After 24 years of living in Florida, the approaching weekend will be my last in the Sunshine State before re-locating to Virginia. The quest is crystal clear:
We finally agree on an open weekend (coincidentally my last), and monitor the water levels on the USGS water levels web site. The Econ, after all, is very sensitive to rainfall, and is too low to paddle unless there have been steady rains.
After spending the night at a Marianna hotel within striking distance of the river, we set out for the river put-in point at Scott’s Bridge – reachable only by an unpaved road. I leap out of the pick-up truck at the bridge and quickly scramble down to the river gauge under the bridge.
My heart sinks.
The gauge reads a measly 0.90 feet. The guidebook advises no less than 2.0 feet. Our previous paddle here had flirted with an unpleasant experience, as we had set out at 1.8 feet. At that height, we just barely had enough water. Clearly, 0.90 feet would not be sufficient.
Dejectedly, we trudge back up to the truck. Fortunately, we have a Plan B. There are two rivers in the area (Chipola and Sopchoppy) that are considered good paddles. We have not been on either. Reading the guidebook indicates that either river would provide an enjoyable, technically challenging experience along an attractive river.
It is a toss-up. Both seem excellent. We opt for Sopchoppy (photo above), in part because getting there is on our route back home.
Ultimately, we are to later learn that our decision is unfortunate.
The Sopchoppy River is found within the heart of the Apalachicola National Forest, and requires several miles of driving along a webbed network of unpaved forest roads. The river drains a large swamp south of Lake Talquin. After 50 miles, the river joins the Ochlockonee River at Ocholockonee Bay. “Sopchoppy” is a Creek Indian word that is believed to mean “long twisted stream.”
While waiting for my companions to drop a vehicle at our take-out point, I paddle upstream a short distance to sample the river. Water levels seem adequate, I am relieved to find, despite the weeks, months and years of drought we have experienced.
Our boats head downstream. It is 3 pm.
Immediately, we learn two things as we begin dipping our paddles in the tanic red waters of the Sopchoppy. First, its location in the middle of the national forest means that the river is dead silent. I have never experienced a more hushed, quiet river. So quiet that we are unable to sneak up on wildlife, as they can hear us from quite a ways away.
Second, we witness the most spectacular, beautiful, seemingly artistic cypress tree roots and knees we have ever seen. The gray-colored roots are like curving, torturously twisting snakes. It is as if a cypress tree sculpter has spent the past several centuries creating a vast art display of gray serpents and demons in the river channel. Never before have I seen such a profusion of enormous cypress tree trunks (several of which are eight or more feet in diameter). Never before have I seen what appears to be cypress knees that are so numerous that it appears that we are looking at a crowd of 10,000 people peering back at us (a cypress choir?). At times along the narrow channels we pass through, it is as if we are paddling through a silent army standing on both sides of us.
As is to be expected, the Sopchoppy is nearly identical in character to the nearby Suwannee River (with the obvious exception of the Sopchoppy being a smaller river). Same water color. Same tree canopy. Same limestone formations.
Much of the river channel consists of very narrow, tall and twisting limestone walls.
Quickly, we discover what is to be a day-long challenge: Water levels are just barely more than a trickle in sections of the river on this day, forcing us to walk/drag our kayaks to the next downstream pool. This surprises me, as I normally expect a river to gain water as one moves downstream, as it is common for rivers in Florida to be fed by small tributary creeks and springs. It turns out that like the Econ, the Sopchoppy is extremely dependent on rainfall for its flow. A word to the wise: check rainfall activity before considering a paddle here.
Indeed, the water levels appear to be at a historic low. We observe tree branches and other signs of previous river water levels that indicate the river is approximately six feet below normal (or at least six feet below high water).
It takes us 4.5 hours to negotiate 5 miles. At the last minute, we had decided to paddle for five miles rather than 10. Had we opted for 10, we would have spent an exhausting, unpleasant night camping within the national forest – with the Sopchoppy Serpents…