Chopping our way down the upper Sopchoppy River
There were strong northerly winds the day of our trip down the upper Sopchoppy River, but while we heard the wind gusting above us, barely any breeze ever made its way down to us on the water. For most of the day, we were in a narrow, twisting, canyon that was 10 to 15 feet deep and protected from the gusts above. We spent our day paddling, dodging, ducking, lopping, sawing, and pulling over trees, but mostly we just really enjoyed the ride and the scenery.
Jim, Brett, and I were over near Tallahassee to scout out some trips we’d heard about for years, but hadn’t managed to fit into our river schedules. We prefer rivers that are smaller and less traveled. The upper 8-mile section of the Sopchoppy, starting at FH 13, was first on our list. We were sidelined on Monday because of a big storm front that promised a day of rain, but didn’t live up to its full potential. After a day hiding out in campers, we were ready to be on the river.
The reports we’d seen and heard suggested that if the online gauge for the Sopchoppy isn’t above 10 or 10.5 feet, you are in for a long day and a lot of trouble on the river’s upper stretches. The Forest Service suggests a range of 10 to 14 feet. By Tuesday morning, the half-hearted rain from the day before had barely nudged the gauge above 9 feet. Presumably, we were in for a lot of trouble – pullovers and obstacles in the river.
Inky Black Water
The water at the FH 13 bridge was a dark black color, with maybe just a tint of red in the sunlight. Have you ever seen water that just invites you to jump in for a swim? This isn’t that. I didn’t even want to put my hands in the water; I had no idea what was below the surface. The darkness also concealed the depth of the river. Other than to say our paddles rarely hit bottom, I have no guess on the average depth of the river. Anything below the bottom of my canoe was in another world.
The dark water added to the challenge of the river. In spots with slow current, the only way we knew there were underwater obstructions was when we hit them. And, yes, the dark water concealed innumerable objects for us to hit. We came to a spot with a tree across the river just above the water level, and I thought I’d charge at the lowest spot to see if I could maybe make it halfway over. Right before impact with the fallen tree, I made contact with an underwater cypress knee that pinballed me off course – wham! Let’s just say it wasn’t the approach I’d had in mind.
Troubles – we had a few Brett, Jim, and I had come prepared for trouble. We were brandishing saws and loppers, and Jim even had his saw in a quick-draw scabbard. I am really partial to my Fiskars ratchet loppers, which make short work of limbs up to an inch and a half. Brett, on the other hand, has loppers that are wimpy in comparison, which he calls “Cindy Loppers.” We did put our weapons of choice to use this day.
We’d read a report where the majority of one group gave up and headed back upstream after making it only about a mile downstream from where we’d launched. The first two miles were definitely the toughest in terms of logjams, pullovers, limbos, and obstructions. They were also two very scenic and fun-to-paddle miles, albeit there were plenty of breaks in the paddling. One of my former paddling partners loved to count pullovers, and he would have particularly loved this trip. How many pullovers did we have, you ask? Let’s just say there were plenty of them.
There were also some really tight limbos that we were just able to scrape under. Jim and I like to lay down forward in our canoes to get low, but Brett is too big for that, so he slides down off his seat and stretches his feet out in front of him in his canoe. On some of the limbos, I wait and duck at the last instant to keep my boat properly lined up. On one early limbo, my quick duck resulted in banging my head against my thwart. Ouch. It’s a good thing I didn’t hit an arm or a leg that hard or it could have been bad.
The three of us have pushed through more than our fair share of brush, but the Sopchoppy was out to get me this day. Actually, the river was really out to get my stylish, and very worn, Tilley hat. I’ve had that nice hat (well, it used to be nice) knocked off into the back of my boat before, but on this trip, it got taken off and sent into the river twice. Fortunately, Brett was close behind and able to rescue it on both occasions.
We like to multi-task on the river, so we also worked our core as we went along. There were more than a few spots where we practiced our ab buster exercises. If you’re stuck on a log, what do you do? In the canoe, we get on our knees with our hands on our gunnels, and try to drive the boat forward. This will often take several good rocking attempts. Great for your abs. I’m skipping my crunches today.
So how hard was the trip? Compared to a float down the Blackwater River, it was pretty tough. But compared to river clearing trips, where we spend most of our time sawing, lopping, and maybe chain sawing, it wasn’t half bad. It is obvious that cutting has been done over the years on the river, but it is definitely not a well-maintained trail. We cut and lopped where it made our passage easier. If trees were too big, we pulled over or around.
Worth the Effort? I’ve talked about the obstructions, but not enough about the fun paddling and the scenery. I like paddles that require boat control. Zigging and zagging to dodge things makes the paddle fun for me. You won’t have time to worry about the outside world as you make your way down the river. The scenery along the Sopchoppy was excellent, too. There were loads of interesting cypress knees and some impressive trees. The river sections with moss-covered walls were beautiful.
It was definitely worth the effort, and I look forward to returning at different water levels, which would totally change the experience. Whatever the water level, I’ll be bringing my loppers and saw. I wouldn’t want to visit the upper Sopchoppy without them.
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Trip date: March 14, 2017 Gauge height: 9.16 feet at 10:00 a.m.; 9.24 at 5:00 p.m.