Small Town Adventure: Sopchoppy Worm Grunting Festival

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Snap Revell at the 2016 Sopchoppy Worm Grunting Festival

Snap Revell at the 2016 Sopchoppy Worm Grunting Festival

Every year in the very small town of Sopchoppy, Fl, nestled in the heart of the Apalachicola National Forest and yet less than an hour’s drive from the state capitol, a unique annual festival unfolds bringing out locals and visitors alike to watch one of the most interesting sights along the gulf coast: Worm Grunting. This traditional folk method of coaxing earthworms from the earth en masse was handed down by local families that once made their living bait harvesting in the Apalachicola forest. Now, only a handful of locals still practice the tradition, but the history of it lives on in the annual Sopchoppy Worm Grunting Festival, just wrapping up it’s 16th year.

Street festival in Sopchoppy

Street festival in Sopchoppy

Although the worms are the centerpiece of the festival, it is by no means it’s only draw. This small town closes off the streets for a day to allow vendors and food booths to set up shop for the throngs of families that come to experience small town America. The festival opens with live music and a worm grunting demonstration just feet away from the historic G F & A Railroad Depot that birthed the town of Sopchoppy. Truly the magic in the Sopchoppy Worm Grunting Festival is the family atmosphere and the sense of community that it imparts to its visitors.

Worm grunting contest

Worm grunting contest

Having said that, there was still a moment of drama during this year’s worm grunting contest held for the children when no one would confess to the whereabouts of a metal file, leaving one child without a grunting tool until Snap Revell, professional worm grunter, loaned his personal file to the youngster. Despite the scandal, the contest proceeded and everyone had a good time. Other activities of the day included a 5k run, horseshoe competition, hula hoop contest and concluded with the Worm Grunter’s Ball.

White squirrel

White squirrel

Sopchoppy has a particular fondness for me because I often frequent the nearby Ochlockonee River State Park, home of the white squirrel. On one such camping trip I’d forgotten to bring olive oil to cook with and asked the park ranger if I might find some in Sopchoppy. She laughed heartily and said that she wasn’t even sure that folks in Sopchoppy knew what olive oil was, but that I might find some regular cooking oil at the Sopchoppy Grocery store. I ventured to the store and am happy to report that not only did I find a small bottle of olive oil, but I also found fond memories of visiting an old-fashioned grocer that sold a little bit of everything including plumbing supplies and fishing tackle.

My hopes are that Sopchoppy never loses its charm or outgrows itself to turn into a bustling tourist town. There is far too much urban sprawl as it is. The natural area surrounding it is a treasure of its own that should be cherished and protected. But for now, at least for one day each year, Sopchoppy opens its doors and lets it’s heart shine for its curious visitors and that makes me smile.

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Chassahowitzka River Kayaking Part Two

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Mother Manatee and calf on the Chassahowitzka River

Mother Manatee and calf on the Chassahowitzka River

Our adventure continues, read Part One here, with a mother manatee and calf right in front of the boat launch and docks. The fact that these two made it into the No Wake zone is a miracle in itself. So far, from our experiences on the river, we’ve witnessed all sorts of motor boats speeding through the shallow waters of the Chassahowitzka River on their way to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge and Gulf of Mexico beyond, including one boat that flipped a group of kayakers off as they sped by. Rude!

Manatee on the Chassahowitzka River

Manatee on the Chassahowitzka River

We spent a few minutes floating quietly alongside the manatee (known locally as “Rachel” for a distinct circular scar on her head) and her unnamed calf while taking pictures with my waterproof Olympus Tough TG-860. I’ve used a lot of different brands of waterproof cameras and the Olympus is my current favorite. I was able to get quite a few pictures of mother and calf and was simply astounded by the number of scars across both of their backs. I am all in favor of No Wake zones and greater protection for these gentle aquatic giants.

Catch and Release Channel catfish on Salt Creek

Catch and Release Channel catfish on Salt Creek

We slowly headed back downriver to try to find Potter’s Creek and spring, taking lots of time along the way to wet a line. At every turn we spotted Osprey, Kites, Egrets and Herons as well as large schools of Mullet and Snapper. Later, I hooked into a fish and was happily taken on a sleigh ride by what turned out to be a Channel catfish along Salt Creek. Other boats along the way seemed to be having good fortune as well, catching Redfish, Tarpon and Sheepshead. Not surprising considering this is a tidally influenced river bordering an estuary.

Yellow-bellied turtle on Salt Creek

Yellow-bellied turtle on Salt Creek

I split off from my teammate and headed deeper into Salt Creek thinking it must be Potter Creek. Despite the error, I enjoyed spotting Yellow-bellied turtles, Little Blue herons and a Wood duck with chicks. I found a promising spot on the creek and tried my hand at fishing for a little bit before deciding to rejoin my companions.

By the time I met back up with my friends, we’d been on the water for about 5 hours and decided to start heading back to camp, stopping once again at Snapper Hole to get rid of a bit of squid I’d been using for bait.

