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CONQUERING THE MIGHTY MISSISSIPPI: Day 16 -- It's a long way to the bank

Photo by Daniel Kay

Photo by Daniel Kay

Day 16

Idle out of marina at 5:55 a.m. Break out into Ft. Walton Bay in a few minutes. Cross the pass with no difficulty, but morning breeze starts picking up. It's out of the east, the worst possible direction, and waves start building. Pretty soon, I'm running half speed and still bouncing and banging pretty bad... This bay is big, 30 miles long and 4-5 miles wide, and I've got to travel entire length to get back into the Intracoastal... Fortunately, there are several long points jutting out into the bay on southern edge that block the east wind... The negative part is that the water is shallow and there are a lot of sandbars at low tide... Too shallow to run over, as I soon found out... Forgot to mention, yesterday afternoon, the depthfinder part of my GPS/chartplotter unit quit working when I was up on plane... Worked fine at slow speeds and thought the transducer had gotten kicked up, but I pushed it back into what I thought was right position and it just wouldn't work. Hook up my back up flasher but it kept losing contact with the bottom, also...

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In spite of that, I was not going to get caught out in middle of one of those bays again, and would just take my chances on running aground a few times... I turn right and angle toward the shore... You're not apt to hurt anything running over a sandbar and worst-case scenario was that I'd have get out and push boat off... Also, willing to take twice as long to follow the shoreline as it would running straight down the bay. I've had all the rough water I want to put up with on this trip... Water is clear and I manage to dodge several shallow bars, but skeg started bumping as I went over one and I let off the gas. Had to raise motor up, put it in shallow water drive and ease off... Probably had I not let off the gas, it would have bumped a couple times and made it over. This boat will run in about 16 inches of water when it's on plane, and several times I felt the boat rise a little, which is caused by the hull compressing water against the bottom. If you are lucky, you can ride that bubble under the boat across a short shallow stretch, but not a long stretch. I'm guessing about 20 yards is the limit, and then you're gonna be pushing or poling to deeper water. Had one more sandbar little later in morning that I had to idle off after I grounded the boat. Makes me a little nervous at first running 18-20 mph in mostly 2-3 ft deep water, but I got used to it... Sun was shining brightly and wind was blowing just enough to help me see the water rippling across the really shallow bars..

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7:00 am. ... Only covered 14 miles in the first hour, but shoreline straightens out and by 7:27 a.m., I've traveled 27 miles and far enough up the bay to where it narrows. Wind has slacked off and I can get out toward channel and run in straight line toward I/C entrance.

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9:20a.m. ... Enter I/C, slow down, text family/friends with progress report and call Mike. He tells me he got up this morning "and felt like he needed to be on boat, something was definitely missing." ... He was getting ready to go the airport for his 1 p.m. flight.

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9:00 a.m. ... See a drift line in middle with several small logs and limbs and what appears to be patches of grass. As I run alongside it, realize it is floating pine needles, apparently blown into the water by yesterday's storms... This part of I/C is really pretty, ha very little development and almost no boat traffic. I had been warned that that some of the sportfishermen, small yachts and even towboat threw off monstrous waves in this waterway, but I didn't have a problem all the way across...

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9:20 a.m. ... GPS indicates 51 miles traveled.

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9:30 a.m. .. Pass "Wild Thang," a big airboat converted to tour boat with several people sitting in seats, on a large deck, in front of the operator... They are running right along shoreline and as usual it's making heck of racket...

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9:40 a.m. ... Right before entering western-most bay at Panama City, the engine changes pitch slightly and I slow down and see some grass caught on front of lower unit... When you have listened to an engine for 1600 miles, you detect the slightest change in sound or RPMs... While I'm idling, call friend of mine who promised to help me run last 80 miles up through rapids/rocks on Flint River. He is one of more knowledgeable boaters on Flint and I know my chances of making it are better with him in boat... Also , I know his sister is critically ill and he may not be able go with me.. Get some real disheartening news... According to him, the river is really at low stage and they are not releasing enough water upstream. He feels our chances are pretty slim that we will be able to make it. He promises to look at river, talk to another guy we know, get his opinion and call back...

