St. Mary's River trip 

                                                                          Canoeing the St. Mary's River                                                                                                        
                                                                                         by Bill Logan

  The St. Mary's river forms the easternmost part of the Florida-Georgia border, and begins just inside south Georgia. It is formed by water draining from the southeastern corner of the great Okefenokee Swamp. Coming out of the swamp as a very narrow stream, it meanders due south for ten miles before turning east roughly six miles, then turning north for 29 miles. At that point it makes a large nine mile "double S," turning east, north, east, then north and finally again east.  

  From that point it is roughly 40 miles to the coast, mostly east-southeast. If one counts all the curves and bends, it is well over 100 miles in length. The water level varies greatly from season to season. It can vary by as much as 15 to 20 feet from the dry season to the wet season. At low water, we found the water level was influenced by the coastal tides as much as 50 miles inland; at high water, I suspect the tidal effect still occurs, but probably not as much.  (Note: The St. Marys 'Canoe Trail' is 63.5 miles long. The trail begins five miles north of Maclenny FL. at the Florida - Georgia State Rd. 23, and ends at Camp Pinckney Park near Folkston, one-half mile beyond the US-1 bridge.)

  Me and my canoeing partners, Mac McCullough and Chuck Littleton, decided to check out the St. Mary's for a future trip which would include the rest of our canoeing cronies. Mac and I are both retirees; Chuck is a retired Deputy Sheriff, of 28 years. All of us truly enjoy canoeing and camping the beautiful rivers of Florida. Our friends call us a bunch of
"old nuts," but we just ignore them with a grin, saying to ourselves "you have no idea what you're missing."   

  We enjoy the camaraderie, camping alongside the river on sugar-white sand bars, the sweet smell of pristine forests, and the peace and quiet. Owls calling in the distance, gators sun themselves on sandbars, deer suspiciously observe us from behind bushes, and once and awhile we see an otter playing in the river ahead of us. It's wonderful to glide silently down the river hearing nothing but the wind in the trees and the singing of the birds. It's got to be the best prescription in the world for stress or frazzled nerves. It's simply good  for one's soul.
 
  We planned our trip for the 28th of August. Early the morning of that day, I picked Mac up and we headed north to rendezvous with Chuck at Roger Gidden's Canoe Country Outpost, on US Hwy. 1, five miles south of Folkston, GA. We'd made arrangements with Roger to transport us to our put-in point the following morning. We'd originally intended to primitive camp there; however, Roger's cabin was so inviting (two bedrooms - one with a waterbed - a fully-equipped kitchen, including a washing machine) we decided to opt for a bed and shower, getting a good rest before our jump off on the river the following morning. We all agreed it turned out to be a very good decision, and the price was very reasonable.

Monday, August 29
We were up early, had breakfast and began unloading our equipment. A few minutes later Roger drove up and we loaded everything into one of his vans and then put our canoes on his canoe trailer.
9:00 a.m. We struck out for our put-in point at Hwy 2 bridge, near St. George, GA. We could have gotten an earlier start but since we had all the time in the world, we decided to be "really laid back" on this trip. We planned to fish along the way and stop whenever we felt like it, with no schedules. We arrived at the Hwy 2 bridge at about 9:30, and unloaded our gear and stowed it in our canoes.
10:00 a.m. We were on the water. We were surprised to see the water so low. At that point, one could walk across the river since it was only about two feet deep. I should mention that we first planned to put in about ten miles farther upstream, but Roger talked us out of it. According to him, the river was so low that we would spend more time dragging and pulling
over logs than paddling. After seeing the river here, we were glad we took his advice. The river was moving at a very lazy pace which we estimated to be about one mile per hour.  Paddling also at a very lazy pace, we estimated we were moving at somewhere around two mph. The temperature was perfect, somewhere in the low seventies, and there was a slight
breeze. We commented how lucky we were that it was also a tail wind. We were in "hog heaven" - one could not ask for better canoeing weather. As it turned out, we had wonderful weather the whole trip.

  I had brought along a 35mm camera and my Industrial Camcorder so I began taking lots of stills and video footage. As I took my shots, I would invariably get all crossed up, fall behind and have work my tail off to catch up. The other guys were almost effortlessly gliding down the river, and I would have to really work to catch them (but if I hadn't, we wouldn't have gotten any trip footage).

