Paddleboards in the Panhandle

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The Choctawhatchee River

Springs, a midnight swim, rope swings, and a water slide — Florida’s Panhandle catapulted me back to my childhood. Who knew that I could laugh so much in three days?

Four paddleboards, one Pilgrim Expedition, snorkeling gear, and loads of food. We pointed the Paddle Florida van west towards Lake Lucas in Chipley, Florida, our base while we explored this area between Panama Beach and the Alabama border. This inland region is dotted with rivers, lakes, and springs, ideal for paddleboarding and swimming, and the Gulf of Mexico is nearby for those wanting a saltwater fix.

Lake Lucas
View from our porch

We settled into our A-frame cabin, perched on the shore of Lake Lucas. Later that night, we paddled across the placid lake and lay on our boards, gazing up at the almost full moon. And that set the tone for the rest of the trip.

I woke up early the next morning–we had crossed into Central time. The moon lingered in the western sky while the dawn’s light was barely visible in the east. Coffee in hand, I sat on the dock and watched the celestial performance until the sun was high.

We planned a full day on Holmes Creek, a tributary of the Choctawhatchee River, and Cypress Springs and drove to the Holmes Canoe Livery and Water Park for a shuttle. While we waited for our shuttle, we enjoyed their water slide and rope swing. I’m not sure any of us have laughed so much in years, as we climbed up the tower and slid down into the water again and again. I could have happily spent the day there.

Rope swing and slide on Holmes Creek
Rope swing and slide on Holmes Creek

We launched at Culpepper Landing and paddled about a mile upstream to Cypress Springs, a local swimming hole. Many other swimmers and paddlers clearly had the same idea. We were not alone, but it never seemed overcrowded–amazing for a sunny summer day. We tied up our boards, donned mask, fins, and snorkel, and swam around the blue hole, diving deep against the rising current and watching the sky through the water’s distortion.

 

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Cypress Springs
The tannin line
The tannin line
Fins
Fins up in Cypress Springs

After swimming and eating lunch, we headed downstream to our takeout at Fanning Branch Boat Ramp. The spring was cold and I was ready to warm up.

As we paddled downstream, the river changed moods several times. Shallow and twisty-turny, like a creek, then wide and straight. Clear, like a spring run, and, in other places, opaque. Never predictable.

Katie on Holmes Creek
Holmes Creek
Holmes Creek
Reflections

 

Placid waters on Holmes Creek
A hidden spring?
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Cooling off in Holmes Creek

After several miles, we passed the Holmes Creek Canoe Livery and Waterpark, where many people completed their trip. After a short break, we continued downstream for the last four miles of our trip. Once again the river changed moods, and our paddling became more challenging. The Livery warned us that we would be ducking under trees, and they were right. Once we lay flat on our boards, using our arms to weave through a tangle of branches. Several times, we crawled to the front of our board to free the fins  caught on submerged branches, a hazard unique to paddleboards. Several times, I heard the splash of someone going in. Through it all, we laughed and laughed, mostly because it felt good to be in the water. We endured a long paddle that day, about 9 miles, and I was both sad and relieved when we reached Fanning Branch.

On our third and final day, we planned  a five-mile paddle on the Choctawhatchee River, from the New Cedar Log Landing boat ramp to Morrison Springs.  The river was high, possibly at flood stage, and moving fast. Rain had recently soaked the Panhandle, and the high river flow had drowned out Morrison Springs. Nonetheless, Morrison Springs was our take-out, and we hoped that we would find the entrance to the spring, not obvious even under ideal circumstances.

 

We pushed our boards into the swiftly moving current and sped downstream. The Choctawhatchee is wide with few obstacles, unlike Holmes Creek. A fisherman told us the spring entrance was marked by a giant leaning cypress, and hence the quest for the cypress began.

Flooded Choctawhatchee River

Sand bluffs on the Choctawhatchee
Sand bluffs on the Choctawhatchee
Floating camp on the Choctawhatchee
One of many river camps
Choctwhatchee bench
Park bench on the river bank

We scoured the river banks for the elusive leaning cypress. Instead we saw floating river camps, a park bench with a view, and sandy bluffs eroded by years of floods. “Is that it?” we asked again and again, each time we floated by anything remotely resembling a leaning cypress. We paddled on, recalculating how far we had paddled.

