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Early March 2001 I went to Florida for "spring break". I have family living in the Panhandle so I made their place my base of operations. The objective was to give my new homebuilt strip canoe (The Millennium Stripper) a maiden voyage and to solo paddle the Choctawhatchee River from its' headwaters in Alabama to Ebro, Florida, a distance of over 100 miles.
The week before leaving, Alabama received 6 inches of rain in a 24 hour period. The rain pattern continued every 3rd and 4th day while I was there. Since the Choctawhatchee was flooded I decided to kill some time by paddling Holmes Creek to its confluence with the Choctawhatchee and down to Ebro. (To see how my new canoe handled on the flooded waters.)
Holmes Creek is a beautiful waterway that slowly flows through sand hills, highland forest and cypress swamp. There are several springs feeding along the way. The river feels remote, as there isn't any development along its banks. There are only 2 bridges along the 35-mile stretch I paddled. It was flooded but its slow current made for easy, safe paddling.
I spent 3 and one half days paddling, camping and enjoying the alligators, herons, eagles, osprey, "turkey vultures", turtles and jumping mullet that were in abundance. There was a tremendous storm on my second night. For thirty minutes I thought someone was throwing five gallons buckets of water at the tent. The wind knocked down the kitchen tarp forcing me to get up at 3 am to secure it. I later learned a tornado touched down about 20 miles from my camp. Two people were killed and several injured. Guess I was just lucky!
I had arranged to have my brother in law Bill pick me up in Ebro at a certain time. I arrived in the area about 2 hours early so spent the time paddling a mile back upstream, practicing my upstream ferries and napping on a sandbank. About fifteen minutes before pickup I started paddling toward the bridge. At that time Bill was coming over the bridge and spotted me paddling in the middle of the flooded river. It worked out beautifully.
After my Holmes Creek adventure I kept an eye on the weather forecast and cooled it around Dads place. They always have a few chores for me to do while I am down there and I am happy to help out. After 3 days I saw there was to be five clear days. I loaded up and Bill and I headed north to Alabama. Though he doesn't paddle Bill was great to run shuttle for me.
It was 38 degrees and raining when I put in the Choctawhatchee on St Rd 84 in Alabama. I didn't make the top 24 miles of the river due to the flooded conditions. Didn't want to chance my new boat! The rain continued off and on all day. The Choc flows through Rucker Army Base, where they train helicopter pilots. I was visited by several Army 'copters throughout the next few days, and had a fantasy they were "checking up" on that lone paddler down there. But in reality, except for an encounter on my last day, they probably didn't even notice me.
The river was so flooded it was hard finding potential pullouts or camping sand bars. I had lunch in the canoe and eventually found a small dry sandbar after paddling about 15 miles. I set up the tarp, broke firewood for the night, and placed several sticks up from the river to see if it was rising much.
After a short rest and some hot tea (it was still blustery and cold) I checked the river sticks. The river had risen three sticks in the past 45 minutes! Bad news...not wanting to stay on the low sandbar all night worrying about getting flooded I decided to pull up camp and find higher ground. After loading my gear and all the firewood the boat could safely carry I headed downstream. Sunset was 30 minutes away!
Luckily after 15 minutes paddling there was a high bank on river left with a cut where I could land. The river was pouring through a stand of tress and it made a beautiful sound. I eddied out, unloaded the canoe, pulled it to high ground and tied off, reset the tarp and cooked dinner in the dark. Later that evening I set some river sticks and a lone deer came into camp. She snorted and bounded back into the woods after spotting my tarp. The river sang me to sleep. All night, it was roarin' and I was snorin' !
Next morning it was cold, dank and foggy. After breakfast I tore down and continued downstream. BTW, the river had jumped 4 sticks during the night. It probably flooded my previous sandbar camp! The weather was overcast and blustery all day. I just kept in the current and tried to avoid any trees or branches that were in the flooded river. The current averaged 3-4 miles per hour. With paddling it was easy to travel 6-7 miles an hour.
The river continued to grow in width and volume as we headed south. It stayed overcast all morning with temps in the fifties. I cooked lunch in Geneva, Alabama at the confluence with the Pea River. There is a beautiful city park there, including an ancient oak tree that is over 20 feet in circumference! After joining with the Pea River the Choctawhatchee seems to double in volume, widening to 300 feet. (The river gauge read 17.5 feet on the Choc side), A fellow was nearby and noticed my wood strip canoe. He made his way over and said "Howdy, my name is Joe Paul and I like your canoe!". We had a nice conversation about canoes and Alabama paddling. He gave me some great tips for a trip down the Pea River. Joe was very interested in my gear and noticed my new carbon paddle. He also saw the wooden spare and said "You're cautious, to carry two paddles". I replied "either cautious or prudent." After an hour or so I loaded up and headed on towards Florida.
