The challenge: Plan a one week vacation, knowing that either the first weekend will be spent in Orlando, New Orleans, or Montgomery, Alabama; or that the last day and night will be in Mobile, Alabama. One of these situations is a certainty, but you won’t know which until less than 2 weeks before the trip begins. Go!
That was my dilemma in early December. We knew that Appalachian State would be playing in a bowl game. In all likelihood it would be in Orlando, New Orleans, or Montgomery on 12/17/16. The other possibility was the night of 12/23/16 in Mobile.
Prior to the announcement, rumors were pointing towards Orlando. This suited us, as we were eager to do some kayaking in south Florida. We decided to plan our trip in that direction. A bowl game in Orlando would be extremely convenient. If we ended up in one of the other cities, we would find a way to make it work.
On the afternoon of December 4th we found out that we were heading back to Montgomery. App State had won the Camellia bowl there the previous year, becoming the first school to win a bowl game in their first year of bowl eligibility. Christy and I had our enjoyed our trip the previous year, and we were happy to go back. Driving from Charlotte to south Florida by way of Montgomery is definitely the scenic route, but we would make the best of it.
The previous year we had played the University of Ohio. We won a thriller, kicking the game winning field goal on the last play. This year’s game would be against Toledo. Toledo had a strong team, and we were actually slight underdogs. I was just looking forward to a competitive game. We’d been to all 6 home games in Boone, and every one of them had been a blowout.
I had already booked a hotel in downtown Montgomery (and one in Orlando and Mobile, which we cancelled). After running some errands Friday morning, we loaded the kayaks on top of the Element and headed for Alabama. We left fairly early on Friday in an attempt to avoid traffic. That failed, as we still hit several traffic jams in Atlanta and passed through Auburn, Alabama and Montgomery at rush hour. My goal had been to arrive in Montgomery in plenty of time to check in before the pep rally that afternoon. That didn’t happen, but we still had hopes of making it there in time for the Christmas parade. Arriving in time for the parade was nearly thwarted by the parade. Many of the roads downtown were closed to traffic, and we had a hell of a time getting to our hotel. Despite that inconvenience, we still made it. It turns out that we didn’t really need to worry. That parade was looooong. It went on for at least an hour. The highlights were the performances by our band and Toledo’s band. By the time our band passed by we were ready for dinner. We ate at The Local, a wonderful restaurant we had dined at the previous year. Afterwards we hit the Railyard Brewery and the Aviator – App State’s official bar for the weekend. The previous year The Aviator had run out of beer. This year they were better prepared for our fans. We had a few drinks there and did some socializing before heading back to the hotel.
The next morning we hit the free breakfast buffet and then went for a walk around Montgomery. It was a quiet Saturday morning, and we took our own little tour of some of the city’s historic sites. This included the State Capitol, the church where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had preached, and the Civil Rights Memorial Center (https://www.splcenter.org/civil-rights-memorial). The Civil Rights Memorial is a powerful place. If you are ever in Montgomery, make a visit there a priority. It is a powerful place. Christy and I were both emotional leaving there. The plan had been to head over to the stadium to start tailgating, but we couldn’t do it right away. Instead we extended our walk around town.
Around noon we headed up to the stadium to tailgate. We got a lot of attention pulling into the lot with two kayaks on the roof of the car. We met up with some friends and made some new ones. A bit later our friend Tim and his daughter Maggie arrived. Unfortunately his wife, Carly, had gotten sick the previous night and wasn’t able to make it.
We had a good time tailgating before heading into the game. Our seats were fantastic – right on the 50-yard line. The game was another thriller. This time, we kicked a field goal with four minutes left to take a 3-point lead. Toledo drove inside our 10-yard line, but we managed to stop them there. They tried a field goal to tie the game, but missed. Two first downs enabled us to run out the clock, and we had our second Camellia Bowl victory in as many years. We’d enjoyed a long afternoon of tailgating, so we kept our celebrating to a minimum. We had a long drive and a couple of short hikes on Sunday’s agenda.
SINKS AND FALLS
We headed south on Sunday morning, passing through Enterprise, Alabama and into Florida’s panhandle. First up was a visit to Falling Water State Park. This park features a short trail to 73’ Falling Water Falls, the tallest waterfall in Florida. The creek falls into a sinkhole, which accounts for most of the drop. It’s a cool sight, though not particularly photogenic. I took some photos anyway, despite some light rain. We would’ve extended our hike to include a trail that passes a number of other sinkholes, but that trail was closed during our visit.
