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Five Days on the Georgia AT

I spent six nights at Above the Clouds Hostel as part of one of their group slackpacking trips, arriving the afternoon of September 23, and greeted by Nimrod’s heavenly-smelling kitchen. (Nimrod made fresh bread everyday.) As stated in my earlier post, the group was small and intimate with only one other person, Robyn, a nurse and runner–and with much more stamina than I! Lucky (hostel owner) hiked with us on day one, but after completing the first day on the trail, he felt confident that we could increase our mileage for the remainder of our stay. On days two through five, Lucky hiked only parts of the trail with us, typically dropping us in the morning and meeting us on the second portion of the hike. What a wonderful experience! I’ll always remember the entire trip, but here are some of the highlights:

Day 1Springer Mountain to Hightower Gap8.9 miles
Day 2Hightower Gap to Woody Gap   11.9 miles
Day 3Woody Gap to Neel Gap10.8 miles
Day 4Neel Gap to Hogpen Gap             6.9 miles
Day 5Hogpen Gap to Unicoi Gap14 miles

On day one, we were on the trail by 9:00 and hiked the one mile to the top of Spring Mountain, the start of the trail, before hiking the same one mile back down. We hiked over rocks and and roots and paused to lunch beside Long Creek Falls. After six hours of hiking, this Florida girl’s body cried for a break! I returned to the hostel, sliding out of the truck on wobbly legs, and greeted by a room scented with candles and a delicious steak dinner.

The Trail Begins: Spring Mountain

Day two hiking started with Nimrod’s yummy blueberry pancakes, sausage, and home fries. Our hike began at Hightower Gap, and within the first couple of hours, we had climbed Unnamed Mountain and Sassafras, somehow avoiding the forecasted rain. We lunched beside Justus Creek before ascending some very ominous-looking stairs. Before lunch, Robyn had spotted two bears, and that afternoon, I came across one just off the trail. Dang! Those things are fast! We completed 11.9 miles and returned home to a heavenly-smelling dinner of boneless chicken thighs sauteed in a teriyaki sauce and smothered with a fruit salsa.

View from the Top of Ramrock Mountain

We began day three with a quick breakfast of egg and bacon sandwiches and departed to Woody Gap by 6:15. At Woody Gap, we hiked one mile in the dark to the top of Preacher’s Rock to watch a gorgeous sunrise. What a glorious and ethereal start to the day!

Sunrise from Preacher’s Rock

Neels Gap to Hogpen Gap on day four was the shortest hike so far–only 6.9 miles, but the last climb to Hogpen proved the toughest to this point. The day started sunny, but cold–so, I layered up, happy for the buff I had picked up at the outfitter the day before.

View from Cow Rock

Our last day on the trail began with a breakfast of french toast, home fries, and fruit. It ended with shrimp primavera and homemade cornbread. We hiked about eight hours and covered the last fourteen miles to Unicoi Gap. The trail started out easy and mild, but the last two to three miles were nuts! The path was narrow, rocky, and rooty, and at times, I had to search for a spot to step. We completed the 52.5 miles, and I was thrilled to have suffered only muscle aches and pains during the five days.

Reflection on Day Five

Woo-hoo! I escaped the heat and humidity (and Hurricane Ian) of South Florida early Friday morning, and I arrived at Above the Clouds Hostel in Suches, Georgia, early in the afternoon. My flight took me to Atlanta where I jumped on the MARTA train to North Springs. Here, Lucky, owner of Above the Clouds, picked me up. We stopped in the beautiful and quaint town, Dahlonega, for a quick lunch at Spirits Tavern before finishing the very winding, elevated trip to the hostel in Suches.

Above the Hostel, Above the Clouds

Who doesn’t have hiking the Appalachian Trail on their bucket list? It’s been on mine for years—although I did finally agree with myself that rather than attempting to conquer all 2,190 miles, I would complete at least one section hike in each of the fourteen states. I have hiked parts of New Hampshire and Georgia in past years.

However, with retirement in my very near future (November 30—yikes!), I needed to make a dent in my bucket list, and I was thrilled to discover slackpacking—thank you Facebook! When I first heard the term slackpacking, I thought, slacker, but after experiencing five days on the AT, I do not believe that slackpacking is for slackers at all.

I stayed at the hostel for six nights with five days of hiking planned. My slackpacking group was small and intimate with only one other person, Robyn. Robyn is a nurse, a runner, and a wee bit (20 years) younger than I. However, this trip and my newfound trail sister were among the best experiences of my life.