It seems funny but I swear it is true. After crossing the state line into Florida the sun came out and it warmed to 70 degrees! The river was so wide I spent an hour laying in the bottom of the boat just drifting. With an occasional correction my canoe would stay midstream. I even took a short nap.
That evening, after covering 20 miles I camped on a sandbar where beaver were active. There were several trees laying in a "beaver run" that I used for firewood. That evening Bucky was mad at his guest. He spent several minutes swimming back and forth in front of camp, slapping his tail and making noises. It was a beautiful moonlit night. The stars came out and I could even see their reflections in the river.
Next morning up early and on the river by 7 am. There was some sort of discharge from upstream (Geneva?) The river was full of brown foam balls. I called them Alabama river magnolias. They looked terrible. The sun shined all day and it got quite hot in the afternoon. Since I only had long pants, poly long johns, fleece jacket, and a short sleeve T shirt I made two arm covers from bandannas. They worked well. Open on the bottom, I could wet them down to cool off. I began to notice fishing camps along the river in side channels and bayous. The locals build small one room floating houseboats and anchor then in calm water. Some look very nice painted with screened porches and windows. One I saw was a white travel trailer attached to pontoons. Others just look like Ma and Pa Kettle threw them together, really rustic.
Mostly this float was a big flooded river and trying to stay in the current. I found if I cut the turns just right, floating outside but not too far, I could stay moving downstream with little effort. Get too far outside and get caught in a backwash where the river bounces off the bank, cut too sharp and have to paddle hard thru the eddy.
Started looking for a camp around 5 after paddling 18 miles. Nothing was showing up. The riverside was all swamps and flooded lowland. I began to think I might have to sleep tied to a tree in the bottom of the boat. Or maybe "squat" on someones fishing shanty. I wasn't too comfortable with that, don't know how the locals feel about it.
Finally found a sandbar island that was wooded, high and dry. Made a small camp right at riverside overlooking a riffle. A few mosquitoes came out at sunset but my "Indian fire" kept them at bay. Nevertheless, I slept in the tent this evening.
Next morning found me on river at 8 am. I used my cellular phone to contact my sis and tell them where to pick me up. I planned to paddle to the confluence with Holmes Creek and paddle 2 miles upstream on Holmes to Shell Landing. Thereby making a "circuit" of some kind since I had passed that way a week earlier.
Spent a beautiful day on the river locating incoming streams when possible. I found Morrison Spring, a big popular camping and cave diving area. The mile long run upstream to the spring was beautiful through cypress trees covered with spanish moss. There was no one at the spring, too early in the year I guess.
I had noticed the river was so flooded it was cutting across the oxbows so I started following it to save some time. Often I could cut off 2-3 minutes and have some fun shooting through trees. Around noon I followed a good-looking channel off river left. It looked like a flooded creek channel that would lead me back to the river. After half an hour it slowed but there was still current. I reasoned "follow the current, it will take you to the river". In this case, WRONG. Another half hour and the current ended in a swamp. Nothing but trees, bushes and vines. It was hard to get the canoe through. I took a time out and checked the GPS and topos. The river had curved away to the northwest and I was a mile away! A mile through dense swamp is no fun. I kept probing, backtracking, probing. I knew the river was out there somewhere but couldn't hear it or see it. I would struggle through a difficult section thinking there was an opening ahead only to get there and find ...more swamp. Doubts crept in, I felt panic. I could see the headlines, Hoosier comes to Florida and gets lost in swamp. Finally after an hour I found a small channel with current, following it to a bigger channel, to a bayou and finally breaking through some bushes to the main river, I decided to stay in the main current for the rest of the day!
I heard the thump, thump, thump of helicopter blades. They were loud and seemed so close I could feel them in my chest. Looking up I was quite surprised when an Army 'copter came out of the swamp at tree level and flared off right over my canoe! Very exciting! Maybe they were watching me after all!
The confluence was a bubbling cauldron of eddies and currents flowing through trees. I spent half an hour playing, practicing eddy turns. On my fourth trip through I caught my brand new carbon paddle on a vine and it broke. What a bummer! But at least it could be fixed as only one face cracked. I reached for my spare and continued upstream on Holmes Creek. A cautious, prudent man always carries a spare paddle!
Sis and brother Bill were at Shell Landing as I came up. It was nice to see them after coming so far. A quick hug and handshake, and we loaded the gear in the van. My Choctawhatchee trip was over. What a great time!
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