Thursday, February 28, 2013

St. Johns River - Day 9A

Airboats along the shore at the Hatbill Group Camping site.
One of the things that impressed me was that they had just
organized this group about three weeks before.  They had a
huge potluck and freshly caught fish cooked over a wood fire.
I was surprised when I arrived at Hatbill. Instead of a quiet, isolated campsite, there were about ten or twelve airboats lined up along the shore, and about thirty people gathered under the oak trees. They offered me a cold beer. In fact they invited me to dinner, but I had plenty of food, so just accepted a cold Corona. That I didn’t have, and greatly enjoyed. I joined them in conversation, took some pictures of their boats, and enjoyed their company until they left as sunset approached. With them gone, the campsite seemed suddenly overly quiet and empty.

They take great care of their airboats.  The engines are as clean and chromed
as any you'd find at a car show.
Click to enlarge.  Really nice even if you're not a gearhead.

You never know what you'll meet out in the swamp, so almost all carried a
shotgun.  Some had two, one on either side of the seat.
I had dreaded encountering airboaters before the trip, not being sure what to expect. With the exception of one dubious character Gus and I met one day, they were all friendly, thoughtful, courteous, and compared to some bass boat operators I’ve encountered, even professional in their operation. They would slow when passing, and would not power back up until they had rounded a bend or gotten far enough away that their prop wash wouldn’t drown us in spray.

There's no reverse, so they all come ashore, spin around, and pick
a spot where they can just slide off into the water.
The last airboat leaves as sunset is approaching.
Alone as the shadows deepen at Hatbill.  It's time to put dinner on the stove.
An old slab of concrete made a nice, level spot for the tent.  Jean said it looks
like Ibi's hind-end is sticking up in the air.  It is; she's still on the canoe cart.



Progress at Placid Boatworks

Rapidfire plug.
Photo credit: Placid Boatworks

Brian Crumb commented on the fire at Placid Boatworks, originally posted here on February 11th.  They have made great progress, although it probably feels painfully slow to them.  They acquired use of a building, and have been using boats belonging to current owners to build new molds.  Brian likes the Rapid Fire, and it is one of the first expected to be back into production.  Placid Boatworks is on Facebook, and a check there will keep you up-to-date on progress.  See:!/pages/Placid-Boatworks/190063591593?fref=ts

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

St. Johns River - Day 9

Launching into the canal near the Rt. 50 bridge.
Hoping the trial on the St. Johns River at Palatka was promising enough to resume the trip, on Sunday, Jan. 27th, I asked Jean to take Ibi and me back to the Rt. 50 bridge. I launched from the boat ramp near the west channel under the bridge. After paddling to the end of the cut and its junction with the river, I turned and waved goodbye to Jean, and headed north. It was 8.7 miles to the campsite near Hatbill Park. This paddle produced the greatest number of alligators for a single day, and the largest alligators of the trip. I also encountered two snakes swimming in the river. I’m sure snakes had seen me, but I had not encountered any until now. I saw only two airboats, and incredibly, a jet ski, which was pretty sparse traffic for a weekend day on the river.

First year immature white ibis.
Great Blue Heron
Mature alligator.
This was the second-biggest gator of the day.  If you enlarge the picture, you'll see
he's got some prey in his mouth.  He was huge, and not about to be driven from his
prey or his bank.
If I was to be leery of one of the gators, this would be the one.  Instead of escaping
into the safety of the water, he just turned to face me and flattened himself out to appear
invisible, or so he thought.  But just look at his width.  This is one big gator.

Monday, February 25, 2013

St. Johns River - Day 8

A female anhinga.
After a week off my feet in the RV, the leg was feeling better, the surgical stockings seemed to be doing their thing, and I was anxious to get on with the trip. Actually, I was trying to walk as much as possible to aid the healing. I wanted to get back in the canoe and try the leg out closer to our base, so paddled 7.3 miles in the St. Johns River near Palatka. I got out once to move about in Palatka and take a few pictures. I was perhaps over-anxious, but I felt this was a reasonably successful trial for resuming the trip. There was no chance to get a picture of them, but I also saw two river otter in two different areas of the river.