We planned five days of hiking a total of 38.2 miles, but after Lucky hiked with us the first day, he felt confident we could increase our hikes for the remaining four days. In the end, we hiked 52.5 miles.

Countdown to Retirement!

“You’ll be bored.” “You’ll be back to work in no time.” “What will you do to keep busy?”

I have begun my countdown to retirement! Five months to go from today—and these are the questions and comments I get.

I am excited—and scared! However, I will never be bored.

So, what will I do? In addition to having a beautiful family and fabulous friends to hang with, my list goes something like this:

  • Finish kayaking the Florida rivers—and return to my favs!
  • Visit all the Florida State parks—hike the trails. They are fabulous! (Check them out: https://www.floridastateparks.org/.
  • Bike the Coast-to-Coast Florida trail—all 220 miles. (Check it out: https://floridadep.gov/parks/ogt/content/florida-coast-coast-trail.)
  • Hike the Florida Trail—and try to avoid the gators and snakes. (Seriously, this trail is 1,265.1 miles. Check it out: https://floridahikes.com/scenic-hikes.)
  • Take a train ride…somewhere, anywhere!
  • Learn to play golf, play tennis, cook, and take great photos.
  • Continue to hike the Appalachian Trail. (I start in Georgia in September 2022.)
  • Go Glamping.
  • Learn to apply false eyelashes. (Ha ha… Just checking to see if you are still reading.)
  • Sip delicious wine in beautiful surroundings.
  • Adventure. Enjoy life. Appreciate nature.

This is just a start—and mostly local! Chances are, I will add to this list. I haven’t even begun to venture far from Florida yet. And yes, I realize this list is ambitious and perhaps impossible to complete before this sixty-plus year old body decides it’s had enough, but dang! I sure will have fun trying.

Me bored? Hardly. Watch me. 🙂

Naked Ed

Ed Watts, known affectionately as Naked Ed in the High Springs area, has lived on the Santa Fe River for 24 years.  He is the caretaker of the piece of property that surrounds Lily Springs, and he doesn’t wear clothes.  I was warned of him at the Santa Fe Outfitters where I rented my kayak, but I already knew about him from my guidebooks and the restaurant in town.  The restaurant,  The Great Outdoors, sells Naked Ed beer.  He has become quite famous in these parts!

Cypress on the Santa Fe

I did get a chance to meet Naked Ed.  I had stopped in the shade on a bank near the springs, and Ed walked toward me on the opposite bank, just a few yards away.  He did, in fact, have a towel wrapped away his waist.  He explained that he always does this when he approaches someone.  He told me I was welcome to go further into this cove to see the springs, but he warned me that he would be naked.

It turned out that Naked Ed is very nice and quite harmless.  We chatted for about half an hour.  He loves visitors, and he loves to talk.  I had to watch the time as I was told that to make my pick up, I would need to leave Naked Ed no later than 2:30.  I felt a bit like Cinderella!  What a twist to the story. 

If you happen to be floating down the Santa Fe River and have the time, be sure to stop by to see Naked Ed.

(Originally posted July 16, 2010)

The Rhesus Monkeys

A common greeting among yakers on my Silver River trip was, “Have you seen any monkeys?”  Everyone seemed to be looking for the elusive rhesus monkeys.  I heard stories of large groups (bands? herds?) of these monkeys jumping from tree to tree or lining the river, staring (daring?) at the paddlers.  However, I saw nary a one.

Silver River

There have been several explanations for the existence of the rhesus monkeys in this area.  Boning writes that the population of these monkeys may date back to the 1930s when the operators of a sightseeing boat released several monkeys.   Huff repeats three monkey theories: one, that they began as escapees from a medical research lab; two, that they were purposely populated for the tourists; and three, that they were part of the old Tarzan movies filmed on the river in the mid 1900s.  Ohr writes that there is an unconfirmed report of escapees from the Ross Allen attraction that may have added to this monkey business.

(Originally posted July 2010)

Creek vs. River

As I paddled the Blackwater Creek, I wondered, “Why a creek, why not Blackwater River?” I asked my friend Bill. He suggested that it merely depended upon the person who named it.

Paddling Blackwater Creek
Blackwater Creek

So, I Googled my question, sending it out to the online universe. The answer was pretty much just that. According to the USGS, although some believe that a creek is smaller than, and must run into, a river, the term “creek” is ambiguous and has no clear meaning other than that it fits under the larger category of “a linear body of water” along with about 121 other bodies of water.  So, there really is no clear, official distinction between a river and a creek.  In the end, it simply does depend upon the person who names it.

