Exploring the Dead Lakes of Wewahitcka

 

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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Camping at Three Rivers State Park on Lake Seminole

 

Campsite on the shore of Lake Seminole.

Campsite on the shore of Lake Seminole.

Fall is a beautiful time of year to visit Three Rivers State Park. Nestled on the banks of Lake Seminole near the Florida/Georgia border, this park offers camping, hiking, fishing and boating, wildlife viewing and relaxation. If you’re looking to relax and get away from the hustle and bustle of the modern world, then this is the place to camp.

Kayaking on Lake Seminole.

Kayaking on Lake Seminole.

 

I met up at with fellow NWFLOA teammate, Glenn Phillips, at this park for what we hoped would be four days of kayaking and fishing. Unknown to us, we had a couple of things working against us. Although the weather was perfect for camping and hiking, the sudden drop in high temperatures from 87 to 60 seemed to have turned the fish off. The other kink was alligator hunting season had opened and hunters were out scouting for their potential trophies and based on our sightings, there were plenty of alligators in Lake Seminole.

Alligator at Three Rivers State Park.

Alligator at Three Rivers State Park.

Did I mention the alligators? I appreciate and respect alligators. They are magnificent prehistoric remnants representing patience and power. These ambush predators lie in wait, often stalking their prey silently from just beneath the surface of the water and then they explode from the water in a terrifying flurry of gnashing teeth. We encountered several alligators during this trip, and even though several came in for a closer look, they left us alone and went about their business of finding an easier meal.

Alligator with potential prey.

Alligator with potential prey.

Alligators were present and abundant on each day of the trip. The fish, however, were another story. The only people we saw having any luck with the fish biting were a couple of people at the campground pier hauling in catfish. I had been fishing for bass or bream, but without even a nibble. I began to blame the alligators on the poor fishing simply to boost my self-esteem. In all honesty, the alligators were probably living off of small mammals like raccoons that came down to the shoreline to drink and find food. Judging from the alligators plump size, they definitely weren’t missing any meals.

Doe

Doe

Three Rivers State Park has over seven miles of hiking trails and we took advantage of almost all of them. We rode our bikes over to Eagle Trail and struck off armed with camera’s hoping to get a few shots of the Bald Eagles that call the park home. No such luck on this outing, but the scenery was still amazing. Over the course of the weekend we also tackled Lakeview, Ridge and Dry Creek trails. I had hoped to photograph some of the Fox squirrels and Gopher tortoises that call the park home, but they proved to be elusive on this visit as well.

White-tailed deer.

White-tailed deer.

One thing that was abundant at the park was White-tailed deer. I saw several small groups of them throughout the weekend. Gray squirrels were also a common sight throughout the campground areas. The campground has 30 campsites, some of which are located right on the shore of Lake Seminole. There is a BBQ/picnic pavilion, boat ramp and dock and a cabin available for rent. It’s a beautiful park with more than enough space to roam and do your own thing.

Jim Woodruff Dam

Jim Woodruff Dam

We took the kayaks out daily to fish and explore. Lake Seminole is fed by two rivers, Flint and Chattahoochee. The Jim Woodruff Dam at the southern end of the lake in the nearby town of Chattahoochee controls the flow of water into the Apalachicola River. If you’ve spent any time at all in the panhandle of Florida you’ve no doubt heard of the water wars between Georgia and Florida and how the throttled flow of water into the Apalachicola River has had a devastating impact on the oyster industry in Apalachicola Bay. The balance between the needs of an ever-growing population and the requirements for the survival of a sensitive and vital ecosystem are at odds and it is the hope of many that the mighty and historic Apalachicola River and Bay can be saved before it’s too late.

Fisherman on Lake Seminole.

Fisherman on Lake Seminole.

In order to get a better look at the hydroelectric dam, we took a short ride over to Chattahoochee to check things out. It is a very impressive structure and popular with the locals for fishing. I asked one woman what they were fishing for in the rushing waters and she told me that they usually catch bream. While chatting and taking photographs, two boats pulled up just outside of the boundary line to tie up and fish the rapid currents. The most ominous thing I saw, however, was a large sign on the dam that read, “A warning horn will sound before the initial release of water from the damn. Water will rise suddenly without further warning. Persons in or near the water should immediately seek safety when the horn sounds.”

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

From the dam we headed over to the east bank of Lake Seminole to check out the Army Corps of Engineers Eastbank Campground. It offers water/electric hookups, laundry facilities, a bathhouse and dump station as well as a variety of outdoor areas such as boat ramp, fish cleaning station and picnic areas. It was clean, open and well-kept. Definitely worth considering if other camping venues are full.

 

At the end of each day, which seemed to be filled with equal parts kayaking, fishing, hiking and bicycling, beautiful sunsets would set the sky on fire and then shortly thereafter campfires would blaze to life. Perfect camping weather to be sure. As the sky darkened a field of stars would appear to make one truly appreciate the peace and serenity to be found on these shores.

