The Wild Side of the Shoal River
As the Shoal River approaches the Yellow River, it seems as though a lot of the water gets overanxious and just heads off on its own path. Then about two miles from the Yellow River there is a larger “cutoff” which veers from the main channel and begins a crisscrossing route of narrow passages, fun current, and great scenery. Which route you should take as you navigate this swampy area isn’t always obvious.
Before we started our 10-mile journey that would include Turkey-Hen Creek, the last stretch of the Shoal River, and just a touch of the Yellow River, I’d heard reports that there might not be any open route through the swampy Shoal River cutoff. There was only one way to tell for sure.
Launch at Turkey-Hen
A lucky band of thirteen paddlers turned up at the Turkey-Hen launch site on a chilly Saturday morning. Since we were heading down the Shoal, we could have launched from Wayside Park near Hwy 85, but this short 7/10 of a mile waterway is a lot more scenic start. The water at the Turkey-Hen launch was crystal clear with a sandy bottom and maybe a foot deep, if that. This is a popular spot for people who want to dip into cool water in the summer. (Eglin AFB pass required.) The short stretch of creek follows a 15-foot or so wide shady path through cypress trees on its way to the Shoal. I wasn’t sure if this section would be clear of trees and such, but I only ended up having to lop just a few overhanging limbs to clear our way.
Here's a look at how Turkey-Hen looks on Google Earth compared to the Shoal River. You can follow the faint trail up from the noted launch site.
Down in the swamp
We have been in the midst of a fairly long drought, which was evident this day. No, there wasn't a shortage of water, but one plus with a lack of rain is that the typically muddy Shoal River was much clearer than usual. The Shoal is fairly wide along this stretch below Hwy 85 to the cutoff, but there is no development and the scenery is nice, plus we had a nice twinge of what little fall color that we get in our area. (I have to admit that I have a strong bias toward small creeks where motorboats can’t go.) There aren’t usually many stopping points on this section of the river, but we did have an inviting lunch spot big enough for the whole gang along the way. We also spotted a few hornet’s nests in the trees beside the river – I have one from an earlier trip on the Yellow River hanging in my garage.
Once you start down the narrow cutoff channel for the final two-mile approach to the Yellow River, it feels like you are in a totally different river. On a prior trip here when the current was flying, a member of our gang flipped at one of several splits in the river. He and his boat went one way, and his paddle went the other – we didn’t see it again. The current wasn’t an issue on this November’s trip, however.
I’ve recently been accused of making some of my trip announcements sound a little gloomy or pessimistic. I promise I’m definitely not pessimistic about river trips, but I do try to lay out the worst-case scenario of what anyone who paddles along should expect. For this trip, I’d warned about the potential for deep-water pullovers for the day, and one of our gang, who I’ll just call M, was ribbing me about trying to scare people. If this was a movie, we’d cue ominous music right now.
After getting a good way into the swampy conclusion of the Shoal River, we came to a logjam blocking the whole river. In shallow water, you can hop out and just push or pull your boat over a tree or two. Deep water makes things a bit trickier. Toss in cold temperatures where you really don’t want to get wet, and it gets even more tricky. You first have to maneuver close enough to the offending tree or trees to allow yourself to scramble out of your boat, but this is often easier said than done. Then, you have to balance on the tree, either sitting or standing – hopefully, your perch is fairly stable-- and drag your boat over. Finally, you have to get back into your boat. Canoers have it a bit easier than kayakers, especially those in sit-in kayaks.
Back to our logjam. Two of our fearless travelers took unplanned plunges into the cold water this day while attempting the advertised deep-water pullovers. Not that I normally laugh when people fall in, but I may have laughed (repeatedly) when I saw the aforementioned M in the water. I don't think he held it against me – much. Not long after this, I looked over and saw John filming me with a grin on his face as I was standing mid-river on a tree. He was really hoping to catch a splash. It’s good to be appreciated.
The other swimmer of the day was a little panicked because her nice, shiny, new kayak started floating downstream without her after her pullover mishap. Not to worry, there was another logjam just downstream where several of us waited. In all, we had three pretty hefty logjams – way too big for the handsaw I carried with me. Austen had brought a chainsaw, but as they have a habit of doing, it did not want to cooperate that day. Some of us pulled over the jams, and some of us found a spot to pull up on the steep, densely vegetated bank and portage around. It was a fun team effort getting all the boats—mostly upright—back in action.
We also encountered a few limbo logs. Those are exactly what they sound like – you’ve got to get low to get under. Sometimes, you’ve got to get really low, but none were too bad on this trip.
Note: You could skip the pullovers and limbos by sticking to the main Shoal River channel, but where's the sport in that? You'd also miss some of the best scenery. On Google Earth you can tell that the main channel on the bottom of the picture below is a good bit more distinct than the upper "cutoff."
I’m trying to do a better job of taking pictures, but I’ve still got a ways to go. My sister reminded me to get pictures of the takeout when we were about 200 yards away, but, uh, I got distracted and forgot. Next time. All in all, a really nice day on the river with a great group of people. So many rivers, so little time, but this is one trip that’s definitely worth scheduling.
Trip Date: November 19, 2016 Gauge Height: 2.77 feet
Shuttle and Thanks!
We did have an issue on the shuttle. The bumpy ridges on Rattlesnake Road were just too much to handle for a bad weld on Austen’s trailer. A strap and bike cable were used as a temporary fix to get him home. Austin reported that the fix worked – until he got about a half a mile from home. He made it home with some minor scrapes, but no real damage.
Thanks to Brett, Van, and Jim for help with the shuttle. Thanks also to John for some of the photos.