Tuesday, February 20, 2018

St Johns River Story (final)

Be sure to check out the other two parts first:

It had been over 2 weeks since we left Bart’s hunting cabin on January 3rd.  The last week had been less than exciting, which we appreciated.  The fishing had picked up but was still hit or miss.  The weather was excellent for a change.  We had spent a few nights camping and a few days resting at a houseboat on Lake Monroe.  But now we had returned to the cabin 17 days later and still 125 miles from the end.  The thrill of adventure and the unknown gone.  As we opened the door to the cabin, the wooden picnic table caught my eye and one of our earlier conversations replayed instantly.  We were at the table eating dinner speculating on the duration of the trip.  The thought of finishing 310 miles in 20 days seemed hysterical now.  It had been an adventure of marathon proportions but we needed to go faster.  We needed to sprint to the finish line.

 Mostly private property after Lake Harney, camping becomes a challenge
One of the best days of fishing at the mouth of the Econ River

Great day at the Econ above Jolly Gator Fish Camp, where we stayed later that night.  Pic: Bart Swab

The extended forecast told us we had about 10 days to get this trip done before the weather changed for the worse.  We would be vulnerable during this portion of the trip.  The river was a mile wide in places and didn’t provide much shelter from the wind.  We would also be dealing with strong tides each day and tricky currents near Jacksonville, FL.  Early in the trip, there had been days when the water was so rough, we lost sight of each other during lake crossings.  Being anywhere near the shipping lanes or the inlet in bad weather was not a good idea.  We had to take advantage of the favorable conditions we were experiencing now.

Why Knot Houseboat on Lake Monroe - Great location (link at bottom)

Fishing was outstanding on Lake George.  Eventually we had to leave the fish biting and cover the 10 miles remaining

Camping wasn’t an option any longer.  The added weight of the camping gear, food and water slowed us down too much.  We spent the last night at Bart’s cabin figuring out the logistics to shuttle vehicles for the remainder of our trip.  At 9pm, Bart loaded his kayak along with most of our camping gear and drove to his home in St. Augustine, FL.  The next morning, Ben and I would meet him at the Palatka boat ramp to begin the final push to Huguenot Memorial Park outside Jacksonville, FL.

Crossing Lake George - we were very fortunate to find it like this - glass

Satsuma area before AirBnB

AirBnB that Ben secured was very nice and right on the river - great location (link at bottom)

It was dark when we beached the kayaks at Shands Bridge Pier.  The 31-mile journey had taken 12 hours with a few, unexpected breaks to fish.  The daily grind left us exhausted but feeling enthusiastic about our progress.  We had covered 65 miles in 3 days.  However, the mood wasn’t optimistic.  Bart had a different expression on his face, one of concern and discomfort.

Foggy start to the day

Alligator gar sight fished during our 31 mile day.  I had crossed a bay and came on a shallow point.  I thought it was a redfish from the swirl and cast in front of it.

Bart’s neck was hurting the next morning but he felt like he could give it a go.  We checked the tidal charts and ran the shuttle knowing our distance from this point in the trip would be severely impacted by Bart’s ability to continue.  We parked a second vehicle at Black Creek Marina in case we couldn’t make the 15 miles planned.  

Dave Hernandez from St Augustine Paddle Sports ran the shuttle on our 31 mile float.  Not having to drop a vehicle was super helpful- Thx Dave!  (Facebook link below)

Unable to make the mileage and uncertain about the rest of the trip we pulled into Black Creek Marina just before 2pm.  Bart’s injury forced him off the water early that day and potentially ended the journey all together.  Not being from the area, we discussed different options that allowed me to finish on my own but we agreed, it was important to complete this journey together.  There was another option - Bart would have to complete the final 50 miles in his pedal kayak. 

This bird got a little too close to this Manatee

Two days past before we could get on the water again.  As forecasted, the weather was beginning to change.  The mornings started calm but each afternoon the winds would increase to 15 mph.  The Lower St Johns is very expansive after Palatka, FL and the resulting wind-blown seas can get treacherous.

Big water near Palatka, FL
Just after Shands bridge pier

It happened in a matter of 15 minutes, maybe less.  We had covered 7 miles using the many boat docks to avoid the North winds when it went completely calm.  Our planned exit for the day was on the east bank, but we had launched on the west bank.  The idea was to move up the west side and cross the river where it was the narrowest.  We didn’t make it.  The winds shifted from the east and the resulting seas made it impossible to continue or cross.  #LakeWashingtoneffect was intense but it was nothing like the swells coming from the starboard side.  We got permission to make an emergency exit at a private landing.  They asked us not to mention them or their location.   

Private launch that was very friendly but not an option for kayaks
Shooting docks

The next morning, we crossed the river and got on the east side before the winds made it impossible.  Again, we had plan “A” and plan “B”.  The first was to make it to Goodbys boat ramp.  If we made it there and felt good, we would run another shuttle.  However, we would need permission from a property owner because the next public launch was 15 miles away.  Well, the second part of the plan wasn’t a solid option.   The day ended at Goodbys.  Only 30 miles remained between us and our goal of kayaking the entire St Johns River.

Leaving Goodbys headed to Jax

Arriving into Jax

Downtown Jacksonville was a fun ride.  We dodged the bridge pilings and ran under the various trestles.  The current from the falling tide was really strong.  It would push and pull the kayak in a way that reminded me of a plane landing on a runway with the sudden shimmy and shake that makes you grip the seat a little tighter.

