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The Ochlockonee River

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The Lower Ochlockonee River

Dam through the Bay – 76 miles

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Lower Ochlokonee River Paddle Map

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Contemplating any ‘paddle’ usually begins with ‘googling’ the river (an aerial perspective) and figuring out shuttle logistics; for paddling the 72 miles of lower Ochlockonee in the Florida ‘panhandle,’ the research was no different.

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Visually the river ‘meanders’ back and forth; draining through the knotted terrain of the Apalachicola National Forest.  This ‘lower’ section of the Ochlockonee zig-zags from Lake Talquin (near Tallahassee, Fl) for about 72 miles through Ochlockonee Bay and into the Gulf of Mexico.

Other blogs mention ‘swift’ water,’ what we found was no swifter than the Suwannee.  The first part of the paddle was a narrow corridor – which left a possibility for ‘swifter-water’ at a lower water level.  We left room for encountering potential strainers too along the way – several blogs about the Ochlockonee included accounts of paddlers ending up in the water.  Note taken but no deterrent – hey, its a ‘wet’ sport and sure the possibility exists, with the other part of my mind pointing a finger at – a ‘congestion’ of paddlers (groups).  These situations cause spillage (spread out folks) – paddling for me is ‘getting away.’

Within research of the Ochlokonee, I was intrigued by it’s distance, current, and the terrain.

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'pearl'

pearl

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As for the logistic’s of parking at each end, we contacted Ed and Bernices Fish Camp near the dam, this is where we left our shuttle vehicle for three days – covered with a launch fee of 5 bucks each (Jean will fix you up).  Initial thoughts were to stay at that campground before depart but with the recent flooding in the area – the grounds were left soggy (and no hookups).  As for the lower-end there are at least two choices, Ochlockonee State Park or the Holiday Campground at Hwy 98 on the bay – wanting to include the bay we used the campground.

While hoping for good sleep prior to our Sunday start on the river, Saturday night campground (‘trailer-park’) neighbors brought the saying; – “you’re happiness is beginning to piss me off!”  to lite – all in fun, and clearly – just a part of it.

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Once on the river at the dam, the water clarity was unimpressive – the tannic water had more of a reddish clay look to it, plus the waters were foamy from the spillway drop – much like the foam at Suwannee’s at Big Shoals.  Sure the recent flooding played a part with the clarity, but we figured somewhere within the spirit of this river was the character interpretation (from the Hitchiti dialect) of the name.  There were also issues with spelling and proper pronunciation of the Ochlockonee – so much so that we moved on to the simpler things within our grasp

 

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Water Clarity –  5+

Natural Quality – 8+

Skill level – beginner to moderate

Perspective – Sunday through Tuesday

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- simpler things like the ‘natural quality’ surrounding us.

Just down from Ed and Bernices we passed one of the few homes along the river – there’s not many.  This home had children playing while parents watched – made us think about the alligators – not that alligators were a real concern to us, but maybe the children playing at water’s edge.

And it never hurts to find an official river water-gauge to ‘orient’ your paddle experience with – it won’t alter a set vacation but maybe lead to a ‘plan-B’ is necessary.  Change happens more with low water readings. Our paddle-guage for the Ochlockonee was the Smith Creek reading – just above 13′  (and dropping from 16) – for this paddle, it was high water.  I have learned that high-water is not always a bad thing.

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Gordy and Carl joined up once again for this 76 miler – three full days would do it.  Our planned primitive stops were; Pine Creek landing at 18 miles; Tates Hell Forest at 48 miles; with a last night ‘open.’

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In the first few hours we did pass a couple fishermen, but beyond that there were few landmarks leading me to think ‘unremarkable,’ this would change. But being a paddle trail more ‘marks’ seem appropriate, not that markers really matter – but with a mundane shoreline ‘benchmarks’ are helpful in passing time – I have found this true along the Mississippi, and along the Current river.  There was little to no cell phone reception available.

 

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Also present in the first few miles was an eagle, this birds seem to be more and more abundant along our river-ways – certainly not out of the ordinary to spot one anymore. Eagles are a good sign of recovery.  The ‘natural quality’ along the Ochlockonee included the common kingfisher, egrets, herons, and Osprey sightings – plus my buddies the owls.

 

ONF sign

ONF sign

Leaning to different and interesting were the sandpiper’s and an ever present Swallow-Tailed Kite along the miles.

 

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The ‘high-water’ was nice in that it allowed more room for error, and left room for an occasional ‘short-cut.’  Along the way there were numerous occasions to slip through the trees and catch the meandering channel of the river beyond the switchback ahead.