Ibi at the Palatka town park.  There was just this little patch of sand
next to the Rt. 17/100 bridge that enabled me to get shore.
At arched pedestrian bridge in the park by the Palatka clock tower.
The clock tower with a little added color.  It was a beautiful day
with the little puffy cumulus clouds, sunny sky, and light breeze.
An adolescent alligator enjoys the day as well.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

St. Johns River - Day 7

The river channel split at the Rt. 50 bridge, several miles west of the
Kennedy Space Center, showing the east and west routes
Today involved about an 18 miles paddle, but we had accomplished only 9.7 miles when we arrived at the Rt. 50 bridge. At the bridge, we faced two problems. The first involved a navigational disagreement---the second in as many hours. We were about to enter what could conceivably be the most difficult area to transit, Puzzle Lake. As we sat facing the two bridges under Rt. 50, and the splitting of the river channel into two different routes north, there was a difference of opinion as to which should be followed. My research indicated we should take the west route, Gus’ chart app on his GPS indicated the route was the east channel. One might get through using either route. In fact, I had GPS positions for every channel junction going either way. The question was over which was the most prudent and safer route. We happened to meet Ken Stafford again, the official from St. Johns River Water Management, at the Midway Airboat Ride concession. I explained our impasse and asked his opinion. He said the west channel was clearly the better choice, that the east channel had fallen out of use, had silted in, and weed had encroached on the channel making it narrower and increasing the likelihood of us being run down by an airboat. I didn’t care to see a friendship of several years ruined by such conflict that could become strained further as we faced even more such decisions going up through Puzzle Lake. I felt it was time to stop.

Actually, navigational disagreements aside, stopping was not a decision I needed to make, for it was being made for me. The second issue was an increasing problem with blood circulation in my legs. The inability to get out and move about, resulting in too much time in the canoe, was the culprit. The resulting problem began to appear by our fourth night. The night’s low was in the mid-50’s, and I was in a sleeping bag rated for 10-deg. below zero, and still I couldn’t keep my feet warm. My feet got so cold, the discomfort was keeping me awake. That was solved by digging in the pack for a pair of wool socks. By the time I got out at the Rt. 50 bridge, however, I had lost all feeling in both legs. My left leg just felt like it was asleep with the usual pins and needles, but my right leg below the knee was totally dead with no feeling or sensation at all. Fearing a blood clot, I felt it was time to seek medical attention, and called Jean for her to pick us up. Gus was unable to reach Lisa, who had his truck, so we loaded up both Ibi and his kayak, and took him to his truck before heading north. The good news was it wasn’t yet a clot. The bad news was that the damage would be slow to heal, and over a month later, while a follow up doctor’s visit indicates the healing is well underway, I’m still not back to normal. The prognosis is for some normalcy by early March.


Friday, February 22, 2013

St. Johns River - Day 6A

Today I'll just share some pictures that didn't fit in to the narrative earlier.  I hope you enjoy them.

In just a hundred miles, we saw the character of the river change several times.
Here the land is low and visibility stretches for miles.  This was the first band of
cypress trees we saw.  One of the things continually impressed on my mind was
the real understanding of how the Seminole were able to hide here and evade
capture or defeat.  If you didn't read about it before, it's interesting to me that
there was no such thing as a Seminole Tribe.  Seminole is a Spanish word meaning
'runaway' or 'wild-one' and assigned to them by the white man to describe all who
 escaped into the St. Johns headwaters.  They have since accepted the word
 and even obtained a  tribal charter in the Seminole name, but they were
originally made up of Creek, Muscogee, Choctaw, and large numbers of runaway
slaves.  Their current culture is mostly Creek.
The morning quiet---no wind yet, smooth water, no sound but the chuckle of
the bow wave and the dipping paddle.
We made it into the Isle of Palms just a short time before the storm began
to move in with rain and wind in the 30+ mph range.
The Isle of Palms is also the site of the Airboat Memorial.  You can see the
decaying horizontal wood propeller just above and behind my tent with the
names of multiple airboat operators that are remembered there.
This owl was perched in the top of a palm at Great Egret Camp.  I was amazed at
how deep his voice was as he talked with another owl a considerable distance away.
I was afraid he'd "Who-who-whoooo" all night, but in the darkness he soon either
moved elsewhere or settled in to watch for critters on the ground below.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

