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Tuesday, March 19, 2002

Paddle Report: St Joseph Bay and St Joseph Peninsula

Seven paddlers took six kayaks to Florida this weekend. Bob Andrews organized this trip and had a full complement rather quickly. On very short notice Bob had an opportunity to rent a cabin at the Old Saltworks Cabins, a resort on the St Joseph peninsula north of Cape San Blas.

We were going for a four day weekend of paddling, bicycling and exploring on or near St. Joseph Bay, Florida.

We left Friday morning, March 15. Lisa and Jane took part of the morning to do some shopping at the Arts and Crafts Festival in Fairhope. Tom and Sandy went ahead of everybody in order to drop off some artwork in Destin. Bob met Julie and me at the Oasis on the Wilcox Road exit off Interstate 10 in Alabama. We all headed for the same place, the Old Saltworks Cabins.

We followed Bob east on I-10 past Eglin Air Force Base until we could get on US highway 331 to reach route 20 which we followed through the little towns of Bruce and Ebro. We took highway 77 south through Southport which has several businesses with humorous names such as the Buck and Ham Palace. A roadside stand had a big inventory of Plant City strawberries on Friday. We skirted the Spring Break traffic by taking 12th street in Lynn Haven to 389 south until it merges with US 98. We crossed the east bay on DuPont bridge that carried us onto Tyndall air force base. Bob planned to stop for lunch in Mexico Beach, Florida at the Fish House restaurant, next to the Hardware store, the tackle store and a laundromat on the end ( an excellent convenience center for shopping!). The lunch specials were quite good. The shrimp basket held about two cups of small tender fried shrimp, peeled and headed priced at $5.95.

We continued on through the Port St Joe area and headed south out towards the St Joseph peninsula. The BP station before you leave the mainland is one of the better supply points for stays on the peninsula. The road splits and we took route 30 westward to the Saltworks.

The Old Salt Works are named for a Civil War era facility that evaporated seawater to produce salt. The historical marker next to the driveway claims the works could produce 150 bushels per day. The cabins are modern structures which occupy the location of the old saltworks. Bob had rented the Captain's Quarters, which was the owner's residence until two years ago. The cabins are in a pine and palmetto forest on the bayside of the peninsula. A one lane dirt road gives access to the several cabins and houses in the resort. We spent the afternoon unpacking and exploring the area on fat tire bicycles. On the Gulf beach, the sand was firm enough to support not only our bicycles, but also automobile traffic. Cars with permits are allowed on the beach at various access points. During our stay we experienced thick fog from time to time, but always fresh clean sea air. I thoroughly enjoyed riding on the beach that first day.

While Bob was giving us our initial orientation ride, Tom and Sandy showed up and we returned to the cabin so they could join the ride. About 6 p.m. (motto: all times are local, all plans are subject to change without notice) we cleaned up anticipating going to supper in Appalachicola. Tom and Sandy were very familiar with the area and helped a lot with plans, navigation and recommending the restaurant, the Owl Cafe. Lisa and Jane found us with the help of several garbled cell phone calls and we met at the traffic light. Appalachicola has only one traffic light, a flashing red light near the waterfront. We had dinner outside; this cafe is so good the interior seating was booked for hours both Friday and Saturday evenings. The desserts (coconut cream pie, creme brule) were especially good.

Saturday, March 16, 2002

Our plan for the day was to go explore the bay side of St. Vincent's Island by kayak and hike across the width of the island to the gulf side and back. We had breakfast in the Captain's Quarters then loaded up the vehicles with lunches and people. We had three vehicles, six boats and seven paddlers heading to the end of route 30B at Indian Pass.

The end of the road has a public boat ramp, a soft sand beach and adequate parking for a dozen vehicles. It has a concession stand, portalets and a ferry boat service to carry pedestrians and bicycles across the pass to St Vincent's Island. We put in at the beach and paddled out into the pass and some thinning fog.

The current was not strong at that point in time. We all crossed over to St Vincent's with no problem. Bob recommended that we stay close to the island to stay out of the wind. We had a fine view of the forest at close range. The pines, oaks, and palmettos dominated the view. We crossed over oyster reefs and sand bars which were jotting out from the shoreline. One racoon was out on one of these oyster reefs until he saw us; then, he turned around and waddled into the forest.

On the north shore the fog was clearing nicely as it yielded to Florida sun. We crossed over more oyster reefs. We beached at a small cove to get out of the boats for a few minutes. The cove where we were somehow reminded me of Gilligan's Island and we tried to remember the song lyrics to that show's theme song. From there we paddled on into Big Bayou where we saw dolphin at the surface, a Southern Bald Eagle cruising over head, and at our lunch point, we had the company of a 4-5 foot long 'gator which stayed in the water a couple hundred feet east of our landing at Big Bayou Road (road #4 on the Island ).

We had our lunch on two big white and red checked cloths under the shade of pines. From here, we hiked south on road 4 crossing other dirt roads at right angles. These roads were designated by letter from G which is parallel to the bayside to A which parallels the gulfshore.

On the trail southbound, we spotted a small slender alligator on the left side of the trail sunning itself by a small pond. It was a very pretty animal with shades of brown patchwork over its shiny four foot length. It froze in fright for a few seconds until we all had a chance to look for it. Then the gator dove into the pond and vanished. After that, no one wanted to go off trail.

At several places the water was moving with some speed as though it were spring fed. Inch long fish disturbed the water here and there. The forest had burned in several places which removed undergrowth. The new fresh plants were pushing up already. The pines came and went in broad bands alternating with open grassy areas as we walked south.