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At the old Langston Ferry crossing (1876) there is a small memorial porch to S.I. Sam Stoutamire (it was his property).  The water allowed us to paddle right up to the structure – interesting because of the church pews present.

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At 15 miles; The Huey P Arnold park boat ramp (note water level) was marked private; there were fire-rings, porta-johns and a dumpster – other than that the place didn’t look especially inviting.  It was true that we hadn’t seen the rest of the river yet, in hindsite – the grounds were not affected by the high water and the place could have been a fine place to camp.  The truth is that only 15 miles from the dam, we we’rnt ready to ‘drop anchor’ just yet.

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The river was moving along pretty well, my guess was 3.5 mph (as compared to the Suwannee’s 2.5).  As usual there were the occasional strainer; but no apparent obstacles to speak of – Could it be the water level?  I remembered the blogs where folks had turned over, and couldn’t help but once again think that group’ paddlin contributes to this.  The congestion of folks (at different skill levels) creates conditions ripe for someone getting wet.  Its all within ‘Why?’ a person paddles.

During the day there was plenty of time to ponder traveling this river at a lower water level, I wondered whether a more distinct channel was worth the obstruction challenges that could be present then.

 

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At 18 miles and in the late afternoon, we found more flooded conditions at Pine Creek landing.  We had put-in at the dam near noon and five hours later it was time to seek a camp-site.  Pine Creek was muddy with a gator and once again could have worked, but we decided to move on a little further to seek the next best spot – always a gamble.

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Lonesome Cypress

A Lonesome Cypress

an hour later…………..

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There was a nice flow to the water and the course was easy to follow – after Pine creek there were no places or shore to camp (kinda like the mouth of the Suwannee) and it was getting late.  From out of nowhere this cabin appeared out of the dusk – we paddled right up to it.

Now its not a usual practice to stop at someones cabin, but out of necessity and circumstance – we checked it out.

Lonesome Cypress Preserve

Lonesome Cypress Preserve

The place couldn’t have been more perfect, and came at the right time.  The deck would work just fine.  So with a lot of respect and a little house keeping (had not been used in a while) we washed the heavy pollen from the floor and settled in for the evening, nice.

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The Lonesome Cypress Preserve; not a clue whom the place belongs to but simply ‘the best’ way to spend an evening, this by far was my second favorite ‘night’ on the water (first at Lake Powell)

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(found a buck in the horse trough)

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 I don’t think anyone should count on staying here without permission, but thanks to the circumstances it happened – thank you preserve folks, it really was perfect;

We treated your place with respect and left nothing but footprints.

8 am

8 am

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Day 2

Never seems to fail, a serious paddler goes down with the sun and is up with the morning light.  First thing, we had breakfast and river-jolt (coffee) in the most comfortable of settings, by 8am we were sitting ‘bac on the river.

 

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Mornings are absolutely the best time to be easing down the water.

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Nice to get back to that ‘lawn-chair’ feeling in the kayak, on the water.  The channel of flowing water took us through some light brush – all easy obstacles, easy ‘lines’ (once upon them) to pick.  We eased passed Jack Langston’s Fish Camp a few miles downriver at 22 miles – would have been forced to camp here if ‘heaven’ wouldn’t have happened the night before.

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 The Ochlockonee is not a straight paddle – your mind stays busy with the zig-zagging, brush, along with – the peace.

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The interesting thing about the Ochlockonee was the changes – it changed from an unremarkable flow at the dam, to an interesting river.  There are pools where the water sits before moving through small playful sections and curves – before channeling through a natural corridor into the Gulf.

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Somewhere about the 40 mile mark the unmarked Roberts landing came into view – just above Hitchcock lake, there were few places to stretch along this section so Roberts landing was good for a break – tap water available.

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tree ibis

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After a full day of paddling with few landmarks or inviting stops – Tate’s Hell Campground came into view, 48 mm, once again – at the right time.  The nights lightning-bug show was the most phenomenal that I have seen, and the owl’s entertained.  The rest was well deserved after a long thirty-mile day on the river. .

day 3

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Shoving off for day 3

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another fine morning paddle

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There is a ‘shortcut’ near Woods Lake entrance, we did see it (water flow) but being unsure stayed with the main channel.  Along the distance we did notice ‘surveyor’s’ ribbon placed which could indicate a paddle trail – we saw ribbon that also marked fishing lines.

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The river widened and began to have the heavy coastal feel to it.  Here just below Sopchoppy and before hwy 377 (@57 mm), the Georgia Florida and Alabama RR trestle pilings still stand from the 20’s.

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Sawgrass – the coast is not far off, I’m sure that the tide has some influence on this area but on this date and paddle the predominant thought was becoming more about – the weather!

