Day 3 was full of wildlife as we started off the morning with an 8-foot Florida alligator passing by in front of our boards. The river started winding and bending a lot, so we were able to hug the shorelines to avoid most of the winds. This created opportunities to spot deer, hogs, turkeys, bald eagles, alligators, and many other animals along the water's edge.
We had another 20-mile paddle on Day 3 and arrived at our sandbar campsite where we found a large gator slide and numerous tracks while setting up our tents. At this point, we were out there in complete wilderness - the sky was lit up with stars and the sounds of the forest and swamp made for an incredible experience. We decided to go for a night paddle to see if we could spot any gators with our headlamps; the humidity made for a thick, swampy fog that covered the water at night, so it was hard to see much of anything paddling around out there.
The next morning one of our team members, Tom Herzog, was leaving so we decided to celebrate his departure with a massive bonfire that night. There's nothing quite like being miles away from civilization, camping on a random sandbar in the swamp, and building a huge fire to ward off the bugs after a long day of paddling. We felt alive.
On Day 4 our team was down to two as we said goodbye to Tom; Gabriel Gray and myself were navigating the remainder of the journey with maps and a compass. We had a few side trips in store for the day after covering a lot of mileage in the first three.
We ventured into an area called Dead Lakes, which was without a doubt the visual highlight of our trip. Dead Lakes is an old cypress tree graveyard located just outside of a town called Wewahitchka. We paddled around the bend leading into Dead Lakes, and immediately one can see thousands of old cypress trunks in the water as far as the eye can see. It was an eerie and humbling experience; there wasn't a sound to be heard for miles other than a few jumping mullet and barred owls in the woods. Because there were so many snags and down trees in the water, it was useless to try to navigate the boards around it all; Gabe and I just laid down on our boards and let the natural current take us on a tour. We spent almost an hour and a half bouncing off stumps and relaxing in what felt like a completely different world. It was something you'd expect to see on another planet.I took pictures the whole time and Gabe fell asleep on his board. What a great spot that was, and I certainly plan on going back.
We camped that night at a small boat ramp in Wewahitchka. Upon arrival, we met a local family there at the ramp with a few younger groms excited about our spears, knives, and Quiksilver gear. I showed them how to shoot a polespear, and Gabe taught them about his knives. We talked with their family for a while, and eventually the mother ordered pizzas and invited us back to their home just up the road. We spent the evening dining with the locals, drinking a ton of sweat tea, and exchanging stories about the area. Once again, we went to bed on full stomachs with smiles on our face and a newfound knowledge of the area. - Justin Riney
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