At the gulfside, we noticed a couple of things : seashells and tree stumps. This barrier island is doing the natural thing and rolling inland leaving behind dead trees in the Gulf of Mexico. Sea shells are plentiful in the tide zone. We saw a one to two foot tall ridge of shells, mostly coquina shells, piled up near the waterline. Sandy and Tom know shells as a hobby and they collected several good specimens and told us in detail what was especially interesting about each shell.

The hike back was considerably warmer. The fog was gone and the sun was beaming through a partly cloudy sky. The wind shifted towards the east, crossing the island lengthwise. We picked up some trash on the way back. At the boats, we could still see that alligator in the water and the eagle was perched at the top of a dead tree on the far shore of the Big Bayou. The paddle back was even nicer than the morning paddle since we had a higher tide to lift us over the oyster reefs. Mile after mile of wilderness passed by on our left. Across the bay, to the north, we could see tinges of red, Red Maples, in the treeline. We reached the take out about 1645 and loaded boats. Teamwork made the task go quickly and we returned to the Saltworks to enjoy Bob's Greek salad and Jane's red beans and rice for supper. Sandy and Tom brought CHEESECAKE.

Sunday March 17, 2002

As we did yesterday, we were getting up and making coffee about 7:30 a.m. The fog was in the forest and water dripped from the canopy of trees overhead. Today felt warmer than yesterday morning, but not much. The weather was already warm, humid conditions, definitely short pants weather.

The objective today was to explore the bayside in St. Joseph Peninsula State Park. We loaded paddling gear and drove past Cape San Blas which is an air force reservation with radar facilities. We drove on the two lane paved raod to the gate of the park. Admission to the park is just $3.25 per vehicle for a day pass. The put in was the north picnic site of Eagle Harbor on the bay side. Eagle Harbor is the narrowest part of the peninsula. From a wooden walkover one can see both the bay and the gulf.

Today we had a split in the group. The larger group went paddling up the peninsula. The smaller group went bicycling from the picnic area north to the beach access past the end of Cabin Road. Fat tire bikes gave us the ability to go from the parking area over a narrow (two way traffic!) road on a ridgeline. From the road we could see the colors in the bay water change along the way. We passed between a gate and a small tree and continued on for 200 feet to a wooden foot bridge that put us on a sandy trail to the beach. The trail is marked by snow fencing. The climb up to the dune crest was too soft for the bikes so we did this trail on foot and left the bikes chained together at the base of the dune.

At the crest of the dune we passed four hikers sitting on a bench. The view of the gulf from that bench is framed by high steep dunes of white sand. The gulf is about 60 feet down hill from there, quite an angle looking down! The trail marked by snow fence led off to the right on a ledge of sand. I kept thinking, This looks like a trail through snow pack. We hiked down to the water and went north on the high tide line. The beach sand is very clean and well packed. The beach feeds a healthy dune field to our right. The fine, windblown sand sweeps upward to fill in the low spots in the older dune which is anchored by roots. The new sand is hard and well packed in the dune. The whole beach is really quite clean and the only trash seems to be the little bit that drifts in from the water.

We returned to the bicycles and rode back to the start of Cabin Road. The road forks into Cabin Road and another road into a campground. This is a nice circular drive around tent sites and bath houses. It appeared to be fully occupied.

Back at the picnic area, we had lunch and noticed that some clever person had placed a complete horseshoe crab shell in the grass, not quite the place you would expect such a creature.

After lunch we put our kayaks in the water and drifted/paddled up the coast looking for the bigger group of kayaks. The water in the bay was clear and calm. We paddled in water 3-4 feet deep over live bottom. Looking over the side of the boat we could clearly see the grasses, shells, rays, starfish and live sand dollars on the bottom. We worked our way off the beach to the yellow glow of bare sand under clean seawater. Here the vegetation completely stopped and made the contrasting color we had seen from the ridgeline road. We met up with the rest of the clubmembers, who were paddling back to the takeout. They had paddled up to within a couple of miles of the tip of the peninsula and had lunch there. From there the water gets a little deeper, they said, but it is more of the same view.

On the return paddle the breeze picked up and felt nicely cool. We paid less attention to the bottom since the small waves ruffled the view downward and we looked more ahead and ashore. Some bufflehead birds were having a good time bobbing on the bay. A couple of seagulls stood on sand covered by just a couple of inches of water. It was just a joy to be paddling in such clean surroundings with a view of the mainland on our left and the peninsula on our right.

As we neared the takeout, a yellow kayak left shore heading outbound. He was not from our club, but we took notice at the take out of a small pickup truck with a Current Designs kayak, a small surf kayak, bikes and other water toys. Somebody else is having a lot of fun!

Back at the Saltworks, Bob made spinach salad and Lisa made lasagna with a side of Italian sausage and toasted French bread. Desert was the cheesecake Sandy brought that we did not finish last night. A candle centerpiece with sprigs of yaupon decorated the dinner table. After dinner we had our own Movie Review discussion.

Monday, March 18, 2002

We had to check out of the cabin by 11 so the morning was mostly packing up. We ate a lot of leftovers for breakfast and headed out. The gentleman who runs the place, Lannie Blair visited with us before we left. He is a swell guy and loves working to make the place better. He and his wife Rachel bought the Saltworks two years ago and made it their home. We often saw Rachel driving from one cabin to another doing chores. They are a hardworking couple. Many of the decorations around the place are realy cute. The bird houses are tiny models in the style of the cabins. One birdhouse has a tiny Santa and sleigh on the roof.

This was a superb trip. Kayaking the bays is first rate and the island time attitude is quite refreshing. Hope to see y'all on the water.