Along about noon we pulled up on a nice sand bar for a short stretch break and lunch. After we finished eating, because the river had several large logs in the deep bend outer side we decided to try our luck fishing, first trying plastic worms. Nothing. Then we tried top water plugs, but none of us even got a bump so we packed up and headed downstream. We'd spent about 45 minutes at this stop.
1:45 p.m. We were stopped by a large blown-down tree which completely crossed the river. However, with a machete we cut some of the branches and were able to get through without having to drag our canoes around it.
3:00 p.m. We came to a superb high white sandbar that had a good flat surface. Chuck suggested that since we weren't in a hurry, we put down early for the night. We agreed and soon had a camp set up. We had supper and sat around discussing the day, the river, and telling jokes. At dusk, we tried fishing again, using top water and plastic worms and again were stumped. It was a little after dark when we decided to hit the sack. We commented that we'd heard no owls and that seemed strange. We checked the time; 9:00 p.m.

  Mac commented that he couldn't remember the last time he'd gone to bed at 9:00 p.m., going on to say that he never goes to bed before 1:00 a.m. and didn't think he'd be able to sleep at all. However, in less than an hour he was snoring up a storm. I grinned and rolled over, and was soon also fast asleep. On the subject of snoring, Chuck would win first place in a snoring contest, hands down. For this reason, he usually positions his tent far away from everybody else. He was a good 30 feet from us and still sounded like an air boat chasing a pack of wild hogs. We jokingly ribbed him that he'd soon need a new tent because the seams will all be worked loose from the vibrations. He just flashes his usual good-natured grin and takes the ribbing in stride. He's heard it all before.

Tuesday, August 30
We leisurely laid in our sleeping bags until well after it was light. Eventually I heard Chuck rustling around in his tent putting his gear together, so I knew he was awake. I got up and put coffee on and soon the others came out. The dew had been so heavy it looked like we'd had a hard rain during the night. Everything was sopping wet. Shortly, I strolled down to the water and checked the marker I'd placed at the water's edge the night before. We were pleased to see that the water had come up about three inches during the night. Once again Mac and I made a few casts, hoping to catch a bass for supper, but again we were stumped. They were just not interested.

9:00 a.m. Back on the water. The temperature was absolutely perfect, by our estimate around 70 degrees. The water was calm as glass except for the slight flow one could detect if you looked closely. There was not a sound except for the birds and the infrequent word spoken between us. Occasionally we would hear a semi-truck off in the distance to the west. We assumed it was probably logging trucks on Hwy. 121. Mac was in front as we paddled silently down the river in single file. Shortly, he spotted a doe and her fawn watching us from the trees. They quickly disappeared into the brush as Chuck and I approached. We had seen deer tracks on almost every sand bar at which we'd stopped, but these were the only deer we actually saw.

  A short time later Mac surprised a small gator sunning itself on a sand bar. It was only about a foot and a half long. After that we watched closely but saw no more gators. However, we did see at least six places where a gator had slid into the water from its sandy resting place. None looked as if they had been any more than four feet in length. All day we kept our eyes and ears peeled for the sight and sound of a feeding bass, but saw or heard nothing except for the occasional boil of a lazy gar. We were paddling at just above the speed of the flow of the river. Again, we estimated our speed to be no more than
two miles per hour.

  Most of the river, from our put-in point to here, had averaged thirty to forty feet across, well lined with thick forest and vegetation, so not often were we paddling in bright sunlight. Paddling slowly and often shaded made it a very enjoyable run. Though we had no set pattern, we seemed to average a 15-20 minute stretch break every two hours or so.

4:00 p.m. We came upon a beautiful white sugar-sand bar on the Georgia side and decided to put down and relax for the evening. We had supper and were sitting around enjoying the evening when Chuck decided we need a campfire. As he and Mac started the fire, I again tried to conjure up a bass and again, the same result; nothing. Shortly I returned and joined
Mac and Chuck at their camp fire. While sitting and talking, we heard a few owls down river so I decided to have a little fun and answered them. In no time a couple of them lit in a tree right across from camp and started making quite a fuss. One must have been a big ole' guy because he was quite loud, and his raucous laugh and "whooing" were extremely comical. We all had a good laugh and enjoyed the "owl conversations" for about 15 minutes before they decided they'd been conned and departed for the unknown. (If you have never heard  owls "in conversation" in a close group, you have something to look forward to. I mention a similar incident only much larger group and more comical, in my book)  About 10:00 p.m. we turned in and slept well for most of the night. We heard strange sounds during the night but when we checked, we saw nothing. Next morning we found fresh deer and coon tracks in camp at the water's edge, but nothing in camp had been bothered.

