Kayaking the Blackwater River. The Blackwater river begins its journey to the sea from the Bradley area of southern Alabama, winding its way through the panhandle of Florida and eventually into the Blackwater bay and the Gulf of Mexico. My cousin Michael and I had planned on kayaking beyond the Blackwater state park for the first day and then continuing along to Blackwater bay to our predetermined pick up point for which we had a GPS reading. Our paddle journey began just inside the Florida State line where the river is large enough for more paddling and less portaging.

I had been researching the net for weeks trying to find information concerning the Blackwater River to no avail so we were pretty much in the dark once past the State Park. The only map we were able to find was from an aeronautical VFR map which showed the basic outline of the river. Our Kayaks consisted of Michaelís Old town Loon and my cedar strip sea kayak. We loaded most of the camping gear in the Loon while I carried the camera, communications and navigation equipment. Our navigation equipment consisted of a GPS 2000 and a GSC satellite e-mail device, which we kept in the waterproof hatch of my kayak.

We dropped in at the Kennedy Bridge Road and after brief good-byes began our journey south. The river was very cold and beautifully clear with its brown coffee tint giving it the name "Blackwater". The local Indians named the river "Oka-Lusa" meaning "Water-Black". I took a GPS reading and it showed we were 28 miles, as the crow flies, from our rendezvous point in Blackwater bay. The river was very unique with its white sandy beaches and crisp, clear, ice cold water. The vegetation consisted of huge pine and cedar trees lining the sandy banks filled with bird life.

The first part of the river was very winding, we made very little headway to our destination due to winding east and west bend after bend. Michael and I stopped on a beautiful sandbar and cooked up some noodles for a fast lunch. After lunch we enjoyed a beautiful afternoon of cruising mildly along with the rivers current dodging the many small rapids and countless stumps hiding just beneath the surface of the water. I had read that this part of the river is considered "technical" and I am sure that it is mostly due to the stumps and logs that obstruct its path. At one point we came upon a large barge that appeared to be used for logging but had long since been retired and covered in corrosion and rust.

I had recently built a new seat for my Kayak and it really wasnít working out very well. I had built a wood frame and covered it with tight canvas, however the constant dampness caused the canvas to sag which forced the wooden frame against my tender southern end causing great anguish after about an hour. Michael kindly traded kayaks with me on a regular basis so that I could rest myself in his spacious Loon. The trade off was fair because the Loon was much harder to paddle and control than my sleek sea kayak.

Realizing that we had underestimated the timeliness of this journey we decided to keep paddling a while longer before stopping for dinner. We had originally thought that at this time of day we would be eating dinner and setting up camp for the night, we were way of in our calculations. Evening was slowly closing in and the sun began to descend behind the trees. The daytime sounds of birds and aircraft were being replaced by crickets, frogs and an occasional alligator.

We paddled under the Peadon Bridge just after the Bull Pen branch entered the Blackwater realizing that the twisty river was doing everything except leading us closer to our destination so we kept on. At 7:30 p.m. we stopped and cooked up some canned food and ate some dried apples. The sun was fading fast and we decided it would be safer and easier to load all the gear in my kayak and both paddle the loon with mine in tow. Due the long length of our kayaks together and the constant obstacles hidden by the river and darkness I tied the front of my kayak about mid way up the loon reducing our length by many feet as well as keeping the Kayak in tow lined up exactly with the loon, which would greatly enhance our ability to make turns without the kayak in tow to swing around our side.

After a nice dinner and we found our flashlights and head lamp and with Michael in front and myself steering from the back seat we continued our journey through the darkness. It was a serious challenge to steer both kayaks through and around stumps and fallen trees trying to maintain deep water so that we didnít get grounded and caught in the current sideways. At one scary point in the river we turned a bend only to get caught in the sideways current and were thrown sideways into a fallen tree with sharp branches with potential snakes jetting out in all directions. We hung there trying to free ourselves from the current holding us steadily against the branches finally we were able to break free and manage to drag both kayaks around the obstruction and continue our journey. Darkness was upon us and I was concerned about damaging my wood kayak with all the stumps and rocks we scraped against but everything managed fine.

The moon was full and began to shed its much-needed light upon our river giving us some warning as to the obstructions ahead. After about three hours of night kayaking we passed under the Bryant Bridge however we thought this bridge was to be the beginning of the State Park. We were relieved think that we were finally making good time and that we were at least half way to our destination so we continued on until 11:30pm. We stopped along a nice sandbar and began setting camp. I moved the kayaks upon the bank while Michael set up his small tent. I washed off under the moonlight in the water, which had warmed up considerably as we journeyed closer to the Gulf of Mexico.

