It seems this has become the place for trip reports. So hang in there as I speak of three days of paddling the St Johns River. Often paddlers find camp sites fewer and far between on the lower (northern) St Johns so as on this trip they base camp and/or drive from home. It is also better to hear about what you can do with the kayak than about the kayak. So I’m compelled to tell the story…
Kayak Trip Report
St Johns River
Satsuma to Green Cove Springs Florida
4-12-17 thru 4-14-17
This was originally a four day string of single day paddles by Florida Sea Kayak Association (FSKA) members Carl and Barbra. Carl is completing a segmented paddling of the entire length of the St Johns River, 310 miles. His travels started years ago with another group but injuries prevented him from finishing at that time. So here we were completing some more segments towards his goal. The fourth day was postponed after the weather and the weekend made going home a better idea. More on that later. We expected long distances and weather to be a factor and added the following to the advertisement for the paddle, “To keep the group together and within time limits boats of 14 ft. or longer of touring or sea kayak design are required” The reason for this will be apparent later.
Day One………16 miles……2.5 average mph, 5 hr., 44 min. (includes stopping time)…….
This was the first leg of our string. It started in Satsuma Florida at the Shell Harbor Boat Ramp on 111 Shell Harbor Way, Satsuma. On hwy 309 look for the boat ramp sign. Note “Old” Shell Harbor Road is a driveway. Your Garmin GPS might not pick up the correct information. Use the coordinates, 29.520065, -81.676606 From the paddle advertisement, The paddle is a 16 mile paddle to the Pico Boat Ramp (29.639959,-81.594225) near East Palatka. Along the way the paddle will pass Trout Island, Stokes Island, Seven Sisters Islands, Murphy Island, Polly Island, Rat Island and Buzzard Island. This area of the river was the narrowest of the segments we’d paddle on this trip.
We met at the ramp at 8am and quickly got boats unloaded for the shuttle. Carl and I took the cars to the take out and we left the truck and trailer for the shuttle back to the car at the put in. This set the pattern for the other two days paddles.
This was a club paddle rated as a level 3 for distance. It would later earn the rating for wind and wave, but this day the water and weather was perfect. The sky was clear with a few clouds. The water started out glassy smooth. The ramp was practically empty. Using boat ramps in the middle of the week is always a good thing.
We put in and paddled at an easy 3.5 mph average. The river at this point is about a ¼ mile or less in width. This would change the farther downstream we went. Downstream is north. The St Johns is one of those few rivers in the northern hemisphere that flow north. It starts down near Vero Beach, Florida at Blue Cypress Lake and flows north to Mayport Florida. It really starts somewhere in the swamp near Blue Cypress but the lake gets the credit for the headwaters.
The river here is lightly populated and there are a lot of wild parts. The trees appear to be on solid ground but closer inspection often shows some real low wet land at the forest edge. Landing is often not recommended. Although we only saw a couple of small gators the area looks like prime gator country.
Every once and a while there would be civilization that takes the form of houses or perhaps a ship yard. Near Satsuma is the CSX Retreat. It appears to be a corporate retreat motel with marina, tennis court in some of the really pristine parts of the river. It kind of makes you want to work for CSX until you recall that they are laying off thousands of middle managers.
Soon we started passing islands with names we tried to remember. Of course I left that map in the car. But many of them were well known since our club often does the Seven Sisters Islands paddle. We normally only visit 3 or 4 of the seven sisters. Sooner or later those other sisters will get mad at us, but not today. We easily cruised under the CSX Bridge north of the Sisters and took a break in the shadow of the bridge at a little sandy beach. It is good to get out and stretch the old joints. The normal bugs that would be present at such a landing were also missing. Life is good.
We paddled on and passed such notables as the SS Minnow now grounded on the side of the river shore and now used as a weekend “tiny house”. There was also a pontoon boat turned into on the most “rad” ski jump water slides I’ve ever seen on the river. We stopped at Murphy’s island for a lunch stop.
Murphy’s is an island managed by Putman County. It is part of the Putman Blueways trail. There is a system of signs and historical markers along the river and you can follow them, scan the sign with your phone using their app and learn about that spot. See http://putnambluewaysandtrails.org/page-1847609. There is a privy, picnic table, fire pit and camping on the island. A short distance from the picnic area is some machinery left over from the time the island was logged.
We paddled by Buzzard Island. Despite its name there weren’t any buzzards but it is a rookery for Anhingas, cormorants, and egrets. Many of the trees were covered with nests in the upper areas. The lower leaves were white on green. There were birds roosting above. It smelled like a chicken house.
We paddled on looking for the power transmission lines that would indicate our destination the Pico boat ramp was nearby. It came and we landed and shuttled back to the cars at the take out.