St. Johns River - Day 6

We were up at 6:30. We had enjoyed dinner enough that we decided breakfast at the Lone Cabbage would be nice too. We also had a standing invitation from the Lone Cabbage’s owner, Norm Earley, that if we returned this morning, morning coffee would be on him. We loaded up and paddled back to the fish camp wharf to tie up in the same place as last night. Our plan was to have an early coffee, get breakfast at 9 o’clock, and be on the river by ten. That’s where we hit a snag. Yes, they opened at nine, but the cook didn’t come in until ten, and they wouldn’t be ready to serve until 10:30. Having already packed away all our gear and left our campsite, we found ourselves in a pickle. I asked Mr. Earley if there was any chance we could buy a couple peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from him. The cook walked in just then, having apparently come in early, and he set to making our sandwiches. The owner refused payment for the sandwiches, so I gave the cook a $5 tip for his effort on our behalf. After gulping the impromptu breakfast and the remainder of our coffee, we hit the river. If you happen to find yourself around Cocoa, FL, turn off I-95 at Exit 201 and head west on King St., or Rt. 520...after 1030 am. Lone Cabbage is a nice setting right on the St. Johns, and the food is good and plentiful.


The term free-range means that livestock are not raised in an enclosure, but are free to roam at-large to seek their own food and water. Since they are getting plenty of sun and no chemically-altered feed, and because of the exercise are presumed to be stronger and healthier, it is generally assumed that free-range meat is better. On most of our crowded farms, the term is misleading, because even “free-range” livestock, especially poultry, are in some kind of enclosure. That’s not true here. I have no idea of the numbers, but large numbers of cattle are indeed free to roam hundreds of square miles without a fence in sight. Even the river doesn’t confine them, as they walk or swim across the channels at will. This also meant they were free to roam freely through the campsites, and bovine landmines were everywhere. We would have to kick them out of the way to make camp, or step carefully, especially in the dark, to avoid stomping through the patties while preparing meals. We even got slowed a couple times while cattle forded the channel as we floated nearby and waited for them to pass.

All-Terrain Vehicles for sure.  Not your usual ATV.
The wind was already up and dead out of the north. It was blowing in earnest at 20-25 mph, but we used every bit of shore and marsh grass to maintain our headway. We made a rest stop at a very nice camping spot south of the Rt. 528 bridge, which I later learned is called the Possum Bluff Rest Area. It is indeed a beautiful spot. At least it’s beautiful until you happen on the human litter. We had no sooner stepped ashore than we saw a couple large olive-drab track vehicles approaching, later joined by a third. Our first thought was that we had inadvertently landed on a military installation. We were to learn that these were what the locals call ATV’s, and they were deer hunters. I felt a whole new appreciation for the intellect of deer. These things had everything but a machine gun mounted in a turret on top. If the deer can live through such a military-style assault and survive in enough numbers to maintain their species, they are pretty smart and cunning indeed. We enjoyed a break there, and as soon as the ATV’s pulled out, we followed and continued north.

Possum Bluff Rest Area.  Click on any picture to enlarge.
The weather was threatening all day with heavy, dark cloud cover, a couple showers, and increasing wind. By the time we made our day’s destination at the Isle of Palms, it became even more menacing. We decided on a camp spot, which also happened to be where the Airboat Memorial is located, unloaded, and rushed to get our tents set up before the rains came. Our efforts to get the tents erected was slowed a bit by having to kick enough cow patties out of the way to clear an area large enough. We tried to pull our folding chairs out to relax a bit, but soon the showers drove us inside, and I prepared dinner inside the tent’s vestibule flaps. I estimated the winds at 35 mph, and this was confirmed by reports of 33 mph winds from a Melbourne radio station. Gus was frustrated by the passing of his folding chair when it collapsed under him, with one of the metal sections hurting his already sore leg. We were forced back into our tents by more rain showers, and I sat under the vestibule of my tent to cook dinner as the rain came in waves. I called Jean at six, did my journal notes by battery-powered camp light, closed up the tent, and went sound to sleep.

