PART 2 - THE FLORIDA CROSSING
January 4th - Day 15
St Marys has a long boardwalk along the riverfront pier with many shops, bars, and restaurants. Business and tourism must be booming; there are renovations happening everywhere, the town’s public works is building a new boat ramp and dock that will let ships load and unload from the town center rather than about a mile away in the back of town where I arrived. If I ever return here on my kayak, this will be the new arrival point.
Last night I was overjoyed to eat a hot meal. I went to the Seagulls Pub on Osborne Street and ordered an appetizer of 16 fried mozzarella sticks, followed by a burger and fries, but even after all that I didn’t feel full. I decided it was best to stop there or my biological rhythm might be thrown into a sort of jet lag. These past two weeks trained me for a 6am appointment, do or die, as I don’t know how I would heed the call for number 2 off the kayak in the ocean.
On the pub wall over the spirits cabinet was a poster of a vintage mustang advertising for an event called the “Damn the Torpedoes Race.” The waitress told me that once a year there is a vintage car race from Athens Georgia to St Marys. “The rules are that your car has to be pre-1976, you must only use backroads, and you cannot get a speeding ticket,” she said. Only the race organizer knows the route at the start; the racers find out as they go through checkpoints and solve clues to point them where the next checkpoint will be. The finish is always at St Marys, and the town fills with a cast of showy characters and their vehicles in what was described to me as “the equivalent of the 70s Wacky Race Cartoon” but in real life. I wonder who got to play Dick Dastardly and his snickering dog Muttley ub the Mean Machine. Those who partake in the race officially join the The Car Tribe brotherhood and are christened with a Tribe name to be used when interacting with other members of the Tribe, which made me think it of the Water Tribe that organizes the Everglades Challenge kayak race from Tampa to Key Largo.
In the morning while washing my wetsuit pants in the shower I noticed a large hole developing on the lower back. The cursed British minimalist kayak seat chewed on it like the edge of a fine knife. I added some marine flex tape around the seat edge which hopefully will fix the problem, but I’ve also ordered new wetsuit pants on Amazon which I plan to pick up at the post office in Fargo Georgia. Hopefully it will be there when I arrive; I called the post office and told them to hold it for me. I don't want this mean seat to eat through my back.
I spent the day wandering around town. I came across a building called “The St Marys Submarine Museum,” which had an enormous torpedo large enough to fit a man inside, dozens of submarine models, and a deep-sea diving suit that reminded me of Jules Verne’s "Ten thousand Leagues Under the Sea.” The biggest portion of the museum, however, was the gift shop. Rent must be expensive on the waterfront.
I returned late in the afternoon to the Inn where the innkeeper told me I was in luck. “There’s another room for you tonight, but you have to move downstairs. It’s getting cleaned up for you right now,” she said.
January 5th - Day 16
A cold front moved through in the night, and through the early morning hours all I could hear was rain and wind. I wondered if that would be a good excuse to stay another day, but I was anxious not to fall behind schedule. Sleeping in a warm bed for two nights was softening my resolve; I dreaded the thought of setting foot outside and dreaded how cold it would feel to put on my damp boots. Fortunately, when I did walk outside the front had already passed, and although it was windy and cold, at least it was sunny, and lifted my spirits.
I got a late start as my two camp choices were either a close camp not too far up the river, or one too far to reach with daylight. I chose the closer camp so it will take me 3 days to reach the put-out point at Trader Hill. Even so, the river meanders a lot near the sea, and distances that are short as the bird flies are far with the river flow. I traveled only 8 miles west of St Marys, but covered almost 20 miles of river, and at one point was paddling due East around a large oxbow.
The color of the St Marys River is dark red like oxygen rich blood from the arteries. I cannot see even half a foot deep into it. When the paddle strikes the water the light penetrates a little deeper and makes ruby colored whirlpools. All kinds of creatures could be hiding down in the depths, and sneak right under my hull, and I would never know they were there. It was too cold to do a roll , but I’m sure if I went under water, it would be as dark as the silt laden Shube River in Nova Scotia.
The campsite was under the State Road 17 overpass. I was fortunate that the concrete pavement extending to the water I saw on Google Earth was indeed the boat ramp I thought it was; that made landing easy. I was greeted by an old man with missing teeth fishing off the boat ramp next to his pickup truck. I thought this was a strange spot to fish as it was the proverbial middle of nowhere, unless it’s a secret spot where the fish bite a lot, but he said he hadn’t caught anything all day. As I was scouting a place for the tent, he lost one of his lures when it tangled in the marsh. He must have been either lonely or needed to vent his emotions like a customer with his trusted barber, because me being there was his cue to tell me the story of his life. His name was Karl, 68, born on December 1st in Tennessee. Recently he went back to work as a car repair man because his daughter’s husband is a dead beat and he has 3 grand-kids to keep a roof over their heads. There’s a lot of age discrimination in the car repair business; he said he can repair any vehicle no matter how bad the crash it’s been in, but he gets constantly asked in job interviews for when he graduated high school which is coded language to screen off elderly applicants. Once he answered 196F.U!!! And walked out.
After 30 minutes of him talking and the sun close to setting he finally packed up and went his way, much to my relief to finally get to pitch the tent.