Speeding boat on the Chassahowitzka River

Speeding boat on the Chassahowitzka River

Along the way we were passed by more speeding boats and I remarked that in terms of sharing the river, this was the rudest bunch of boaters I had ever encountered. Normally, most boaters reduce their speed when encountering kayakers so as not to swamp their boats. Not here, so all we could do was keep to the side of the river opposite the boat channel and keep an ear out for their motors.

We slowly made our way back to the boat launch and the No Wake zone and were rewarded with more quality time with the two manatees we met earlier. After a few minutes, I paddled back up to the Seven Sisters Spring and the solution holes and took some more pictures, including one from inside a solution hole with the help of a young volunteer. I don’t know that I’d be brave enough to swim through the underwater holes connecting the solution holes myself, but perhaps I’ll attempt it on my next trip.

Manatee Rachel

Manatee Rachel

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Kayaking Adventure on the Chassahowitzka River in Homosassa, FL

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Tree canopy on the Chassahowitzka River

Tree canopy at Crab Creek Spring on the Chassahowitzka River

I recently spent a few days camping near and exploring the Chassahowitzka River (pronounced Chaz-wits-kuh), or Chaz as the locals call it, along Florida’s Nature Coast in Homosassa Springs. As a destination, this is an area that certainly lives up to the name of Nature Coast. For this trip, I also selected a time frame where manatees would most likely be in residence before warmer weather encouraged them to head back out to sea.

My friends and I had campsites at Chassahowitzka River Campground on W. Miss Maggie Dr, which conveniently also has the only public boat ramp on the river and is just a short walk from the campground, particularly handy if you’ve invested in wheels for your kayaks. If you have to park a vehicle and launch at the boat ramp, there is a fee or $7 for vehicles with trailers or $5 for vehicle only. Although there is quite a bit of parking available at this location, the area can fill up quickly and become congested on a nice day.

Kayak launching area.

Kayak launching area.

Our group rolled our kayaks down to the sandy beach launching area next to the main boat launch. This is a busy area, so take care to look out for motor boats coming in and out of the ramp area as well as fishing lines being attended to by those fishing from the docks. The Chassahowitzka River Store also rents canoes and kayaks in case you don’t have your own boat.

Solution holes at Seven Sisters Spring on the Chassahowitza River.

Fish in solution holes at Seven Sisters Spring on the Chassahowitza River.

Once our kayaks were launched, we paddled upstream a few dozen yards and made our way into the Seven Sisters Spring to a feature known as the Solution Holes. This natural formation is created by springs eroding their way through the limestone karst over time. They’re breathtakingly beautiful when the sun illuminates them like a sapphire. This location is a favorite with locals and on this trip we even observed a young girl swimming underwater between two joined holes over a distance of about 12′.

House at Crab Creek Spring.

Kayak and house at Crab Creek Spring.

We continued upstream for a short distance taking in the view of the houses and another campground before turning around and heading back downstream. We passed our launch point and veered right to explore Crab Creek Spring. This spring has a strong volume of water pumping from it, but it also has a lot of sand debris and underwater vegetation that makes it hard to see down into the spring. A large house sits on the bank nearby.

Spotted sunfish at Snapper Hole on Chassahowitzka River.

Spotted sunfish at Snapper Hole on Chassahowitzka River.

Venturing farther downstream and taking care not to get swamped by motorboat wakes, we came to a spring known as the Snapper Hole. This is a favorite of local fisherman, and we were not to be excluded. In our short stop here I managed to pull 3 Spotted sunfish out before unhooking and releasing them back to fight another day. My teammate caught and released two small bass.

Next we tackled the entrance to Baird Creek and paddled up to Blue Spring before pushing onward to The Crack. To find The Crack you have to get out of your kayak at the entrance to a small spring run and wade about 100′ to this unique spring fissure. In the fissure you can see fish and the limestone walls of the spring. On this trip a couple of campers had set up a tent on the banks of the spring, but that didn’t deter the newcomers from taking a dip in the spring.

The Crack on Baird Creek

The Crack on Baird Creek

After visiting The Crack we decided to paddle back to the campground for lunch and do some more fishing from the docks. Read part two for the conclusion of our Chassahowitzka River adventure.

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Ochlockonee River State Park Revisited

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Bitey

White Squirrel

A state park can be very different depending on the season in which it is visited. During my first visit to Ochlockonee River State Park near Sopchoppy, FL, it was midsummer and the temperatures were well into the upper 90s. The humidity was equally brutal and it didn’t lend itself to much exploration. Last year I returned in the fall to a much more pleasant experience and was rewarded with a variety of experiences.

Deer at River

Deer at River

Ochlockonee River State Park is nestled on the Ochlockonee and Dead Rivers, and abuts the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge. The location and protection afforded by this unique refuge provides habitat for a wide variety of plants and animals. The park itself has numerous hiking and paddling trails, any one of which can put you in the midst of a superior nature experience. Even the day-use picnic area has unique park residents such as the infamous White squirrels of Ochlockonee.