Florida rivers are amazingly beautiful, mystical, and fun, and after paddling them for over ten years, I feel a touch of guilt selecting favorites. However, I admit it! There are those to which I would return more quickly than others. So, here goes.

Fisheating Creek. I have paddled Fisheating Creek more than any other river—at least four times. If you want an awesome Florida wilderness paddling experience, Fisheating Creek is your waterway. It originates in a swamp in Highlands County and flows south, then east, into Lake Okeechobee.

Entering the Cypress Swamp

I paddled from Burnt Bridge, a four-hour (eight miles) ever-changing paddling experience, and ended at the Fisheating Creek Outpost. (Longer trips are available.) The paddles begins in the wide river, tall cypress dripping with Spanish moss and air plants on each side, but within thirty minutes, you are lured into the cooler, darker waters of the swamp, twisting and turning through the cypress trees and their knobby knees as you pass gators, herons, egrets, anhinga, and so much more! Then, just as quickly, you emerge from the swamp into the river of grassy banks. If the water is low enough, you may even be able to pull up on a sand bank for a stretch and a snack before heading into the swamp once again.

My go-to outpost for Fisheating Creek was the Fisheating Creek Outpost with friendly faces, great attitudes, but kayaks that could use some attention. However, they are happy to drop you with your own kayak if you choose.

Withlacoochee River South. I love Withlacoochee River South and wish it was closer to me. A Native American term, Withlacoochee means “little big water” or “crooked river.” I have experienced both the little and the big of it—paddling it twice, once during the dry and once during the rainy season. I started from two different locations, but basically the same route—just one further into the swamp.

The Withlacoochee Dressed in Browns and Grays

This waterway is a “must paddle” if you haven’t yet. Picture yourself paddling down these dark, cool waters—beautiful cypress, red maple, and live oak along the riverbanks providing shade from the hot Florida sun. The water quietly twists and turns as it moves slowly from the Green Swamp to the Gulf. You hear nothing except the occasional splash of a turtle or gator or the calling of a bird. During low water levels, you spy ibis, vultures, herons, anhinga, cormorants, and egrets along the banks, as they enjoy the tranquil waters and their only slightly interrupted day with you floating by. During the rainy season, the water floods into the forest and through the trees creating magical, picturesque reflections, a beautiful backdrop to your serene paddle.

My go-to outpost for Withlacoochee River South was Withlacoochee RV Park and Canoe Rental.

Hillsborough River. When I describe my most amazing river paddles to people, I always include the Hillsborough River—which is why I find it unbelievable that I have paddled it only once. Why???

Clear Waters of the Hillsborough

Like the Withlacoochee, the Hillsborough originates in the Green Swamp. Its clear waters, fed largely by Crystal Springs, twist and turn for fifty-four miles west to empty into Tampa Bay.

This river is awesome! If awards were given for the most gator and bird sightings, Hillsborough would win. Picture this: in a four-hour paddle between Sargeant Park and Trout Creek Park (other trips available), you spy somewhere between fifty and one hundred gators—all looking very comfortable in their environment regardless of the intrusion. You feel as if you have entered a bird paradise, spotting more species of birds on this river than any other—egrets, herons, limpkins, roseate spoonbills, woodpeckers, wood storks, and ibis. Osprey dive; otters frolic; turtles sun, and you float through it all like a smooth ride at Disney World. Nature is in harmony, your paddle serene, peaceful, and delightful.

My go-to outpost for the Hillsborough River was Canoe Escape in Thonotosassa.

It seems pretty clear with my three favs that I am a bit of a swamp girl. I do love the seclusion and wildness of these cool, twisting waterways, but heck, after paddling more than fifty Florida rivers, there isn’t one that I would not return to. They are all pretty “awe”-some.

COVID disrupted all our lives this past year, mine included, but I could not let the year end without a paddle. I wanted to challenge myself and paddle someplace new. I focused on the Everglades area, as I have not paddled any of these waterways yet. I looked at several: the Blackwater River and Royal Palm Hammock Paddling Trail, Nine-Mile Pond Canoe Trail, Noble Hammock Canoe Trail, Mud Lake Loop Trail, Halfway Creek Canoe Trail, and Turner River Canoe Trail. I also looked at the Everglades National Park and Wilderness Waterway, but I wasn’t sure I could work out the ninety-nine miles unless there were overnight stopping points along the way that did not involve a tent. 🙂

Paddling to Mud Bay from Channel Marker 47

After calling some outfitters, I decided on the first on my list, the Blackwater River, not knowing what to expect. When I arrived at the concession in the Collier Seminole State Park, Collier Seminole Nature Tours, I told Matt that I needed a kayak for the day, as I wanted to paddle the entire 13.5 mile loop. He suggested that I might want to paddle a shorter trail to Mud Bay and back. In the past few months, only one group paddled the entire loop; they had faster kayaks, and it took them six hours. Matt, challenge accepted!

