Ocklawaha River – February 10, 2018

Continuing with our Ocklawaha series, today’s paddle was from the Orange Springs Park boat ramp across Lake Ocklawaha/Rodman Reservior with a take out on the Rodman Dam embankment.  There is no boat ramp or launch on the dam embankment, we just had to haul our selves and our boats up over the vegetation and the rocks to get up to the road on the top of the dam.

Orange Springs Park boat ramp

Orange Springs Park boat ramp

It was a warm and foggy morning when 8 of us met up at Orange Springs Park and unloaded our boats onto the grass there.  After the long shuttle drive around to the dam we finally hit the water about 10:15 as the morning fog was lifting.

Map of the trip

Map of the trip

The “island” that shows on the topo map is not land except during the periodic drawdowns when the river is 6-8 feet lower than normal.  Fortunately, the dredged channel for the “go-fast” power boats is on the north side, so along the southern stretch all we saw were a few fishing boats stopped or moving at slow speed to avoid the obstacles

We first crossed the river to the southern bank, which we would skirt all the way to the dam.  There were many floating rafts of vegetation just loaded with Red-Winged Blackbirds.

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)

Very wide and shallow with some chop, especially after lunch at Cedar Landing when the wind rose a bit – more like open water paddling than the rivers we normally do.

Wide open under blue skies and fluffy clouds

Wide open under blue skies and fluffy clouds

I didn’t get many wildlife pictures because most of the birds stay far away and my little point-and-shoot camera cannot reach far enough to capture most of them.  We saw Gallinule, White Ibis, Great Blue Heron, Little Blue Heron, Red-winged Blackbirds, Anhinga, Cormorants, Great Egret and spent a few minutes watching an Osprey pair building their nest.

Osprey nest-building

Osprey nest-building

After lunch at Cedar Landing we entered Rodman Reservoir proper.  This is the area of the river valley they flooded for the Cross-Florida Barge Canal.  Rather than harvest all the trees in the valley they either left them standing (figuring they would rot when submerged) or used a huge steam roller called the crusher-crawler to simply push the trees down into the mud.  40 years later, the trees are still floating to the top and some are still standing, either just above or just below the surface of the water.  This creates a slalom course and provides the occasional hull bump to surprise the unwary kayaker.

300 ton forest-leveling machine known as the Crusher-crawler. 1969.

300 ton forest-leveling machine known as the Crusher-crawler. 1969. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

Slalom paddling through the dead tree tops

Slalom paddling through the dead tree tops

After rounding the final headland, Rodman Dam came into view about a mile in the distance and we headed south, still paddling close to the shore line.

Rodman Reservoir

Rodman Reservoir with the dam in the distance

Behind the kayaker you can see many of the dead trees that continue to float up from the bottom lining the shore.

Dead trees along the shore

Dead trees along the shore

After a hard pull against the rising wind we finally reached the south-west corner of the dam embankment and where we pulled our kayaks through the wind-driven vegetation and rocks up to the road at the top of the embankment.

Immature White Ibis (Eudocimus albus) on the dam embankment

Immature White Ibis (Eudocimus albus) on the dam embankment

Hauling up the rocks and bank.

Hauling up the rocks and bank.

With a lot of teamwork, we made it to the top of the dam

With a lot of teamwork, we made it to the top of the dam

Ocklawaha River – February 7, 2018

Finally, the weather has warmed up and dried out a little and our February Ocklawaha trips can go off as planned.  Last fall I was asked by several people on an Ocklawaha trip if I ever did the stretch from Eureka up to Rodman Dam.  I replied that it is not one of my favorite stretches since it was so wide and open and had lots of motor boats, but since they wanted to say they had paddled the whole Ocklawaha River I set up two paddles to cover the distance  Of course, none of those people showed up!  But 8 more folks DID sign up for the 13-mile paddle from Eureka West boat ramp to Orange Springs Park boat ramp.

Map of our trip

Map of our trip

We met up at the Eureka West boat ramp off CR 316 and had all the boats ready to go before 9 am.  There is a nice circle drive at the ramp with a grassy area and picnic table inside posts to unload and prep. We drove all the cars up to Orange Springs and the drivers return in one vehicle, hitting the river before 10 am.  The boat ramp at Eureka West has been refurbished and is no longer a slippery accident waiting to happen.  They also built a little area off to the side that I assume is for hand launches and to cut down on erosion.  If indeed it was intended for hand launched boats the design was a little off, because even at a water level higher than normal we couldn’t get the boats over the lip of the boxed area designed to retain the sand.  Still, it shows someone is thinking about things, which I guess is an improvement over paddlers being ignored.

