Double tap! Double tap! No, this essay does not concern the art of social shooting when you encounter an intruder in your house. As the cognoscente know, the ivory billed woodpecker is identified by its typical double knock drilling and the Choctawhatchee River in the Florida panhandle is one of the localities with recent credible reported sightings.
MLK weekend seemed like a good time to see them, so the Chattahoochee Nature Center organized a 3-day trip through the area. Too bad I didn’t capture an image to introduce this article. But I do have many images (both digital and cerebral) of a fantastic springfed, bottomland, flood plain, old-growth, hard-wood swamp.
Holmes Creek is part of the Choctawhatchee watershed It’s a huge area, most of it public, and it remains relatively undiscovered. Seriously consider taking a 3 or 4 day trip to explore it before summer, when the bugs get too bad.
A deluge complicated our planned launch. Wimpishly, we executed Plan B: drank coffee at the hotel, watched the Weather Channel to track the front and launched from Hightower Landing at 15:00. We paddled 3.8 miles to Spurling Landing (just above Sheffield Bend, and were setting-up camp around 17:00.
A word about camping: the Choctawhatchee and its tributaries are typical floodplain habitat. The banks are high, the dikes are narrow, low areas are wet and camping can be sketchy. However, because Holmes Creek is a designated Florida canoe / kayak trail, there are multiple access points with tables, grills, crappers and dry cleared land. Spurling Landing afforded a great, completely deserted, campsite.
Day 2, we put-on at a leisurely 10:30 and paddled 11.6 miles to Shell Ferry Landing, on river left just below the 284 bridge. This was a particularly good day. The weather was perfect and we were on high alert for ivory bills. To increase the odds, we took all the “short-cuts” through ox-bows and checked-out various swamp areas.
You can spend a lot of time doing this and it brings up an important consideration – navigation. You should not do this sort of trip without detailed topographic maps. If you’re good at navigation that’s all you need. If you’re not experienced navigating swamps, the Hawk strongly recommends bringing a GPS (with extra batteries) and downloading topos to the hand-unit. Indeed, go crazy and store routes and waypoints and you’ll always know exactly where you are, how far it is to camp, when to stop exploring that interesting bayou and how to get to the nearest road in an emergency.
We arrived at Shell Landing around 15:30 and again found an excellent state-maintained launch site at which to camp. We were on the river by 09:30 the next morning for the 10 mile paddle to the take-out.
This is the part of the trip where you should have a map. Not far below Shell Landing, Holmes Creek joins the Choctawhatchee at Boynton Cutoff. On the maps, the main river goes west, but it is in the process of rechanneling and most of the flow goes down the old north channel of Holmes Creek.
The confluence will be obvious and this is the only potentially tricky part of the paddle because the Choctawhatchee is honkin’ as you must merge with it. No one flipped. But, always remember; there are 2 categories of canoers – them what’s swimmin’ and them what’s fixin’ to swim. We were now on the main river and could have just followed it to the take-out. However, we were still looking for ivory bill woodpeckers and opted for a more “interesting” route. We took what used to be the middle finger of Holmes Creek flowing to the main river, hung a right and started paddling upstream.
Yes, the Choctawhatchee is completely rerouting itself down what used to be Holmes Creek. We made a good decision, the current is not all that swift and this portion of the swamp was more than worth it. After about a mile we were at the main river and made the take out at 12:45.
What about getting there and running shuttle? To get there from Atlanta, drive about 6 hours south down I-75 and west on I-10 to Chipley, Florida. There aren’t a lot of hotels in the area; I recommend the Executive Inn just off the interstate a block or two up Route 77.
There are multiple put-ins on Holmes Creek because it’s a Florida canoe trail. We put in at Hightower Springs, just below Vernon. To get there from the hotel go west on I-10 to the Route 79 exit and follow the road south through Vernon towards Mt Hope. A bit past Vernon turn right onto the well-marked Hightower Springs launching area.
There are also multiple take-outs; we used Cedar Tree Landing a mile or two above the Highway 20 bridge over the Choctawhatchee River. For shuttle, leave Hightower Springs and turn right on Route 79 towards New Hope. Drive 12.1 miles (through New Hope and Red Head and turn right onto James Potter Road. Follow it for 1.7 miles and turn right onto Cedar Tree, which ends at the take-out.
William C. Reeves (The Hawk)
From The Eddy Line, May, 2008