Upper St. Mary’s–It Is War!!!!!!

Man I slept great at this stop.  Nice shower with hot water, ice cream, snickers bars, cokes, and a great campsite.  How could I have not sleep great?  As I was packing the boat up I couldn’t help but think about the last time I paddled, if you can call it paddling because it felt more like hiking, the upper section of the St. Mary’s.  It wasn’t fun and it was extremely demanding physically. Although we had lots of water and a wide open river where we were I knew that the further up the St. Mary’s river you go, the more things can change.  As the river gets narrower the banks get higher and there are a lot of fallen trees.  The canoe guides in this area have tried to cut paths through the trees that have fallen but when the water is so low that multiple drag-overs occur, they just wait until the water level comes up.  No one wants to go on a trip, much less pay to go on a trip, that has lots of drag-overs. The day after my previous trip I was extremely sore, had multiple cuts and some very large bruises.  I was also tired from all the energy I had expended having to get in and out of the boat so many times.  In any event, as I packed I was hoping for the best but I also had in the back of my mind the fact that a group of Boy Scouts had attempted to come down river from St. George’s boat ramp and ended up turning around.  Since that very boat ramp was our goal, there would be no turning back for us.  I just hoped that there would be more water in the river and we would have better conditions than what the Boy Scouts had.  We at least knew that it was possible since Sandy Bottom and SOS (two UFC contestants) had made it through this section.

Through most of the UFC I had left my amas out to keep from having to store the rig inside the boat thus giving me more leg room and also giving me more stability.  I was also hoping that one day the wind would cooperate and let me sail.  With the potential of some tight situations I disassembled my amas and packed them inside the boat.  I decided to leave my cross tube and the lower section of the mast up.  In hindsight this was a very wise decision.  It not only gave me a place to hang my hat and sunglasses, but it saved my head from a very nasty whack that I will talk about later in this post.  With everything packed we pushed off and started up river.  As you can see from this picture it was dead calm, nice and wide and really very peaceful.  The only sounds were our paddles pushing though the water.  On this day, we not only had the goal of getting to the St. George boat ramp but we also needed to hit a checkpoint called Trader’s Hill.  I wished I had taken the time to read about all the history surrounding the St. Mary’s river and Trader’s Hill.  A lot happened at this place and it would have made it more interesting thinking about what must have been happening on the very spots we were paddling through.  I always find it interesting how a very small, quiet and unimportant place was at one time very important, very busy, and very colorful.  This was the checkpoint for Trader Hill.  We landed, hit the OK button for our SPOT, talked to the care taker, dumped some trash in the trash bin and were on our way.

In my previous trip it was about 15 miles from the boat ramp when the drag-overs from the sand bars and the fallen trees started to occur. Even though there was more water in the river than my previous trip, it was about at the 15 mile mark that Rod and I started to encounter them also.  First, we start encountering the fallen trees.  Since the water depth was pretty good, the banks were steep, and the trees that had fallen were fairly recent we were able to paddle under them.  The only thing to worry about in these situations were snakes laying on the trees. Having a snake drop into your boat adds a level of excitment to the day that neither of us were looking for.  For several miles this worked pretty well. This is a picture of Rod going under one.  The only problem is that after a while there were so many trees that had fallen and there are no fresh falls so now the trees were laying flat and partially submerged in the river. Great, you have to get out of your boat and drag it over the tree all the while remembering that the river will have dug a deep hole on the upriver side of the tree.  Meaning, if you don’t watch it and you slip off the tree you are pulling your boat over, you are going to drop into what could be some deep water that has submerged tree limbs in it.  Tree limbs you don’t want to get tangled up in and you don’t want the river current forcing you under.  The other obstacle that starts to appear are sand bars.  As there are more and more fallen trees, the river starts to change direction creating sand bars.  So now we find ourselves facing not only submerged trees, but large sand bars that you have to get out and drag your boat over.  At least with these you don’t have to worry about a deep hole to accidentally fall in to.  You just have to drag the entire weight of your boat over sand that can be any where from a yard or two to up to ten yards long.  Each time you are getting in and out of your boat you are burning energy and putting all sorts of trash, water and sand inside of your boat.  Bottom line–NO FUN!