January 6th - Day 17
Last night was the coldest yet. I got fully dressed and used one more of my hot pocket hand warmers which I tossed inside my socks. I did not want to have to go outside to pee, so I commandeered one of my empty water bottles for that purpose. Incredibly, I peed over a liter of urine in the bottle like Jim Carry in Dumb and Dumber, and I was close to needing a second. A freshly used pee bottle is also a good hand warmer...
A different fisherman showed up in the morning while I packed up. He was an African American man with a pickup truck towing his dinghy. He wore a Gortex suit which I assume must have been waterproof as he waded knee deep into the cold river water to get the boat off the trailer.
“You fish off that kayak of yours?” He asked me with a thick New York accent. I noticed asks me that.
“No, just paddling. I started in Miami two weeks ago. Now I’m here. If all goes well, I’ll go around the whole state.” I said.
“And you have no motor on that?! You in some sort of spiritual journey?”
“No.” I said. “Just vacation from work. Got to be back by February 10 or the bosses won’t be happy...”
“Well I’m on a permanent vacation,” he said. “I sold my business for $8 million. Now I go fishing everyday... I’ve always been my own boss, and now I order myself to go fishing so I go.” And with that he motored away into the morning fog towards St Marys. He was the only person I saw all day.
Paddling upriver is slow. I only averaged 2.6 miles per hour. On a kayak even a 1 mile per hour counter current really drags down progress. Today I paddled 10 hours, so at least 10 miles I gave back to the river.
The vegetation on the riverbank has changed. On the coast there were many marshes and tall grasses; now there are thick woodlands of pine trees and willows covered with hanging threads of Spanish moss. It’s also remarkably quiet; if I stop paddling, I can hear even the faintest bird call somewhere deep in the woods, or even no sound at all.
Occasionally I passed a house or two. Usually the houses had a small peer with a pontoon sticking out into the river. Some were down beaten ramshackle things I would have been scared to stop and stretch my legs; a rotten board or two and I'd fall through in the water. Others were palatial estates with manicured lawns, a sturdy sea wall, and a private boat ramp. I looked at them with some jealousy, " What a great place it would be to pitch my tent on those beautiful lawns," I thought. Both the poor and rich houses had plenty of signs and flags supporting Donald Trump. Some were haughty and eager to flaunt their support, with several Trump themed drapes hanging over their balconies. It’s probably a good idea to avoid discussing politics with the locals.
I stopped a little before the point I had marked to camp. It was past sunset when I saw what looked like the perfect spot on the river; a beach with a gentle slope up the riverbank and a patch of grass big enough for one tent. I struggled with my thoughts if I should stop here. It looked so inviting, but I didn’t want to fall short of where I had set myself to get to. I kept going; but two turns of the river later, I saw another inviting campsite location, not quite as good as the first, but nothing thumb my nose at. I concluded this was a sign from the above not to press my luck. Perhaps the river beach I had marked further up didn’t really exist.
January 6th - Day 18
Another very cold night. In the morning I noticed that the water level on the river rose considerably . The small river beach I landed was almost all gone and was fast reaching the kayak; thank goodness I had had the forethought to pull it high on to the riverbank. By the time I was packed up, the beach was gone. I think I’m far enough upriver that the change in water level wasn’t due to the tide, but from the heavy rain two days ago.
Tomorrow I will start crossing the Okefenokee Swamp. I am hopeful that the rain will make crossing the swamp easier than the 37-mile portage from St George to Fargo. The portage to the canal on the swamp is much shorter, and there is less paddling upriver which is much slower.
The Trader Hill boat ramp put-out point was only another 8 miles up the river. There is indeed a modest hill here that rises some 50 feet above the river and was quite steep to pull the kayak up with all the gear in it. Back in St Marys I reserved a night at the Okefenokee Pastime, which is a cabin lodge on the side road that leads into the swamp. To get there, however, I had a four-mile portage along State Road 121 which I did not like at all.
I was told that when pulling the kayak along a road I should keep the sail up to be as visible as possible to the oncoming traffic. That was very good advice. There was heavy traffic, and in both directions, there were logging trucks running up and down the two-lane road at great speed. The shoulder wasn’t all that wide and more than once I pulled out into the grass when the biggest vehicles lumbered through. I had images in my head of the time an 18 wheeler semi-truck scrapped me while I rode my bicycle in the California desert; that time I escaped with my life by an inch with just a deep cut on my butt cheek and wasn’t keen to repeat the experience. Perhaps the strange circumstance of seeing someone pulling a boat high and dry along a country road like a whale out of the water was awkward enough to make most drivers slow down and keep their distance.
I arrived at the cabins around 4:30pm which was good timing as I had been told on the phone that if I arrived after 6pm there would be no one to receive me. “You did indeed come on a kayak,” Said the receptionist. She was eager to talk and ask me about where I had been thus far on this adventure. When I told her I was from Brazil, that really piqued her interest. She told me of her hopes of one day moving to Rio de Janeiro where she heard the locals are super friendly to foreigners and would love to learn Portuguese. I thought of whether I should douse her dreams with the cold splash of reality; the number one advice Brazilians give to foreigners in Rio is how to minimize your chances of being in an armed robbery. Instead I indulged her fantasies; I told her that Rio is indeed the most beautiful city on Earth, a sort of paradise where San Francisco meets Yosemite National Park, and carpeted with lush palm trees on a beach. That isn’t technically a lie, but the truth is that the Rio situation is more like that of a beautiful woman married to a violent wifebeater. You want to help her out of the abusive relationship, but she can't help herself.