 

Sunset over Lake Seminole

Sunset over Lake Seminole

Three Rivers State Park is located in Sneads about an hour west of Tallahassee. For more information visit the Florida State Parks website.

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A Visit to Fanning and Manatee Springs State Parks

Fanning Spring

Fanning Spring as seen through the trees.

On a recent trip down to Tampa, I decided to take the more leisurely and scenic route along Highway 98 to visit some of the state parks along this stretch and made my first stop at Fanning Springs State Park. Temperatures were hovering near 70 degrees and skies were overcast when I pulled into the park a little after noon on a Saturday. There were only a couple of other cars in the parking lot so I felt like I had the whole place to myself.

Swimming area at Fanning Spring

Swimming area at Fanning Spring

The main spring is located just a few yards away from the parking lot so I headed down to survey the area and snap some photos. Several Live Oaks adorned with Spanish Moss reached out over the azure waters giving it a bit of an ethereal feel. This area is cordoned off as a swimming area complete with a diving platform near the deepest part of the pool. The clarity of the water was perfect today and you could see all the way to the bottom.

Spring Run leading into the Suwannee River

Spring Run leading into the Suwannee River

The spring was alive with fish, but no manatees on this visit. I left the swimming area and floating dock and headed along the 200′ boardwalk toward the Suwannee River overlook, passing several seep springs along the way and one boisterous Gray squirrel. Across the river is a public boat ramp that seemed to be quite popular with the locals and made me contemplate a future kayaking trip.

Boardwalk at Fanning Spring

Boardwalk at Fanning Spring

It’s worth nothing that the park offers primitive camping for a fee to kayakers, hikers and bicyclists. This park also boasts a .75 mile nature trail, but I skipped it so I could head on to another nearby state park, Manatee Springs, located about 14 miles south near Chiefland, Florida. After a few minutes of driving I turned off of Hwy 98 onto 115th St. and arrived shortly thereafter at Manatee Springs State Park.

Deer crossing at Manatee Springs State Part

Deer crossing at Manatee Springs State Park

Right away I knew I’d discovered something special. I stopped my truck in order to take photos of three deer that were crossing the road and had then stopped to graze, showing no fear of my presence. I snapped a few more pictures and started my truck up again to continue on. I passed two camping areas on my way to a spacious parking area nestled near the banks of Manatee Spring Run. The parking lot was bustling, but I didn’t have any problems finding a spot to park. I discovered a bit later that a scuba diving event was going on, hence the full parking lot.

Deer grazing along the roadside.

Deer grazing along the roadside.

The park itself is quite beautiful. A boardwalk stretches from the main spring, along the spring run and through a cypress swamp and terminates at a covered fishing dock on the Suwannee River. Again, it was my lucky day because I spotted a mother Manatee and calf relaxing at the entrance to the spring run. Luckily for them, they were in the protected sanctuary area and not on the river because a high speed boat sped past at about the same time I spotted them. I wish people would slow down.

Mother Manatee and calf at Manatee Springs.

Mother Manatee and calf at Manatee Springs.

As I headed back along the boardwalk to the spring head, a bald eagle soared past. I’m convinced they only do this after they see that I’ve put the lens cap back on my camera. I doglegged to a couple of overlooks along the boardwalk and observed a large bass swimming lazily behind a log looking to ambush prey. I briefly wished for my fishing pole, but the no fishing sign would’ve put a damper on that idea just the same.

Epiphytes hanging above Manatee Spring run.

Epiphytes hanging above Manatee Spring run.

I continued on, noticing epiphytes (air plants) hanging from several of the trees. Fall was in full swing here in Florida, but I couldn’t help wondering how rich and vibrant things would be in the spring. Perhaps a return trip would find its way onto my schedule. After a short walk I arrived at the head spring and noticed a large group of scuba divers in and around the water. For the first time I wished I’d brought my wetsuit with me. My snorkeling equipment was in the car, but alas, there would be no time for exploring the underwater realm on this trip. Too soon I was back in the car to complete the last leg of my journey but I definitely intend to give this park a second look in the future.

Divers at Manatee Springs.

Divers at Manatee Springs.

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Kayaking on Ocheesee Pond near Marianna, Fla

 

Water lilies on Ocheesee Pond.

Water lilies on Ocheesee Pond.

Recent rains and perfect weather made a trip to Ocheesee Pond near Grand Ridge, Fla., a must-do for the local kayaking clubs at the November campout at Florida Caverns in Marianna. Located on Arkansas Rd off of 69A and about a half hour’s drive from the caverns lies Ocheesee Pond, a local favorite of fisherman who call the old growth cypress swamp home. Our group wasn’t here for the fish though, but for the fall colors of the cypress.

