A few years back, two women in their early 20s started out on what they hoped would be a peaceful, overnight trip on the Blackwater River right around the beginning of a very chilly New Year. The ladies had been on the river before, but they weren’t prepared for the high water levels that were the result of recent, heavy rains. Two days later, I was out on the river looking for any signs of their canoe or gear.
Most of our Florida rivers are peaceful and relaxing to paddle, but heavy rains can turn some of them into unwelcoming torrents that can overpower a typical recreational paddler. If you aren’t sure about the conditions of a river, it is better to wait and go another day. It wasn’t that long ago that I stood beside a rain-swollen creek and decided to pass on the trip in favor of something I knew would be safer. Wimpy? Well, maybe, but I’ll stick with “better safe than sorry.”
One of the two ladies was a good paddler who had been with our group on several trips, but she was handicapped by an overloaded boat on this particular trip. The ladies were in a tandem canoe filled with food, gear, and a very large dog. They were also towing a large cooler in an inner tube. Things went fine until late that afternoon, and then suddenly it all went very wrong. The Blackwater wasn’t at flood stage, but it was up pretty high, and the current was much faster than usual. The canoe hit a log in the water – that’s all it took.
If you broadside a log or some other obstruction in current, the natural inclination is to lean away from it, but that’s exactly what you don’t want to do. The water will push the bottom of your boat downstream and will roll the boat right out from under you. Before you even know what’s happening, water will be rushing into your kayak or canoe. You will soon be, quite literally, sunk and doing the first half of an Eskimo roll. If a strainer with lots of branches caused your problem, you could end up trapped underneath.
Even if both of the women knew to lean downstream into the log and even if both of them reacted perfectly in that quick instant, there was still the dog. It would have to be one well-trained dog to not completely throw off your balance in this situation. They rolled.
Another issue that you have to contend with on some of our rivers are new or existing logjams that are made much more dangerous by high water. If you round a bend in the river and your entire path is blocked by a logjam that wasn’t there last week, what would you do? Trying to cross a logjam in a strong current is a recipe for disaster. Pulling off to the side is generally not an option because our river banks are typically heavily lined with trees, which would now have a swift current moving through them. The picture below is the takeout Springhill Rd on Coldwater Creek at a normal water level.
Now look at the same Springhill Rd launch site after the river level had dropped down enough to make the bridge passable. Reaching the pullout spot would require somehow making your way over a debris pile in the deceptively strong current. Heading downstream past the bridge would require a submarine.
Our two paddlers and their dog were in the swift, cold January water in an instant. What the women first experienced when they hit the water was the cold water shock response. Yes, this is a concern even in Florida during the winter. There is an involuntary gasp reflex and hyperventilation when you hit cold water. If you gasp for air with your head underwater, you could drown, even if you are a great swimmer. The initial shock response lasts about a minute or so, but if you panic, things could get worse. The women recovered quickly and headed for the nearby shore, but that’s where the story really gets interesting.
The two ladies had planned to take out at Cotton Landing at Hwy 4 on the Blackwater. This is usually a long 500-foot uphill walk where I encourage people to bring wheels for their boats. Here’s the view from the river up to the parking area at normal water levels. Note the yellow pilings at the top of the hill.
Now here’s a view from the parking lot with the river at flood stage after twelve inches of rain in just two days. These yellow pilings right by the water are the same ones from the previous picture. You could almost launch from the parking lot now. When the women made their trip, the water level was about halfway between what you see in these two pictures.
The two struggling adventurers were separated from their canoe, but they made their way to the shore and were able to grab a few bundles that had floated loose. (None of their gear was tied into the canoe, but that may have been for the best in this case. I try to attach all of my gear so it stays with the boat.) The women had been worried about their dog, but he also made it safely ashore. (If this was a movie, my wife would have been most concerned about the dog.) Meanwhile, the capsized canoe continued its trip down the river without them. The stranded women needed that boat, so they scrambled along the densely forested shore trying to keep up with it. Unfortunately, a rain swollen feeder creek that was too deep to safely cross blocked their progress. The ladies and their faithful dog watched until the canoe rounded a bend in the river and was gone.
Nightfall comes early in January, and the women considered their options. They knew their takeout was downstream, but without their canoe, that wasn’t an option. They also correctly figured that if they headed east, they would eventually come to a roadway, but they weren’t sure how far away that would be and how hard it would be to get to it through the woods. With darkness quickly approaching, they wisely decided to spend the night and set out in the morning – a trek they’d end up making without their clothes.
I have just one last set of before and after river pictures. This is Deaton Bridge over the Blackwater when the river was still a little bit high.
Next is the river about ten days earlier. This was few days after a foot of rain had fallen, and I couldn’t actually get anywhere close to the bridge. You’ll see the bridge way off in the distance in this next picture. That’s a lot of extra water.
Two of the floating bundles the ladies managed to salvage were their sleeping bags, and they also had a lighter to start a fire. That was good. Unfortunately, the ladies were dressed in a lot of cotton clothing, and they didn’t have any spare clothes. That was bad. They hung their cotton garments up to dry, but it was a futile effort.
I’ve been accused of being a cotton hater, but that’s not exactly true. I like cotton just fine, but mostly around town and almost never on the water. (I have worn some poly-cotton blends or “charged” cotton that does a good job at wicking moisture.) Cotton is a particularly bad choice on the water in the winter. Trapped air is what creates the insulation effect that keeps you warm. When cotton gets wet, it takes forever to dry out, and it loses almost all of its insulating ability because the cotton soaks up water and fills up spaces that could trap air. Try this experiment once: Toss a cotton sweatshirt and a fleece sweatshirt into the washing machine and take them out after the wash cycle. Guess which one will feel like it weighs ten pounds and which one will hardly feel wet at all.
In the morning, the women decided their cotton clothing was too wet and heavy to put back on, and that they’d be warmer without it. They wore their sleeping bags like cloaks and set off through the woods. Luck was finally with our heroines. They made it through the forest to a road where they were picked up in short order by a shocked man and his kids.
The next afternoon my wife Susan and I paddled upstream in search of whatever gear we could recover for the two tough survivors. The water level had dropped since the women’s spill, but the current was still much stronger than usual, and we found ourselves having to hug the bank and search for eddies to make any progress. We weren’t sure what, if anything, we would find. Surprisingly, we found most of their gear. A backpack had snagged on some shrubs in a bend in the river. Other gear was also caught up in scrubby brush along the shore before it had a chance to sink. I rounded a bend in the river and saw something rise up and then fall. Then it did it again. The canoe was upside down and lodged on a tree in the middle of the river. The inner tube was still firmly attached. Pulling the inner tube behind them in the current could have caused issues, too. I had to cut the rope when I found the canoe. If you are going to tow something, I’d attach it to your boat with a slip knot.
This story had a happy ending, but it could easily have gone another way. I’ll end by repeating the title of my little river tale, “Flooded rivers are no place to play.”
Epilogue: A separate group went back on the river with one of the original adventurers a week or so later to find the location of the women’s overnight camp and to recover the abandoned cotton clothing. I’m not sure if the cotton had dried out even then.