I put in at the park launch at 9:30 a.m. on a rented Jackson Riviera sit-on-top. The first hour of paddling was peaceful and canopied—and sometimes jungle-like. What a beautiful day to paddle—sunny but not too hot! I arrived at channel marker 47 in fifty minutes having passed only one couple on a short out and back paddle. The loop begins at marker 47, and here I made the right turn and headed towards Mud Bay. I spent the next four hours paddling through the three bays: Mud Bay, Palm Bay, and finally, Blackwater Bay.

From marker 47, it took me about fifteen minutes to reach Mud Bay. Mud Bay was larger than I expected. I could feel and see the tidal current. Low tide would be at 3:45 p.m. The wind had picked up, and paddling became harder. At one time, something massive emerged on my left creating a large brown wave, scaring the hell out of me and rocking my kayak; I assume it was a manatee.

At one time, something massive emerged on my left creating a large brown wave, scaring the hell out of me and rocking my kayak.

I continued my paddle, now along the Royal Palm Hammock Creek, for about thirty minutes, to the Grocery Place Campsite (my one and only “stretch my legs and pee” stop), relieved to see the sign and know I was on track. I later read that the two concrete structures I saw on this site are cisterns remaining from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Lots of history here.

Looking out from the campsite, I saw mangroves to the left but mostly water to the right. A great heron flew overhead, and a small raccoon scurried into the woods. I hopped back on my kayak, heading, I hoped, to Palm Bay, and wondering (briefly) whether I should turn around and head back before the tide started to head out.

The Trail to Palm Bay

I paddled into Palm Bay staying close to the mangroves to my left and eventually exited to Blackwater Bay about forty-five minutes later. The wind, stronger now, forced me to keep my head down to keep my hat on. I paddled even harder, passing lots of mangrove islands decorated with shell beds. Blackwater appeared to be the largest of the three bays and the most confusing. I pictured just me on this large waterway, a tiny dot on a map. I now understood what Matt meant when he cautioned me about getting lost here. I had no clue where I was going, and the many mangrove islands and lack of signage made navigating even more difficult. I just kept paddling, trying to keep the mangrove forest to my left. Did I mention that my phone battery was dying and my charger wasn’t working? I had just begun to wonder what I would do if I couldn’t find my way out of this massive waterway, (Could I sleep in the Bay on my kayak?), when I spied two fisherman on a boat (Thank you, God). I gave a wave and a hoot and paddled over. The lovely man who had just pulled in a fish, pointed just ahead of me; I was less than fifteen minutes from the beginning of the markers. Relief for sure!

Shell Beds on the Mangrove Islands

With the uncertainty behind me, I relaxed for the last two hours of paddling, enjoying the cool, dark waterway and the beautiful mangroves. Six hours in, I came upon marker 47 once more and a family hanging out on a low-tide sand bar in the middle of the waterway. I called over to see if I could join them for a few and had an opportunity for a chat and a final stretch before heading into the canopied path and the last hour of my paddle. I arrived back out the outfitter, tired and with very sore arms, seven hours after leaving. Matt had not left at 4:00 as he said he would earlier. He had waited for my return. I think he was nearly as happy as I that I had completed the entire paddle!

(Outfitter: Collier Seminole Nature Tours. Collier Seminole State Park, Naples, Florida. (800) 719-8160)

I arrived at the Ocklawaha Canoe Outpost and Resort in time to check into my cabin and unpack before jumping on the shuttle to the

drop at Gores Landing. This would be my second paddle on the Ocklawaha and my first stay in the cabins. My adventurous spirit moved me to stay two nights along the river, rather than making a reservation at the closest Holiday Inn.  I took in my temporary “home”—a bit tight, but with enough room for 4 or 5 with the bunk beds—plus the loft.

A Soothing Paddle on the Ocklawaha…Aaahhhh

Since my first visit nine years ago, the Outpost had been sold; the new owners were Lance and Theresa. At noon, Lance drove me—along with a party of eight—to the drop off. On the drive over, he gave us a bit of the river’s history, describing how in the late 19th and early 20th century, steamboats, filled with sightseers, traveled up and down the river to Silver Springs.  Sadly, the steamboats disappeared sometime after the arrival of the railroad.

