In Search of the Sambar, August 2000

One of many toasty warm trip reports available on

All contents © 2000 Steve Semanchuk and Liz Skiles.

Always looking for new paddling destinations, we had driven through the Florida panhandle several years ago, collecting information for future trips. The most attractive areas to us were along the eastern half of the panhandle's coast, all named after saints by Franciscan friars centuries ago.

We left Weaverville, NC on a Friday morning with boats, both Prijon Seayaks, atop Liz's Honda Civic hatchback. Drove south through Atlanta, arriving at the LaQuinta motel on the east side of Tallahassee in just less than 9 hours (excellent meals at the Florida Grill adjacent to the motel. Try the St. Armand's grouper, a specialty of theirs).

St. Mark's National Wildlife Refuge

Our first paddling destination was St. Mark's NWR, a bird-infested area we'd visited but never kayaked. By 9:45 AM the following day, we were in the water and heading east from the throw-in next to the lighthouse at the end of the refuge road. A flock of white ibis feeding along the thin strip of sandy shoreline were immediately visible. Also visible, behind us to the west, was a line of boats leaving the St. Mark's River, like commuter traffic. We saw no waterskiers or jetskiers here. Most boaters were interested in fishing the Gulf of Mexico or the Apalachee Bay, which separates the refuge from the gulf. Some were wading the shallower waters for scallops. The water we paddled in was only a few feet deep and clear, with turtle grass and patches of clear sand bottom occasionally visible.

Did I mention it was hot? August in Florida can be tough. We protected ourselves from skin damage with clothing, hats and sunscreen but there was no stopping the sweat.

A photo of Liz watching dolphins from her kayak in St. Mark's NWR
Liz watching dolphins in Big Cove, St. Mark's NWR

Torn between watching new scenery, shorebirds and sea creatures, it took us much longer than necessary to reach Big Cove, barely two miles away. On the way, we saw quite a few sting rays and a small hammerhead shark and, in the cove, a pair of dolphins, thrashing about in the shallow waters of the outgoing tide. Marbled godwits and willets shared a sandbar with us when we stopped for a snorkel break. To our delight, some clouds and a light breeze showed up as we departed the cove. Terrors of the deep Aplysia dactylomela dogged us all the way. Ospreys were abundant. Liz paid the price for birding when her binocs took a swim.

A photo of the lighthouse at St. Mark's NWR
The lighthouse at St. Mark's

A quick trip to the refuge office to get some more information (and inhale the chilled air) and then a mile walk on a mosquito buffet-style trail. We tried another short walk by the lighthouse lagoon but the lagoon's waters were very low, the sun was intense and our interest died quickly. On the way out of the refuge, we rescued two turtles and sighted an otter, all crossing the road. Before checking in to the Wakulla Lodge for the night, we drove down Wakulla Beach road to another potential put-in for the next day but found it too remote to leave a car with anything of any value inside. This is a problem we continually face. We've lost car windows and gear in similar situations and are not inclined put our insurance policies to any further tests. When we can arrange safer circumstances, maybe we'll get to paddle up West Goose Creek where we were told the gators are thick. Where Route 98 crosses the Wakulla River, a canoe rental outfit called TNT tempted us with a three hour round trip, upstream, in crystal clear spring waters, but we decided to conserve our energy for the next day's paddle.

Once checked in at the Lodge, we walked to the adjacent springs, where the water is always a bracing 70 degrees. There is a roped-off swimming area there that we are assuming is fenced underwater as well since there are plenty of alligators just downstream. The crowd of swimmers there didn't seem to mind either the cold water or the proximity to reptilian dangers and we joined the herd. Dinner at the lodge that night was both delicious and overwhelming. In unaccustomed posh ambiance at a window seat overlooking the springs, and spurred on by dinner music that included the William Tell Overture, we both dined with gusto on scallops and tortellinis; the leftovers were as much as we consumed. Back in our second story room, we hung paddling gear and clothing up to dry in the air-conditioned night hours and planned the next day's trip.

Day Two - St. Mark's NWR

Realizing that the morning hours were the cream of the day's weather, we were up early and back to the lighthouse end of St. Mark's NWR, about a 30 minute drive. Once again the refuge road was made more interesting by the wildlife that was using it also; this time a three foot gator that scrabbled quickly across the asphalt in front of the car. Loading our boats at the same put-in, we watched a six foot gator cruise by in what we thought was water too salty for them. Snorkeling that day suddenly seemed less attractive. By 8:30, our boats were wet once again and this time we turned west across Long Bar and north over the Spanish Hole and finally northeast past Steward's Bayou to the East River. After two hours of steady paddling on glassy smooth water, we stopped at the narrow, upper end of Denham Bayou and had a PowerBar break. The return trip was not only with the current but the outgoing tide as well and paddling quickly was almost effortless. We sighted a yellow-crowned night heron, paddled erratically to avoid emerging oyster bars and tested my rear hatch cover for flotation (it doesn't). Back past Pelican Point, Dinky Creek and Boggy Bayou to the take-out, our trip ended in early afternoon.