We had lunch at the park before heading east on I-10. We had a choice for the afternoon – visit Florida Caverns State Park or do a short hike in the Leon Sinks Geological Area south of Tallahassee. Originally the weather forecast looked hostile, and I was leaning towards the caverns. However, the forecast improved, so we decided to do the hike. Of course it was raining when we got to the trailhead, but it passed quickly.
We finished off our martinis (they are specifically prohibited on this trail) and headed into the woods. There are two hikes here – a 3 mile loop and a 4 1/2 mile loop. The longer hike includes a long section of swamp. Our time was limited, so we intended to do the shorter loop. We hiked it counter-clockwise, for no particular reason. Early on we passed a number of dry sinkholes, which were not particularly inspiring. The sinkholes with water were much more interesting. The first notable one, Hammock Sink, is a beauty. There is a boardwalk leading to an overlook here, which provides excellent views. The water is a brilliant blue, and the entrance to the cave is visible through the water. Cave divers have mapped 28 miles of passage from here, connecting with Wakulla Springs.
The other really interesting sinkhole was Big Dismal Sink. A side trail leads to an overlook, which is high above the dark surface of the sinkhole. The pool is surrounded by steep terrain covered with jungle-like vegetation. Unfortunately the paths leading down to the water are closed.
We passed many other sinkholes. The other interesting feature was a cave called the Gopher Hole. I walked into the cave a short distance, but I couldn’t go far. The ceiling drops dramatically, and the cave is flooded.
From there we drove to Ocala and Silver Springs State Park. Instead of going out of our way to take the freeway, we took back roads. This was more direct and more interesting, even though most of the drive was in the dark. On the way to Wakulla Springs we passed a couple of highway signs that identified caves directly beneath us. At one point we stopped for groceries for the rest of the trip. We had dinner at an Indian Restaurant before heading to the State Park, where we had a campsite reserved. It had been a long day, so we pitched the tent and went straight to bed.
I got up early the next morning and cooked breakfast. Originally we had planned to kayak all of the Silver River, from Silver Springs to Ray Wayside Park on the Ocklawaha River. However, we had time constraints, as we needed to get to the Everglades National Park Visitor’s Center in Everglades City before 4:30 to pick up a backcountry camping permit. We would be starting our 4-day kayaking trip the following morning, and were hoping for an early start. Also, Christy wasn’t feeling well. She was weak and nauseous, which was worrisome. We decided to do a shorter version of the Silver River trip, making a loop from the canoe launch near Silver Springs. We would paddle down the Fort King waterway, explore some of the river, and then paddle back upstream to Silver Springs.
The state park rents kayaks. In the interest of saving time and energy, we decided to rent a kayak rather than unloading our kayaks for a short trip. Christy was very weak, and I was concerned about her ability to help me get the kayaks off and back onto the car. That process takes time, too. By renting, we would be able to spend more time on the water. We rented a tandem kayak for 2 hours for $27. Renting also meant that we didn’t have to pay the private boat launch fee, so the net cost was only $19.
Silver Springs was a private enterprise until a few years ago. In its heyday, it was a major tourist attraction. It was acquired by the Florida State Park service a few years ago. The park still features some of the tourist attractions, like glass-bottom boat tours of the springs and the upper portion of the river.
The Silver River is also marginally famous for its monkeys. They were originally brought to an island in the Silver River to attract tourists. Predictably, the monkeys decided to do their own thing. Many escaped, and despite efforts to round them up, they have spread throughout the region. In early 2016 the population was estimated at around 200. We were hoping to see monkeys, but only from a distance. Allegedly, many of them have Herpes. So if you ever encounter one, don’t kiss it on the mouth.
The paddle down the Fort King Waterway was quiet and scenic. We passed a number of abandoned buildings that were part of the old tourist attraction. The wildlife was fantastic along here and along the Silver River itself. Highlights included turtles, alligators, and an impressive variety of birds, including egrets, herons, and anhingas.
When we reached the Silver River we went downstream a short distance. We didn’t go far though, since we knew we would have to paddle back upstream. Christy was exhausted, so the shorter trip in a tandem kayak had been a good choice. Aside from the wildlife, the river featured numerous lovely blue springs visible through the water below.
