PART 2 – DEEP IN THE DARK HEART OF THE OCHLOCKONEE
Day 3 – Thursday, June 7, 2018
Despite the cacophony from owls, frogs, cicadas and a variety of unidentifiable noises, I slept peacefully and did not open my eyes again until quarter after 8 am the next morning. I climbed out of my hammock to overcast skies and stoked the embers of my previous fire back to life to boil water for coffee and breakfast. My back and arms were sore from two full days of paddling, but after some quick stretching and a cup of Sumatran Java I felt okay. I have no idea what time I finally broke camp and returned to the river, only that it was morning and the sun had burnt off the clouds and was shining bright and strong.
I spent more time fishing as I went, drifting with the current and avoiding the log jams and overhanging limbs that populated every bend and bank in the narrow swamps below Smith Creek Bridge. At some point I passed a large slough that opened up to a back lake, and paddled up it hoping to get a look at Mack Landing. Instead of a public boat landing though, the slough led up to a private fish camp dotted with Confederate Flags, shotgun shells and empty beer cans. No one was around, and I thought it best to walk back to the landing and skedaddle before Ted Nugent showed up and found me on his property. Walking back another huge black boar crossed the road in front of me. I was downwind of it, and decided not to spook this one as he ambled by into the woods.
Around noon I did find Mack Landing. Looked almost identical to the private landing, but my discerning eye knew this was the public landing from the chemical toilet available there. I stopped for a few minutes to enjoy a brief lunch consisting of the last of my pretzels and cinnamon cookies, before returning in earnest to fishing and floating downriver. The temperatures climbed and the humidity blanketed the afternoon wilderness under an invisible cloud of sticky steamy air. The narrow river provided plenty of canopy and welcome shade during the afternoon’s paddle.
Around 2:30pm in the afternoon the riverbanks began to grow apart, and miles and miles of hairpin turns and meandering curves started to be replaced by longer, straighter river runs. And then suddenly the calm, lazy afternoon was interrupted by an explosion of water and fury approximately 30 yards to port off my kayak’s bow. A huge fish completely breached the water vertically like a Trident Missile launched from a nuclear attack submarine, and rolled back over and in with a booming thunderclap. The fish was as big around as I was and longer than I am tall. Although I have no clue what type of fish it was (this all happened so suddenly and quickly it was over in a flash), I feel safe saying it was a Gulf Sturgeon. Otherwise it was an Alligator Gar, and I’ve never heard of one of them jumping out of the water like that. Whatever it was, it was the highlight of things seen that day!
Around quarter after 5 pm I cruised past the Wood Lake landing, and for the first time in my trip it rained. For real rained. But by then it the thunderstorm was welcome as the high humidity and mild winds were becoming unbearable. The storm was mild and over in a half hour, and at quarter after 6 pm a gorgeous campground came into view on the high western bank. Womack Creek Campground. I checked my paddling guide and saw this camp would be the last place I could get water until Carrabelle.
The campground was amazing. The hosts, Glenn and Linda, said I was the first camper they had had in weeks, and only the second camper in their time as hosts. They brought me some fat lighter and firewood and a fresh cup of java! There were hot showers, laundry and a gorgeous covered deck with rocking chairs overlooking the river. I could not have asked for more. Amazing how a hot shower and fresh coffee and a rocking chair can cure all that ails you after three days paddling and living out of a kayak.
And equally amazing, I was finally able to get signal on my cell while at the campground! I spent the evening chatting about the sturgeon with Glen and Linda, eating two servings of Caribbean rice and sweet corn for dinner and calling and texting friends to let them know I was okay and how the trip was going. Shortly after sundown I went to sleep in my hammock, fresh and clean and watching the stars from under a canopy of gently swaying pine trees.