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9:55 a.m. ... Intracoastal buoys extend couple miles out into the bay, then just stop... There's a series of large connected bays around Panama City and I know the I/C exits east out of one of them.. I zoom out on GPS chart, but not sure where the exit is. I'm sitting out in this big bay and barely see the far shoreline... I see a sport fishing boat headed toward me, so I flag these guys down and ask them... They point toward a radio tower on far shoreline and tell me to run to that and then go under the bridge... I tell them I'm headed to Apalachicola and ask if there's a marina along this route... One of them comments "that's a small boat to go that far."... Wish I could have captured the look on their face when I replied "It's not that far when you've come from Minneapolis."... Then I had to tell them a little about my trip... They leave, I'm sure shaking their heads...

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It's several miles across that bay, thankfully the wind was light and when I get closer there are several radio towers scattered up and down the shoreline... There's a bridge a few miles to my left and one equal distance to my right... Zoom out the GPS and there's a bay behind both bridges and still can't figure out where I/C entrance might be and there's no buoys to follow... I turn left and run up to the next bridge, zoom my GPS out again and it's not showing the intracoastal leading out of this bay... There's a small cabin cruiser coming by and I flag him down. A really nice guy named Bill Mayhugh stops, agrees the Intracoastal is poorly marked and tells me to follow him,he is going in that direction and when we get below the bridge he will point me in exactly the right direction... We stop below the bridge and talk a few minutes, I tell them about my trip. He has several, I assume, grandkids and kids' friends on board, from 8-14 years old, and they think my trip is "really cool."... I take a picture of yet another good Samaritan and am on my way in the right direction...

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10:55 a.m. ... Refuel at St. Andrews marina... When I walk in marina to pay, I spot a small glass dolphin and buy it on the premise that a glass dolphin, no matter how cheap and tacky, is a far better souvenir for your wife than a bag of dirty laundry...

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11:30 a.m. ... Am in last large bay and see T-storm building ahead and start veering toward bank. Lightning starts flashing and I head directly toward bank.

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12:02 ... Shove nose on bank and barely able to get rainsuit top on as typical Florida torrential rain falls... Lot of lightning all around me and twice it hits uncomfortably close... Everything gets wet, including me from waist down, because I didn't bother to put rainsuit bottom on... Rain lets up a little and I use rainsuit bottom as tablecloth over back seat to make sandwich on...

Text family/friends progress report. Get a call from Hans Hlawaty, the young kayaker who I met on upper Mississippi, he asks about my progress, then tells me he's stuck in St. Louis. Seems they closed the river at St. Louis to a 100 miles south to pleasure boats a few days after I went through... He asked about the current in the Ohio and if I thought he could pedal upstream against it for the 40-plus miles to the Tenn. Told him I thought the current was about 2-4 mph, but river was high and he could hug the bank and get out of a lot of it. He mentioned he was going to get on Craigslist and see if he could find someone to carry him south to Ohio river. ... Thought about it later and wish I had suggested for him to get somebody to carry him about 20 miles south of St. Louis and put him back in river. If he stayed near the bank, no one would have ever seen him going downriver...

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12:50 p.m. ... Idle out to channel in light rain.

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12:55 p.m. ... Intracoastal buoys resume, and 1/2 mile later, enter mouth of I/C...

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1:15 p.m. large T-storm passing across in front of me... Lightning strikes downward from left side of storm so I slow to an idle to give it more time to pass over... Light rain falling that quits as storm passes...

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1:35 p.m. ... GPS indicates we've come 107 miles from Ft. Walton... Pass several "No Wake" zones, posted by dock owners, but no boats are tied up to docks, so I stay on plane... Not real sympathetic to lakeside home or dock owners... This is lot like building your house on busy highway and putting speed limit sign in your front yard. If there is boat or people at a dock in narrow waterway, I will slow down but feel like they are encroaching on public water and need to put a boat lift and get their boat up so that wakes won't disturb it...

