SUP Camping on the Peace River

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A very glassy Peace River

“Noone’s ever done that before,” exclaimed Trent from Canoe Outpost-Peace River. We had called the outfitters to shuttle us on our SUP expedition down the Peace River. Despite this winter’s unusual cold, Janice, Jill, and I hoped the window between Christmas and New Years would be warm. Jill and I had paddled through a cold front in Cuba in early December, and we were ready for the tropics. We chose the Peace River because its southern location offered warm temperatures, and its sandy banks promised wilderness sandbar camping. In November 2016, our trio camped from our paddleboards on the Rock Springs Run in central Florida. It was time for a new SUP adventure.

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Peace River Paddling Trail (Courtesy of http://www.florida-outdoors.com/peace_river.htm)
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Peace River Map (Courtesy of https://www.swfwmd.state.fl.us/waterman/peaceriver/map.html)

The 106-mile Peace River flows south through Polk County into Charlotte Harbor. Sixty-seven miles has been designated as the Peace River Canoe Trail, but many paddlers—like us—opt for the 31 mile-long wilderness section from Zolfo Springs to Arcadia. Few roads intersect this part of the river, and this stretch feels isolated and remote.

We launched from the public boat ramp in Zolfo Springs on a pleasantly warm Florida December day. I left my car downstream in Arcadia at the Canoe Outpost, and they shuttled me back to Zolfo Springs in their school bus. They provided detailed maps and descriptions of where we could—and could not—camp for the next two nights. In general, the right side of the river was fair game, while the left side was off-limits beyond gathering firewood. The Canoe Outpost owns several sites along the river that offered campground-style camping, but we wanted to camp more primitively. Just in case, paddlers needed a reminder, a sign in the bus warned people that they were entering the ‘True Florida,’ the kind that will hunt you down and eat you.

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Sign in Canoe Outpost bus

When I returned to the launch, Janice and Jill had loaded the boards with our camping gear, food, and water. After a few adjustments, we set off. We knew we would have some company on the river. A Boy Scout troop from Palm Beach was preparing to launch their aluminum canoes and would paddle the same stretch as us.

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Loaded boards at Zolfo Springs ramp

We aimed for about 12 miles our first day, about 7 miles upstream of Gardiner. The last third of our trip—between Gardiner and Arcadia—was more residential and offered fewer camping opportunities, so we planned our mileage to stay in the wilderness section as long as possible.

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Photo by Janice Hindson

Paddling this section felt blissfully remote. We heard no road noises, and only the occasional mooing reminded us of the ranch land that border the Peace. The drive from Tampa to Zolfo Springs on central Florida’s rural roads suggested a similar isolation, or perhaps desolation, as we sped through miles of Mosaic phosphate mining.

Mosaic’s mining activity has contributed to lowered water levels in the Peace River. We checked the link provided by the Canoe Outpost site to confirm that the water level was high enough for our trip. Water levels matter even more for paddleboards than canoes and kayaks. Submerged branches reach out and grab the fin, resulting in unplanned swims.

The river meandered through a scrub landscape, alternating between straight sections and hairpin turns. The low water level exposed the limestone structure of the riverbanks, making us aware of Florida’s permeable geology. The river was so still in places that it was difficult to distinguish the landscape from its mirrored reflection. Only the leaves floating past revealed the river’s current.

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Exposed limestone
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Sitting down on the job

After several hours of paddling, we found a perfect sandbar campsite. Since the Boy Scouts passed us in their canoes, we hadn’t seen anyone else on the river.

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Not a shabby view
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Cooling off on a Florida December day

Firewood was plentiful enough on the sandbar for both an evening and a morning fire. Coaxing a fire from the previous night’s embers makes me glad for the skills I developed and later taught at Camp Green Cove.

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Nothing beats fireside coffee
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A Peaceful sunrise

The day warmed up, and we set off downriver towards Gardiner. The day before, we saw a number of baby gators basking on the riverbank, but downriver, the mama gators were out and about. Not a good place to fall off the board.

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Medium-sized gator

And the birds: ibis, egrets, bob whites, great blue herons, wood storks, and roseate spoonbills.  One trip highlight for me was a flock of wood storks flying overhead, with two roseate spoonbills in the mix to add a touch of color. I’m never quick enough with a camera to catch such moments, but then no picture could do it justice. Bearing witness was enough.

We paddled on, aiming to camp downstream of Gardiner. We passed a run-down cabin, with several men sitting outside. One waved, but wordlessly we quickened our pace, as banjo music invaded our imaginations. Several miles down, a sandy bluff welcomed us for the night. Long after we had set up our tents, we discovered a dilapidated abandoned house nearby. Fortunately, it didn’t look like anyone would be returning soon.

On our last morning we paddled the final stretch through a residential area and past Canoe Outpost’s Oak Hill Campground. A number of people were sifting through the sand in search of shark’s teeth and other fossils, a draw for many Peace River paddlers.

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This bluff highlighted the damage from recent flooding.
2017-12-29 12.10.27 Canoe Outpost — Peace River

Soon we arrived at the Canoe Outpost in Arcadia. Janice and Jill continued onto the the public boat ramp about 1 1/2 miles downstream. The outfitters not only helped me load my board onto my car, they also washed it!

Janice and Jill looked a bit stunned when they arrived at the boat ramp. They had seen Amphibious ATVs plowing through the river just upstream from the ramp. Who knew?

As we loaded the car, our minds had leapt ahead to the tacos at Chuey’s Taqueria and Ice Cream in Zolfo Springs. That meal alone is worth a return visit.

This 31-mile section of the Peace River is a perfect 2-3 day  paddleboard camping trip. Depending on water levels and river conditions, paddling the upper sections would make a longer trip. While paddling down the Peace River, it’s hard to believe that we were close to some of Florida’s most populated regions. But, Florida’s waterways, once our highways, offer us our best chance to experience wilderness.

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Photo by Jill Lingard
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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.

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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.

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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.

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Cormorant in mangrove
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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.

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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.

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Dolphin feeding frenzy
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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.

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Kayak fishing off Caladesi
Kayakers near north end of Caladesi
Kayakers approach Caladesi Island
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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