01 June 2011
June 2011 WAKULLA GREEN
It was the maiden voyage of the little new, bright orange kayak. At 9’6” she was quite petite, but then so was her owner. Together they planned to make their mark exploring the nooks and crannies of the unspoiled Wakulla coastline, the freshwater lakes, and the darkwater and spring-fed rivers. The little Streak was chosen for her portability, light enough to carry with one arm and she slid nicely into the S70 Volvo with the seats pushed down. Secured with bungees flanking her bow, she hung out the rear only slightly, carry-strap flapping carefree in the wind as they rambled down the highway in search of picturesque waterways. Together they were outfitted nicely with coordinating accessories –a matching orange paddle with cushioned grips, an orange safety whistle, and a neoprene life vest purchased on ebay for a simple song.
Kayaking is the fasting growing watersport quickly dominating outdoor adventures. Paddle sports have become destination activities and here in this area along the Florida Panhandle we are fortunate to have miles of coastline, rivers, lakes, and designated paddling trails to explore. We also have numerous outfitters located close by many of our waterways who can provide equipment and gear for purchase, instruction, rentals, and guided tours. Advances in kayak technology and specialty equipment are being made all the time. Increasingly people are choosing to own their own padding equipment. But no matter how expensive or large or fast a kayak may be, if the owner has to struggle to transport that kayak, says fellow Green Guide, Grinnin’ Jimmy Dulock of Wacissa Springs Livery, it will not get used. Wise advice from a local kayak expert.
The Streak and I had first considered exploring the waters of Otter Lake near Panacea. I had chosen this location particularly because I hoped to time my paddle to be ringside when the amazing avian air show began, a feathered performance that occurred each evening at dusk. But a call to Ranger Barney Parker at the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge confirmed my suspicion – don’t go paddling with alligators larger than your boat. So we adjusted our launch site instead to Bottoms Road aware the biggest threat there was possibly the piercing stares of menacing black vultures sitting sentry in the tree that guards the public ramp.
We pull off Highway 98 just north of Panacea onto Bottoms Road. It is late afternoon on an unseasonably cool day perched on the eve of summer which usually blasts in like a furnace in mid-May. The drive down the long road winds through the tidal marshes and wetlands that support Dickerson Bay and the larger Apalachee Bay beyond. It is here on the inter-tidal mud flats that live the thousands of fiddler crabs important to the estuary ecosystem. Says Jack Rudloe of nearby Gulf Specimen Marine Lab, the fiddlers dig burrows that aerate the marshes and are a major food item for larger blue crabs and many other creatures such as the diamondback terrapin. A multitude of birds also live along this stretch of salt marsh and pine forest that leads down to the water. Bottoms Road is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail, a 2,000-mile, self-guided highway trail that connects nearly 500 birding sites throughout Florida.
The Streak and I arrive at the landing and unload. The scent of rich mud mixed in with the salty air fills my nostrils and makes me smile. Boat-tailed grackles eye us quizzically as they swagger sassily across the sand. The red-winged blackbirds flash their bright wings, loudly gurgle and whistle their distinctive call. I peer out into the well-marked channel leading on to deeper water and visions of big fish. Here is where my friend, clay artist, Nancy Jefferson puts in every Easter in the pre-dawn darkness. She paddles her kayak into the bay and waits for the sun to rise and spread its glowing golden light across the watery darkness that turns the dawn into day.
I easily drag the Streak loaded with all our voyage essentials across the smooth sand down to the water’s edge. After a survey of our immediate area noting the tide and wind direction and an initial buoyancy check, all systems are go and we set off for the first time gliding into the glorious waters of the pristine bay. We choose a westerly route which will take us into a brackish side creek and directly into the late afternoon sun. A wide bank of pink kissed clouds hangs motionless in the sky, its edges outlined by vivid shadows produced as the sun shines translucently through. Sunrays reach out from behind the clouds like spotlights cast on the watery surface washed aglow with amber luminescence. There is just enough cover that I can gaze directly at the sun as it starts its beginning descent to the day.
A mullet jumps close by startling me to laughter and turning my gaze back into the creek. The Streak tracks well, but we must paddle steadily against the outgoing current to avoid the sand bars and oyster beds emerging from the shallow depths. The Streak and I are lone explorers in this small cove and the quiet solitude is comforting. We stop on one of the beaches nestled along the edge of the marsh to watch a community of fiddler crabs scurry about and the sand fleas roll in the breaking waves before they vanish into the sand.
The palate of nature’s color changes now as evening approaches and the sun begins to drop. Back on the water, reflections intensify and grow more vibrant with the setting sun. I peer again into the sky and imagine distant islands afloat in a golden sea. Light from the sun creates a Van Gogh rendering on the expansive watery canvas. I gaze hypnotized by ribbons of amber sunlight as they dance among rings of liquid sapphire and shimmer through cerulean swirls in the watery ripples. How I wished for a camera able to capture a true image of this stunning work of museum worthy natural art.
We turn around and are greeted by a full silvery moon beckoning us back with a smile from where we began. We travel back slowly drawing out our paddle to savor every last drop. From out in the channel comes the hum of a distant outboard motor and familiar notes of a country tune well before a small boat speeds quickly by. Voices carry across to where the Streak and I sit just offshore watching as the boat is loaded and tied onto a trailer. I watch until the red taillights of the trailer disappear before I turn my gaze back toward the bay where we drift. A ghost heron softly floats across my periphery before evaporating into the semi-darkness. I stare spellbound as the light of the moon casts twinkling diamonds across the channel all the way out to the dim horizon. Lost in the moment, we have drifted farther and farther into the channel and it is time now to return.
We paddle effortlessly back to shore in the calm night water. In mere moments the Streak and all our belongings are easily loaded up for the ride home. I think about what Jimmy told me and I must agree. The right kayak is the key that unlocks the door to this satisfying sport. Over time I have tried out many, and this one fits just right. Now what more could the girl with golden hair ask for?
Wakulla Green recognizes and welcomes the most recent graduating class of Certified Green Guides from the Ecotourism Institute of Tallahassee Community College. Congratulations to Benjamin Colona, Bill Colona, Alexis Conteras, Lisa Spooner, Larry Lesko, Kathy Lewis, Woody Lewis, Barbara Powell, Matt Slavens, and Bonnie Holub. May you all help to spread the word of this simply amazing, last best natural place in Florida.