The Isle of Palms was easy to spot from a distance.  It was the
only thing rising above the grassy marsh.


Tuesday, February 19, 2013

St. Johns River - Day 5

With the dog’s help, we got up at 4 am. It was going to be a longer paddle today, 17.1 miles, and the weather was supposed to bring greater wind. Since we were awake anyhow, we made a start. I had to pull my mosquito head cover out for a while, but winter is definitely the time to do this trip. Within about 45 minutes, the mosquitoes were gone for the most part, and I had the mosquito net rolled up and back in my PFD vest pocket. The Oak Tree Camp has a nice picnic shelter, and after making sure we didn’t step in any cow pies in the darkness, we were able to set up our little propane stoves and make breakfast. The early start would also get us across Lake Winder before the wind really got going. We made a direct line run across the lake, and were just ahead of the wind. By the time we were mid-lake, the wind grew to 15-20 mph, but fortunately it was on our tail. Once on the north end of the lake, we found some shelter behind tall grass in the narrower channels.

A view of the shore and river from our Lone Cabbage camp.
I don't know if there was ever a house there, but the camping
spot was surrounded by a grove of orange trees.
One of the things that shocked me when planning the trip was trying to get the locations of the possible campsites. The St. Johns River Water Management District didn’t have GPS positions for the camps. They had pictures, but only vague descriptions of where to look for the camps. Once I got on the river, I understood why they didn’t have exact positions. Many of the camps are impossible to get to unless you have an airboat or helicopter. We paddled by a number of camps on Lake Winder, and we not only couldn’t see the camps, we couldn’t even see a place to land. This was another case of getting misleading impressions of a place from looking at satellite photographs of the area.

Our campsite south of the bridge and the Lone Cabbage Fish Camp.

The wind was blowing 20-25 mph by the time we reached Lake Poinsett. This is a large, wide-open lake where pretty big waves could be generated. We decided we would follow the lee of whichever was the windward shore. The lake tended toward the north-northwest, and the wind was out of the south, so the thinking in advance was that we could stick close to the west shore and stay protected. We wanted to make the crossing today, because the wind would turn and come out of the north tomorrow. To our surprise, there was no shoreline to hide under. There were reeds that grew out into the lake in the form of tufts of grass, islands, chains of islands, and peninsulas or large fingers that stuck out into the lake. We could find shelter behind the reeds, but then there would be bays that opened up between the bunches of reeds that left us totally open to the wind and waves for a hundred yards to a half-mile. At one point, Gus’ charting app on his GPS showed that we had been pushed a mile-and-a-half out into the lake from the actual shoreline. We would have to paddle five miles before we found an actual lee.

Gus at Lone Cabbage camp.
After Lake Poinsett, we came to the Rt. 520 (or West King Street) bridge and Lone Cabbage Fish Camp. This was only the second sign of civilization we had seen in four days. We decided we had earned a proper dinner, so tied up to the end of the wharf to stay out of the way of the airboats. Due to the wind, however, the airboats were not doing much business. We asked if camping was available at the fish camp, and were told ’no’, but we had seen a nice, sandy hummock or shell midden just a quarter mile south of Lone Cabbage, so we enjoyed a relaxed, leisurely meal, filled our water bottles, and then paddled back down to where we could camp. As a side note, I had alligator for dinner, and thought it actually tasted better than chicken.

It's not uncommon to find that someone has decided to spend eternity
in a place that brought them joy, or peace, or happiness during their
life.  We spent the night with Dottie, or "Red" as she was apparently
known, who lived from 1957 to 2006.  If I understood correctly, she
is the sister of Carrie Earley, co-owner of the Long Cabbage Fish Camp.


