Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Story: "Florida Day" (Part 2)

I first want to take a moment to wish everyone a belated Merry Christmas and Happy Chanukah, and to send you all best wishes for the coming New Year! I sincerely wish good health, prosperity, and peace for you and your loved ones. Let's hope 2018 offers us some of each - and hopefully some great experiences on the water. 

When I left off on part 1 of "Florida Day", we had just completed our paddle trip down a section of the Ocklahawa River, which borders the Ocala National Forest in central Florida - north of Orlando and west of Daytona Beach. We had a largely pleasant and uneventful paddle through the forest, with the exception of Steve's capsize (a momentary crisis) and the spotting of a very large 'gator close by on a log - which came as a bit of a surprise to Steve's son. We had survived our journey unscathed in any case, and the day was warming well past the chilly temperatures of a February Florida morning. Steve had suggested earlier that he had a place he wanted to take us for lunch - in a village that had some unusual history. We got ourselves into some dry clothes and set off.

We drove southwest (generally - there is no direct route in that direction) to the village of Ocklahawa on the shore of Lake Weir , which took about 45 minutes, maybe an hour. Steve was taking us to Gator Joe's, a restaurant on the lake with a deck and pier over the water, and an adjacent beach. I was surprised by the white sand beach leading to the water. Here in the northeast, lake shores are often rocky - and if they have sand, it is usually a darker, caramel color. It was one of these little revelations that surprises me about the Florida landscape, and that is so different from what we're used to in New England. Apparently, Gator Joe's is so named for the enormous alligator that was caught in the lake in 1952, and was known to have resided there from at least 1930. A replica of "Joe" is stationed near the entrance, and once inside the front door, you can view one of Joe's front feet under glass - it's about the size of a dinner plate.
Lake Weir, Florida 
Ocklahawa village and Lake Weir are also known for another interesting piece of history. It was the hideout for the infamous "Ma Barker Gang" at one time - ending with a shoot out in 1935 between Ma and her son Fred, and FBI agents. Ma and Fred were both killed. The house where they stayed still remains, and is privately owned. There is a local bar just east of the village on County Rd 25, called "Ma Barker's Hideaway Bar" (more on that in a bit). 

The menu at Gator Joe's features items like chicken sandwiches and, inexplicably, Alaskan pollock fish sandwiches (why would anyone want fish from Alaska, when the ocean is an hour away? - it's a mystery to me). I like to eat what's local, so I had the fried 'gator tail. I've eaten alligator several times, and I find it a perfectly acceptable (and sometimes truly delicious) thing to eat. During lunch, Steve enthusiastically recounted what he knew of the Ma Barker history in the village, and suggested we drive by the hideout house, and then get a shot of liquor at the bar named in her honor. I replied "if they have bourbon. I'm in!".

We paid our bill, piled into the car, and headed over to the address of Ma Barker's old hideout. The architecture in the village is that great, 1930's and 40's, wooden beach houses with screen porches and often colorful trim work. Maybe they're a little ramshackle these days, but I still liked the feel of the place. Ma Barker's old house wasn't much to see - a partly rundown wooden house with a for sale sign in front. We didn't spend much time looking at it. We headed east on County Rd 25, and made our way to the bar named in her honor. There were several Harley's lined up out front, so Steve and I decided we'd go in for a quick shot of whiskey and leave the ladies in the car. I know that sounds a bit stereotypically prejudiced, but after all, this was unfamiliar territory. When we walked out of the sunlight into the dark bar, it was clear we were recognized as strangers. The bartender actually came out from behind the bar to ask us what we'd like. We asked for a couple shots of bourbon. She responded that they didn't serve liquor, only beer and wine. Steve and I looked at each other, then both nodded we should just move along. I had to chuckle to myself wondering what the wine list looks like at a roadside bar in Florida named after a criminal gang leader๐Ÿ˜‰. 