We arrived at Gores Landing shortly before one o’clock, and Lance was kind enough to put me in first, ensuring a peaceful paddle ahead of the large party. The Gores Landing trip is 8 miles. I expected it to be about a four-hour paddle.  I paddled alone on the river until near the end when I passed two small motor boats—guys out fishing.

Theresa, at the Outpost, had warned me when I made reservations the week before that the river was in the midst of a draw down.  Apparently part of the river’s restoration plan proposed by the Department of Environmental Protection includes a phased draw down of the river to historic levels to flush the river and its banks of aquatic weeds and to help the floodplain re-vegetate. I expected the level to be lower than normal, but instead, it was higher due to recent rains, flowing into the trees and keeping the wading birds and wildlife deeper into the woods.

Floating on the Dark Waters

The Ocklawaha River was one of my very first river paddles—way back on July 14, 2010. I have always remembered it as one of my favorite rivers. At that time, the river was dressed in the bright greens of summer. This time, the river had dressed down in various shades of brown and gray for the winter holidays.

The overcast sky and high 60s temps made for the perfect paddling experience. I paddled north with the steady flow of the dark river, following its many twists and turns. I spied lots of gators—many of them juniors, only a month or so old. I sighted a few birds—ibis, herons. An owl called from deep in the woods. I searched for monkeys but spied none.

I paddled onto the Outpost boat ramp 3 hours and 45 minutes after my put in, feeling refreshed and relaxed. I had a lovely stay in my cabin the next two days, sitting next to a beautiful campfire each night and waking to the quiet. What a lovely way to end the year!

(Ocklawaha Canoe Outpost and Resort. 15260 NE 152nd Place, Fort McCoy, FL 32134. https://outpostresort.com/. (352) 236-4606)

Whiskey Creek (07/19/2018)

Another hot, sunny summer day in South Florida, and I had not been kayaking for over six months. Determined to paddle, I checked my list of rivers not yet paddled

and found one within an hour’s drive—Whiskey Creek. Honestly, I hadn’t even known it existed.

Heading South on Whiskey

I love when I find these unexpected treasures in Florida. A Florida Designated Paddling Trail, Whiskey Creek flows through the Dr. Von D. Mizell-Eula Johnson State Park in Dania Beach, dividing a stretch of land situated between the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic Ocean. A tidal waterway, its water levels fluctuate with the tides. At low tide, the water level is too low to paddle the entire creek without getting out at some point to pull the kayak. This creek has so much history behind it. That which I find most interesting—during Prohibition times, it was these very same shallow waters that made the perfect escape for the rum-runners when the Coast Guard was in pursuit.

The morning I paddled, low tide was 8:18 a.m., and high tide was at 2:34 p.m. I arrived shortly after 10:00 but waited until 11:15 to put in to ensure the water level was high enough. I put in at the BG Whiskey Creek Hideout, the outfitter inside the park and at the north end of the creek. I paddled south, possibly the same route the rum-runners once took. Mangroves lined the right side of the waterway and sand dunes and sea grapes lined the left. Just over the dunes on the east side, 2.5 miles of Dania Beach welcomed tourists to its warm sands. Planes from the nearby Ft. Lauderdale airport flew overhead, a constant reminder of the city nearby.

Into the Mangroves

The thing about paddling mangrove waterways, there is little or no shade unless you paddle into the mangroves. So, I took my time and paddled the tea-stained waterway, moving in and out of the mangroves, enjoying both the shade and the quiet of nature. Herons (blue, tri-colored, black crowned night), ibis, and brown pelican found comfort in the same shade as I. Tiny crabs scuttled up huge mangrove root systems as I paddled by them.

The creek runs just under two miles to the south and connects with the Intracoastal Waterway. A paddler can paddle south to the Dania Marina and return on the same route or paddle the loop. I chose the loop and exited the creek just after the Dania Beach Pier, paddling to the Intracoastal and north to loop back to my put in—a total trip of about 3.8 mil

The loop took me about 3.5 hours to paddle, a long time for a 3.8 mile trip. However, I spent a lot of time discovering the mangroves and was slowed down by the waves of the Intracoastal on my return. I know I’ve said it before, but although the open waters are not my favorite paddle—I love the shaded, canopied waterways—there is never a bad day on a Florida waterway. I felt exhilarated.

I left the creek, exhausted from the sun and paddle and very thankful. We are so fortunate that the State of Florida has preserved these natural environments for us to enjoy.

(BG Whiskey Creek Hideout. 6503 N. Ocean Drive, Dania Beach, FL 33004 https://www.whiskeycreekhideout.com. (954) 929-4970)

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