St. Mary’s River… Here We Come!

Thankfully we had a nice pavilion to spread all our gear out and a freshwater hose to wash it off.  The disadvantage of the pavilion was the distance through a bunch of sand we had to haul our gear through.  Hey, the name of this event is the Florida CHALLENGE so why should anything be easy?  The first order of business was getting my tent and ground traps cleaned with fresh water and dried.  After that it was resupply time.  Lisa had brought over all my nicely marked stage bins of which I quickly ended up just dumping on the concrete floor.  Resupply by spreading the pile out and rummaging through it.  Not real efficient but much better than going through each bin trying to find certain items.  After I had finished I just scooped the unused supplies and stuffed them into a bin regardless of what was marked on it.  Now wasn’t the time to try to figure out a different way of organizing the stuff.

As I mentioned in my other post I was still loosing weight.  Lisa had brought over a couple of special things.  One was a waterproof radio to replace my trashed iPod and the other was a couple of new boardshorts for me that were a size smaller.  Now I could keep my pants on when I stood up. Thank goodness.  Rod was loosing some weight but nowhere near the amount I was losing.  I was eating constantly and eating high fat food but was still burning more energy than I was taking in.  This is a picture of me at this checkpoint.  I don’t look the best.  I just hoped that I had enough body fat to get me to the finish.  I kept thinking about a previous UFC where a contestant got all the way to the portage section and then had to pull out. That would be a major bummer.  Lisa had reserved a hotel room for the night and that was quite the treat.  I wonder what the front desk clerk thought when she saw me come through the lobby.  Glad no one knows me up there. Ahhhhhhh a hot shower, a comfortable bed, and air conditioning.  Rod, being the tough guy that he is, decided to camp out with the boats versus getting a hotel room.  That really made it nice since we could leave the boats on the beach versus loading and unloading them on a trailer.  We had an early morning departure in front of us.  Instead of a 6:00-6:30 departure it was going to be a 5:30 sharp departure.  This was the first time that we did set our schedule on the tides.  With the tides so strong here we really needed to hit the incoming tide to help counter the current of the St. Mary’s River.  Lots of thanks to Salty Frog for thinking through when the best time to leave would be because he hit it perfectly.

This departure was a hard one but not the hardest of the trip.  (That would be the one from Cedar Key.)  What made this one hard was it was dark, foggy, and Lisa was dropping me off.  With my cell phone trashed, not being able to talk to each other was starting to weigh in on both of us.  Knowing that it would be at least seven days before we could see each other brought a somber atmosphere to our departure.  My hope was that my phone would be covered under warranty and she would have a new one for me at Cedar Key. Navigating in the dark is tough enough but add fog to it and you have a real challenge on your hands.  Then add that you are a little boat, low to the water, crossing a large body of open water that is transited by US Navy submarines, (the charts has this warning listed:  “CAUTION:  BE AWARE OF LARGE WAKES CAUSED BY SUBMARINES IN THE AREA) and you have the makings of a very spooky situation.  Well I guess we could have hitched a ride like these guys but I don’t think the submarine Captain would have approved of that.This is the time I wished I had a radar signal generator onboard so at least we would be visible on the radar.  I guess what makes it so spooky is that you feel like you are paddling in an abis.  You can only see the front of your boat and the back of your boat but that is about it.  Then you hear these sounds that you don’t know how close the source of the sound is much less what it is and your mind starts playing tricks on you.  The only thing we had going for us was that there wasn’t a lot of wind and the sea state was dead calm.  This was one of those times that even Rod (aka Mr. Morning), had a hard time staying wake.  It is extremely boring paddling in a thick fog, in the dark, with nothing to do but follow the back-end of the boat in front of you.  I, on the other hand, with the task of navigating through this situation, had no problem being wide awake.  A navigation mistake now was not a good thing. Finally, the sun started to burn some of the fog off and we found ourselves paddling in the St. Mary’s with these high cliffs.  Who would have thought that in Florida you would have these? The further up river we went the prettier it became.  We were now river paddling and not open water paddling.  This was Rod’s environment and the change in scenery was very welcomed from my viewpoint.  I was surprised at how undeveloped a lot of sections of this part of the river were.  The St. Mary’s River is also the dividing line between Georgia and Florida and every time we crossed from one bank to the other bank my GPS would give a message with an audible signal that I had crossed a state line.  This got old very quickly so off with the audible feature.  I think the incoming tide stayed with us for about 25 miles which was a blessing because when it went slack we were now paddling upstream against the St. Mary’s current.  One of the big concerns for this year’s UFC was whether there would be enough rainfall to get the river levels up high enough to be paddled.  In one breath we all wanted it to rain so that we could paddle the river in another breath we didn’t want too much because we would be fighting a strong current as we paddled up the St. Mary’s. Thankfully, even though there had been some rain, we were not fighting a strong current but enough current to let us know it was there.

Prior to the start of the UFC I had gone up to the St. Mary’s on a training paddle.  I stayed at a fish camp that was at the halfway point of the river.  Since I spent a long weekend there I got to know the owner of the fish camp and a few of the locals that stayed there.  At first I think they thought I was some city slicker who had all this high-tech gear and who wouldn’t be able to handle the river.  I will never forget the comment the one guy had when I pulled my GPS out.  “Why do you need that?  Do you think you are going to get lost?  This is a river!  You can only go up river and down river.  It is not that complicated.”  Not that I disagreed with that thought process.  I just like to know my speed and distance but I didn’t say anything since he was already shaking his head as he looked at my boat and the paddling clothes I was putting on. After a long paddle, that they helped shuttle me to and one they consider to be a pretty tough section of the river, I seemed to gain a level of acceptance from them.  They even let me hang out with them in one of their rocking chairs one night.

Since Rod and I had started the day out pretty early it was starting to become a long day. We had lost daylight several hours earlier and it was getting past the normal time we would have been off the water.  I really wanted to try to make the fish camp.  I knew that the folks at the camp would still be up, the fish camp store would still be open, and we would have a great camp site.  I also wanted to cover as many miles as possible.  I knew from my past training paddles that the upper part of the St. Mary’s would be extremely tough.  Rod, being the type of person that he is, was ok with the push, trusting that I knew what I was talking about with this fish camp.  Well sure enough, even though it was close to 10:00 PM, the lights of the fish camp came into view.  The expression on those folks faces when Rod and I came through the front door was priceless.  I was two steps into the place when I called out for the owner and said hello to them using their nicknames.  I could tell they didn’t recognize me and they were shocked that I knew them by their nicknames. Thankfully that didn’t last long (we could have gotten our rears kicked big time) before they recognized me and then it was like a family reunion.  Cold cokes, ice cream bars, snicker bars, bathroom, shower and a nice camp site.  Good people.   Just proves the point you don’t judge a book by the cover.  They look rough on the outside but were great people on the inside.  Great to get the first half of the St. Mary’s done.  Now the second half, and the half I will probably always hate……