Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Peace River 120 trip

Peace River 120

The Peace River begins its trek south in an area known as the Green Swamp in West Central Florida, near the city of Lakeland. It snakes its way south from Lake Hancock 150 river miles or so through cities, small towns, agricultural communities, and wilderness areas before emptying into Charlotte Harbor and then into the Gulf of Mexico near Ft Myers. It is what naturalists call a black water river, a type of river that drains pine flatwoods and cypress swamps and has dark, stained waters from decomposing plant material. The Peace River gets most of its water from storm water runoff with very few natural springs contributing to the flow, so in the dry season the river flows slow and shallow. Wildlife is abundant along parts of the river, with the American Alligator commanding the most respect. This is not the river for adrenalin junkies though, except for times when in it is in the flood stages, the river moves slow and easy. This is the type of river that enables a person to relax, unwind, and get away from all the hustle and bustle of our modern 21st century. In some sections of the river not a sound of modern society can be heard unless you bring it with you. Only the sounds of the local wildlife fill air.

My goal was to start as far up the Peace River as the shallow water would allow, then paddle and windsurf to the Gulf of Mexico. After doing a number of scouting trips I determined that Ft. Meade would be as far upriver as I could go and still have enough water to float the boat. This would put me 120 miles from the Gulf, a doable distance with the five days I had available.

One of my objectives for this trip was to see firsthand the condition of the river. Like so many of our rivers and streams the Peace River faces a lot of challenges as progress encroaches in on it. From its beginning to its end people depend on the water of the Peace River for their way of life. Those in the head waters near Lakeland divert water into the river to keep their streets and homes flood free during our rainy season. Industry such as phosphate mining use the water in their processes, agricultural interests use the water to grow their crops, and in the area of Port Charlotte the growing population use the water to quench their thirst. And then there are all of those folks like me who use the river for recreation. I wanted to see for myself how the river was fairing.

Another objective of this trip was to test the versatility of the Expedition Windsurfer® and become more efficient in long distance multi-day trips where I break camp each day and move on. I wanted to refine my camping methods to meet the unique design of the vessel. I always tend to carry or pack more gear and food than I end up needing, this trip would give me a chance to par-down some of that gear to what is truly essential. By lightening the load I can increase boat speed and performance and have less stuff to worry with.

Finally I wanted to develop better video methods for future adventures. Questions of how to keep the cameras charged and how to send video home to my support team for daily downloads to the blog need to be addressed. I still have to work on this system, especially my camera work; I am no Les Stroud.

Following is a day by day account of my trip with a few photos included.

Day one: Monday

Weather reports have a front passing through the area of Ft Meade around 10:00am bringing with it potential thunderstorms, rain and high winds.

My wife dropped me and my Expedition Windsurfer® off in Ft Meade. I was loaded and on the water paddling south by 8:30am. This part of the river is narrow and very shallow with rocks, snags, and low limbs slowing my progress. I spent a good part of the morning dragging the board through and over limps, rocks, and shallow places not deep enough to float me and the board. This slowed me down quite a bit. The scenery in this area consisted of large oaks and hardwood trees with numerous cypress trees growing along the banks. Numerous small creeks and streams emptied into the river along the way.

I managed to cover 17 river miles to my first camp, which was just a couple of miles north of Crews Park in Wauchula. I had hoped that the storms would miss me as I paddled down the river, and at one point I thought they had, but at about noon the sky opened up and it poured. That evening as I landed I pulled the Expedition Windsurfer® up so that most of the board was out of the water. The next morning when I awoke the board was totally afloat. The river rose enough from the previous days rains that had I not been careful about tying off the board before hitting the sack that night I may have lost my ride to the rising water level.

Day two: Tuesday

Weather reports call for clearing skies and light winds out of the south with high temps in the 70s.

I was on the water by 8am and met my son at Crews Park in Wauchula to download some photos and make a post to the blog. The rains from the day before improved the flow of the river making forward progress much better. I covered 25 river miles from Wauchula to Gardner by 6pm on Tuesday.

This portion of the river was my favorite section. After leaving Pioneer Park in Zolfo Springs the river runs through some of the most unspoiled sections of Florida. It would not be unusual to see deer, hogs, river otters, bobcat, alligator, and numerous species of water fowl along this section. I have heard that an occasional black bear and Florida panther are spotted through here. This section has numerous places for camping and exploring. Although I was on a schedule I stopped along the way to hike into the woods and just listen to the sounds and enjoy the aroma of the unspoiled landscape. It was beautiful.

Day three: Wednesday

Weather reports were calling for clear skies and light winds 5-10kts out of the southeast with temps into the upper 70s.

Wednesday morning dawned with rain, so much for clear skies. The radar showed that the only place in Florida to get rain was where I was, what’s up with that? Yet another late start caused in part from a bad stomach, seems I must have had some bad chicken the day before, and the rains. When the rains passed I was on the river at 9:30am traveling south to Arcadia. I met my wife and kids (the best darn support team in the world, I must say), for dinner at the boat ramp before paddling another mile or two before dark.
 I covered 14 miles on day three. Although the weather reports called for light winds out of the south they were in fact pushing 20kts at times. You know it is windy when there are white caps on a river only 25 yards wide. Although I prefer to paddle standing up, with head winds funneling straight down the river I was forced to use the Expedition Windsurfer® as a sit-on-top kayak and paddle in the sitting position. I could paddle 2kts faster with less effort in the sitting position.

This section was my least favorite portion of the trip. Numerous homes have been built along the banks of the river in this section. Although still a beautiful section of the river, it was not my favorite.

Day four: Thursday

Weather reports were calling for morning fog, clearing with low temps in the 50s and highs near 80*F, winds east to south east 5-10kts, rain after midnight with an approaching cold front.