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1:50 p.m. ... Continue to be surprised at how pretty this stretch of Intracoastal is... Expected a narrow ditch and if it wasn't for some of its long straight stretches, you would think this is a natural waterway. Huge long leaf pines and cypress trees along the bank with scattered stretches of white sandy bank and sand dunes. Maybe the prettiest waterway you never heard of... Pass two cabin cruiser type boats sunken within a mile of each other.

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2:25 p.m. ... Pass sign pointing to St. Joe marina. GPS indicates 5-mile canal leading all the way to Port St. Joe Fl. and the Gulf. Realize that I haven't seen a boat or fisherman for 40 miles.

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2:50 p.m. .... Enter Wimico, a 5-mile long natural lake that the I/C runs through... Wind and waves starting to build from south and thought I might have some problems crossing the open water, but about mile out into the lake, the wind is blowing as hard as ever but the waves change to wind-blown ripples... Really pretty cypress lined lake with submerged grass in middle. Looks like bass fishing heaven... Notice my depthfinder is working perfectly now....

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3:30 p.m. ... Intracoastal empties into Apalachicola River and I can see bridge leading into town.Wind is blowing up river and creating really rough water in river, but I am able to hug the bank and avoid most of it for the 5-6 mile run.

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4:00 p.m. ... Pull into marina, refuel and tie Dumarse off for the night. Walk next door to motel to get a room and they are booked solid... Media and everybody else who has figured out how to make a dollar off the oil spill circus is in town. Lady at desk tells me I might be able to get a room at a restored Inn up town... Walk back and there's CNN bus in parking lot, and people start piling out, headed into motel....Walking down sidewalk wondering what to do and see couple young guys standing beside older pick-up... Ask the driver if he wants to make easy $5 by taking me to a motel. He agrees and he suggests Water Street Inn just up the street. I grab my stuff out of boat and we head to motel. I ask him to wait while I check to see if they have rooms.They do but are $209 per night. Decide to take my chances and see if Best Western on edge of town or motel across street from it has rooms at better price. Ask young guy if will take me out there and he says no problem... On the way out to edge of town, he tells me the oyster houses are really having problems... They have no oysters because all the oyster men are riding around looking for oil and getting paid more money each day than they ever made digging up oysters... As far as he knows, nobody has seen any oil. Both motels are sold out and it becomes apparent it's pay $209 a night, or sleep in the boat... Back to first motel and I'm hoping they still got that $209.00 room I turned down, they do and give me the $199 rate. Walk back out and give my my taxi man $5.00 and a $15.00 tip... He tells me to try "Up the Creek" oyster bar and restaurant right down the street for dinner...

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Soon as I get settled into my very nice room, I text family and friends that I'm off water...Call Peggy and tell her where I am and she immediately informs me that's where she and our daughter wanted to stay last summer on a trip here, but it was too expensive... Also tell her trip is probably over tomorrow night and she might want to ride down to Seminole. Couple of my friends are down there fishing and want to take me to eat at restaurant where I'll be taking my boat out...Haven't heard from friend who was going to to ride up Flint with me, so I call him and he reiterates that he has checked and he feels the river is just too low... Another friend had checked the operating hours of the Lake Seminole Lock and Dam for me and lockmaster had told him I had to get to Seminole before 3:30 p.m. to be able to lock through and he had heard Flint River was low also...

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Walk down to restaurant and order a blackened grouper sandwich... Very good and great view watching the sun go down over the river, but I really can't enjoy it... Just too disappointed in not being able to finish my trip all the way to Albany.

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When i get back to room, I send e-mail to family/friends with brief description of the day plus put a post on fishing forum about having to terminate the trip... Fortunately, a young guy I know read the post and came to my aid the next day...

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Butch Tucker calls and we confirm plans to meet and eat dinner next night at Big Jim's on Lake Seminole... Few minutes later, Scott Gatlin calls and wants be at Seminole when I get there... Tell him mid-afternoon is good estimate of arrival time. We have a small RV trailer that we keep at Spring Creek resort and he says he will have A/C unit wide open when I get there...

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143 miles today...1901 total for trip.