5:30 am Michael and I both awoke ready for the long day of paddling before us. We had to reach our meeting point by 1:00pm however we made arrangements for our wives to check their e-mail at 11:00am in case we are going to be running late. We packed our gear and loaded the kayaks and shoved off while the air was crisp and cool. My kayak continued to be extremely uncomfortable and I quickly learned to balance sitting on the back of the kayak while my feet were on the seat. I had also noticed that my GPS 100 was beginning to fog up due to the constant moister of the river. I took a GPS fix and found that we were 12 miles as the crow flies which meant we were finally beginning to head directly south west instead of winding. We came in to the shock of the journey when we crossed under a bridge, which turned out to be Deaton Bridge road, which was the road at the State Park that we thought we had passed the night before. It was 8:30 am.

A sign on the bridge warned us that the canoe trail ended here. This was our starting point into the fairly unknown, most paddlers start back at highway four and paddle to the State Park, which we found out was the smart thing to do. I took another GPS fix and found us to be a hair over 10 miles from our destination then the river began to get wide and the sandy banks began to disappear into a huge marsh. Unfortunately that was my last GPS fix due to water damage. To make matters worse my kayak seat was to the point that I had to stop and use the trusty Swiss army knife saw and remove my crazy canvas seat opting to sit on the floor of the kayak instead of endure the agony. While removing my seat I e-mailed our wives informing them that we would be late and to change the pickup time to 4:00pm but to check e-mail again at 2:00 pm in case of any more unforeseen changes. The river appeared to get deeper and wider, the banks completely disappeared turning into a huge expanse of thick swamp. The huge river began to wind and turn while tributaries joined the river at every turn. I saw swimming turtles and many beautiful species of bird life. Fish darted in all directions under the bow of the kayak. Without the ability to tell our location I relied on my deck compass which stated that we were heading west-southwest.

ďLook ahead Michael yelledĒ, it seemed as if the whole river made an abrupt turn to the west causing many years of logs to jam it completely un-passable. The current pushed us against the logjam forcing us to climb out and drag our heavily laden boats over the logs. While balancing on floating logs I began to drag my kayak slipping and falling into the current between the logs. While trying to climb out I slipped again and on the third attempt managed to climb the moss covered logs out of the water. Unfortunately I had my camera in my pocket and managed to get it soaked, good thing it was a throwaway camera from the grocery store. I still took pictures hoping the camera wasnít completely damaged.

Once we cleared the logjam I noticed that the river was getting narrow and joked with Michael asking him what he would do if the river disappeared completely into a wall of trees, he quietly laughed at my sick sense of humor. Over the logjam we took a break while I changed from my soaked clothes into my bathing suit. Once over the jam we traded kayaks for a while.

Michael and I were starting to wear down, we have paddled over 30 miles in 20 hours and battled our way over stumps, log jams and strong currents but we had to continue to make it out today. The river changed dramatically narrowing down to a few feet across and a few feet deep, small channels forcing their way through impenetrable bush at times I thought we would soon have to get out and portage and then the small river would open into a huge swamp lake. Many tributaries were entering and exiting the Blackwater and at times we would watch the slow current to make sure we hadnít followed the wrong stream. We began to get more discouraged when we entered another narrow stream lined with huge trees blocking the sunlight, the wood kayak managed to float through but the Loon grounded causing me to have to get out and drag. After a grueling hour of dragging we finally entered a much larger stream. Climbing back in the kayaks it was a joy to begin to paddle again. Not realizing the time it was now around 1:00pm and due to the river opening back up I figured we must be close to the wide expanses of the Blackwater bay.

The current was slow and the river wide but was still lined with thick swamp, I glanced down and noticed a jellyfish floating along with the current and yelled to Michael that we should be entering the brackish water soon where the sea and fresh water meet. I noticed a few more jellyfish and was beginning to feel the end of our journey was near when we turned a bend to find the river narrowed down again and became too shallow to float. Discouraged we began the drag again and I couldnít understand why the river would become so narrow before entering the sea. After a short jaunt we entered a wide point probably 20 yards and were able to paddle again. The river ran deep and along the bank we saw an old wooden staircase coming down to the river. I figured it was a campground although we were very far from any roads or cities.

Michael was ahead of me a ways and managed to get out of sight along the twisty bends and much to my surprise I turned a bend to find him standing in a shallow with a blank look on his face. As I paddled up I saw what the problem was. The Blackwater River ended! Yes it ended into a swamp. I wanted to slap myself on the back of the head for the comment I had made earlier about the river ending but here we were standing in a foot of water with trees and impenetrable swamp all around us except from the direction we came.

Portage through the swamp was our only option, to the left of the swamp appeared to be a sandy bank, which after securing our kayaks we walked on for a ways to no avail. Michael suggested we walk a ways into the swamp to see if it opens up again but much to our dismay we entered about 100 yards and saw no end to the swamp and felt fortunate to be able to find our way back out to our boats.