I left camp at 8:30am headed to the Hwy 760 Bridge out of Nocatee to rendezvous with my son and pick up my sail rig. I had started the trip with a cooler on the board to keep some drinks cold and some of my food fresh. I would not need the sail rig until I reached the open water of Charlotte Harbor so there was no need to carry it. I could also use the cooler as a seat when I got tired of standing. The cooler was really not necessary; I actually used it more as a trunk to put my rain gear and extra clothing in as I de-layered with the warming of the day. So I was going to exchange the cooler for the sail rig.

After meeting my son and making the exchange I headed for Hwy 761 just south of Ft. Ogden about 16 river miles south of Arcadia. I arrived a 2:45pm.

This section of the river was my second favorite part. There were parts of the river through this section that were very remote with no noise of modern life, no people just the native wildlife. I pulled onto a sandy beach for lunch and found fresh deer tracks, raccoon tracks and large cat tracks, perhaps a bobcat or small panther. Most the upper part of this section was pasture land, but enough of the hardwood forest and wilderness was left to make this a very beautiful portion of the trip. The river was wider in some places but surprisingly very shallow. I had to carefully pick my way through the sandbars, at times even having to push myself over the sandy bottom. The lower part of this section began to change into one of cypress swamps and marshes. The river would split and then come together further downstream making staying on course a challenge. Numerous creeks and streams added to the maze of water ways to follow. It was all I could do to keep from wandering up into one those creeks to explore the beauty of the wilderness. By now I was beginning to feel the effects of an incoming tide.

I had been paddling downstream for the past three and a half days, but I now as I paddled south of the 761 bridge I found I was moving against the current. With a full moon the tides were running strong and I had to up my effort to keep the board moving in the right direction.

I paddled until about 5:00pm and found a nice camp site on Cow Island, just south of the Nav-A-Gator Grill. I paddled 20 river miles from Arcadia on day four.

Cow Island is low marshy area with some high ground on the water’s edge. Cabbage palms, oaks, and cypress provide cover for the wildlife. My camp site was apparently used by the locals, they left me a chair and had built a table out of trees for me to use. Nice folks. This area is full of wildlife. When I awoke the next morning I had a family of wild hogs rutting around the camp. My Tarzan call scared them away.

Day Five: Friday

Weather reports were calling for fog and rain early, winds in the 5-10kts range from the southwest, and temps in the 50s in the morning and reaching 80*F in the afternoon. A cold front would be passing through on Saturday bringing NW winds around 20kts.

I awoke to a very foggy morning. Rain came and passed as I broke camp and made breakfast. I was about 30 miles from the Gulf. I knew that I would need a break in the weather to reach my goal. I had not covered enough distance in the previous four days to be able to paddle all 30 miles in one day. I could have done it, but I was having too much fun and did not want to rush past all the neat things I was experiencing. On the other hand if the winds kicked up as the front moved south over the state I would be able to cover the 30 miles in just a few hours. That is what I was hoping for as I paddled away from Cow Island.

With the fog and occasional rain shower passing by, navigation was a bit difficult. I did not have a chart of this portion of the river, and with the river fanning out in so many different directions I was a bit concerned I may end up in a dead end cove or tributary. Fortunately, the tide was flowing out and I just rode with it. At one point I came to a fork in the river and the tide seemed to be moving to the left fork so I rode with it. This was a mistake, but not a big one. I ended off track a bit but I soon found my way back to the main river and heading in the right direction.

At about 11am I reached an area called Harbour Heights, a housing development near the mouth of the Peace River a few miles east and north of Interstate 75. By now the river had begun to open up and the weather was improving. I had a 5-10kt breeze blowing in from the SW. It looked to me like it was time to start windsurfing.

I found a vacant lot and transitioned from paddling to windsurfing hoping the winds would continue to improve.

It felt great to be windsurfing, finally. After four and a half days of paddling I was ready to use my windsurfing muscles. Although the winds were light and a bit variable I was excited to feel the wind in my hands, the pull of the sail. I am not a wind snob like some, I enjoy windsurfing in any conditions, from 5kts to 25kts, and it does not matter to me. Well, it does kind of matter when you want to get someplace within in a limited amount of time. That is the situation I found myself in on this day.

As I sailed out into the mouth of the Peace River away from the spot where I rigged my sail, I soon realized that I was not actually in the mouth of the river. I still had to navigate around numerous small islands and shallow water that I could not see from the bank I rigged on. No worries though, it would just take a bit longer to tack around the islands and under the I-75 bridge. If the winds would fill in, it would be an easy task. But the winds never filled in. In fact, they began to back off and become almost nonexistent. It took me nearly an hour and a half to get past the bridge, a short two miles. The winds teased me all the way to the next bridge. They would increase to around 8-10kts and then back off to nothing. I at times found myself pumping my sail just to keep from being pulled back up the river with the changing tide. I made it to the US 41 bridge at 2:30. I could have been there at 12:30 if I had kept paddling. But I had to finish windsurfing, and that is what I did.

I was 20 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. I had traveled 85 river miles to get this close. I could taste the salt in the water and see the open waters of the bay as they beckoned to me to continue. If only the cold front was a day earlier I would have reached my goal with time to spare. I considered spending another day pursuing the goal, but I had other obligations and so did my support team. If I stayed another day I would have inconvenienced my family and friends so I knew it was time to pack it in.

As I sat on the shore of Charlotte Harbor waiting for my son to arrive, I was satisfied with the trip. I learned more about the Peace River and the Expedition Windsurfer®. I also learned a bit about myself along the way too. This is a trip I will do again, perhaps in the early fall when the river has more water in it. Sure you’re invited, let’s go!