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Supposedly easy Ochlockonee River adventure turns harrowing

Georgia Ackerman heard the river looked good, though it had been a few months since the adventure outfitter had paddled the Ochlockonee River.

"I've heard there is one deadfall not too long after you put in," she said as she drove us to the dropoff point about 20 miles west of Tallahassee. "Once you get past that, you should be fine."

The weather looked good. The crew appeared in fine spirits. So in theory the 61-mile trip to Womack Creek should be a leisurely three-day paddle.

But 30 years of exploring Florida's rivers has taught me to never take anything for granted.

My motto always has been, "Hope for the best, but plan for the worst," and it has served me well. Because whenever I plan an expedition, something usually goes wrong.

That might explain why it's hard to find traveling companions.

"This should be a nice, easy river," George Stovall said as we slid our kayaks downstream of the dam at Lake Talquin. "It looks like we even have the wind and current in our favor."

But a feeling deep down in my stomach made me think otherwise. The last time my friend made such a prediction on a kayak trip, the temperature dropped into the single digits during the night and all our drinking water froze.

Still, the sun was shining, the water was moving. That feeling must be indigestion from that gas station fried chicken I devoured a few hours earlier, I thought. "I don't know when I'll eat again," I had said at the time.

As rivers go, the Ochlockonee ranks high in terms of wilderness. It 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.

According to the state's official paddling guide, the river is considered "easy to moderate due to current, downed trees and a few areas of navigational difficulty." In terms of skill level, the river is rated "beginner."

Paddle Florida, a nonprofit organization in Gainesville that organizes outings for large groups of kayakers on the state's rivers, has a trip planned on the Ochlockonee for March 2013.

If a group of casual paddlers can handle this river, I thought, how hard could it be for three seasoned watermen?

The answer became apparent after an hour on the river when we hit the first of what would be more than a dozen logjams.

"It doesn't look too hard," I announced as I carefully guided my sea kayak through the downed trees. "Piece of cake."

But I realized I'd spoken too soon when the bow of my boat caught a submerged stump, which turned the kayak sideways and nearly dumped me into the water.

"Careful," Darry Jackson yelled, witnessing my struggle. "We don't want anybody to get hurt."

A few miles downstream we hit another blockage. This time I decided to get out of the kayak and climb across the tangled mass of brush. The plan seemed to be working until the weight of my body caused the logs to drift apart. My right leg went one way, my left the other. My knee, still weak from recent surgery, started to give. So I had no choice but to let gravity take its course.

"Wait," Stovall commanded as I waded through chest-deep water. "I need to get a picture."

Not long after that, we stopped for the night, eager to get a fresh start in the morning. But the following day, deep in the heart of Apalachicola National Forest, things got worse.

The map said the river went straight, but our eyes told us it split into two sections. We tried the one on the right first, but the path was blocked by dozens of dead pines. So we got out and hiked across what appeared to be an island to take a look at the left branch. That was blocked, too.

"We'll have to portage," Jackson announced.

Carrying a fully loaded kayak up a steep, muddy embankment is no easy task. I tried to climb up the hill to scout the path, but I grabbed a poison ivy vine by mistake and slid back down on my belly.

"I don't think your orthopedic surgeon would approve," said Stovall, a chiropractor. "We'll help you get your boat up the bank."

Tired, bruised and battered, we finally made it Mack Landing Campground, up a side creek just off the river. We pulled our kayaks up on the bank. A sign up the hill reminded us to be careful where we stored our food. We were in bear country.

"This ought to be interesting," I told my friends.

Wednesday: Lost in the swamp.

. FAST FACTS

If you go

. The Ochlockonee River is a pleasure to paddle if you take your time and don't plan ambitious days. Paddle Florida's trips average about 10 to 15 miles a day, which is quite manageable. Paddle Florida's 76-mile "Dam to the Bay" trip is March 16-22 and is limited to 100 people. See paddleflorida.org.

. For an excellent guide to the Lower Ochlockonee River Paddling Trail, see the Florida's Office of Greenways and Trails website, dep.state.fl.us/gwt.

. A great source of information on the Ochlockonee and Apalachicola rivers is Georgia Ackerman of the Wilderness Way in Wakulla Station, (850) 877-7200, wildernessway.net. She also can help arrange transportation on the river.

. Doug Alderson, paddling trails coordinator for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, is an expert on Florida's rivers and the author of eight books, including the indispensable paddling guide Waters Less Traveled: Exploring Florida's Big Bend Coast. See dougalderson.net.

. To help protect Ochlockonee and other wild Florida rivers, contact the Florida Conservation Coalition at floridaconservationcoalition.org.

Supposedly easy Ochlockonee River adventure turns harrowing 12/24/12 [Last modified: Monday, December 24, 2012 9:58pm]

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