Econfina Encore! More Stories for Florida

Even more fun from the December/January Florida Overnighter Trip from Eric Burnett & Joel Gollop.

by Eric Burnett

With a stormy forecast for Panama City and Econfina area I have to admit that I almost didn’t go on this TVCC paddle but I am glad I did. The thunderstorms happened mostly in the evenings when we were off the water. Some paddlers stayed at the Sparkleberry Pond campground all week, while I opted to spend most of my nights at the St. Andrews State Park, since it was closer to the majority of my paddling destinations.

Since I belonged to the “smooth water contingent,” my plan was to paddle with the “fast water contingent” for at least one day in the Econfina Water Management Area where the water was suitable for a sea kayak and my paddling experience. This paddle happened on Monday, the day after I arrived. This is the section travelling south from Econfina Blue Springs to the Hwy 388 Bridge. My GPS measured 9.6 miles but I am not sure if that is a straight line distance or the meandering distance that we actually paddled.  I didn’t see any alligators, although there were warning signs. I don’t think they are very active this time of year due to the temperatures.

There were a lot of strainers and blow downs in this upper section but once we got to the Hwy 20 bridge the paddling was much easier, and the creek was more open. Mike Shillinger and I pulled the group over some blowdowns and there were no unplanned swimming events but several close calls. This group consisted of about 10 paddlers, Pat Carver and her son Roy, Lisa Lemza, Mike Shillinger, Sharon Privett-Stolberg, Mike Graves, Carolyn Rand, Artie Green, Judy Norton and myself. There were multiple springs along the creek as evidenced by the crystal clear plumes of water. In at least one place the spring was so strong that to get to the head of it you had to paddle against the current to get to the opening.

On Tuesday, Mike Graves, Carolyn Rand, Sharon Privet-Stolberg and I paddled in the St. Andrews State Park bay area in the bay and to the channel where there was a picturesque sandy beach.  It was at this point that as Mike sat enjoying the moment and a snack, and some waves slapped the side of his kayak, giving him a nice wash-over.

Wednesday I got up early and had breakfast on the beach in the fog and watched the rolling 4 foot ocean swells come in. My put in was the swimming area in the channel that was protected by part of the levee. On the 2nd picture (not taken by me, next page) the channel swimming area is just to the left edge of the picture; Shell Island is on the top and on the bottom and right of the picture is the ocean beach. The fog lifted and I paddled across the channel to Shell Island and enjoyed brief sun and a secluded walk along the beach strewn with shells.

It would have been an understatement to say that the rolling sea in the channel was a completely different experience than paddling on the lake. The channel crossing had to be carefully planned so as not to encounter fast boats, commercial shipping barges, and military ships. It is akin to trying to run across the freeway. Thankfully I saw none of these other vessels, although in the week preceding this week there was a local report of a sea kayaker vs. a military hover craft conflict in the area, but luckily the paddler was not hurt.

Wednesday afternoon Mike Graves and I paddled with a friend of Pat Carver, Mr. Len Warren. He lives on Burnt Mill Creek and we put in from his backyard right onto the creek. This was a quiet brackish Blackwater creek that was undeveloped and wild. Len said that deer hunting often took place back there and that fishermen would occasionally come in for the red fish. He has seen a few alligators in this area as well. This paddle lasted about 3 hours and we estimated that we went in about 4 miles and paddled back out. The forecast called for storms and lightning but that didn’t start until we were about to pull off the river. The weather was as such the whole trip; paddling during the day and lots of rain during the evening and all night. All in all, I was happy with that.

Thursday I caved in to the rain during the day and went to see the Star Wars movie and several of the group went to Doug Peace’s father’s condo to watch football. Thursday night Lisa, Mike and Pat cooked up 10 pounds of fresh shrimp and we had a shrimp boil under an awning in the rain. We celebrated the New Year early with the shrimp boil, margarita mix, beer, and wine and I bedded down about 9 pm and left Friday along with most of the group. Carolyn Rand and Sharon Privett-Stolberg stayed Friday and paddled with Len another time on Burnt Mill Creek.

My thanks to Pat Carver, Roy Carver, and others who worked to bring this together.

Channel View
by Joel Gollop

On Tuesday, the Econfina paddlers took it easy with a short paddle and a swim in the springs. Later on, Pat, her son Roy and I went to her bank. I had my river clothes on and a black dry bag. Roy and Pat looked kind of seedy too. I asked to use the restroom while holding the black bag. Pat said there was some nervous mutterings from the bank staff. “Did you see that old guy holding the black bag go into the rest room?” “No, but I’m going to watch him”. About a half hour later the police showed up at my truck and asked us what we were doing. There had been other bank robberies, and the staff was extra nervous. We talked to the police for about a half hour and got it straightened out.

On Wednesday, the water on the Upper Econfina was over a foot higher because of all the recent torrents. For the class IV and V people, this was a fun challenge. For me it was not. The water ran about like the Hiawassee but with a lot of trees and strainers in it. Not many places to get out and clean the water out of a wet exit either.

The trip started out without many incidents. I had heard of all the blowdowns and strainers, but didn’t see many that were difficult. The water was fast and fun. Some class I waters helped liven things up. That lasted for about the first hour.

Then I ran into a jam. I had to speed up to climb a log and then immediately go to the opposite side to avoid a strainer. I barely did it correctly the first time, but not the second. Then it was one jam after another. The current was getting stronger as the rain started pouring down.

Mike Shillinger selflessly helped many of us across. After he helped me empty my flooded kayak several times he traded his more stable one and took mine. While he was doing this, a mysterious branch came and pulled his pants down. He did not say if this mysterious branch did anything else to him.  About a half hour before dark, Pat pulled off to a closer take out. I was ready to call it a day. It was getting dark. Pat found a couple of girls who were roughing it and hitched a ride to where we parked the cars. Pat was way ahead and suggested anyone who wanted to could get out there. I felt I had put the group through enough agony and took her up on the offer. It was a good thing I did, because there were about 5 more portages to do. These are not the portages where you get out on dry land and walk your kayak a few feet. These are stoppers with high currents and deep waters.