MACK LANDING — The sign on the camp bulletin board contained a warning about black bears. Apparently, the opportunistic omnivores had a reputation for raiding campsites in search of food.
After 36 hours of hard paddling and portaging sea kayaks through the wilderness of the Apalachicola National Forest, the last thing I wanted to think about was a 300-pound mammal ripping my tent apart for a Snickers bar.
"Maybe we should store the food in the kayaks," Darry Jackson suggested.
"That would work," George Stovall responded. "But all it would take is one claw to rip the hatch right off."
Our first 42 miles on the Ochlockonee River had been much harder than we had anticipated. We had planned for a leisurely three-day float down this North Florida river, but instead we had had to claw and climb our way over and through more than a dozen logjams.
Now, battered and bruised, all I wanted to do was get a hot meal in my belly and a good five or six hours of sleep before getting up in the dark and paddling the final 20 or so miles downriver so I could get some raw oysters and a cold beer in Carrabelle.
The Ochlockonee, one of Florida's last great wilderness rivers, starts in Georgia and flows for more than 150 miles south through national and state forests to the Gulf of Mexico.
The Lower Ochlockonee, a designated state paddling trail, starts at a point on State Road 20 in the Panhandle and ends 65 miles downstream at Ochlockonee River State Park. The river is considered an "easy to moderate" paddle, ideal for "beginners," but my small crew of veteran watermen had found it challenging at best, and in some parts downright disheartening.
All I wanted to do was curl up in my sleeping bag and go to sleep. It took about 60 seconds for me to pass out, but three hours later I was rudely awakened by a large mammal creeping through the woods. Deer? Wild boar? Or perhaps something more dangerous?
"Dang!" I thought to myself. "Did I leave a PowerBar in my dry bag?"
So I vaulted out of the tent in my boxer shorts, armed with a Swiss Army knife and a head lamp, and prepared to confront the intruder.
I scanned the woods with my light and stopped on a pair of beady eyes staring back through the palmettos. Raccoon!
So I climbed back into the tent and apparently began snoring like a bear, which, according to my campmates, made for a rather restless night's sleep for them.
"It's amazing what a few hours of shuteye and a hot cup of coffee will do for the human spirit," I proclaimed to my companions as we slid our kayaks onto the dark river a few hours later. My youthful exuberance was met with a stony silence.
At 6 a.m., the river was still cloaked in darkness. Along the banks our headlights picked up the glow of alligator eyes tracking the strange shapes gliding across the water.
Paddling at night would not have been possible upriver with all the stumps and snags, but here in open water, the only thing we had to worry about was keeping to the main channel, which presented a problem a few minutes later when we were given the option of going left or right.
A distant GPS coordinate offered some direction, but a half-hour later, the river narrowed and the current slowed. We plowed on through the gray light of dawn until a downed tree blocked our path.
"The GPS says there is a campsite on the river about 100 yards that way," Jackson said, pointing into a gloomy-looking cypress swamp.
We followed Jackson's lead and eventually found ourselves at a ramp that led to a clearing with a few rundown campers and old pickup trucks. A dog started barking as we wandered around looking for a sign that would tell us where we were.
"Let's get out of here before we hear banjo music," I told my friends. So we climbed back into the kayaks and paddled back upriver until we found where we had made the wrong turn. A leaf floating on the current signaled the way downstream.
Once back on the main river, the morning went quickly. We surprised a mother bear and her cub hiding in a tree, and a few hours later a 100-pound sturgeon launched through the air and landed about 5 feet from my boat. I imagined paddling all those miles only to be knocked out by a fish.
The take-out at Womack Creek was a welcome sight. A warm shower felt good after 48 hours on the water. Now all I needed was some food and drink.
So we headed for Carrabelle, a classic old Florida fishing town, and found a cool little mom-and-pop place to eat.
"May I please have some oysters and a beer," I asked the waiter.
"Sorry, honey," she said. "We're all out."