 

Open water portion on Ocheesee Pond.

Open water portion on Ocheesee Pond.

The launch site is on an open section of the pond, and after a short half-mile paddle kayakers enter a cypress swamp that quickly becomes a maze. For this reason it is strongly recommended that when paddling on Ocheesee Pond, always go with someone that is familiar with the route. There is a marker system, but they can be sporadic and difficult to see. Even veterans can sometimes miss a marker and have to spend time backtracking to find the trail.

Kayakers navigate the cypress maze on Ocheesee Pond.

Kayakers navigate the cypress maze on Ocheesee Pond.

Spread amongst the cypress are aquatic glades of water lily and spatterdock that give the dark water a splash of color. A sharp eye may spot a basking turtle or an elusive alligator on the prowl. Osprey and woodpeckers are a common sight and on this trip we were treated to wood duck sightings.

The trail winds and weaves past seemingly impenetrable cypress stands, some forming walls on either side of the passage. Our group kept pushing forward through the flooded forest, always searching for the next hidden marker. About midway through the six mile trip the group veered off to have lunch at the only dry spot for miles, a small dirt landing in a pasture. As is the habit of most responsible paddlers, we cleaned up after ourselves and left no trace before heading back to our watery trail.

Fall colors make trail markers hard to spot on Ocheesee Pond.

Fall colors make trail markers hard to spot on Ocheesee Pond.

Paddling toward the sun, the gold and red of the cypress glowed making it much harder to see the orange and red markers. A faded white marker was virturally invisible behind the gray Spanish moss. At one deceptive turn our guide asked if any of us could point to the two visible markers that he could see. No one could and after he enlightened us we followed him into the trees past a full set of hidden markers. This would not be a good place to be lost in after dark.

 

Paddlers enjoy a beautiful fall day on Ocheesee Pond.

Paddlers enjoy a beautiful fall day on Ocheesee Pond.

Finally the swamp opened up as we neared the open water of the pond. It was sad to be leaving the beauty of the swamp but it was also a relief to have emerged from the maze. A brief paddle had us back across the pond to the put-in with 6.2 miles under our belts.

To get to Ocheesee Pond, head east from Marianna on Highway 90 and turn right on Highway 69. After crossing the railroad tracks in Grand Ridge take a left onto 69A and follow it to a dirt road on the left marked Arkansas. There should be a boat ramp sign marking the turn. Again, don’t attempt this pond alone if you haven’t done it previously.

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Kayaking at St. Lucie Inlet Preserve State Park in Stuart, Fla

 

A group of kayakers entering the mangroves of St. Lucie Inlet Preserve.

A group of kayakers entering the mangroves of St. Lucie Inlet Preserve.

St. Lucie Inlet Preserve is a unique location for paddlers that is entirely dependent on the tides. Kayakers can launch at the end of Cove Rd in Stuart, Fla., and paddle across the Intracoastal Waterway to duck into the mangroves at marker #7. This trip is best made with the assistance of someone experienced with the area as it is easy to miss a turn when paddling mangroves.

As our group of paddlers rounded the first turn we were greeted by a leaping stingray. It wasn’t long after that before we were seeing osprey fishing as well as herons, egrets, pelicans and other shorebirds. I even managed to see my first kingfisher. This location is definitely popular with the birds.

A kayaker glides through the mangrove tunnels at St. Lucie Inlet Preserve.

A kayaker glides through the mangrove tunnels at St. Lucie Inlet Preserve.

As we moved through the estuary it seemed that we were in our own personal paradise. Leaping fish abounded, safe from the threat of fisherman in motorboats due to the nature of the estuary and its tides. At low tide the bay we were currently traversing becomes a mudflat crawling with Fiddler crabs. Now, at neap tide, the mangroves were alive with scuttling crabs climbing the branches, the “click, click” of their legs the only sound as we drifted past them in quiet contemplation.

 

Following the shaded path to a secluded beach.

Following the shaded path to a secluded beach.

Our trip leader expertly guided us through a hidden mangrove tunnel and led us on to an equally hidden landing where we were able to pull our kayaks on shore. We grabbed our lunches and followed a short shaded path about a hundred feet to a secluded beach on the Atlantic.

After a brief lunch break we packed up and headed back to our kayaks to begin our alternate route out of the mangroves along a man-made cut back to the active channel on the Great Pocket of the Indian River. A stiff wind met us, but persistent paddling finally landed us back at the put-in at Cove Road. The overall length of this trip was 5.5 miles.

A path through sea oats leads to a beach on the Atlantic.

A path through sea oats leads to a beach on the Atlantic.

Cove Road is located off of A1A Highway (Old Dixie Highway) in Stuart, FL. When in the area be sure to check out Jonathan Dickinson State Park on the Loxahatchee River for more scenic views.

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