We all decided it was time to head back east to the coast, and to Steve and Kristina's place. Kristina was driving east on the 2 lane County Rd 25 about 10 minutes later, when a light colored sedan pulled up fast behind us, and ultimately passed in a no-passing section of the road. Soon after, Kristina noticed a pursuing police car coming up fast from behind. At this point, the sedan had passed a couple more cars in a similar fashion. We pulled to the right to let the police pass, then watched as the sedan veered off the road in a cloud of dust about 50 yards ahead of us. They were apparently trying to make a run for it. By the time we passed where they had exited the roadway, the dust had settled just enough that I could view the sedan, driver's side front wheel perched on top of a pile of wooden pallets, resting in a sparsely wooded field. The doors were open, and the occupants were racing off on foot in several directions. The police had just arrived and were continuing their pursuit - it didn't look good for a getaway. We laughed at how much it looked like a "reality" TV show police chase. Just then, Kristina turned to us in the back seat, laughing, and said, "welcome to Florida!".

As we reminisced over our day for the rest of the drive back, we checked off all of the Florida themed experiences we had throughout our trip: alligators? check. colorful locals? check. a police pursuit? check. This day had it all. And, that's when we decided to give it the name "Florida Day".

Sometimes, the exciting and memorable parts of a trip - even a paddle trip, are the ones least expected. Keep a sense of humor and your mind open, and your paddle adventures can be part of a bigger story...maybe one you can chuckle about when you remember it.

TB on the Water                      


Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Story: "Florida Day" - Our Florida Paddle Adventure

When winter blows in to the northeast, many folks pine for a trip down south to get some reprieve from the chill, and maybe a little sun. The link between Florida and New England is well established (check out how many Patriots fans show up at a Pats/Dolphins game), with many yankees having relocated to the sunshine state, or who take regular winter vacations there. Having visited Florida on several occasions, I have come to appreciate the state for more than the well known tourist attractions and beaches. Florida has some fantastic natural wonders; lakes, rivers, springs, the intercoastal waterway, wildlife, islands - the list goes on, but many of these features involve water. Florida, after all, is a very low lying state, with the highest point above sea level being a mere 312 feet in the peninsula, and 345 feet in the panhandle. Water is always close to the surface, and this provides an abundance of kayaking opportunities for those looking to add an outdoor adventure to their Florida vacation. A few years ago, me, my wife and some friends had such an adventure, which we named "Florida Day" before sunset.

We opted for the single kayaks - these folks took a tandem

Our friends Kristina and Steve moved from Newburyport, MA to Merritt Island near Cocoa Beach decades ago. They settled there and raised a family, and we make a point to visit them if we're nearby (we typically fly into Orlando, which isn't too far of a drive). Having notified them of an impending visit a few years back, Steve suggested we go on a kayaking excursion - something he had mentioned previously. We agreed, and we all reserved kayaks at on outfitter, the Ocklahawa Canoe Outpost & Resort. On a particularly chilly (certainly for Florida) February morning, we got a start at the break of dawn to drive the couple of hours north and west from Merritt Island to the Ocklahawa River location. I was nursing a sizable hangover, having spent far too much time at an outdoor bar in Orlando with my brother-in-law the previous afternoon. The air temperature was in the 40's (F) at dawn, and I was anxiously waiting for the sun to rise and warm the day, and hopefully for my headache to subside ๐Ÿ˜“.

There were 5 of us in total:  myself, my wife, Steve, Kristina, and their high school freshman son. We all opted for single 8' kayaks that were really more like plastic canoes, with no drain plug and a large cockpit opening with no spray skirt. I recognized immediately that if one of these boats took on water, there would be no way to empty it, short of turning it over. I hoped the Ocklahawa river was shallow enough to accommodate such an effort if necessary - turns out it wasn't. 

We piled into a van that took us and the kayaks to the launch site upriver. The owner handed us a couple of rudimentary maps and told us to basically follow the current downstream. The water looked reasonably calm as we departed, but I kept a close eye on all parties as we paddled off, me being the most experienced paddler of the group. I was looking forward to seeing some wildlife, including the chance to see one of the monkeys, left behind by a movie production, that had escaped and established a colony now living feral in the Ocala National Forest

The river varied from a width of 20-25' to maybe 40' at its widest. Depth was hard to gauge, but occasional depth markers showed 8-10'. The flow was fairly slow and meandering, but picked up some speed around tight river bends and fallen logs. We didn't see much wildlife to start, probably because it was cold - very cold for a Florida morning. Temperatures were still in the 50's (F), with the forest blocking much of the low rising sun. We landed for a quick break at the first landing spot marked on the map - a narrow, slightly muddy break in the cedar and cypress trees big enough to accommodate 2 landed kayaks side by side. This spot would be important for us in the near future.