Finally we came to a boat launch and discovered that Morrison Springs was three miles upstream. No way were we paddling against that current, and a storm was rolling in. A  fisherman, kind enough not to laugh at our predicament, us to our cars. It would have been a long walk to the road.

Coming in for a landing
Coming in for a landing

Boat ramp

Hitching a ride
Hitching a ride

On our way home, we stopped at Ponce de Leon State Park for a final swim. As we dove and snorkeled in this fountain of youth, it seemed fitting to end our adventure here as we had spent the last three days laughing and playing like kids. Being on a paddleboard, so close to the water, jumping off and climbing back on, brought out the kid in all of us.

This short trip offered a taste of paddling in the Panhandle, and it was also a preview of Paddle Florida’s new Choctawhatchee Challenge scheduled for March 2018. I can’t wait to paddle more of this wonderful part of Florida.

Ponce de leon Springs
Revived by Ponce de Leon State Park

 

 

 

Paddleboarding to Paradise: Caladesi Style

Is Caladesi Island State Park paradise? It just might be. Beaches, mangroves, birds, and dolphins — what’s not to love? And it’s even better with a paddleboard.

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Boat and board

Is Caladesi Island State Park paradise? It just might be. Beaches, mangroves, birds, and dolphins — what’s not to love? And it’s even better with a paddleboard.

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Reflections of mangroves

The conditions were perfect to sail from Clearwater Beach Marina to Caladesi Island State Park. My inflatable paddleboard was rolled up in the cabin–our last sailing trip to the Keys revealed some downsides to towing the paddleboard (From Sail2SUP in the Keys).  We motored out to the Gulf through Clearwater Pass, then raised our sails, catching a light southerly breeze to carry us north. The carnivalesque feel of Clearwater Beach faded as we sailed along Caladesi Island toward Dunedin Pass, our entry point to the Caladesi Island Marina. We navigated through the narrow pass, then followed the channel markers to the marina. Caladesi Island is only accessible by boat, so the marina is the primary port of entry.

empty boat slips in Caladesi Marina
Slips in Caladesi Marina

As soon as we entered the marina, I knew we were home. We planned to return to Clearwater Beach that night, but I did not want to leave. Plus, we had all of our food, clothing, and water with us — the benefits of a floating tent, as I call our 18′ Sanibel. Although Caladesi Island State Park does not allow camping, you can stay on your boat. So we had our own tropical paradise.

Gopher tortoise
Gopher tortoise
Palm trees
Palm trees

We checked in and paid our docking fee, at $1 per foot, inexpensive relative to most marinas. Then, I inflated my paddleboard and set out to explore. I knew the calm waters around Caladesi Island would be perfect for paddleboarding. The shallow water was clear enough to see fish and the occasional stingray, and the mangroves blocked the wind. I only had time for a brief paddle before sunset, but I paddled in nearby channels and saw a variety of birds.

bird perched on red mangrove
Cormorant in mangrove
pelican in channel to Caladesi
Pelican perched on marker
Egret
Egret looking for food

Since it was low tide, I stayed close to the main boat channel so my paddleboard fin didn’t drag in the mud. Water depth is only a few feet most of the water so most of the area is inaccessible to motorized vessels. Returning to the marina, I crossed paths with the Caladesi Ferry which was bringing the last visitors of the day back to the mainland.

Caladesi Ferry
Ferry leaving Caladesi Island
Caladesi Ferry on Still water
Navigating the channel markers

I returned in time for a brilliant sunset. My husband and I crossed the boardwalk over the dunes and watched the sun dip below the horizon. Caladesi Island is narrow so walking the width of the island takes little time.

The sunset was romantic, but our dinner was not: a Channa Masala boil-in-bag by Backpackers Pantry. Oh well. Still nothing could mar this beautiful place. I slept better than I had in days and almost missed the sunrise.

