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Kayaks: Current Designs Solstice GTS, QCC 500, Current Designs Solstice GT; same order as paddlers list.
We originally planned to explore the Okeefenokee Swamp and do the top part of the Suwannee River, but due to fires in the swamp and very low water conditions, we chose the Peace River as an alternate. It is closer to where we live and on our "bucket list" anyway. The low water conditions also greatly affected this trip.
We've discovered that as a group (well most of us, but especially the three that went on this trip) enjoy the challenge, struggle, and yes, the suffering we endure on some of our trips. It is in the camaraderie and the reward of doing something that it is difficult - that a lot of people would not do. As with all our trip reports, we hope reading and seeing our trip will enthuse you to do your own trips and have some great experiences. Remember, the challenge and adversity is part of the reward of accomplishment.
We intended to start in Bartow, FL and end up in the Gulf of Mexico. We did start in Bartow but ended our trip in Punta Gorda because the weather was deteriorating and we had strong winds with gusts over 25 mph. We decided we had nothing to prove and none of us wanted to paddle the last day of 25 miles against those winds in open water.
Saturday, Feb 18, 2012
Drive to Arcadia, FL; shuttle to Bartow, FL, start trip
Of course, being the Peace River, we just had to have a photo op in order to "get into the groove!" This is one of my favorite photos of all our trips so far. It captures the thrill of beginning a trip and friendship.
We have always been very lucky while planning our trips as far as finding contacts who can help with the planning and shuttles. This trip was no exception. We came into contact with Tom who is very familiar with the Peace River. This is the first thing he emailed to us:
"I would like to give you some advice on your trip plan. The upper Peace River from Bartow (Hwy 60 launch) to Homeland (CR640 Heritage Landing) is currently reaching condition where it would be inadvisable to attempt paddling on this 7 mile section of the river."
Tom met us in Arcadia and shuttled us to Bartow with his truck and trailer. This was great because the logistics of shuttles is always a concern on our trips. We were very lucky to have met Tom. The water came up a little in the last few days, but not by much. We launched at Bartow around 10 am and had a very long day ahead of us.
The water in Bartow seemed plenty deep and we were excited. Soon after we turned several bends the water became very shallow and the river extremely narrow. We had to get out and pull the kayaks a little, heck, a lot! Then we started running into river blockages where trees had fallen and piled up over the river. We were still in very good spirits and knew this was just part of the adventure which we gladly accepted.
We were exhausted from constantly lifting our fully loaded (packed for 8 days) kayaks over fallen trees – some trees were over 3 feet in diameter and piled on top of each other. Walking the kayaks in the water wasn’t so bad except it seemed like every minute we would have to stop to get out of our kayaks to pull them through shallow and rocky areas. During one lift over fallen trees we let go of Dave's kayak too soon and the rudder caught on the tree and there was a sickening bang, snap as the rudder cracked off the kayak. Luckily, the kayak was okay but the rudder was just dangling. We held it on with bungee cords for the rest of the trip.
The scenery was beautiful and it was neat seeing the area with very little water. You'd think it would be easy to follow the river but I have to admit we took 4 or 5 wrong turns – one of them down to Dover Sink where the water literally disappears into the ground. It once was a spring but due to water use in the area, the water now flows down into the ground.
At the end of day one we had logged around 8.5 miles. When Tom had told us it would take us all day to do 6 miles we all inwardly said “yeah, right” but he was right. The low water and especially the fallen trees slowed us down to a crawl. We still had good spirits with the sense of adventure and the knowledge that we, as a team and friends, will persevere.
We found a great campsite after deciding to push a little longer from a park that had a sign saying "no camping" and a local confirmed the nightly police patrol would make us leave.
As with all our trips, the most memorable moments usually entail our chance encounters with others. No sooner had we set up camp, an ATV comes along and we are very scared that the guy will kick us off of his land. We were so exhausted and knew we would not find another place in time before dark. The guy says "Hey, are you boys poaching?" We say "No" and he comes over to talk to us. His name is Tom and he is friends with the Tom who shuttled us to put in. After he surveyed our kayaks and camping equipment, he was satisfied that we were serious paddlers. He told us he had issues with poachers in the past and that this was his land. Then he pointed to a fire ring and asked us to use that for our fire. Great relief on our part that he was allowing us to use his land.
Here's the part that always get us about how lucky we are on our trips. Tom asks us if we want any ice. We were puzzled and said we had no use for ice and he says it's for the beer. We all think to ourselves, beer? He said he'll be right back with beer and ice! We finish setting up, make dinner and get the fire ready. As promised, Tom shows up this time in his truck with a large cooler filled with beer and ice and says it's on him. Unbelievable. What a treat and a lasting memory from this trip. Thanks Tom!
Day Two: Sunday, February 19, 2012
We all slept very well due to our previous day's struggle and the beer. Today it has to be a lot better than yesterday. We are sure that we must have gone past the worst of the shallow areas and fallen trees. Our new friend Tom also said it gets better the further south we go so we are ready for this day. Note: it was a great day just to be outdoors on our adventure – even with the challenges.