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‘chicken-little,’ and the sky began to fall!

Now I don’t mind paddling in the rain – but this was a very active weather front bearing down on us.  As the first rains came about 11 am we found an empty boathouse, got under the roof and relaxed – it was a good time to review our options.  From our point it was a 4-hour paddle to the campground; the state park was the only thing between us and the bay (besides the boathouse we were in).  We put our feet up, ate, drank, and contemplated – we would have to decide by one pm if we wanted to commit.  After two hours and a little let-up in the rain we gave it a go – once in the open, the weather enveloped us.

It’s not the kind of situation paddlers like to be in; out in open sawgrass without options.  It was a solid paddlin situation – it counters enjoyment and my reasons for being there.  The paddle action was a constant ‘dig’ along with frequent lightning-bolts, those sure inspire the effort. While working the wind and river near the saw-grass I jabbed an unsuspecting 10+’ gator with a stroke – I say that because I had the best view of him as he suddenly rolled under my paddle in the shallow water before lurching under the nose of my kayak towards open water.  The action was fast and intense – and lifted my kayak into the air; ending with a large splash.  Way too quick to be a oh-crap moment.  The ending was good and under the circumstances – I never missed a stroke.

I looked back at Carl whom was just behind – wished I had a picture of that expression, but my camera was put-up because of the rain.  From that moment I don’t think either of us looked back until we all made it to the campground – ‘just a part of it.’


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So yes, there are alligators in the Ochlockonee river – and the river is an interesting cross section of Georgia pine into a cypress knot and coastal palmetto/sawgrass setting.  An interesting ride through three days of switch-back channels and straight corridors in moving water, “just follow the flow.”

Time well spent surrounded with an ecology supported within the mix of fresh and brackish waters, a simple time and place rich with those simple things of life – lightning bugs and sleeping with the owls

- experience it.

 

 

 

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The Peace River – Fl

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Peace River, Fla

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‘A Peaceful Splash’

Water Clarity – 7

Natural Quality – 9+ (in its own way)

Perception – Weekday

The thought that one must encounter when paddling this river has to be the one that whomever, or however the name ‘Peace’ was ever attached – it was indeed the correct choice.

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Peace river is a 106-mile watershed of sorts which runs from Bartow, Fl to Charlotte harbor on the Gulf – a good portion is a designated paddle trail.  The waters of the river hold significant ecological value to shellfish life within the brackish harbors below.

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I’ll start by saying that it is not my intent to insult the river by calling it a ‘ditch,’ but – as a native to this area my approach was to begin my paddle trip on the Peace with this fundamental mindset.  In retrospect, this section of the Peace river was indeed as fundamental as all waters flow, yet the natural corridor of the river area strongly conveys certain characteristics of wilderness past – ‘wild’ characteristics in which other Florida rivers have lost with civilization. Even with the cattle, my perspective of the ‘Natural Quality’ was a 9+. There are few homes along this section of river.

Still, the ability to find happiness in a ditch or canal is a sound starting point – a child-like approach to ‘life is good.’

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- thus was my state of mind easing onto the water from Pioneer Park in Zolfo Springs, towards Arcadia – @33 miles (as the crow flies).  With no idea of time or actual river distance – I put-in 930am – told the outfitters in Arcadia that I’d be out two nights – they’d come look for me after the third.

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I wanted to put in at Bartow, but a lack of rain had the section questionable – this paddle of Zolfo to Arcadia would provide an abbreviated idea of what to expect for that spring Bartow to Arcadia paddle (when the gators are ‘frisky’).

Contact the Canoe Outpost (Beth, Allison, Trent) for water conditions.  At 11″ above normal the current is a mellow one, not a ‘free-ride‘ by any means – but a very casual opportunity to enjoy the geology and ecology surrounding this river.

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The lack of noise pollution was surprising, the entire setting continued to surround with a strong sense of Peace and quiet (even with the gators).  This is where I was lead to believe that the river’s name was so fitting – along with the perception that the river’s shoreline reflected many of the wilder characteristics (like the Georgia section of the Suwannee river) the feel is primitive….  There are some areas that are ‘as wild as it gets.’

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Plenty of time to ponder the amount of time that it takes to erode shore line enough to drop a hundred and fifty year old oaks into the Current.  But that wasn’t anything – within the terrain you can see the erosion patterns (much like the Mississippi’s river lakes) of the waters actions eons ago as waters receded and worked a niche through this land.  Food for thought, basic muses.

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Then a contrasting beauty of shores carved from ancient limestone – similar values within the Holden Creek area of the Suwannee river – same basic geology, millions of years of wear. There rock formations within the land create slower ‘pool’ (paddle) sections of the river.

