Kayaking the Ochlockonee with Paddle Florida
By Doug Alderson
The Ochlockonee River was up. A fierce storm two nights before had created a swift waterway where a lazy river had flowed. Mid-March was unpredictable that way, but the sure thing thirty paddlers could expect on a six-day, 76-mile journey from the Jackson Bluff Dam at Lake Talquin to the Gulf of Mexico was spring beauty in all its glory, and a wild river that primarily flows through undeveloped conservation lands.
It was the first ever “Dam to the Bay” Paddle Florida kayaking excursion. Paddle Florida is a non-profit organization that got its start in 2008 taking large numbers of paddlers down the Suwannee River, working closely with area outfitters, local governments and the Florida Park Service. Since then the group has focused on sponsoring a trip in each of Florida’s five water management districts. This would be its northwest Florida journey.
We gathered at Ed and Bernice’s Fish Camp along Highway 20, twenty miles west of Tallahassee. The long time family-owned business is a large circular clearing of land along the river dotted with pavilions and a handful of motor homes. The camp normally caters to anglers in motorboats, but now it was decorated with colorful kayaks and tents. According to the owners, the bustle of activity would attract attention and more business.
As each paddler arrived, they received a t-shirt, a packet of information from different sponsors, a water bottle, and other goodies. Participants pay a registration fee and an optional meal plan fee. For this trip, the caterer was the Doobie Brothers Barbeque and Catering out of Bristol. The father/son team would have to set up their portable kitchen at three remote Apalachicola National Forest campgrounds, one Tate’s Hell State Forest campground, and the group camp at Ochlockonee River State Park.
For each event, Paddle Florida spends between $4,000 and $22,000 on food alone, depending on the group’s size. Add to that the costs for a large rental truck to carry gear, port-a-potties, gasoline, entertainment, campground fees and what each participant pays for food, gas and lodging before and after each trip, and Paddle Florida provides a boost to local economies.
While participants erected their tents or gathered in small groups to chat or paddle to the dam to wet a fishing line, I pored over maps with Bill Richards and Jan Corcoran, co-founders of Paddle Florida, and our trip leader, Ronny Traylor. Traylor is a retired recreation director for the Apalachicola National Forest and probably knows the river better than anyone alive. “My goal is for everyone to have a good time and not get lost,” he said. The Ochlockonee gives the appearance of a wide, easy flowing river from the Highway 20 Bridge, but it quickly narrows and becomes fast and tortuous in sections, with numerous side streams and sloughs. In places there are bluffs and long sandbars, and in others, thick river swamps dominated by cypress and tupelo gum trees with little dry land. Near the Gulf, the river widens and paddlers are greeted with vast salt marsh prairies and mazes of tidal creeks. A team of us had scouted the river the summer before, and Richards obtained the necessary special use permits for group camping from the agencies managing the campgrounds where we would stay. This was likely the first group of this size to paddle the river since Creek and Seminole Indians in the 1800s. It took some careful logistical planning.
Part of Paddle Florida is educational. Each evening there are lectures and/or musical entertainment. On our trip, there were talks about Tate’s Hell Swamp, Florida’s designated paddling trails, restoration of the Kissimmee River, and area recreation opportunities. Musical entertainment—a Paddle Florida mainstay—was provided by folk singer Raiford Starke, often described as “the human jukebox”. Of course, the real showcase of any Paddle Florida trip is the featured waterway. When we embarked on a cool Sunday morning, the river cloaked in a rising mist, a bald eagle was perched in a tall snag and two otters playfully romped along the shore. Great blue herons flew overhead. Over the next several days, we would spot various ducks, alligators, turtles, water snakes, wild turkeys, woodpeckers, wading birds and graceful swallow-tailed kites. Endangered Atlantic sturgeon are now swimming up the river to spawn, but we didn’t see any of the primitive looking fish leaping out of the water.
Plants, too, put on a show along the river as spring unfolded with each day—bright green cypress needles and gum leaves, red maple seeds, striking red bud trees and the white and pink blossoms of wild azalea. And with each day, our small community of paddlers became more cohesive. People grew closer through the long hours of paddling together, sharing meals and group camps, and in a few instances, rescuing each other after accidently tipping over in the river. Jokes and funny stories flowed freely. Previous or current professions didn’t matter—fireman, physician, Army helicopter pilot, economist, contractor, commercial pilot, pharmacist, teacher, librarian, manufacturing engineer, dental assistant, substance abuse counselor—everyone was on equal footing. For its eleven trips and counting, Paddle Florida has had more than 350 different people from 26 states, and many repeat customers.
Building community in an outdoor setting was what motivated Richards and Corcoran to create Paddle Florida. The idea first gelled in 2006 when they took a long distance paddling trip down the Suwannee River with two other friends. “About halfway through we determined that people would love to do this if they didn’t have to carry their gear and cook their food,” said Richards, who has a background in sports management and tourist development. The template for the logistics was modeled after the annual Paddle Georgia and Bike Florida trips. “We had 160 people on our first event down the Suwannee and I knew we were onto something,” he continued. “When you think about it, it doesn’t get any better than this for nature-based tourism.”
To learn more
Paddle Florida: www.paddleflorida.org
Lower Ochlockonee River Paddling Trail: http://www.dep.state.fl.us/gwt/guide/designated_paddle/lOchlock_guide.pdf
Doug Alderson is the author of several natural history/outdoor adventure books (www.dougalderson.net). He also coordinates paddling trails for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Greenways and Trails.