Monday, February 18, 2013

St. Johns River - Day 4A

After crossing Lake Washington, our second portage was to be at the Lake Washington weir, or low-level dam. There is an airboat ramp, so instead of doing the portage, we pulled our boats across the ramp and into the roughly 3-foot lower waters on the downstream side. Gus was able to just pull his kayak, but I had enough weight in Ibi I had to unload a few things before being able to get her to move.

Ibi at the airboat ramp at the Lake Washington weir.
Photo credit: Gus Bianchi
The Lake Washington weir or low-level dam.
Photo credit: Gus Bianchi
We arrive at Oak Tree Camp at 3:15. By this time, we were up to 180 gators in our count, but it wasn’t alligators that I was thinking about. James Cabell and A.J. Hanna wrote a book titled “The St. Johns: A Parade of Diversities.” They wrote that flocks of up to 50,000 ibis nested in the area, and their daily diet was countless grasshoppers and upwards of an estimated 40,000 water moccasins. It’s rare that I’ve felt such affection for a species of bird, even if their name is related to the name of my canoe. The water was so shallow in front of Oak Tree Camp that we had to pole through grass toward the shore, but still ran hard aground while some distance from shore. I was wearing heavy rubber boots, but still watched carefully for any ‘bird food’ swimming through the grass. As Ibi was unloaded, I continued to pull her further toward shore until we finally reached dry ground.

Making our landing at Oak Tree Camp.
Oak Tree is a popular airboat stop, so we carried our gear further inland to where we could set our boats and tents among trees so we wouldn’t get run down in the dark. Sure enough, we hadn’t been asleep too long before an airboat came sliding right into camp. We suspected they were out illegally spot-lighting alligators, as they came into camp with no lights on. Once they realized something was in the camp, they turned their strong lights on and flooded our tents with light before turning and moving on down the shore. We could still occasionally hear the report of their .22 rifles as they hunted well into the night.

We pulled our boats far enough ashore to put them and our
tents among the trees.  In the distance is the covered picnic
tables where we prepared our meals.
If the airboat sliding into camp wasn’t bizarre enough, I was jolted out of a sound sleep at 3:45 am by the loud growl and bark of a hunting dog that had his head stuck under the vestibule flap of my tent. After a couple more jarring barks from deep in his chest, I heard two men down by the river calling the dog back to them. Now my wildest imagination cannot figure why two men and a dog would be out wandering about in the swamp at three o’clock in the morning’s total darkness. Weird!



Sunday, February 17, 2013

St. Johns River - Day 4

Gus headed north on the headwaters of the St. Johns.
Little Blue Heron caught as he abandons his post.
Today we paddled from the Sawgrass Shelter on Little Sawgrass Lake, across Sawgrass Lake, and to Oak Tree Camp for a distance of 15.3 miles. When planning, the objective was to make daily runs of about 17 miles to make best use of available daylight. In the upper river, however, the day’s distance made good was most directly impacted by available stopping places. To give an idea of how remote this area is, this morning we were to see our first sign of human development, the buildings at Camp Holly by the US Rt. 192 bridge. The roadway is also called Rt. 500 or the Space Coast Parkway. Holly Camp is primarily a business that provides airboat rides, but they have a large picnic area and snack bar. It was a nice rest stop and a chance to get some Gatorades and ice.

Ibi on her arrival at Holly Camp.
What can say Florida better than two hammocks strung out
under palm trees, and a multi-passenger airboat?
After a break, we repack to head on down river.


Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Emperor's Pipeline

If you want a better understanding of one of the major issues of today, read "A child sees through the emperor's new pipeline."  Here's the link.
Is this a paddling article?  Yes it is.  It applies to you whether you paddle in water, or just drink it, or breathe the air, or pay higher gas prices to finance it.