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Those ‘pool-like’ areas of slow water are areas that alligators thrive on turtles/birds and weak or wounded animals.  Throughout the two day paddle there was an abundance of small gators (3 to 5 ft range) along with fewer larger ones.  I noticed  the largest softshell turtle (@20″ across) ever, sunning – along with deer, turkey, Osprey, a larger species of Blue heron, and more – all leading me to presume they are living in a pretty satisfying environment.

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River left

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If you need mile-markers or landmarks, there are few (just follow the current) on this river.  This river flows through a mass of privately owned land – older Florida land.  ‘Low-impact’ camping is only allowed along the right bank, you’ll sleep with the critters for sure.  I was prepared for this type of primitive camp, yet with a very relaxed paddle rate made the half-way point of Gardner easily on the first day.

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It changes through a prairie-like setting where ‘range cattle‘ roam and live among the wild –  first thing you’ might notice is that the cattle have lived with the deer so long they think they are deer – exceptionally skiddish and wary.

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WT Haynie (L) 50’s

‘Crackers’ (Limestone Cowboys ) of the area remind me of those that work ‘range’ cattle every where, my Dad (above) worked rounding up and transporting range cattle in the 40’s and 50’s – he was a regular with the Lee County Sheriff’s posse rodeo’s in Ft. Myers.  – Alva Fruit Company

Side note: the largest cattle ranch in America is not in Texas – it’s in Florida.

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Several flocks of wild turkey

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Simple beauty amidst no noise, only the occasional plastic water bottle to bring me back to reality – doggone people…….

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On water’s everywhere, a rope swing

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The Gardner ramp 330 pm, surprisingly relaxed paddle and early arrival at the halfway point. What I had seen throughout the day really didn’t lead me to desire hunting a campsite in the dark – With an established camp available by the Outfitters several hundred yards downstream (plus lingering weariness from the long super-bowl night before this paddle) – well…

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The Outpost’s campsite was neat with cold-water showers and a bathroom available – easy call, the tent came out early.  I’ve paddled a few distances and am lead to believe that ‘a good paddler goes down, – and rises with the sun’ (doesn’t always work – but I try).  The Outpost folks also have an additional campsite available to it’s customers further downriver – for day-paddlers and youth groups, its their way of doing all they can to expose this river’s quality to others (nice camps CO).

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The next morning tracks around my kayak near the shore indicated that a range cow had wandered through sometime during the night – all’s I heard was the owls.  Even at a slow pace I was back on the water at 830a once again, feeling blessed while drifting and contemplating the setting with a standard cup of river-jolt. .

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Cypress stumps, actually exposed roots – new foundations, natural seawalls.

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Easing along the placid waters and just around one bend there was something swimming across in the water ahead (gator-bait), only seeing its head I thought it to be a wild pig.  Quietly easing closer a coyote climbed the far bank (above) and stood a moment – then with a single glance towards me he was a distant memory!

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Some sand banks along the way

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While on the river I paddled alone, stealth-like, and with the current – in the distance I noticed a fisherman with lines out, the only one I had seen thus far. When paddling like this it is possible to slip up on wildlife – and at times, folks.  This guy was really into his fishing and as I reached this point I said hello and snapped the picture – startled, he was all teeth – nice guy.  Drifting past we made short conversation – the incident reminded me of paddling up on some fishermen at Lake Powell once, even entered into their conversation before they even noticed this stranger, funny.

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With all the ancient history of the terrain, fossils (like along the Suwannee) are there if you seek.  This is Sam and Perry (she is Sam, not short for Samantha).  From Indiana they were eager to discuss and show me their booty of ancient finds – an assortment of animal (mostly shark) teeth and some fossilized bone. It was a good stop and conversation with some interesting folks.  More Peace river fossil hunting information.

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aged Cypress trees

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a long life passing naturally

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The railroad trestle indicates the end of a short paddle ahead

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The Outpost.  Folks were great, I know that its their business – but to this point the folks Canoe Outpost seem more than eager to help.  I liked the trash and recycle containers available, a good direction for all.

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Canoe Outpost – Arcadia Fla – they’re way of saying – “bacshortly”

Notes; Zolfo to Gardner ez 6.5 hours (direct line 20 mi). Gardner to Outpost Arcadia ez 5 hours (direct line 15 mi). $50 buck shuttle to Zolfo (worth it),  Airboats heard down river from Arcadia – my trip was during the week and I encountered neither airboats nor other paddlers – but it is possible (just part of it).

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Paddle not to ‘make-time’ but as to ‘take-time.’

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