Kayaking on Big Escambia Creek on the Alabama/Florida Line

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Relaxing on the creek.

Relaxing on the creek.

On this adventure, I met up with the FPCKC (Florida Panhandle Canoe & Kayak Connection) group that I’m a part of, in order to join them on a trip down Big Escambia Creek (aka Conecuh River), which as luck would have it, I’ve never been on before. We met the group at the Flomaton Landing boat launch underneath the Hwy 29/31 bridge in Flomaton, Alabama a little before 9:30 a.m. to unload boats and shuttle drivers down to the take-out at Fischer’s Landing on Hwy 4, east of the town of Century back in Florida.

Perfect day for a float trip.

The weather and water levels were perfect for today’s trip. Our trip leader, Doug Waggle, couldn’t have picked a better day if he’d tried. There was a good turn-out of about 18 people, but despite the size of the group, everyone launched fairly quickly and without any incidents. Then it was a pleasant mellow drift down a shallow, gravel-bottom creek. As we chatted, I could hear the mournful wail of a train in the distance and secretly hoped that I would get to see it as we neared the railroad trestle further along the creek.

Paddlers passing beneath the railroad trestle.

Paddlers passing beneath the railroad trestle.

The creek meandered past forested banks, occasionally giving way to large gravel sandbars. Small fish could be seen darting across the creek bottom and one ambitious turtle tried his luck at disguising himself as a shadow on the bottom. The sounds of the train grew louder and as we rounded a bend I was able to see a train slowly crossing the trestle. This was a treat for me because I really like trains. I dearly miss the days when the conductor would wave from the caboose.

Lunch break

Lunch break

After a few miles of drifting we rallied up at our lunch stop right before the entrance to the cypress forest where the recognizable creek path disappears into a maze of choices before re-emerging a half-mile away into a creek once again. Doug gave an inspiring pep-talk informing us that survivors would split the gear of those that didn’t make it, but that any left-over kayaks belonged to the trip leader. Perfectly reasonable.

The forest beckons

The forest beckons

We finished up lunch and clambered back into our canoes and kayaks. Somehow or other I wound up third in the starting line-up which then evolved into me winding up in the starting position after another paddler had to back-track his initial path into the swamp. Doug posted himself at the first choose-your-own-adventure station and pointed me deeper into the swamp. This is how most horror stories begin… straying from the main trail. Here, there is no main trail.

Enter the gauntlet

Enter the gauntlet

Ten feet in and it quickly became apparent that all roads lead downstream, and at a reasonable clip. In paddling terms, it was a technical paddle. Once we entered the watery forest, it was easy to get separated from the rest of the group, and I was paddling alone for many a stretch, often wondering if I would ever make it out to the main channel. The trick was to keep following the current and look for the widest waterways possible.

Beautiful river view

Beautiful river view

Finally I crossed paths with fellow paddler and great conversationalist, Larry Burner. Time flies when you’re shooting the breeze and the current, so it wasn’t long before we made it out of the maze and into the main channel. The scenery was even more amazing than in the first half of the paddle. From here it was a serene paddle to the Escambia river where it widened considerably. A little under a mile and a quarter later we arrived at the Fischer Landing take-out. Total trip-time: 3 ½ hours.

This was a great paddle. I wouldn’t recommend it for a beginner paddler, but someone with average or better paddling skills shouldn’t have much difficulty with it. Below is the full video from the Cypress forest section of the trip so you can judge for yourself.

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Kayaking Adventure on Rocky Creek, Niceville FL

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Dolphin hunting near shore in Rocky Bayou

Dolphin hunting near shore in Rocky Bayou

With the recent heat indexes in Florida we’ve been keeping the adventures fairly close to home so that we can start early and be off of the water before the temperatures really start to broil. Yesterday, we decided to take a paddle up Rocky Creek on Rocky Bayou in Niceville, Fl. Rocky Creek is a great choice for more than just convenience, it also has history, nature and is technically challenging enough to give paddlers a good workout with its swift current and tight turns.

Kayakers traveling up Rocky Creek

Paddlers traveling up Rocky Creek

Despite our best planning, not all of our team members were able to rendezvous at Rocky Bayou State Park on time so we were a bit later than we would’ve liked with launching our vessels. These consisted of two standup paddleboards and two sit-on-top kayaks. After a quick check to make sure that we had our required range passes*, we took to the water and began the half-mile paddle across the bayou to the mouth of the creek. On the way there we managed to spot a couple of dolphins on the morning hunt for food. Rocky Bayou is a designated aquatic preserve and is a haven for aquatic life and a quick meal for a dolphin.

Swamp Lily

Swamp Lily

The tides were in our favor as we approached the mouth of the creek and we were able to glide right in. During low tide you often have to drag your kayak across the sandbar in order to gain access to the creek. Supposedly there is also a fairly large alligator that likes to hang out near the mouth of the creek, but we’ve never seen it. Still, in Florida you can never be too careful so keep an eye out for it.