St. Johns River - Day 3A

Little Sawgrass Lake Shelter.
It was a 12.0 mile paddle to the shelter on Little Sawgrass Lake. This was the only solid thing around to raise us above the level of the swamp. We pulled our boats alongside, unloaded our gear, and set our tents up on the platform. There was an enclosure, but we opted to set our tents on the deck outside, as waterfowl and other wildlife had left quite a bit of manure in there while seeking shelter for themselves. We did put our gear in there, and used the enclosure for preparing meals on the surrounding bench.

We had to tip-toe around some holes in the decking, some weak boards,
and exposed nails, but it was home sweet home.
I had been having a problem with my camera from the start. It was something I hadn’t experienced before, so hadn’t taken measures to prevent it. The mornings were always at about 100% humidity, which would drop as the sun warmed the air. This meant that I couldn’t take any pictures until about noon. I kept my camera in a drybag, but as soon as I pulled it out, the entire camera, inside and out, would be covered with condensation in seconds, and any pictures would be foggy. It looks like I need to start collecting silica gel packets. That will protect the camera inside the bag, but I don’t know if that will make any difference once I pull the bag out. I guess I’ll find out. Are there any suggestions out there? The problem kept both you and I from seeing some nice images I missed getting.

Our tents on Little Sawgrass Shelter.
I had a schedule of calling home every evening at 6 pm. As remote as the St. Johns is, it runs parallel with the I-95 corridor, so we had good cell phone service the whole way. As I stood in the shelter talking with Jean, I recognized the distant drone of the approaching swarm…the sound of millions of beating wings. As it got closer, I could even see the dark cloud the mosquito swarm created, and Gus and I both dove in our tents. It was lights out at 6:20.

The view from our shelter as the early morning light
floods across the glassy lake and a few patches of water hyacinth.
This was one of only a couple early morning shots to make it.


Playak News Flash

I received notice this morning that for the second time, Playak News Watch: "Covering the World's Paddling News by the Minute," had pulled an article from Log of Ibi.  This photo and the story of our trip down the St. Johns River joined articles from Abu Dhabi, the Caribbean, Costa Rice, British Columbia, Scotland, Jamaica, Australia and elsewhere.  How cool is that?!  The link is at:

Friday, February 15, 2013

St. Johns River - Day 3

The roar of airboat engines awoke us at 5 am. As soon as the first signs of light appeared in the sky, a barrage of gunfire commenced that could not have been surpassed by the largest National Guard training range. It seemed nearly impossible that any wildlife could survive that much lead in the air. Maybe it was the change of schedule, maybe being jarred awake by the heavy gunfire and airboats, but I was all thumbs this morning and seemed to have to do everything twice. We got off to a late start, not pushing off from the shore until ten o’clock.

We encountered our first two airboats up close. The first was just someone passing by, and the second was Ken Stafford, a field program supervisor for St. Johns Water Management. He stopped, and we floated along side-by-side for about 15 minutes as we talked. He reiterated about the dikes being private property, and that he had just seen a sheriff arrest a man on a dike a short time before. We had seen the sheriff’s car pass along the top of the dike. It seems the man was a jogger who felt the dike would be a quiet place to exercise. He received two citations for $250 in fines. Perhaps the district has been having some problems with damaged equipment, since their locks and dams are so isolated, but otherwise that seems like such an excessive measure. We were on the dike while portaging, and had a district helicopter make a couple low-level passes over us. I guess they understood what we were doing, as we never had a problem. I had had the passing thought that if we got in a jam we could always camp for a night on the dike. So much for that. After our conversation, we got a chance to watch Ken drive his airboat up a ramp and over the dike.

Ken Stafford, about to force his airboat up the ramp that
crosses the dike.
About to mount the top of the dike.
Gus moves out of the prop wash, which unfortunately isn't really
captured by the camera.  You can see the river's surface being
blown, but the lens totally missed the white spray that fills the air.
Just about 50 yards past where he left us, we turned from the canal into a narrow, twisting channel. It was the start of what they call the ‘hydrological St. Johns,’ or the first of the river’s natural channel. The next feature we passed was Bulldozer Canal, and a few miles later we entered and transited Lake Hell-N-Blazes.

An anhinga hanging its feathers out to dry.