No sooner than we shove off that around the very first bend is another log jam with fallen trees across the river that we have to pick up and lift our kayaks over. The water is still very shallow with us getting stuck often and scrapping the rocky bottom as we move along. Every time we hit some water that is deep enough to do power strokes we got excited that this is it – no more shallow water – but as we found out, the Peace River has shallow spots all the way to its end. Then around the next turn are more fallen trees. Ugh!!
Sometime in the first few hours of paddling and pushing over sandbars and rock bottom, we hear a sharp snap! It was Sam's carbon fiber paddle that broke in half. Dang, what else is going to happen? Luckily, Dave always brings a spare paddle and for the first time on any trip that any of us had been on, the spare paddle surely saved the day. It was the only spare we had so all of us were a lot more careful when using our paddles to push over shallow areas. You can be sure spare paddles will be brought on all future trips by each of us.
The scenery was great and today we saw a lot of wildlife: deer, otters in several places, cows, various birds, alligators, and turtles. Some otters would look up at us from the water and others were on shore watching us go by. Otters are a treat to see. As we approached one sandbar there was a 5 or 6-foot alligator almost in our way – we had to follow the water right by it. Dave was first and he thought it may be dead since its eyes were closed and it didn't run away so as he went by, he used his paddle to tap it on its back. It came to life real fast! Stew was right behind and didn't find it quite as amusing as Dave did since he had nowhere to go and the gator was slashing back and forth and heading right toward him. The alligator found some water where he could hide and avoided eating Stew for lunch.
The day was much like the day before with lots of walking over perilous areas and sliding over shallow areas. Disappointing was still finding logs blocking our way but we were a team and we got through them efficiently.
We started looking for campsites and there weren't many available. We saw two very narrow bluffs that had sand and passed on the first one. After checking out the other possibilities which were mainly swampy and filled with cypress tree knees (part of their root system sticks straight up out of the ground making it impossible to camp on), we decided to take the second bluff we found. It wasn’t bad except a storm went through that evening and there were some large tree limbs overhead that looked ready to fall. Not much rain – just windy and we had another nice fire going. I think we still only did around 12 miles that day. Way behind schedule considering we anticipated 15 to 20-mile leisurely days but we knew we could make it up if we ever get into deep enough water..
Day Three: Monday, February 20, 2012
Today we did 25 miles! Woo hoo! We still encountered many shallow areas where we dragged through, paddled around, and bottomed out but the big difference was that we encountered only a few places where we had to lift our kayaks over fallen trees. We found rapids that were not passable and we were wondering how we were going to get our kayaks down them. There was a three to four-foot drop with treacherous sharp rocks and slippery surfaces. Then we saw some fast water just above the rapids going off to river right so we took it and hoped for the best. It dumped us out just after the rapids - after meandering through some scenic trees and brush. Kind of neat.
Scenery still spectacular and we did take time to enjoy it. Nice being out in nature, self-supported and you only have yourselves to depend on. Ibis seemed to peek out at us all along the way with their somewhat comical profiles and low pitched "gawks." There were times when the river split around a land mass and we would scout each way and then take the one without fallen trees in view. That strategy actually worked out well! We were surprised at how many times we had to guess which way the river went – sometimes we paddled into ponds/dead ends and had to turn around
Found a beautiful campsite with soft grass and a nice beach to land the kayaks on. There was a smoldering fire when we arrived so someone must have camped there the night before – it was a three-day weekend and all the sane people were paddling the lower portion of the Peace River. We used the same area and had yet another wonderful fire that evening. We were feeling good that we did some serious mileage this day.
Day Four: Tuesday, February 21, 2012
OK, today we want to make it to Arcadia to keep on schedule (we have reservations there), guessing around 27 miles. We're feeling better because there haven't been any fallen trees lately. Still shallow areas where we have to get out and pull or use our hands and push down to lift the kayak and forward while still sitting in it. We've gotten really good at that and getting out while the kayak is still moving and plopping back in as it passes by.
The scenery still impresses and it is a good day. There are a few areas where we had to decide to go left or right and continued with our criteria of taking the route that appears easiest. That still proved to suit us well. We see more areas where cows frequent and find one place with a cow's skeleton less the skull. We figured when a cow dies it needs to be investigated in case of disease so they take the head in for analysis.
We see a few alligators and neat scenery along the way. When we get to Gardner, a check point, we meet a guy who spent the last few days looking for fossils. He shows us his find: sharks teeth, vertebrae, and what he says is a whale’s ear. We were leery of that but later looked it up and he was right – the ear of a whale becomes a cast made from sediment that enters the ear canal after the whale dies and eventually becomes fossilized. Pretty cool. We all agree that we want to go back sometime before the water rises to do some serious fossil hunting.