We took a tour of the actual Silver Springs at the end of the trip. There was a huge alligator at the spring, along with schools of fish. After a couple of quick laps around the spring we headed for the takeout. We were almost at the ramp when a medium sized animal ran away from us, into the jungle. I only caught a glimpse of it, but Christy thought it had been a monkey. The guy at the rental counter suggested that it may have been an otter, as the monkeys are seen only infrequently near the springs.
We drove south from there, passing Tampa, Sarasota, Fort Myers, and Naples. We arrived at the National Park Visitor Center right at 4pm, a full 30 minutes before they closed. I went in and chatted briefly with a younger, friendly ranger before asking about a permit. That’s when an older, less friendly ranger informed me that they stopped writing permits at 4. It was 4:02. I had walked in at 4, but had killed 2 minutes making small talk. I was pretty pissed off, as we had planned our entire day around getting there in time to get a permit. I pointed out they should mention that time constraint on their website. The older ranger had no response and walked into the office in the back.
As soon as he was gone the younger ranger asked me if we knew where we wanted to go. I had it all planned out, so he quietly started writing out the permit while his supervisor wasn’t looking. Our plan was to kayak the Turner River, Hurddles Creek, a section of the Wilderness Waterway, the Chatham River, and a choice portion of the Ten Thousand Islands over 4 days. Our first choice for Tuesday night, the Crooked Creek chickee (platform) was booked, so we switched to the Lopez River campsite. Our final two nights would be on Mormon Key and Rabbit Key – islands with beach campsites.
We thanked the younger ranger profusely and walked out with our permit. Before leaving, we stopped in the store to get a nautical chart (laminated map with water depths at low tide noted) and a 5 gallon hard-sided water container. The biggest challenge for our trip was probably going to be bringing enough water. The park recommends at least a gallon per person, per day. This turned out to be a bit more than we actually needed, but it was good to have extra, since there is no fresh water available. Hard-sided containers are necessary because racoons are notorious for chewing holes into milk jugs and other soft containers to get to it. It turns out that the 5 gallon container we bought doesn’t quite fit into either of our kayaks. I was a bit worried about this when we bought it, but there was no way to check without getting my kayak down off of the car right there in the parking lot. We ended up strapping the container to the top of my kayak empty. Our plan was to fill it from plastic jugs at night, before going to bed. We’d then have to refill the jugs in the morning before we set out.
Christy had spent the entire afternoon sleeping in the car. We drove to our campsite at Burns Lake, in Big Cypress National Preserve. She took another nap in our tent while I attempted to organize our gear. By early evening the bugs were awful, and sorting through a carload of gear for a 4 day trip for 2 people had evolved from frustrating to overwhelming. How would we pull this off? I’d hoped that Christy would feel better after getting some rest, but I was beginning to have doubts. Our trip was fairly ambitious, and we needed an early start the next morning. That was important for two reasons. First, I wasn’t interested in kayaking through an alligator-infested swamp in the dark. Also, high tide was fairly early the next morning. Starting with the outgoing tide would make the first day easier and faster.
The question was, could we pull it off? I was struggling to get everything together, and I was running out of gas. Christy was still wiped out. What if she wasn’t feeling better in the morning? Not only did we need an early start, but we had some logistical challenges to deal with. We were starting our trip where the Tamiami Trail (road) crosses the Turner River, but planned to finish at the Park Visitor Center in Everglades City. That meant catching a shuttle from Everglades City to the Turner River early in the morning. We would have to have everything packed before we caught the shuttle, too.
Christy finally emerged from the tent. I cooked dinner, and she was able to eat a little. We discussed our plans, and decided that it was just too much. It was a shame, considering everything we’d gone through getting our permit. After all of that, we wouldn’t be able to use it.
We settled on plan B. Christy would take a recovery day on Tuesday while I kayaked the Turner River solo. She would drop me off at the put in, and pick me up late that afternoon at the Visitor Center. While I was kayaking, she would stop at the office and get our permit changed (or obtain a new one, if changes weren’t allowed). Afterwards, she planned to hit the beach at Marco Island and rest. Hopefully she would be ready for an easier trip starting on Wednesday.
Continue reading about our trip as I kayak the Turner River
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