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) http://stjohnsriveralliance.com/explore-the-river, the SJR Water Management District website http://floridaswater.com/recreation/ 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.
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.
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.
Day 4 - Oak Tree to Mulberry Mound
Tough day - cold and windy.
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.
Day 6 - Isle of Palms to Hatbill Park
It's a beautiful paddle up to Midway across a "lake" with cypress trees.
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.