The name rolls off your tongue so sweetly, doesn't it? Go ahead, say it aloud: Sop-chop-py. This river is as sweet and soulful as its name, as you will soon see... and it is right in our "Wakulla County backyard"!
A "blackwater" stream, more the color of tea when sweeping over a shallow white-sand bottom, the Sopchoppy flow is highly dependent on rainfall. You go paddling when the water's too low and you'll get plenty of exercise dragging your boat. Or too high, and you're in for a wild and dangerous ride. So when Sue and Jeff called Crystal and me a month ago to paddle with them, the caveat was that the water was just barely high enough, maybe -- which, to me, meant PERFECT!
Here's the other thing about this river. When the water is low (as in, PERFECT), all of its craziest cypress knees and roots are above water and visible... and there isn't a place with gnarlier, artier, crazier nature-made cypress sculpture. Seeing this kind of stuff feeds something deep inside me.
We set off into the maze of dusty bumpy sand roads in the Apalachicola National Forest, dropping a vehicle at our take-out before launching some miles upstream. It was a glorious late spring day full of promise and sunshine... and deer flies. Yeow, so many deer flies. (Wear a hat and long sleeves and long pants... no problem.) The Florida Trail meanders roughly along the high bank, but we saw no hikers.
While there are stretches for lolling along, there are at least equal-distance sections of fast technical paddling to pass through slots, over snags, and around tight bends... often where the coolest sights are passing by too quickly. I clung to cypress knees to grab shots, and hopped out when I could stop and set up my tripod, but we were out for fun, a picnic, swimming, and exercise... so I tried to keep up, telling myself, "the light's not so good now anyway," "this is a scouting trip," and "I must return early morning soon, before the water drops any further." We were all awestruck by the beauty, and had a great time despite the biting flies. And a good workout too.
Over the next several days, I watched the river levels very slowly fall (via the USGS monitoring website) from gauge-height 9.1 to 8.7 ft, a critical difference. I called my friend Mike Chasar to see if he'd like to spend a day on the river. Even with full disclosure - the deer flies, waiting while I make photos, the low water and arduous course - Mike said YES.
Mike is my neighbor, go-to-building-project partner, and occasional co-adventurer... and he proved to be a great companion on this long day. Like me, he largely ignored the flies (and had thought to wear socks, which I forgot). When I was focused on a shoot, Mike scouted for a way to get up the bank and hike a bit on the Trail, or combed for cool pieces of driftwood, or just hung out. He's the one who spotted the green tree frog, the spider lilies that were not past their peaks, and the tadpoles.
With the water inches lower than it had been a few days earlier, we had quite a few more pull-overs, but we also managed to squeeze beneath one huge downed tree that Crystal, Sue, Jeff, and I had to haul our boats around. We were beat two-thirds of the way through the trip, but the soft light from thin cloud cover and spectacular photo-ops never let up. I had to pass some of them by. But enough words... check out this breathtaking river.
At the end of the day, the take-out bridge was a welcome sight (although one has to drag the boats and gear up a high steep bank with weary muscles). But I knew I'd done my best and made some nice shots.
Much further downstream, the river opens up to coastal marsh and big sky, flowing through Ochlockonee River State Park and into the Bay. This is one of Crystal's and my favorite places to spend the night on our jon boat. So here are a couple bonus shots from the lower Sopchoppy... which may entice you to see a few more. This link will take you on one of Crystal and David's overnight trips there several years ago: "A Taste of Heaven" (FYI- This is one from my blog archives (2006-early 2013), a different format than now.)
Enough of this computer already... let's get outside ... take a deep breath and a soul-nourishing look at our good Earth.