Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Upper Basin Paddling Adventure - 100 miles in 7 days

St. Johns River Water Management District Map

Mid-February will usually have reasonably mild weather in central Florida so Brenda, Gus, Carl and I scheduled our Upper Basin Paddling Adventure.  (I said "usually," but that wasn't the case last month when we had two nights at 30 degrees and 15-25 MPH winds.)  We planned to paddle the first 100 miles of the river in 7 days, camping along the way.  We pre-selected each night's campsite (and an alternate) and water re-supply locations every 2-3 days.

We used these online resources to plan our trip:  the St. Johns River Alliance website (naturally), the SJR Water Management District website and Google Earth.  In addition to the usual camping and kayaking gear, paddlers should mount a red pennant high on their kayaks to ensure airboaters can see you.  GPS devices are also highly recommended since the river channel is often hidden among the tall grasses.

Besides the beautiful scenery, amazing wildlife, challenging paddles and camaraderie; my favorite activity was visiting so many "Old Florida" fish camps.  We started at Middleton's on Blue Cypress Lake (west of Vero Beach) and ended at Jolly Gator Fish Camp on the river at SR-46 in Geneva.  In between we stopped at Camp Holly in Cocoa, Lone Cabbage in Melbourne and Airboats  Rides at Midway in Christmas.  Each one was a welcome sight with food, beverages, shelter and/or hospitality.  The owners, staff and customers all share a love of Florida's waters.  I hope in the future, it won't be so unusual for a group of paddlers to come by these fun places.

Here are the highlights of our adventure:

Day 0 - Overnight at Middleton's Fish Camp
Middleton's is located in the Indian River County park on Blue Cypress Lake, considered by paddlers as the headwaters of the St. Johns. There's a boat ramp, bait/snack shop, campsites for tents and RV's, restrooms with hot showers and several trailers.  We rented the large trailer for the night before our 7-day kayaking/camping trip.

Day 1 - Blue Cypress Lake to Great Egret Camp
Ospreys were nesting on almost every cypress tree in Blue Cypress Lake.
 After the lake, paddlers go through the canals.  Sadly, we saw two anhingas strangled by monofilament fishing line.  We were warned by the residents at Blue Cypress Village about "Africanized" bees on the north side of the airboat ramp at the S96 Water Control Structure and indeed they were there.
There are two sets of "rapids" along the way; stay in the middle, point your bow forward and keep paddling faster than the water to stay in control.
It turns out the Great Egret Camp is no longer there so we camped at Willow Shelter, 1.3 miles to the right down the canal.  (According to District staff, no fires are allowed at a shelter but are allowed at a camp.)

Day 2 - Willow Shelter to Camp Holly
Three Forks Run at C40 canal was more natural and pleasant for paddling than the straight canals.  Lake Hell 'N Blazes (aka Lake Helen Blazes) was fun (and not just because of the name).  We saw lots of airboats and gators.  Thankfully, we had a good tail wind crossing Little Lake Sawgrass and Lake Sawgrass.
We saw the airboats from Camp Holly and were happy to arrive for the night.  We set up our tents under their pavilion which protected us from the rain.  Our hosts were Rob, the manager, and Captain Bob.  Camp Holly offers dinners and live music on weekends; beverages, snacks and airboat tours are available every day.

Day 3 - Camp Holly to Persimmon
The river from Camp Holly up to Lake Washington is very nice.  Lake Washington is BIG.  We had strong headwinds and stayed close to the western shore.  We only saw one powerboat all day.  I hadn't ever seen a "submerged dam" but we had to cross one 1/2 mile down river after the lake.
  Again we saw lots of gators.
 We camped at Oak Tree rather than Persimmon since there was more protection from the 20-25 MPH winds.

Day 4 - Oak Tree to Mulberry Mound
Tough day - cold and windy.
 Lake Winder has lots of camps on the west side.  Lake Poinsett is BIG. We only saw a couple powerboats all day.  We took a break at a nice landing on the west side.  After our delicious dinner and hot beverages at Lone Cabbage Fish Camp (also offers airboat tours), we paddled back 1/2 mile to Mulberry Mound to camp.

Day 5 - Mulberry Mound to Isle of Palms
Thank goodness there were no lakes today.  (The "lakes" on the river aren't really lakes, of course, just wide areas of the river.  They're normally lovely but difficult to paddle with 20+ MPH headwinds.)   The winds weren't as strong today so we enjoyed paddling through the cow pastures.