The landscape changed one last time after Jacksonville marking our final approach.  Cargo ships and military vessels were on both sides of the St Johns River.  Once the steady drone of airboats was endless but now the buzz of helicopters repeatedly circled overhead.  My mind started to drift and recall things previously forgotten.  I couldn’t help but laugh at the time Ben screamed out as an alligator exploded beside his kayak or the morning he spilled boiling water on his tent before anyone had a cup of coffee.  It’s funny now but on those freezing mornings, Bart refused to get out of his tent until someone filled his mug with warm coffee.  

The end of 310 miles

Then there was the day we had to stop and reload Bart’s kayak in Lake Monroe because it was listing to the port side badly.  There was so much to be thankful for as we hit the beach for the last time, but mostly I’m thankful to have shared this experience with two friends who will remind me of all the things I did that made them laugh and the great memories we shared.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

St Johns River Story (part 2)

It was 2 am when the ground started to shake.  I knew camping on an airboat crossing was a bad idea and now we’re all about to get a lesson in parasailing.  Then I heard Bart’s voice but was unable to make out the words.  I wanted to shout, “man, I told you so” but a loud roar had overtaken our camp so it was useless.  Wait, we didn’t sleep on an airboat crossing last night.  We had a warm fire and fell asleep to the symphony of hooting owls and other nocturnal birds.  Trying to piece it all together, I unzipped my tent and noticed a beam of light coming from the water.   The airboat was really close.  Was it a Florida Wildlife Officer or hunters looking for hogs at night?  Probably neither and after a few minutes they left.  The faint drone of airboats could be heard almost every night afterwards.  

Possum Bluff Shelter - we did not use but it looked friendly.

1st real fire on night 3.

No shenanigans, we all agreed to this rule on day one.  This wasn’t the place to clown around, so when Ben said, “Drew, we got a problem” he had my attention.  When I got to their kayaks, Bart looked like he had just received his complimentary parasailing lesson.  One hand on his forehead and the other holding a small tool or something.  I didn’t recognize it but felt like it should be attached to the kayak.  My feeling was correct, it was a piece of the Flex Drive and Bart should not have been holding it.  Am I dreaming again?  Where’s that dang airboat when you need to wake up?   At some point while backing his kayak over a log, one of the three blades on his prop snagged and broke.  We are three days away from any help and one of the kayaks is limping.  

Traffic on the water really increased as we made our way to the Lake Poinsett Shelter.  An approaching airboat has a way of making you set up in your seat and listen.  They seemed to come from no place and be heading nowhere.  Often appearing on the edge of the river like ghosts, coming forth from the distance but never actually using the main channel.  The shelter was usable but far from inviting.  

We had to clear the brush off the ramp to get inside.  We also noticed alligator marks on the edge so we left a kayak on the ramp.

A few of these inside also.

After talking to a guy in a boat and learning everything in the area was underwater, we knew we’d be sharing Poinsett with at least one rat, a family of red wasps and either one snake that shed its skin three times or...no matter, we each get a souvenir!  The coolest part of the night was watching the SpaceX Falcon 9 Zuma launch followed up by Ben falling out of the shelter.  He hit the ground and flipped back into the shelter before anyone could take a step to help.  We all held our breath until Ben started laughing at himself, then we lost it.  It was one of those nervous hysterical moments where the laughter was intensified by appreciation.  We were thankful it wasn’t more serious.    


Wide open views just before Possum Bluff Shelter.
Lots of Bald Eagles on this stretch.

Lone Cabbage fish camp and grill.

For the first time during our trip, the winds were light when we crossed Lake Poinsett.  We fished off and on as we made our way to the Hwy 520 bridge.  Bart’s wife was going to meet us at Lone Cabbage that evening and bring a replacement prop for his Coosa FD.  Life was looking up; we were having a great time!  

Behind Lone Cabbage.

Dramatic change in the landscape after Hwy 520.

While Bart was fixing his FD, my wife called and explained how the condensation pipe from our heater froze during the night and shut off the heat.  A couple days later, it snowed for the first time in 8 years in our small town which closed school for three days.  At some point in the conversation, I decided to mention how far behind we were, not my best timing.  Somehow, someway the cold front was determined to kill me.

Bart and a friendly alligator.

Alligator doing what most did, getting gone quick.

The river from Hwy 520 is spectacular.  It’s more maze like but we were fortunate to have optimum flow, which allowed us to cut our own path.  The alligators became a regular backdrop as well as the cattle.  In all honestly, I watched for them more than the reptiles.  There were several times we looked at our phones, decided on the most direct route, only to change it when we noticed the herds of cattle and how they reacted to our kayaks.  They would cross the river for no reason when we got close.  The bulls would stare, almost daring us to come a little closer.  I wasn’t going to chance getting between them and whatever random island they wanted to be on.  

Bart and cattle crossing river for no reason.
Google maps was very helpful in this section

Wondering what they were going to do, stay or make a run for it.

There was no vacancy at Catfish Hotel.  The gators near it were some of the largest we had seen and they didn’t vacate the area.  Even when they went into the river they hung around.  Some turned and started swimming back towards the shelter.  It also didn’t help that the roof was missing.  The forecast that evening was for rain and it rained all night.   We were happy to make it to 7-Palms just before it started to come down.

Catfish Hotel and the tenants.  Rough neighborhood.  

Ben arriving to 7-Palms shelter.