Lafayette Passage Paddling Trail

The City of Tallahassee and FWC asked the crew at The Wilderness Way to scout the recently developed Lafayette Passage Paddling Trail. The LPPT stretches from Piney Z Lake to Lower Lake Lafayette and encompasses cypress swamp, open water and narrow channels. The trail development was lead by two avid paddlers, Chuck Goodheart with the City of Tallahassee and Liz Sparks with FWC. Liz was instrumental in developing the Big Bend Salt Water Paddling Trail along with Doug Alderson (BTW, Doug is now working on the Florida Circumnavigation Paddling trail – tough job!). BTW, click on the picture for larger versions…

A little History complements of TAPP: This lake is the remnant of a Pleistocene river delta. Water levels receded in the last Ice Age and the coast moved farther south of the site which became a river valley and eventual a tributary of the St. Marks River. Dissolution processes culminated in the formation of a large basin, 8,925 acres, including a major sinkhole seven miles west of the St. Marks River (located in Upper Lake Lafayette just South of the Cody Scarp at Fallschase).

According to the late Calvin Jones, state archaeologist, the Lake Lafayette Basin is one of the premier paleo sites in the state. The lake is surrounded by close to 40 Native American Mounds, several of which have been excavated. One of which is displayed at the Florida Museum of Natural History. Of special interest are the large Midden Mounds on Lake Piney Z and the Temple Mounds at Fallschase. Native American settlements are common in the Lafayette Basin. Some significant archeological sites on Lake Lafayette, the Swift Creek village and the DeSoto Camp (where the first Christmas was celebrated in the New World) have been excavated.

Along with paddling the trail, the FWC and the City wanted our evaluation of the trail. We were also asked to evaluate the usefulness of two maps developed to guide paddlers through the trail. The questions ranged from the usefulness of the signage, the ease of accessing the launch sites, and the ease of negotiating the trail among others.

Here’s the current map published on the city web site – you can use this link to see more detail:

The paddlers on the trip were Georgia, the co-owner of The Wilderness Way, and me. Both Georgia and I are American Canoe Association (ACA) Certified Instructors. We consider ourselves experience paddlers and generally log 20 to 30 miles per month, primarily on rivers and in bay or open ocean conditions. Georgia was paddling a Current Designs Rumour in Kevlar. Her kayak is 16 feet long, 19 inches wide and equipped with a drop down skeg. I was paddling a polyethylene Wilderness Systems Tsunami 140 – a 14 foot kayak. The trail easily fit my 14 footer and Georgia didn’t have any problems with her 16 footer. The trail could be paddled easily in anything from 12 to 17 feet in length. If you are doing any distance, you probably wouldn’t want anything much smaller that 12 feet – all things being equal, the longer the boat, the faster the boat – and less effort to keep it tracking in a straight line.

Here are the boats:

The trail has two primary launch points. The first is located in Piney Z at the park at Piney Z Lake. This lake has some good fishing potential. Back in the mid-90s, the City drained the lake which was pretty much a marsh, and formed a series of 10 arms that reach out in the present lake using the muck scraped from the bottom of the marsh. The result was a productive environment for fish to lay eggs in the lake bottom. The arms, although not too natural looking, provide some good land locked, yak-less locations to fish from.

The Piney Z launch point requires a carry of about 100 yards to get from the parking area to the arm which is the designated launch site. There is a gate which I’ve seen open at times, although I don’t think the city wants you driving to the lake’s edge to put in… We surveyed this area with Chuck Goodheart about 10 months ago as the trail was being developed. The launch site has been improved with gravel and sand and has an easy, shallow slope which makes launching very simple here. Once you paddle through Piney Z lake, about 0.9 miles, you have to portage over the earthen dam between the lakes. The portage includes a 25’ slope from the Piney Z take-out to the top of the dam, and a similar decline to the put-in area on Lower Lake Lafayette. The entire distance is roughly 50’’ over a grassed earth. A beach area, covered with small gravel, is located at each end of the portage to help with getting in and out of your kayak. (Here’s an image of the portage from the earlier trip - facing west toward Lower Lake Lafayette- note the sand/gravel)

For today’s trip, we decided to launch at the Chaires launch site.

The Chaires launch site is located off of the Road to the Lake (guess where that goes!) which is immediately south of the railroad tracks as you are driving from Chaires to Highway 27. You follow the Road to the Lake until just before it crosses back over the railroad tracks. Just before it crosses the tracks, take a left down the dirt road that drops to the put-in. This is a relatively unimproved dirt loop with a somewhat rough dirt ramp leading into the lake. No problem for kayaks however! The loop has a couple small areas to park in – could probably park three cars on a good day without blocking the loop.

Once you launch, you’ll immediately see a Canoe Trail sign – follow it through a set of beautiful Cypress trees – You now have a choice to take the trail either clockwise or counter-clockwise. We went clockwise and easily found a straight cut channel that connects the South and North branches of the trail. The channels are regularly maintained by the City using a boat equipped with a pair of big screws that pull up the muck and growth and throw it to the side (Chuck described it to me, and I’m sure I’m not doing it justice). Still waiting for Chuck to invite me on one of those boat rides!

After barely getting our paddles wet, we saw our first gator cruising down the channel. He was small, about four feet long – however, still interesting in a ten foot wide channel. The channel extends between the North and South and is about 0.5 miles long. There is a narrow passage about five feet wide at the point where the channel connects to the South Branch. Once we reached the South Branch, we entered into a cypress grove and immediately saw a pair of Kingfisher – with their distinctive call. They stayed with us along the South Branch for about a mile. We also saw several Ibis and Great White Herons.

We continued along the South Branch for 1.3 miles, to Michael’s Meander the second cut-through. The map that Liz gave us showed the rest of the South Branch as being chocked off, so we veered up the cut through (we understand that that area has since been cleared). Each of the paths was clearly marked by a white sign marking the segments length and name. We never had a problem staying on track. We proceeded north for 0.5 miles until we hit the North Branch. We took the NB to the West for about a mile – the channel was very narrow. However, as you can see by the high water marks on the cypress in the pics above and below, the water was about 16 to 20 inches lower than normal. To help monitor the levels, Liz has indicated that FWC will be installing some water gauges in the lake and will hopefully be providing water level data on their web-site.

We turned around and headed straight through the North Branch, heading east for 2.3 miles back to the launch site. The entire trip took us about two hours.

Overall, it was a fantastic morning – it was amazing to be so close in to town, yet have the feeling of being in a remote wilderness (although there were the occasional airplane or train passing by to break the silence). Pray for some rain, try out the trail, and let us know how the fish are biting out there!

Nice Job Chuck and Liz!

Rick Z