Marina sunrise
Caladesi sunrise

What a perfect morning — watching the sunrise with a hot cup of coffee. I was so relaxed I felt like I could melt. The calm morning boded well for another paddleboard trip. This time, I wanted to paddle north along the bay side of Caladesi and come back down on the Gulf side.

glassy entrance to Caladesi Island State Park
Navigational markers to St. Joseph’s Bay

I set out following the channel markers, reversing our course of the day before, and soon entered the bay. I watched a dolphin chasing prey through the shallow waters. Since the water was so shallow, the dolphin’s back and fin were exposed as it chased down fish. I’ve seen dolphin circling to round up prey at low tide, but I have never seen so much of the dolphin’s body exposed.

dolphin chasing fish
Dolphin feeding frenzy
fish lea;ing to escape dolphin
Fish escaping dolphin

I watched the show with a group of kayakers who were heading towards the Caladesi. They were looking for the Canoe/Kayak Trail that starts in the marina. FPTA has an interactive map that gives the coordinates of this trail and the Central Florida Kayak Trips website another page that gives logistics for paddling the five miles from the Dunedin Causeway.

Paddle trail sign
Marina paddle trail

The calm waters of the bay are perfect for kayaking and paddleboarding. Sail Honeymoon, located on the Dunedin causeway rents both kayaks and paddleboards, and a number of paddlers were enjoying the waters. Florida Rambler’s blog  Caladesi Island: Kayak to a Wild Beach offers a detailed discussion of the trip as well as logistics about rentals.

fishing gear on kayak
Kayak fishing off Caladesi
Kayakers near north end of Caladesi
Kayakers approach Caladesi Island
ducks swimming around north end of Caladesi
Swimming ducks

The day before, Kevin and I had seen the hull of a boat on a sandbar in the bay. I paddled to this poor de-masted sailboat, lying on its side.

Shortly after I passed the sailboat, I rounded the north end of the island and entered the channel. The water became choppy as the winds and currents met. Most of the small kayaks beached on the bay side, and only longer sea kayaks paddled down the Gulf side.

Sea kayaks on the Gulf
Sea kayaks on the gulf

The Gulf had small 1′ rollers which kept my attention on a 10 1/2′ paddleboard. I missed the stability of my expedition board, but was glad for my previous experience paddling in the surf. I paddled along the shore until I reached the blue umbrellas on the beach. Then I carried my paddleboard across the island, back to KneeDeep, and deflated it for our sail back to Clearwater Beach. My only regret: not staying longer. Caladesi and the neighboring islands are a paddleboarder’s paradise.

Umbrellas on beach
Caladesi Beach
Paddleboard on Caladesi Beach
The SUP has Landed

 

Navigating Uncomfortable Waters: Whitney Sanford Reflects on Place

Originally posted on March 12, 2014 on Religion/Place/Pedagogy. After completing our exhibit—River of Dreams—on the St. Johns River at the Matheson History Museum, it seemed like a good time to repost this blog.

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Nothing makes me happier than a day paddling through the waves in the Fort George Inlet. This estuary, just south of Little Talbot Island State Park, has become one of my favorite places to play in the surf, and this low country ecosystem, full of dolphins, pelicans, and hermit crabs, reminds me of Tybee Island, where I spent most of my childhood summers. I have camped at the Talbot House, a property recently deeded to the North Florida Land Trust. The house–and Big Talbot Island–sits in the Timucuan Preserve which includes both Talbot Islands, the Kingsley Plantation, the Fort Caroline National Monument as well as recently discovered burial native American mounds.

The house’s long dock extends into the marshy area of Mud Creek, a tributary of the Fort George Inlet, and from the dock, looking down the Mud River, I see the Kingsley Plantation on the opposite shore of the Fort George River.

Uncomfortable Histories

"Surfing Fort George," Big Talbot Island, Photograph by Joe Crespi, December 15, 2013.

Seeing the Kingsley Plantation in the distance reminds me that I have a privileged history with this ecosystem. I have had the freedom to explore and discover the history, beauty, and wildlife on my own terms. The sixty or so slaves who worked the fields at the Kingsley Plantation did not have the luxury of appreciating the area’s beauty at their leisure. While I cannot even begin to imagine their experiences of the land, I know that our experiences are worlds apart. Perhaps the land—which has received their bodies, sweat, and blood—knows something more. Waves of residents, visitors, and invaders, from the Timucua followed by French and Spanish explorers and subsequent populations of British and Africans, have inhabited this land, drawn by its abundance and fertility as well as its strategic location. The Talbot Islands near Jacksonville, Florida are the southernmost of the Sea Islands and the region known as the Low Country–typically associated with the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina. The Low Country, so named for its extensive tidal flats and salt marshes, provides rich habitat for birds, fish, and mollusks, and its nutrient-rich mud sustained the human ecologies of rice-growing plantations.