 We saw lots of birds, too: Snowy Egrets, Glossy Ibis, Great Egrets, Sand Hill Cranes, Wood Storks, Roseate Spoonbills, White Pelicans, Bald Eagles plus many gators.  We had a nice break at Possum Bluff on the east side.  Isle of Palms is a good camping spot.

Day 6 - Isle of Palms to Hatbill Park
It's a beautiful paddle up to Midway across a "lake" with cypress trees.
There are many airboats in this area.  We enjoyed our break at Twister Airboat Rides at Midway, which offers snacks, beverages, airboat rides and good conversation with Captains Derrick, Ken and the other staff.
 Beyond Midway the channels are narrow with twists and turns.  Hatbill Park is tricky to find from the river; look for a stand of palm trees among the grasses (see pic).  Paddlers must reserve the campsite with Brevard County parks department.  Airboaters enjoy this park at night; it's noisy.

Day 7 - Hatbill Park to Jolly Gator Fish Camp
Our last day was a quick 13-mile paddle.   Puzzle Lake was less puzzling today due to the high water.
 We saw horses, more cows and birds.  The noon take-out at Jolly Gator Fish Camp was a perfect time for a yummy fish sandwich, refreshing beverages and live music.  This picture is the approach to the Jolly Gator under the SR-46 bridge.
 We're ready for the next 100 miles of the mighty St. Johns.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Nice paddle on Trout Creek in St. Johns County

On Saturday I joined some folks with the Northeast Florida Sierra Club for a short paddle on Trout Creek in northwest St. Johns County.   We launched from the boat ramp in the county's Trout Creek Park.  (Located at State Road 13 North at 6795 Collier Road, this park also has a pavilion, playground, picnic tables, rest rooms and plenty of parking.)  Temperatures were in the low 60s but it was clear and sunny. 

Trout Creek
Trout Creek

We kayaked upstream about an hour then had to turn around since the water level was getting low.  Some people then kayaked west into the St. Johns River.  I joined the others for a delicious lunch at Outback Crab Shack.  8155 County Road 13 N Saint Augustine · (904) 522-0500

Outback's dock on Six Mile Creek
Outback Crab Shack

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Alliance has started a campaign to boost sales of the St. Johns River license tag. Proceeds from the sale go directly to programs that will benefit the river. It costs an additional $25, which goes directly to the Alliance.

Monday, July 16, 2012

It's Pretty Cool on the River

During our hot summers, it's best to stay near water. Taking that advice, I recently spent time on the St. Johns River near Welaka.
The name "Welaka" meant "river of lakes" in the language of the native Americans of NE Florida. Located in Putnam County, Welaka is a nice small town with great access to the River.
Boating and fishing are two favorite pastimes. You can also visit the Welaka National Fish Hatchery, hike in the Welaka State Forest, and take the Fort Gates Ferry across the river to the Ocala National Forest.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Where on the River is Andrea?

I visited the historic town of Sanford while in Orlando for a meeting. What a lovely setting on Lake Monroe, aka the St. Johns River! The town developed a nice waterfront park with benches and a playground. The Sanford Museum and Central Florida Zoo are nearby. I stopped by the Rivership Romance dock and spoke with owner Robert Hopkins. They offer lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch cruises.

Friday, December 3, 2010

St. Johns River License Plate - In Stores Now!

The brand new St. Johns River License Plate is now available for purchase at your local tax collectors office or DMV. Sport this on your ride and show your love for the St. Johns, all the while supporting programs for access, outreach, and research. Get yours today! And while you are there, buy a gift certificate for a friend or loved one. Once they see yours, they'll want one too.

Recent recent news articles on St. Johns River License Plate:

St. Johns River License Plate Pays Tribute to Late Sen. Jim King, Available Soon

St. Johns River license plate debuts

Monday, November 29, 2010

St. Johns River Holiday Gift-Giving Guide

Here are three great excuses for giving gifts that celebrate the St. Johns River!

1) St. Johns River 2011 Calendar: $10 + tax

2) St. Johns River Specialty License Plate Gift Certificate: $25 + fees

3) River Into The New World: The St. Johns DVD: $20 + tax
Visit or email for more details on how to order.

Friday, September 17, 2010

2010 St. Johns River Summit was a success!

Read more articles about the event here:

Thursday, August 26, 2010

St. Johns River Summit less than 3 weeks away!

We've been getting some great media attention lately, registration is up, we've secured a title sponsor, and the phones are ringing with more organizations wanting to get involved!

Read some of the recent articles below.

Summit to tackle St. Johns River problems

JEA to sponsor St. Johns River summit

2010 St. Johns River Summit to gather river experts