We were supposed to have time to fossil hunt but due to low water and our struggles, we didn't have any time to look except when grounded on sandbars. Sam found shark’s teeth, other bones, and fossilized turtle shells just by reaching down and pulling hands full of rocky sediment on almost every sandbar we got stuck on.
We did make it to Arcadia and we camped at the boat ramp with our kayaks after we shuttled a truck to Bookelia, FL (3 hrs round trip). This was so we had transportation at the end of our trip. It was nice to have dinner in Bookelia at Captain Con's. Then we drove back to Arcadia and spent the night in our tents.
Day Five: Wednesday, February 22, 2012
Since we had transportation in Arcadia, we drove to a McDonalds for breakfast before heading out for the day. We look forward to these little treats! Today we want to go around 15 miles and hold up just a little north of a restaurant called the Nav-A-Gator because it looked cool when looking into this trip. Only 10 miles from there to a Best Western in Punta Gorda where we have reservations, but it turned out being more like 13 miles because we didn’t account for all the turns in the river.
We still encountered shallow spots where we had to get out and pull our kayaks and the river was getting a little bit wider. The winds also were picking up. Still, great views of nature and this is where Dave saw a bald eagle on a sandbar a few month's previous when scouting the area.
We found a great place to camp and it was in the area where we wanted to be. As it turned out, we used Google Earth to calculate distances and since we didn't account for every turn, etc. we miscalculated the distance by around 3 miles, oh well. This same error occurred the next day where we paddled 3 more miles than was anticipated which usually isn’t a big deal but we had strong winds and chop in our faces and wanted it to end much sooner than it did!
Day Six: Thursday, February 23, 2012
We break camp and figure we have a 1.5 hour paddle to our lunch stop at Nav-A-Gator. A really neat restaurant on the river. This day should be fun and relaxing. As has become our custom on trips, we must paddle between the posts of signs – all of us did as a matter of fact – just expected. We continued to the restaurant and were not disappointed with the ambiance and food that we had. This was a very cool place to visit and we wished we had more time to spend at least one crazy night here.
After lunch we head out knowing we only have 10 miles to go which seemed like it would be easy. It turned out to be 13 miles and because the wind kicked up several notches, it was somewhat challenging. We wound our way through several islands and enjoyed the scenery and seeing the birds nesting. When we hit open water, the wind was brutal and for the next few hours we just wanted to get to where we were going.
Finally, after saying "We're almost there" for what seemed like hours, we make it to the Best Western in Punta Gorda. There was a small sandy area that was perfect for landing our kayaks and it was even close to our room. They let us keep our kayaks right outside our room in the grass.
As we arrived, we heard music coming from an adjoining park. It was neat, yet weird. We hear a group playing and singing "My Country Tis of Thee" while across the parking lot is a group of at least 7 accordion players playing some kind of polka. You couldn’t have written a comedy script to do justice to this scene. We were ecstatic. How cool, but still, how strange. It was music in the park day and I guess each group claimed its shelter and played. They were too close together but it was neat, funny, charming, and yes, weird. We loved it – all part of our adventure.
That night we walked downtown Punta Gorada and fell in love with the place. We drank at a local bar called Shorty's and ate dinner at another Irish bar that served excellent food, then returned to Shorty's. The locals were all very nice and some even bought us drinks. Yeah, we could get used to this place! As we returned to our hotel, music in the park was still going on except this time there were these older guys (they were probably in their 60s) playing rock and roll. We think the guitar player was someone famous but we couldn’t place him. They were very good and it was a great end to a pretty neat day.
Day Seven: Friday, February 24, 2012
Today we got up to the wind howling and decided that we had enough. We had nothing to prove and did not want to paddle 25 miles in open water to our next destination. So we rented a car, picked up our vehicle left in Arcadia and shuttled our kayaks to Bookelia, FL where we had reservations for the night and our other vehicle was staged for our arrival.
It was a nice cottage on the bay and we all tried our luck at fishing from the pier on the property. Nothing but ladyfish but you could see that it had possibilities in better weather. We went to a local diner for dinner and had a good meal. Took some pictures along the way of the blustery day and some ducks on a pier. Also photo of the fossils we found while not really looking for them.
Day Eight: Saturday, February 25, 2012
We had breakfast in Bookelia and then split up and drove home – around 5 hours. It was yet another great trip of adventure, friends, toil, and accomplishment. Can't wait until next time!
This was another memorable trip with friends and adventure. We are all glad we did it – even with the challenges and damage to kayaks. It is just so great to be outdoors with friends, on an adventure and dealing with the elements. Stew and Dave got their kayak bottoms gel-coated as new, and Dave got a new rudder and installed it himself. All is good. Now it’s your turn!
Arcadia Campground – George the owner is very nice and knowledgeable:
Nav-A-Gator – cool place to eat and go for music:
Best Western in Punta Gorda (now known as Punta Gorda WaterFront):
YakCatcher Rod Holder