"Kingsley Plantation," Big Talbot Island, Photograph by Whitney Sandford, March 3. 2014.

From 1814 to 1837,  Zephaniah Kingsley and his wife Anna, an ex-slave from Senegal, lived in what later became known as the Kingsley Plantation and produced commercial crops such as sea cotton and sugar cane. Also a slave trader, Zephaniah Kingsley participated in the Triangular trade, supplying human flesh to the barrier islands of Georgia and South Carolina. Like many, he sought out West Africans due to their agricultural skills, and there he purchased Anna who later became his wife.

Those of us who love Florida for its water and waves can easily forget our state’s uncomfortable histories. In 2013, Florida celebrated the 500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon’s arrival in what is now St. Augustine, approximately 50 miles south of the Timucuan Preserve. Over time, interactions with the Spanish, French, and later British newcomers decimated the Timucua populations, and only shell middens (trash piles of oyster shells and pottery, for example) and place names such as Timucua or Calusa remind us of their presence. Touring the Kingsley Plantation provides a visceral reminder of Florida’s participation in the slave trade, and the state’s Jim Crow laws maintained segregation and created a range of barriers in the post Civil War-era. In reality, these laws meant that beaches and rivers that I now enjoy were–and in some cases are–not safely accessible to people of color, and their experiences of these places might be radically different than mine.

Becoming Native to Place

When I teach courses such as Religion and Sustainability and Religion and Food at the University of Florida, I hope to make students aware of local places and their histories and ecosystems. Ideally, they will come to appreciate and maybe even love these places such as our estuaries, springs, and wild rivers. Many of my students, from a variety of backgrounds, already care deeply about our rivers, having grown up fishing, surfing, hunting, and swimming, and they are native to their place, to borrow Wes Jackson‘s term. Our students bring with them multiple histories and meanings about these places, and I need to reconcile my privilege–and that of many of my students–with the past and present exclusions experienced by others. Many outdoor areas were segregated by law and/or custom, and some of my students even today might not feel comfortable roaming through parts of rural north Florida.

"View from Alacante," Fort George Inlet, Photography by Whitney Sanford, February 3, 2014.

I have never directly addressed this topic with students, although an artist friend and I have discussed creating a mapping project to explore different experiences of places.  This mapping exercise might have two phases: first, students would learn the historical and ecological dynamics of this place; and, second, as a reflective piece, students would consider their own experiences of the encounter and how their experiences reflect larger social dynamics. I became interested in this idea after the two of us spent hours wandering through Koppers, our local super fund site, and, despite multiple ‘No Trespassing’ signs, nobody questioned us. In this case, the invisibility of white, middle-aged women was a privilege. In 2012, Michael W. Twitty, self-described culinary historian, historic interpreter and Jewish educator, embarked on a Southern Discomfort Tour through the Deep South to learn the stories of southern food ways, enslaved peoples, and cultural memories. During the tour’s visit to the Kingsley Plantation, he discussed the African’s cultural heritage and recreated some of their typical dishes.

Projects and exercise like Twitty’s Southern Discomfort Tour might provide a way to discuss the rich–and often uncomfortable–histories of places that I love. I hope my students will come to love our north Florida ecosystem and will learn to love whatever ecosystem that they inhabit in the future. I also hope they will acknowledge and appreciate that places also hold uncomfortable histories that continue to shape human and non-human relations in the present.

TRAK Unleashed: PADDLERS IN PARADISE

Happy Valentine’s Day — reposting my story about our kayak camping adventure in the Bahama’s Exuma Islands with our Trak Kayaks.

TRAK Unleashed: PADDLERS IN PARADISESwimmingPigsBarStanielKeySharkThunderball

By Whitney Sanford. All images ©2014 Whitney Sanford and Kevin Veach used by permission.

After the motorboat drove off, leaving Kevin and I, our boats, and about one hundred pounds of gear off on Big Major Cay (near Staniel Cay), we were on our own for a honeymoon paddling and snorkeling adventure in the Exuma Islands in the Bahamas. This was day 1 of a six-day self-supported kayak trip from Big Major Cay back to Barreterre, where we had started. Although we had done several self-supported kayak trips before, the remoteness of this trip called for new levels of teamwork and flexibility; we were each other’s back up and safety.

Read more… TRAK Unleashed: PADDLERS IN PARADISE