Wednesday, August 31
Once again, we slept late and after a leisurely breakfast, began the task of breaking camp. As before, everything was sopping wet from the dew. The major problem packing up was not the water, but the sand that stuck to everything. Chuck joked that we were taking enough sand with us to start a small garden. 9:30 a.m. We are back on the water. The weather was absolutely perfect for canoeing. Cool, with a very slight breeze, and again at our back. About 10:45 we came to some very tall pilings across the river. It was obvious that there had been a bridge here many years ago (excellent landmark).

  About a mile or two north of the pilings we noticed a big change in the river. It widened considerably and seemed to get deeper, though there were still occasional shallow spots where we could touch the bottom with our paddles. Where before we'd had a lot of switchbacks and tight bends, it now became much straighter and for longer distances. However, the water also did not have as much noticeable current, which was probably partly due to an incoming tide. We lunched from 12:45 till 1:15, then got out our map and determined where we thought we were.

  As it turned out, we were using the wrong landing as a landmark. Because of that, we were 12 miles off on our calculations. Thinking that we were farther north than we actually were, I decided to call Roger on the cell phone and let him know that we would see him sooner than planned. I reached him and had got out just enough to give him the false information when the phone died. That was a surprise because it was perfect before the trip and I had fully charged it before leaving.

Because we thought we were farther north than we actually were, nothing on the map matched (no surprise). We suspected Roger had placed Tompkins Landing in the wrong location (we were working from a tracing of topo maps).

4:15 p.m. We passed two huge picnic tables on the right and a private camp site. A few  minutes later we came to a large dirt ramp on the right. I can't remember for sure but I think this was the ramp that the big trees had large white arrows painted on them identifying the ramp (another good landmark). About 15 minutes later we passed two very large houses high up on stilts, on the left side. We were doing our usual routine; paddle a couple of hours and stop for a drink and a stretch, make a few casts, and move on. The stretch stops were usually no more than 20 to 30 minutes. The scenery was pretty much the same as it had been up to this point except the river seemed to get slightly wider and we were no longer finding blown-down trees, though we still found an occasional hidden log or stump. The cover along the banks remained about the same.

  We soon passed several houses on the right, and a couple of spots on the Florida side where inconsiderate people had dumped unsightly trash down the river bank. However, this was the only area where we saw that. The rest of the river bank was clean and natural. Again, the beautiful white sand bars were everywhere. Passing what we thought was the correct landing, we expected to find "Trader's Hill" boat ramp about 6:00 p.m.

7:00 p.m. We finally gave up and put down for the night on another superb sand bar on the Georgia side. We were setting up camp as the sun went down. Chuck and I again marked the water level with sticks. One more time we tried our luck at fishing, only to have the same result.  Both Mac and I are avid bass fishermen and couldn't understand why neither of us had gotten even a "bump." After supper we broke out our weather radio to check the forecast, and we finally had a clue to the fishing problem. We learned that a large weather front was bearing down on us and that we'd get a drop in temperature into the
low-to-mid 50's by morning. That was good news since it made for great sleeping bag weather. Then it suddenly dawned on me why the fish weren't biting. I've heard that, for some reason, just before a front moves in the fish will quit biting. I have no idea why this is, but it was just the excuse I needed for getting stumped! (Grin)

  After a good supper we decided to turn in early. Just before turning in, Chuck yelled out, "Hey! The water has dropped almost six inches!" Sure enough, it had dropped six inches since we had pulled in. We put down another marker, and hit the sack. The wind and cool  weather hit early, and we slept like babies until three in the morning, when Chuck let out a scream that he couldn't see the canoes. We almost tore the tent door flap off getting out, only to find that the water had risen about eight inches and the canoes were now floating, facing straight toward the bank (before turning in we'd pulled them high up on the sand, parallel to the water). What a relief it was that they were okay. If they hadn't been well tied also, we would've lost them for sure. (TIP-- heed this)  After making sure the canoes were secure, we once again placed stakes at the water's edge, and went back to bed. We were now fairly certain that the only thing that would cause such a drastic rise and fall of the river was tidal fluctuation.

Thursday, September 1
Up around 7:30, the dew again had been like a heavy rain. Everything was soaked. After breakfast, we checked our markers and the river was now down more than six inches. Now we were certain  -- that it was tidal fluctuation from the coast. Once more we leisurely packed and loaded our gear and got on the water about 9:30 a.m. We continued on, looking around each bend, thinking "Trader's Hill" ramp would be there. We consulted our map over and over and it was obvious something was drastically wrong, though we still had no idea what.