After climbing back into the 'yaks, and heading downstream, I began to pull away from the group. Try as I might, I could not seem to paddle slow enough to keep back with them, and kept having to turn around and paddle upstream to check on everyone - the wives happily chatting as they drifted along and Steve and his son getting a bit cantankerous with each other ๐Ÿ˜’. Not too long after we departed the landing, I was ahead of the group again when I heard raised voices echoing through the trees, and the inevitable splash of water that I feared, as someone undoubtedly had gone into the drink. I heard my wife call out for my assistance, and I paddled back to find Steve chest deep in the river and straining to hold his kayak from floating on downstream. Steve was shouting a bit at his son, who, it seems, had somehow been involved in Steve's capsize.

I paddled over to Steve and coached him to get to a shallower place with a foothold so he could empty his water logged craft, but he insisted on re-entering it where he was. He miraculously got back into the cockpit, but the boat was very low in the water and unsteady. It needed to be drained, but the trees on both banks were so thick there was no place to land. I remembered the landing we stopped at back upstream, and figured it was the quickest way to get to a safe location. I stayed with Steve as he carefully paddled back, and instructed the others to follow. I dragged Steve's water laden boat onto shore, helped him climb out, then turned it over to drain the cockpit. The problem now was Steve was wet, and it was still cold out. Cold enough to be dangerous. Steve was wearing a pair of jeans and a cotton sweatshirt - not appropriate clothing for paddling (see my post 8 Tips for Dressing Right for Your Kayaking Adventure). Fortunately, I had enough moisture wicking clothing on, and I was dry, so I peeled off a layer and gave it to Steve to wear. We got ourselves sorted as best we could, and the experience seemed to wake the group into a better mindset for concentration, so we departed once again, heading downstream.

Shortly afterward, I would be thankful the capsize had already taken place, because the panic level would have surely been much higher...Steve's son was now keeping up with me at the front of the pack, and sometimes paddling ahead of me. I was keeping an eye on him, because I noticed him daydreaming a bit and not keeping his eyes on the water. During one of these episodes, we rounded a bend in the river, and I spotted a large alligator sunning itself on a log directly in front of him. He hadn't seen it yet. I estimated its head length at 2 1/2', its body at 4 1/2', and its tail at another 4-5'. All in all, I estimated its length to be somewhere between 9 and 11'. I called out "big gator straight ahead to your left". When his eyes caught hold of the animal, I saw him startle. The current was carrying us straight toward the log. I wondered what the gator would do. Fortunately, as we drifted closer, it slid heavily, but quietly into the water, and the wake of its tail swipe, even deep under water, betrayed its power. We had seen a couple of small 2' gators to this point, but this one was clearly the grandaddy of the river. I shuddered to think what the capsize scenario would have been like after we saw this beast.

Ours was a bit bigger than this one...

We paddled on for a couple more hours, stopping at another landing, this time a shallow, sandy one farther downstream. It actually had a rope swing that people use, apparently to launch into the river - yes, the same river with the large gator in it. The sun had risen higher, the temperature had climbed to at least the 60's (F), and Steve had dried out. We were all in lighter spirits as we tried to catch some lizards scurrying around a fallen log on the shore. We pulled into the final landing another 45 minutes later, having enjoyed a fun paddle adventure through the Florida forest. We never did see a monkey, though. 

As we returned our paddles and PFDs to the gear rack, the owner came out from one of the cabins and asked how the trip went. We said it went well, and then he asked (perhaps a bit too knowingly) did we see anything? I said we saw a big gator. He replied, "yep, he's a big boy for sure". When I asked how much the gator weighed, the owner thought for a moment, then said "oh, I'd expect 300, maybe 400 pounds". Yep, he was a big boy for sure.

To read the rest of the story click on "Florida Day" Part 2.

TB on the Water