deep. Once we cleared the keys, we could see some of the beach houses of Horseshoe Beach far ahead. It appeared to be 7-8 miles away so Franklin, Bob, Larry and Mabel set a course heading directly toward the point, while Gus and I stayed in closer to the marshes, watching for the occasional soaring osprey or creeping egret. This is classic open water coastal kayaking, with a visual southeast heading taking part of us a half mile offshore, yet along the shortest route to our target. Franklin was setting the pace as usual while I was watching everyone stretch out a short distance behind. With 1-2 foot choppy seas it was a little wet but not that challenging either. Everyone met up again with Franklin near the breakwater just north of the beach and we proceeded to round the point, looking for a quick takeout, bathroom break. Gus found a restaurant nearby so while waiting for him we spotted a very interesting beach house, one that looked just like a classic wooden trawler. It was complete with full keel, rudder and prop, sitting atop pilings 15 feet high. It looked shipshape, as if it could be lifted with a storm tide and float away, carrying its occupants to safety.

After rounding the point and a quick map review, it seemed that our next campsite was only a mile and one half away. We gently made our way around a few oyster beds breaking the surface, and identified what we thought to be Butler Island. It was stretching east and west, with sandy shores and palm trees all along it's south facing shore. We quickly found our designated spot for the evening and began to setup camp. The wood gatherer (Mabel) went to work again, while I used my folding saw to cut the larger logs into more usable pieces. It is typical to cook most of the remaining food on the last night, thereby reducing the need to pack it out the next day. That meant we had lots of food to share, including Mabel's steaks for everyone, leftover lasagna and a variety of rice that Franklin and I started. We finally gave up on Franklin's rice after about 30 minutes, since it never reached a boil in the now gusty winds. A few raindrops were falling as well and the forecast called for storms to roll in overnight. That was not good news for Gus, whose rain-fly split while he was setting up his tent. After a few minutes of duct tape engineering, it became obvious that Gus might be joining Franklin and myself in our large tent if the anticipated rain showers arrived during the night. Again as the fire roared and the night grew late, one by one everyone retired to rest for the next day's paddle. I shuffled the remaining coals close together in a pile and called it a night around 11 PM. Paddling distance for our second day was around 16 miles, with approximately 4.5 hours spent on the water (4 hours paddling and 30 minutes walking).

It was at exactly 3:30 am when I first heard the low, distant rumble. Amid the driving rain and roaring wind, it was just loud enough to wake me from a deep sleep. It was definitely coming our way, but I was unsure as to what it was. In a few minutes the sound was right upon us and moving slowly along the shore. I noticed a faint green light, not more than 30 feet away from our tents. It was a slow moving airboat, directing their bright Q-beams our way and lighting up the night. Not knowing what to expect at 3:30 in the morning, I quickly thumbed through my bag to find a flashlight and a canister of mace. Visions of Cape Fear and Deliverance quickly danced through my head as two figures approached my light, now shining in their direction, in their faces. Never identifying themselves, they asked if Chris was with us and had he received a message from his wife. I responded by stating that we didn't have a Chris in our group, and that we were the FSKA kayakers, camping on a permitted campsite. He asked again if we had a Chris in our party and after convincing him we did not, he slowly walked away into the night, back to his boat as the driving rain continued. His airboat was still idling as he backed away from the beach and began a slow turn. I was really afraid now that he might rev the engine too much and his prop wash would blow away some of the boats or worse, some of the tents and outdoor gear scattered about. But fortunately for us, he managed to minimize its affects in our direction and he slowly powered his craft away. Franklin and I laid back down wondering aloud what they were really up to, and if we would hear from them again. The sound of the rain and wind on the tent quickly put me back to sleep.

The next morning came too early, after the late night, early morning visitors. As we looked out into the Gulf, we could see numerous mounds of oyster beds, stretching out several miles to the south toward Suwannee. One by one, everyone began to stir and stretch and coffee was soon ready. The now familiar sound of an airboat off in the distance caught my ear again, and we followed its course around the tiny oyster islands until it beached itself in front of our campsite. We could see that the individual walking toward us was affiliated with the Florida Wildlife Commission - Search and Rescue, by the patch on his hat. Also I recognized his voice as being the same as the early morning visitor.

... end of part 1 of 2

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Location Data:

Distance (miles): 35
Fees/Costs $: n/a

Special Interests and Comments:

Special InterestsBig Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail

Post Date: 2/28/2009

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