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

 

 

 

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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