Flood stage! All the rivers in North Florida were too high, including the Upper Suwannee where we'd planned for this year's Mens Group Camping Trip (our 17th year). What to do? Going on tips from John and George, we ventured out on a Gulf exploration of the islands at the mouth of the Suwannee in search of a rumored secret beach. A few years ago, Crystal and I had camped and explored some islands between Cedar Key (southeast) and the Suwannee. This time, our group of 8 launched at Shired Island, a little northwest of the mouth of the Suwannee River... new territory for all of us.
We launched on a tranquil January morning at high tide, paddling over oyster beds, weaving through saltmarsh, and crossing creeks, all part of the Suwannee estuary. Soon enough we came to tropical-feeling islands with long sandy coves and spits, palms curving up from the beaches, just inviting exploration.
Finding gorgeous campsites was not hard. Harder was deciding where to stop - why not try the next spot? And so we spent the next couple nights, camping, hiking, sailing, paddling, and fishing in this idyllic setting... accounting for most of my photos. But that was not the whole story... the third night was a doozy. You'll find the rest of the tale below (near the end).
Christmasberry... debateably edible.
Low tide Sunrise
A big old pine snag stood at the shoreline...
Polished and hued in fine detail by nature's paintbrushes and sculpting tools...
a resting spot for birds, crabs, and others...
awash in sunlight each day...
and moonlight by night.
View from my tent.
David Johnson ready to hook one in his namesake creek. Any luck, Dave?
Oystermen find bounty in these creeks.
Island Lake. Rain and over-wash from the Gulf storms make for variable salinity. These islands are "ever-changing"...
eroding away on one side (this destruction from Hurricane Hermine 2016)...
and building up on the other side. Here, sand washed completely across the low island.
Here we are, 17th year camping trip: Mark, David, Dave, Glen, Bram, Jacques, Steve, and Geoff.
And now for the rest of the story... battening down the hatches.
The third day, the wind picked up. A storm front was predicted to blow in that night (our last) followed by a freeze the following night. But we (thought we) were prepared. We hoisted a 16'x32' tarp (above photo) into the trees to create a windbreak and rain shelter in our main camp area, pulled the boats high up to the edge of the trees well beyond the high tide line, and Jacques moved his tent from the unsheltered beach into the more protected woods. Dave and Bram, camping in rugged hammocks (more like suspended tents) in the palms along the upper edge of the beach, decided to stay put. This all worked well enough into the evening, and the rain even held off until bedtime.
And then the Misadventure Began. You'll have to imagine the scene... because my cameras stayed locked in their Pelican case all night: The onshore wind continued to increase (way beyond what was forecast) – to gale force, 35 knots, gusting to 50 -- we later learned from the oystermen. The wind, combined with the pull of the full moon and midnight high tide, resulted in a massive storm surge. Bram awoke to waves crashing into the trees beneath his hammock. Looking out through the wind-driven rain, he could make out kayaks rolling in the surf. Imagine jumping out of bed into icy wind, rain, and roiling waters, knowing it was up to you to avert a pretty serious crisis. I cannot account for how it all unfolded in the chaos of it all.
Bram first enlisted Steve and Glen to help save boats. By the time I got there, all boats were accounted for. Just one more to pull to higher ground. Some gear had washed away from beneath the hammocks, a paddle was gone, and Dave's tent-hammock had lost an important fly stake, so his bedding got soaked. We got the fire stoked to warm up and dry stuff. Luckily the big tarp shelter held, affording us (and our fire) a respite from the fury. By the wee hours, the hammockers found shared tent space and some of us got a few hours sleep.
Tent Rescue. As we were breaking camp, one tent flew into the saltmarsh, like a tumbleweed across the desert.
By daybreak, the ordeal was -NOT- over, but at least the rain was. The wind was blowing like crazy and had clocked around to blow from the northwest – exactly the direction we needed to go to get back to Shired. The tide was still dropping, the water receding 50 yards out from the edge of the sandy beach, and only inches deep far beyond that. Not paddleable. I had pulled my little kayak up into camp the previous afternoon, hoping to load and launch it in the small tidal creek that ran through this island and past our site. Steve and I proceeded with that strategy, though by the time we were loaded, all we could do was drag our boats down the winding mostly-dry creek bed until it spilled out into the larger deep creek. The others had dragged their boats and hauled their gear along the beach to the same large deep creek. From there, all we had to do was paddle into the wind and waves about 100 yards to reach the saltmarsh on the other side. After that, if need be, we could wade and drag our boats about a mile further to reach the campground at Shired. Speaking for myself, it took all my might and will to get across that wide creek. And then, I immediately ran aground on clumps of oysters. It was too shallow and too windy to paddle, so it meant a long cold slog – my boat banging my legs with each wave – back to Shired camp. The only shoes I had were Crocs (dumb! - note to self), so I had to pick my path carefully (and mostly blindly), avoiding oysters and deep mud. A friendly fellow at the campground stood aghast in the wind as I dragged onto the shore. He invited me to defrost in his makeshift shelter wrapped with tarps where he had installed a small, divinely-warm woodstove.
Dragging home... one, two, three, four, and five - way in the distance. Two more not yet in sight.
Each of us had his own individual struggle. One by one I counted kayaks strung out across a mile. Finally a seventh one just appeared from the now distant cut in the marsh. No eighth boat followed! Turned out that the wind was just too much for the one canoe in our fleet, and Steve had to turn back. The bow of a canoe is like a small sail-rudder combo that will almost instantly catch a stiff headwind and turn dramatically off course in a flash. Steve figured on settling back by the fire with his book until conditions became more favorable, even if it meant another (this one, freezing) night... and sent us word via Geoff who'd been the last to leave him behind. This did not settle well with any of us, Geoff included, even though we all knew Steve to be tough and resourceful. Leaving a brother behind just wasn't right. Not that we had the capability of a rescue. But, luck was with us. Turns out, the oystermen, shore-bound by the weather, were congregated in the shelter around the hot little woodstove. After awhile hanging out with them, and telling them of the plight of our brother, one of them, Tick, volunteered that his son, Coon, might be willing to launch his skiff and go after Steve. We found Coon sitting in his red truck outside. He was willing, and within half an hour he was pounding across the waves toward the island.
By the time all eight of us were loaded, pretty beat, into our vehicles, we decided to debrief and refuel at Salt Creek Restaurant in the coastal town of Suwannee. I got home near dark that evening, still planning to photograph the lunar eclipse (photo here) that night about midnight. Rich tales of this camping adventure are sure to be revisited and embellished around future campfires.
Hope you enjoyed the tale and pictures. Your comments below are always appreciated. And please share this link with friends.