Eureka West boat ramp

Eureka West boat ramp

Our first stop, just a few minutes after launching, was at the defunct Eureka Lock.  Built for the Cross-Florida Barge Canal between 1965 and 1970, the lock was never opened.  It was left derelict when the Barge Canal project was halted in 1971.  Today it is still maintained by the Office of Greenways and Trails (together with the Buckman Lock and the Rodman Dam and Reservior) to the tune of about $1 Million per year).

The never-opened Eureka Lock

The never-used Eureka Lock

I never get many wildlife pictures on this stretch of the Ocklawaha River because it is very wide and open and my little point-and-shoot camera cannot reach far enough to capture most of the myriad of birds that live on the water or along the forested edges.  We saw a Bald Eagle, Osprey, Gallinule, American Coot, White Ibis, Great Blue Heron, Little Blue Heron, Boat-tailed Grackle, Rusty Blackbird, Red-winged Blackbirds and Great Egret as well as many small birds in the undergrowth that would not come close enough for identification.  Also a few small gators and turtles.

A small gator sunning

A small gator sunning – about 30 inches long

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus)

Red-shouldered Hawk and white ibis in flight

Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) and white ibis (Eudocimus albus) in flight

We stopped at Cannon Springs for a lunch break but everyone decided it was too cold for a swim.  During the drawdowns (needed every 3-4 years or so to kill off the vegetation that clogs the river due to the dams) Cannon Spring is a lovely turquoise crack full of fish. At other times, with 6-8 more feet of water it really can’t be seen, but still makes a great local swimming hole.

Lunch break at Cannon Spring

Lunch break at Cannon Spring

Cannon Spring during the 2015 drawdown

Cannon Spring during the 2015 drawdown

North of Cannon Spring the river opens up to cover the whole valley, lined along the edges by cypress, marsh grasses and vegetation.  This area is a bird photographers delight if you have a long telephoto lens.

Cannon Springs canal

Cannon Springs canal

The wide open Ocklawaha

The wide open Ocklawaha under lowering skies

Paddling amid the cypress trees

Paddling amid the cypress trees

A lone, stunted cypress tree

A lone, stunted cypress tree

Sun dogs in the clouds near Orange Springs

Sun dogs in the clouds near Orange Springs

We arrived at Orange Springs Park around 3:30.  We all had fun and I was particularly proud of our newer kayakers who completed the long, open 13-mile trip with little difficulty.

 

Suwannee Quest II-02 – January 20, 2018

Our second paddle of the Suwannee Quest II was on Saturday, January 20, 2017 from Cone Bridge Rd boat ramp to Suwannee Wayside Park boat ramp on US 41 in White Springs.  A distance of about 15.5 paddling miles.

This stretch of the Suwannee is rather problematic.  In fact, on our Suwannee Quest I we had to postpone this section until almost the end due to the water levels.  Since we have neither the equipment nor the experience for whitewater paddling we always portage around Big Shoals.  Little Shoals is about 3/4 mile in length and there is no portage route around it, so you need enough water covering Little Shoals to get through them.  The water level today was at 51.88 FASL (Feet Above Sea Level) at the White Springs gauge and all three ledges at Little Shoals were covered.  On each of the three ledges we were able to find a route that enabled us to get through without running aground or scraping our boats all up, but I wouldn’t want to try it at 51.0 feet.

Map of the trip

Map of the trip

With the water so low there was a nice sandy beach at the bottom of the Cone Bridge Rd boat ramp, so we had a nice place to unload, prep and launch all the boats. After a long shuttle drive from Cone Bridge Rd down to US 41 and back we were on the water about 10:15.

Cone Bridge Rd boat ramp

Cone Bridge Rd boat ramp

I had warned the participants that I was rating this stretch of the river as “Difficult” because of the portage around Big Shoals. (Most of my paddles I rate either “Easy” or “Moderate”.  Despite that fact, eighteen folks showed up and everyone worked together so well that in spite of the more strenuous nature of this paddle, everyone had a great time. (Or at least said they did 🙂 )  Many of these folks have been paddling with me for some time and one of the great things about the group is how well they all help each other.

On this cold winter day (it was 30 degrees when I arrived at the boat ramp although it warmed up into the 60s as the day progressed) no one wanted to get their feet wet at the start.  That takes a lot of extra maneuvering and I have still to convince a few of them to push their boats out into the water before entering.  It’s much easier to enter the boat and much easier on the boat as well if the boat is actually floating IN the water instead of still half on dry land.