Doe and fawn

Doe and fawn

More than once on my adventures I found myself walking with and within a herd of White-tail deer, several of which are a rare piebald color. Most of these encounters were early morning or late afternoon as I explored both on and off the trails. There were numerous spotted fawns tucked in amongst the Saw palmettos, hiding in safety while their mother’s foraged for food only a few yards away. If you’ve never found yourself in the midst of a quiet herd of deer it can take your breath away.

Kayak Launch

Kayak Launch

Take a break from the hiking trails and wet a line at one of several locations within the park. In addition to a freshwater pond, there are two tidally influenced rivers to choose from complete with floating docks and a boat and kayak launch area. Slip down to the river trail located between the picnic area and campground and you’ll find several wooden walkdowns to the Ochlockonee River. A patient eye might see small mud crabs climbing up the steps or glimpse a Bald eagle soaring across the river.

Purple wildflowers

Purple wildflowers

During my trip, the wildflowers were still in bloom painting a blaze of purple across the pine lands. Butterflies danced across the landscape while a fox skirted along the grassy edge. Despite my extensive explorations, I still missed seeing the Sherman fox squirrel, but I did finally locate the elusive Piebald White-tail doe that calls the park home.

Back at the campground there was time to relax and take in a fiery sunset and later the starry night sky. There is very little light pollution in the area making it a perfect place to watch the skies. Even if you’re just relaxing around the campfire, the night sounds of owls and the occasional coyote create the perfect ambiance for winding down after a long day of exploring.

Ochlockonee River sunset

Ochlockonee River sunset

Ochlockonee River State Park is located 38 miles south of Tallahassee approximately 4 miles south of Sopchoppy, FL on U.S. 319.

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Exploring the Dead Lakes of Wewahitcka

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A clumping of trees on the Dead Lakes

A group of trees on the Dead Lakes

One of Florida’s most unique places may just be the Dead Lakes, located in Wewahitchka, FL and just a short drive from Panama City and Port St. Joe. Once a hardwood forest sitting between the Chipola and Apalachicola River, the area transformed into a 6,700 acre maze-like swamp of dying trees after the Apalachicola River is believed to have blocked the flow of the Chipola with shifting sandbars. What remains today is a diverse ecosystem teeming with life amidst the skeletal remnants of the old forest which has given way to Cypress and Tupelo trees over time.

A fisherman trying his hand at landing the big one.

A fisherman trying his hand at landing the big one.

Having garnered a reputation for having excellent fishing opportunities, the Dead Lakes attract fishermen from all over. Shellcracker, bream and bass are as plentiful as the snags, submerged logs and stumps. Motorboats are advised to proceed with caution. Photography and recreational kayaking have also found a home exploring the hidden beauty of these lakes. It is common to see a variety of waterfowl and basking turtles throughout the lake.

The Dead Lakes holds many secrets, one of which is gold, or rather, Tupelo honey which is collected from the bees that frequent the White Tupelo trees throughout the swamp. During the brief Tupelo blooming season, beekeepers often take their beehives deep into the swamp and place them on platforms in the heart of the Tupelo trees. The 1997 movie “Ulee’s Gold,” starring Peter Fonda, was filmed here with the assistance of local and longtime residents, the Lanier family. Honey is such an important part of Wewahitchka history it is celebrated annually with a festival.

Navigating the Dead Lakes

Faded marker along the lake.

Faded marker along the lake.

If not familiar with the area, the Dead Lakes can be intimidating. Local residents make navigating the seemingly endless twists and turns look easy. Markers are sporadic, oftentimes consisting of nothing more than an old rusted tin can or license plate, moss-covered wooden markers or even an oddly shaped tree branch. If visiting for the first time it may be best to hire a local guide.

 

Almost hidden, a moss-covered marker points the way.

Almost hidden, a moss-covered marker points the way.

For those first-timers venturing forth without the benefit of a guide, it is advisable to bring along a reliable gps. There are no official paddling maps of the Dead Lakes, but it is possible to obtain a topographical map of the area by visiting the USGS website. Even with these tools, once out of the West Arm it can be difficult to note and find one’s way back to the boat ramp. A personal locator beacon, or PLB, is also recommended in case of emergency due to poor or no cell phone reception in this area.

Getting There

Boat ramp at Dead Lakes Recreation Area

Boat ramp at Dead Lakes Recreation Area

Dead Lake Recreation Area, is located off SR71 a mile north of Wewahitchka. Turn right on Rowell Road into the park and right again when the road splits past the pond and follow it to the boat ramp. Paddle east along the West Arm to enter the Dead Lakes about a mile or so from the ramp

At the northern section of the lake access can be gained through Cypress Creek. Follow the signs on SR71 near the intersection of SR 71 and SR73. There are no facilities at this boat ramp. Additionally, a few local fish camps surround the lake and access may be given for a small fee.

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