St. Vincent NWR

The town of Apalachicola was only ninety minutes away but we spent some extra time trying to find the Breakaway Motel, our lodging for the night. If we'd liked concrete block cubes next to a busy boat ramp, we'd have been happy as clams. Fortunately, our standards are somewhat adjustable and we ignored the single channel on the TV, the restaurant beside us that was closed most of the week, and the leaking toilet. We left for a visit to St. George Island State Park, about 12 miles away. This was to be jump off point for tomorrow's paddle and we ran this idea by the gate guard. His tally of the mileage was discouraging - 4.5 miles from the put-in to the end of the island, then two miles across the East Pass of St. George Sound to Dog Island. Not so bad in cooler weather but at 13 miles round trip in the mid-nineties, it became more than we wanted to try. A four wheel drive vehicle with special permission could get to the end of the island and make that cross over to Dog Island an easy hop but we didn't have that option this time. We did drive into the park and spend some time in the warm waters of the gulf in a vain attempt to cool off.

Back at "Breakapart Motel", Plan B was conceived, whereupon St. Vincent NWR would become our next day's destination. We had to get more information on that island; fortunately the NWR office was right in Apalachicola.

Early the next day, we visited the NWR's knowledgeable receptionist (everyone else was in the field), and also the Estuartine Research Reserve center for Cape St. George, a state-protected island adjacent to St. Vincent. Camping is permitted on Cape St. George, also called Little St. George, but not on St. Vincent. A half-mile waterway called West Pass separates the two islands so camping on Cape St. George would make an excellent home base for trips to St. Vincent. The staff there was very helpful and provided us with all the information we needed for both boating to, camping at and walking on both islands. Feeling fortified with facts, we made another important decision and registered at the Best Western motel for the night, canceling our reservations at the marina. The staff there kindly allowed us to use our room early to unload some of our non-essentials for the upcoming afternoon paddling excursion.

When we finally got on the water, it was at Indian Pass, a quarter mile across from the west end of St. Vincent, and the quickest way to kayak to the refuge. While unloading the boats, we struck up a conversation with Captain Joey Romanelli, a shuttle boat operator who was a further source of paddling information for the area. Turns out Joey moved to the South from Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, the area Steve was born and raised in. He'd found his paradise here in the Florida Panhandle and his pleasure in his situation was evident in his easy and friendly manner. Scored a cheap pair of polarized sunglasses and some ice in the small store at the ramp.

A photo of St. Vincent Island
Liz searches for Gilligan and the Skipper

The tidal current in Indian Pass was strong but in such a short crossing, we had no trouble and, though the heat of the day was approaching its peak, we were glad to be on the water. At first, we followed the north edge of the island in the waters of St. Vincent Sound, reaching an area identified as the Pickalene Shore on our topo map. We reversed course here, after a short break near a raccoon and an oyster catcher, and returned to the western end of St. Vincent where the NWR maintains a boat dock and storage shed. Carrying our kayaks up above the tide line, we talked to a pair of firefighters near the dock and, besides directions to the trail that led to the gulf side of the island, they enlightened us on the drought conditions presently affecting the island. Lightning had started numerous fires in recent weeks that required their full time attention, the lakes at the other end of the island were dried up and the wildlife was suffering. The mosquitos certainly hadn't heard the news and we were happy to make it to the gulf without losing more than a pint or so. The beach was deserted, a nice breeze was blowing and we played for 30 minutes in atypically large waves. A walk afterwards up the main road, called Cabin Road, gave us a glimpse of a raccoon, a brown-headed nuthatch, blue-tailed skinks, seaside rosemary and quite a few more mosquitos.

Back to the boats, stepping through the sand spurs, back to the mainland at Indian Pass, stepping across the asphalt and back to the motel 30 minutes later. Our time in the evenings is usually taken up cleaning gear and ourselves, finding a decent restaurant, and looking at maps and brochures. This evening was no different but at 5:30 the next morning when the alarm went off, we wished we would have read one or two less brochures.

Day Three - St. Vincent NWR

It was a long day we had planned. We fueled up at the Red Top restaurant, next to a pair of friendly Coasties, and drove to what the locals call Eight Mile, coincidentally enough, 8 miles west of Apalachicola, where we launched our boats to cross St. Vincent Sound to the east or opposite end of St. Vincent Island from where we'd been the day before. Two and a half miles and forty five minutes of early morning paddling later, we bumped sand at Paradise Point. Our destination was actually further on and we rested only briefly before paddling east along the mostly marsh-covered shore past Cabbage Top, to St. Vincent Point. Cloud cover had moved in and the wind picked up enough to produce whitecaps but as we rounded the point and headed south, the sun came back out and illuminated a beautiful palm-covered beach. We stopped for the second time at one of the many small sand "beachlets" between the trees to explore the possibilities of finding a road to lead us into the refuge.