 

Old plane wreckage in Rocky Creek

Old plane wreckage in Rocky Creek

As usual, the current gave us a bit of a workout as we paddled upstream. Our goal was a picnic spot about 2 miles up the creek that comes complete with a picnic bench built around two Cypress trees situated in the middle of the creek. It’s a great place to hang out after a tiresome upstream battle. Along the way we took a few moments to examine pieces of wreckage from an old airplane crash, presumably civilian, that still litter the creek. It’s a bit of a contrast to the display of colorful blooming aquatic plants that line the creek.

The NWFLOA team stops for lunch in Rocky Creek

The NWFLOA team stops for lunch in Rocky Creek

Perseverance rewarded us and we arrived at our lunch stop. We took time to eat and cool off before deciding to head back. Fortunately for the return trip it’s mainly steering on the quick trip back. Normally we’d also be treated to some wildlife sightings, but on this day the only wildlife we saw were a couple of osprey and dolphins at the beginning of our trip. The other wildlife were probably lying low to beat the heat and I can’t really blame them.

 

Bottleneck on Rocky Creek

Bottleneck on Rocky Creek

On our way out of the creek we encountered a bit of a traffic jam of boats pulled into the mouth of the creek at a picnic spot near the bayou. We threaded our way through and managed to paddle back to the take out and load up our gear before a determined rain shower moved in to try and cool things down. All-in-all it was a good trip and worth doing again.

 

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The Small Wonders of Basin Bayou, Freeport Fla

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Kayaks on Basin Bayou

Kayaks on Basin Bayou

Basin Bayou is a nearly pristine, yet somewhat overlooked area nestled on the north shore of Choctawhatchee Bay and located a short drive west of Freeport, Florida on Highway 20. The northern side of Basin Bayou is surrounded and protected by Eglin, AFB, leaving only a few homes to dot the southern shoreline. A narrow and shallow tidally-influenced inlet allows ingress/egress to the bay to only the most shallow-draft boats. For this reason, I chose this location to paddle on Memorial Day weekend.

Water Lilies on Basin Bayou

Water Lilies in Bloom

On this adventure I brought along a fairly new paddler because I wanted to introduce her to a scenic natural area while remaining relatively safe from speeding motorboats on a crowded holiday weekend. While a creek or river might also have sufficed, I wanted her to gain confidence in her paddling technique before dealing with obstacles like logs or dodging powerboats. Basin Bayou is perfect for this.

We started early since the forecast for the day was slated to get into the low 90s before the afternoon. We parked at the small lot adjacent to Nick’s Seafood Restaurant and launched our kayaks from the beach area behind the restaurant before heading into the narrow pass that leads to the bayou. Almost immediately we spotted waterlilies in bloom on either side of the passage. As we entered the bayou and left the handful of homes behind, we hugged the eastern shoreline and observed moss-draped live oaks, magnolias and a very vocal Osprey guarding a nest in the top of a tall dead pine tree.

Osprey on Basin Bayou

Osprey and Nest on Basin Bayou

Paddling onward, we stayed close to the shoreline and commented on the aquatic grasses gently reaching up from beneath the calm water. It wasn’t long, though, before we observed something completely out of the ordinary disrupting the water’s surface. At first we thought it might be small methane bubbles erupting from beneath the silt and vegetation, but we quickly ruled it out. Nor was it a bait ball. Finally, unable to stand not knowing, I paddled my kayak into the mass of black bubbles and started laughing with glee. It was a large biomass of huge tadpoles!

Tadpoles

Tadpoles

We encountered about 6 more of these large biomasses over the next hour. I even managed to take video of the event and have forwarded it on to Florida Fish and Wildlife for further analysis. After finally taking our leave of the tadpoles, we had reached the end of the bayou, although in truth it is only a mile from the put-in. At the rear of the bayou a small creek, Basin Creek, flows into the bayou. This area is off-limits unless you have a recreation pass obtainable from Eglin’s Natural Resources Branch located in Niceville, FL. Fortunately, we both had one so we decided to enter and explore the tannin-colored creek.

Basin Creek

Basin Creek, Eglin AFB

By now, the temperature should’ve been in the upper 80s but we were lucky enough to have partially overcast skies and a light sprinkle of rain. Upon entering the creek, we were also treated to what I refer to as “cold pockets” where the water and air temperature drop by several degrees. I suspect this is due to unseen underwater springs, which are not uncommon for Florida. The current was slow and easy, and the scenery was splendid as we paddled about a mile and quarter upstream to an access bridge on one of Eglin’s many range roads.

Kayaking Across Basin Bayou

Kayaking Across Basin Bayou

After a short snack break we let the current take us slowly downstream. On this pass we even got to observe a small alligator crossing the creek. We found the experience to be peaceful and relaxing. So many of our natural areas have succumbed to rampant development that it is truly a delight to experience an unspoiled area; to hear the frogs calling from within large clumps of ferns or to catch sight of a red-shouldered hawk. After a short time, the creek delivered us back to the Bay which now had a light chop on it from the winds picking up. We tracked across easily and before long we were back at the take-out area and thoroughly happy with the day’s outcome.

Although Basin Bayou is fairly small in size, it still makes for a great paddling destination. We recommend it and will definitely be taking the kayaks out on it again soon.

    

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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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