Rod and I spent most of the afternoon and into the evening fighting through the upper St. Mary’s and it was becoming apparent that we would not make it to the boat ramp in the daylight hours.  We were only about 5 miles out which seemed so close.  If we were paddling, that would have been a one and a half hour paddle.  However, due to all the drag-overs, we would be lucky to cover the 5 miles in 3 hours which meant traveling some of the more difficult dragover sections in the dark.  Most Watertribers avoid doing this due to the dangers.  At least in the daytime you can see the deep holes, the snakes, and other creatures of the night.  I have yet to see an alligator on the St. Mary’s but they tell me they are there.  Two things came into play that caused us to keep going.  The first was Rod.  The man has been gifted with human night vision goggles.  His night vision is amazing.  It is so good that my head lamp was making it more difficult for him to see.  So I shut mine off thinking I could follow him.  Well that worked for about 15 minutes until I ran into something in a big way.  I had ran head on into a big branch that thankfully was dead.  This is where my “hat rack” came in handy.  The branch hit the mast section in my cross tube instead of my head.  That would have hurt big time.  As it was, all I was only dealing with was a couple of big spiders running all over me,  a bunch of spider webs, and dead branches all over the boat.  Once I got myself cleared and untangled from the branch, my head lamp was back on.  Sorry Rod!!  The second thing that kept us going was my anger at the St. Mary’s.  When I get mad I usually get quiet and get more resolved and stubborn in what I am doing.  I am not a screamer nor do I do a lot of cussing.  I get quiet and really focused.  I was angry at the St. Mary’s.  I know that doesn’t make sense, but I was NOT going to let this river beat me.  In some ways it is a good thing that I don’t scream and cuss to relieve my anger.  In other ways it is not a good thing on how I do deal with my anger.  I start throwing caution into the wind and don’t think clearly.  All the dangers that were present during the day were still there and even greater at night, but I didn’t care.  I was tired, beat-up, sore, hungry, the inside of the boat was in chaos, but I had declared war on the St. Mary’s.  I was going to get to that boat ramp or die trying.  Bring on deep holes, potential for drowning, potential for injury, alligators, moccasins, whatever, I am taking it on!!  In thinking about it now, not a real smart way to attack what were we doing.  The interesting thing that highlights the different paddling environments Rod and I were accustom to, is that Rod was having a great time.  He loved the challenge of navigating through this stuff in the dark.  He liked what we were doing much more than that open water stuff we had been in.  What a sick puppy!!!  Finally, after what seemed like hours, we heard a vehicle on a road just up ahead which meant we were close to the bridge and the boat ramp.  Then it came into view and I couldn’t have been a happier paddler.  We had one more obstacle and that was getting our gear and boats up the steep boat ramp.  But hey, after what we had been through, this was child’s play. As we were getting our stuff unloaded the still of the night was disrupted by the sounds and the lights of a van pulling up.  What do you know, it was Chief.  Oh, and he had a couple of cold cokes for us.  Man they tasted good and what a great way to finish off the evening.  We decided to just pitch our tents at the boat ramp and would meet Chief in the town of St. George in the morning. When I was preparing for the UFC, there were eight sections that I thought would be difficult or just gave me the heebie jeebies.  Of those, five were now complete.  Tampa Bay crossing-done.  Boca Grand Pass crossing-done.  Florida Bay crossing-done.  Biscayne Bay crossing-done.   And the St. Mary’s Upper Section-DONE-thankfully.  What was left was the 40 mile portage, Big Shoals rapids and the crossing from Cedar Key.  Tomorrow was the start of the portage.