The sand road we found was well guarded by clouds of mosquitos, whining for breakfast. Several miles later, the road turned inland after following the shoreline, sometimes within a few feet. We crossed over a manmade canal that led to the inner lakes of the island which were, as noted earlier, no longer lakes. (In fact, the only drinking water available for the island animals was in pits dug by backhoes to capture rainwater or other subsurface water.) Immediately after the bridge is the ranger's island office and, luck was with us, for a firefighter happened to be inside and invited us in for some ice water and air conditioning. Hung on the wall was a trophy head of the only Sambar deer we'd seen. After a much appreciated break in our sweltering journey, we decided to return to our kayaks and plan another trip in cooler and wetter weather.

The island is a former private hunting preserve and a member of the elk family, the Sambar deer, are present in small numbers. Red wolves are also raised here to breed and pups taken to reintroduction sites in the Southeast. Wild pigs, white-tailed deer, indigo snakes and gopher tortoises, and green-headed fiddler crabs are also among other wildlife to be seen here. We had hoped to see some of these and we did see a number of ospreys but not much else. The summer months were not conducive to wildlife observation, we observed. Did I mention mosquitos?

Overshooting our kayaks on the beach road, we walked a few minutes longer than we had to but were relieved to shed our bug netting and paddle away. More whitecaps on the return trip from a breeze that did little to cool the afternoon, but we made slightly better time going back. "Cannonball" jellyfish, a non-stinging variety, were visible in the sound.

Shell Island

Photo of the bizarre crab house

The motel was kind enough to hold some of our luggage beyond checkout time and, once we had retrieved that, we made a futile trip for ice cream, snapped a photo of a defunct crab house and made tracks west to Panama City. Arriving at the Comfort Inn around 6 PM, we used the pool immediately to cool off, having lost the Honda's air-conditioning somewhere near Port St. Joe. After a shower and a good, cheap meal at a close by Mexican restaurant, Steve dropped a bottle of iodide disinfectant on the bathroom floor just to fill out the evening. If you've never had the pleasure of scrubbing, or scraping, iodide off of vinyl flooring, a porcelain toilet, a fiberglass shower, caulk joints, latex door paint, latex wall paint not to mention towels, skin and toenails, you might want to postpone that joy. Thus we spent the hour that we gained passing across the time zone near Mexico Beach.

Our final day of paddling was from St. Andrews State Park at the end of Panama City Beach to Shell Island, an extension of the park. A 35 minute race across the busy boat channel that separates the two park sections, we found a shady spot under an intertwined oak and palm, parked our boats and went snorkeling in the calm, warm waters of St. Andrews Bay. We fed pinfish with strips cut from a fresh but dead game fish found on the beach, tossed a Frisbee in the shallow waters and watched a small rodent, potentially but not likely, an endangered Choctawhatchee Beach Mouse. Liz got mooned by a sea turtle, other boats kept their distance and we had a very enjoyable few hours.

Heading back to the mainland part of the park was made most exciting by numerous boats, such as the "Sea Screamer", who slowed down not a knot as they passed and sent us wakes as high as our heads. Swearing vengeance in another life as a oyster bar, we passed a flock of Royal Terns with their windblown haircuts on St. Andrews Point and a lone dolphin in the turtle grass inlet beyond. The rest of the day was spent touristing Panama City Beach, looking for postcards and the like.

Day Four - A Bit of Snorkeling

The next morning, our last in Florida, we went back to the Park and snorkeled for two hours around the rock jetties in clear and warm water. A wonderful way to start the day, we saw many, many fish, a few rays and finally, totally relaxed in true vacation mode. On leaving, we noticed brown pelicans swimming amongst all the snorkelers like beachgoers with a common interest. By noon, we were out of the motel and headed north to Atlanta by way of southern Alabama and Columbus, Georgia.

The night: Thursday. The motel: LaQuinta. The movie: Erin Brockovitch. The restaurant: Asian hole in-the-wall (but good and cheap). Our sleeping: Like the dead.

Friday morning, we get our blood moving by entering Atlanta traffic and heading for the zoo. This was our first visit to this particular zoo and we enjoyed the process of exploring every nook and, of course, every cranny of the place. By early afternoon, we were back on the Suicide Expressway, I-85 Atlanta, and off to South Carolina, where we visited with friends Tom and Helen Hanrahan and David Pepper in Oconee County. It was well after dark before we reluctantly got back in the Honda and left for Asheville. Home by 11:30 PM on Friday after 1483 miles of driving, we had the weekend ahead to finish our vacation in style.


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