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 😓.

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 😒. 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



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