Day 4 – Friday, June 8, 2018
Morning for me started early. I slept hard and straight through the night until the sun’s rays started to climb over my hammock around 7 am. The sun was already strong in a cloudless sky, a breeze was on the air and I felt ready to get back on the water again. My time on the Ochlockonee was almost over as only five miles downstream from the campground at Womack Creek I would be taking a right and following the Crooked River around the backside of St. James’s Island, Alligator Point, and Lanark Village. I checked my phone and saw a message from an old paddling buddy, Capt. Turtles (the name and its origin are a story for another time), and called him to tell him how my paddle sabbatical was going. Turns out he was staying the weekend at the Ho-Hum RV Park in Lanark and Saturday was his birthday. I told him I’d be paddling that way and he would probably see me wash up out of the sea sometime on Saturday.
After coffee and thanking Glen and Linda for being awesome campground hosts I was repacked and paddling on again by 9 am. A short 90 minutes downriver and I was at the big right turn onto the Crooked River. Having made such quick time, and having paddled the Crooked River once before and learning that aside from three campgrounds spaced far apart this river’s 28 meandering miles would offer very little good camping options, I resolved then and there to paddle on until I reached the Ho-Hum RV Park, whatever time that might end up being. For whatever reason, the unfolding of the day from then on seemed determined to prevent that from happening.
The first obstacle was the wind that came up revving up the river with powerful gusts which added mild chop to the conditions I paddled against. Upriver near the Ochlockonee the Crooked River is wide and tidally influenced as well, with a weak current flowing towards Carrabelle, and the wind was kicking my butt in this section. I kayaked past the Rock Landing campsite just before noon. In this section the banks close in and thick waterside vegetation and lily pads narrow the river. Although I had seen several alligators paddling on the Ochlockonee, none were very large. During the afternoon as I closed in on the County Route 67 bridge I stirred up three 10 foot plus gators that all swam out of the vegetation into the current in front of me before going silent and deep. So much for taking a quick dip to cool off.
Late afternoon I passed under the bridge, roughly two-thirds of the way down the Crooked River. The winds were gone and the unclouded sky and sun and afternoon heat and three days paddling were all starting to take their toll. I ate a can of cold spaghetti and meatballs and drank a half gallon of water, resting in the kayak along the east bank of the river in the shade of the oak canopy at water’s edge. Then I kept on paddling.
After the bridge the river widened and the canopied river banks disappeared as the salt marsh section began. It is this section of the Crooked River that earned its name. The river becomes brackish and snakes around bend after bend as it meanders on to Three Rivers and the town of Carrabelle. The sun wouldn’t go down until 9 pm, and I was in it all afternoon as I slowly paddled through the marshes with the outgoing tide. At points the water was so low that the kayak would run aground in marsh muck in the middle of the river.
As the sun went down below the tree line I reached Three Rivers Junction and turned left onto the Carrabelle River. Channel buoys appeared. As I got closer to the first one I saw it read 68… One down and 67 to go. Just at dark I reached the public launch in Carrabelle and decided to call Capt. Turtles to come give me a lift up to the campground. But my cell phone wouldn’t get any signal?!?! Funny, it only got signal at the Womack Creek Campground during my entire trip.
Exhausted and realizing I had more paddling to do, I tied the kayak off and walked ashore just after dark in Carrabelle on a Friday night. I walked about half a mile to a convenient store, where I refueled with an ice cold coffee/frappe energy drink and a double chocolate mega sized muffin. Oh if words could only convey how amazingly good that meal was…
Re-energized I walked back to the kayak, hopped back in and paddled out the Carrabelle River into the Gulf. As a reward for all my paddling I was treated to the best part of the whole trip. Paddling out into the darkness under millions and millions of stars on a peaceful, cool evening with only the sound of the chop and schools of mullet scattering in the low flats along the coast. Entering the Gulf proper I looked north along the coast and wondered which set of lights up the coastline was Ho-Hum RV Park. I took an educated guess and made a line for what I thought was the park. Turns out I made the right guess this time and washed ashore at one minute past midnight. I walked up the beach and looked for Captain Turtle’s truck and kayak trailer. Turns out he was still up chatting with friends next to the RV. I walked up and gave him a hug and said “Happy Birthday! Got a beer?”