Lots of helping hands make light work

Lots of helping hands make light work

The first 10 miles we made good time, stopping for a break on a sand bar near Brown’s Landing after about 5 miles.  This stretch of the river looks a lot like the stretch from Roline to Cone Bridge with lovely, gnarled old Tupelo, Cypress and a few Water Oak trees and (at low water) tall sandy banks.

Tall, white sand banks at low water

Tall, white sand banks at low water

Tupelo and cypress trees line the water's edge

Tupelo, oaks and cypress trees line the water’s edge

Another feature along this stretch are the many creeks and seepage streams that enter the Suwannee.

Roaring Creek meets the Suwannee RIver

Roaring Creek meets the Suwannee RIver

No-name seepage stream

No-name seepage stream enchanted us with a tiny waterfall

We explored both Little Creek and Deep Creek along the way.  At Little Creek we were able to paddle upstream about 1000 feet before finding the way blocked by fallen trees.  Deep Creek was too shallow to explore for more than a couple of minutes.

Paddling up Little Creek

Paddling up Little Creek

Scenic Little Creek

Scenic Little Creek

The entrance to Deep Creek

The entrance to Deep Creek

Around 2 pm we passed the much improved, but still problematic at low water, “launch” at Big Shoals State Park. The steps down to the water are much better than the old “ladder’ they used to have, but with the increasingly common low water levels on the Suwannee the “dock” would be extremely difficult to use since it is about 4 feet above the water surface.  However, I understand the whitewater paddlers, who flock here just to run Big Shoals over and over, enjoy it.

And then we reached the portage trail around Big Shoals.  It’s just a little below the State Park dock but on the opposite side of the river (river left).  The old stop sign is gone as well as the newer warning sign.  Nothing is left to mark the take-out except an old brown post, so watch for it carefully.

The take-out at the portage is pretty easy.  There is a shallow sandy bank that makes it easy to get out of the boats.  Then there is a ledge of sandy dirt held in place by tree roots about 5 feet up.  From the ledge there is a sloping bank to the top.  This means that 2-3 people can grab the boats from the water and sling them up onto the ledge where 2 people waiting above can grab and carry them the 10 or so steps the rest of the way up to the top.

At the top of the portage

At the top of the portage on the blue-blazed portage trail

About 150 feet down the portage trail it widens out into a campfire circle indicating the campsite for this section of the Florida National Scenic Trail.  The local FTA volunteers at one time built benches surrounding the campfire circle, but they were vandalized for firewood a few years ago and never replaced.  This area is accessible to 4WD vehicles from adjacent private land, so while there are great tenting areas under the oaks on public land just back from the river, I do not suggest leaving your boats unattended here.

Campfire area on the portage trail

Campfire area on the portage trail

Getting back into the water from the portage trail can be an adventure, depending on the water level.  Just another 100 feet or so on the trail is the first place.  It does however have a steep and slippery bank with deep water under your boat and perhaps some rough water from Big Shoals, but no rocks in the water at 51.88 feet.   About 1/2 of our group put back in here.  The other half continued carrying their boats down the trail further to where there are several more spots to access the water.   They were still slippery, but the water was smoother.  There is a lot of clay along the bank on this section, so all the reentry points and stream crossings are slippery.  Be careful.

Can we get back in here?

Can we get back in here?

One of our returns to the river

The first access point to the river

The next 3.5 miles are mild paddling until you come around Scarborough Bend and the start of Little Shoals.  Little Shoals are not high, we were able to run them easily at 51.88 feet, but they stretch about a 3/4 mile along the river.  The shoals are full of limestone solution holes and the edges can be sharp enough to cut legs and arms.  You don’t really want to walk your boat through this stretch of the river, so I recommend if the water is 51 feet or lower than you pick another piece of the river to paddle.  At almost 52 feet we were able to find a route through all three drops of Little Shoals with no rocks – just pillows and holes that give it a big Wheeee! factor and make things fun.

Little Shoals

Little Shoals

Little Shoals

Little Shoals

Little Shoals

Little Shoals

Little Shoals

Little Shoals

Little Shoals ends almost within sight of the railroad and highway bridge at US 41.  Again the participants showed great team work getting all the boats up the ramp and onto their cars before dark at the Suwannee Wayside Park.

Suwannee Wayside Park boat ramp

Suwannee Wayside Park boat ramp at US 41