Back at the kayaks we reflected on our situation, we both had enough food to last a few days, we definitely had plenty of water and military aircraft flew over constantly so our situation certainly wasnít life threatening however not meeting our wives on time and them being worried about us for a few days could be life threatening. We knew that we couldnít portage the boats through the swamp so our only choice was to give up the original plan and begin the excruciating journey back up stream against the current. We decided to go back to the stairs we had passed an hour back and attempt to find the nearest road. Fighting the upstream battle was horrendous not only had we failed at our goal, but the current was strong yet so shallow we couldnít stay seated in the kayaks so it was constant in and out of the boats while running aground. We finally opted to tie ropes to our boats and pull them along waist deep at times.

We secured our kayaks to the bottom of the stairs and packed some food and water to carry along. We had no idea how long we would be away from the kayaks or how long we would have to walk. Reaching the top of the stairs revealed that this area was a logging area, a dirt road cut through the trees in both directions so we opted to head right and began our long walk. Every time we came to a fork in the road Michael would draw an arrow in the dirt so we wouldnít get lost. After an hour of walking we realized that we werenít getting any closer to civilization, we were tired and discouraged. I really felt it would be a better plan to battle our upstream no matter how long it took to the state park and then call the girls to come get us. Michael really didnít like the idea of paddling and opted to walk out. We thought of the complications involved with walking out to the main road, then hitchhiking to a phone and then trying to explain to the girls where we were and then having to off road miles along the logging road back to our boats.

Deciding to paddle upstream we turned around and trudged along the dirt road back to our boats. We ate a small snack, our first meal of the day, and reluctantly climbed aboard to begin the long battle upstream. It was hard to decide which was easier, dragging the kayak along with a rope in the chest deep in the refreshing water against the current, or paddling in the direct sun as hard as you can creeping along at a snails pace against the current not being able to stop for a second without loosing control of the boat and being rushed backwards. We used our Motorola radios and separated for the first time because I stayed back to try to e-mail the girls and inform them we would be way late and we would telephone them in the evening, hopefully. Michael pushed on ahead to get back to the park. It took close to an hour to find satellites and send the e-mail and I began my journey alone upstream.

Paddling upstream really took its toll on me, for one hour I would drag the kayak actually swimming at times and for an hour I would paddle hard against the current, I came to many forks in the river not being totally for sure the direction we had come. Michael would radio back and tell me he was at the logjam or the sandy bank and I would time myself to how far I was behind him. I dragged my kayak over the logjam and entered the large stream with no banks. I paddled as hard as I could holding on to trees to keep from washing backwards to rest.

Michael stopped along a sandbank and rested allowing me to catch up and we rode along together a while, he stated he was trying to call me on the radio for an hour but I didnít respond. We tested the radios and found out his receiver was broken, fortunately we had an extra radio.

Up ahead we heard voices and reached a family fishing along the bank. Michael asked how far the nearest road was and the man stated in was a few miles up a dirt road. We then asked how much farther the river was to the state park, he said it couldnít be more than a few miles. This lifted our spirits although we knew that we werenít making but a third of the time we made on the journey downstream and couldnít be half way back. We were right, It was a long journey north, we split again while I tried another e-mail and later in the evening a felt great joy when Michael radioed that he saw the state park bridge and then a few minutes later he stated he was riding with a ranger to a pay phone. I kept paddling along bend after bend trying not to get caught in the current that would force me sideways and back downstream.

I was thrilled to see the State Park Bridge, tents and campgrounds were along the bank and people swimming. I pulled up next to Michaelís kayak and crawled out my cocoon. I radioed Michael and he said he reached the girls and they were on their way. I began to clean out my kayak and was grateful that our 40-mile kayak journey was about to close. It took an hour for the girls to show up and we had already cleaned up and had the kayaks ready to load on the truck. Stopping at Cracker Barrel to replenish our weary bodies we continued our journey back to Alabama.

Reflecting on the trip reconfirmed the importance to planning these adventures more completely. Donít set deadlines that you arenít sure you can keep opting to enjoy the trip. Always ask the locals questions about your proposed journey, it wasnít until we were back at the state park that the ranger informed us that the dead end swamp was created by a huge flood a few years back the caused the river to overrun and collapse its boundaries. He said the sandy bank to the left was actually the old riverbed and if we could have followed it for a few miles it could have led us back into the river. So close but yet so far. I have thought about taking my canoe to the Blackwater bay and motoring upstream to the swamp and hiking to the place we had to turn around to see how close we were, but there are a lot of other rivers to conquer or be conquered by.

 
 
 

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