  We finally did find one of the spots that Roger had marked on the map, but since we didn't know we'd misjudged our location, we were still confused. We were still looking for the concrete ramp of Traders Hill when we saw two fishermen who told us that the Trader's Hill ramp was still a long way ahead of us. 

11:00 a.m. We passed the correct "Tompkins Landing." Now we finally knew where we were. The night before we had worried that Roger had been expecting us much sooner, because we had given him an erroneous location. Sure enough, he was worried and came looking for us. We had just gotten the "Trader's Hill" ramp in sight when here comes Roger flying up the river on his Jon boat. After much ado (and explanations), we finally figured out that our problem had been judging our location by the wrong landing.

  By the time Roger pulled alongside us, the tide was again coming in, and the wind had increased to about 15 mph out of the east. Due east!   At a point just downstream from Trader's Hill, the river makes a turn and heads due east. That meant we would be bucking head on, both the wind and the tide for the next ten miles. Roger suggested we take out at Trader's Hill instead and we quickly decided he again was right. Chuck and I got in Roger's Jon boat and we headed down to his camp where our vehicles had been left. After about five minutes, the river got really wide and the wind was really blowing.

We were glad that we wouldn't have to paddle that last ten miles under those conditions. We picked up our vehicles and made the short drive to Trader's Hill, and loaded up there. Driving back to Folkston, we stopped for lunch and then went back to Roger's place and used his shower to clean up, then donned clean clothes before heading home. That hot shower felt wonderful. It was a great trip and we will be bringing our whole group (eight retirees) back later for a rerun. Only next time, I'm hoping for higher water, and - of course - a better understanding of where we are on the map ... The only problems we encountered on this trip were blown-down trees, along with stumps and logs right under the surface. Most were obvious since you can usually see the disturbance on the surface of the water. However, as the three of us soon learned, at low water there were many obstacles just below the surface that one could not see. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, the water level was extremely low at that time. There were a few blow-downs through which we had to cut a path, but we were able to get around most.

  For a couple, we had to lie almost flat in our canoes to get under. If the water had been higher, we would have had to drag our canoes around these. Speaking of dragging, on the whole trip we actually lightly touched bottom in sandy shallows about a dozen times, though we never once had to get out and drag our canoes. Also, to clarify, we experienced all of the above (shallows, blow-downs, unseen obstacles) only on the first half of our run. The second half the water was deep enough that we had no problems.

Again, Roger's place is right on the river and is called Canoe County Outpost. I highly recommend him as he goes way out of his way to make sure you have a great trip. I might also add that his canoes are all new Grummans and his prices are very reasonable. At the time of our trip he had one super nice cabin, and a small area for primitive camping.
UPDATE:
He's just moved his outfitting business out on the main highway, he no longer has the cabin. (What a shame - great cabin)   He can be be reached at (904) 845-7224, or Rt. 4, Box 7225,  Hilliard, FL, 32046. You can also reach him at: RP19451954@aol,com

We found Roger to be a very outgoing and personable fellow. He has an answering machine on when he is out. At this writing he has an excellent supply of canoes and has just added several kayaks. Give him a call!  For those interested, we found the Trader's Hill Campground (off Hwy 121, south of Folkston) to be extremely nice. They have paved streets and nice campsites and facilities,  the boat ramp is concrete and in great condition. I recently returned and camped there for a couple days and was amazed to find their campsite fee was only $5.00 The oak trees here must be over 400 years old.  Again, it is one of the prettiest campgrounds I have been to in a long time. It's on the site of an old court house (1854) so is a historical site. (and on the map) Great place to take the family. I highly recommend it.

  Back to the trip: For the average canoeist who moves faster than we did, you can count on three nights from the Hwy. 2 bridge to Trader's Hill. Some might even do it in two nights. There are no supplies along the way; however, if you have a map with better coordinates, According to Roger, there is a fresh water supply point about midway. Roger recently informed me  that he has now made an entirely new map with all the info one might need. That will surely be very helpful. Most of the river's sand bars will easily accommodate five or six tents and a dozen canoes. If you decide to make this trip, please remember how important it is to keep the river and the camp sites clean. Whatever you take with you please make sure you take plenty of trash bags and take your trash with you. Leave nothing on the sand bar or in the river. Our group usually polices the area as we break camp and we leave the area cleaner than it was when we arrived. We hope you will do the same.
                                                 May you have smooth paddlin' and the winds always be at your back.
                                                                                                       Bill Logan XXXgeezer1@cfl.rr.com

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