Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Chaz

April 4
Chassahowitzka-palooza! : The Chaz to Dog Island, Crawford Creek and Beetejay Springs, Potter Creek and Ruth Spring Run, Baird Creek and the Crack, and the Solution Holes!!!!

Image result for chassahowitzka river

 Do you like freshwater and saltwater paddles? Do you like paddling through lush tropical forests and prairie like marshes? Do you love paddling crystal clear springs and dark mysterious waters? Do you like to see gators, dolphins, and manatees? Do you want to see them all in one day? Then eat your breakfast and go paddle the Chassahowitzka River area for an unforgettable day of adventure.
 The Chassahowitzka or Chaz River is about an hour and change drive North of St. Petersburg. Its name means "Pumpkin hanging place", named after perhaps an extinct species of pumpkin seen by the Indians back in the day. I have been here before and it is truly a trip back in time and a very wild place. It is kind of a secret, in that I find it rarely mentioned by kayaking or canoeing guidebooks and isn't as well-known as other rivers in the area like Crystal, Homosassa, and Weeki Wachee Rivers. People that live around this rural area know about it and love it as  a fishing paradise. You can catch both saltwater and freshwater fish here, as the Chaz originates from a spring and empties about 6 miles later into the Gulf of Mexico.Coming here is a trip back into a better time.
 I arrive at the campground/ boat ramp at about 9 am, and see a few others in the parking lot ready to kayak as well. It is a cool, sunny morning full of promise and adventure. This will be the longest trip of the year so far. My plan is to head directly down river with the outgoing tide, find Crawford Creek and travel its length and back, and return with the incoming tide and hit all the other small creeks and springs that I know about. I have never been as far as Crawford Creek, but I have read that it is a fantastic trip and I won't be disappointed if I can make it to the springs. I push off the sandy bank over crystal clear blue/green colored waters and follow another kayaker who is headed to Potter Creek. The Chaz is about 60- 80 feet wide but has beautiful wooded banks here up until you come to the confluence of Baird Creek, which enters the river from the South. Baird Creek is reached right before a big wooded island the splits the Chaz into two different chanels. I go to the right and pass the two entrances to Salt Creek on the right side. I have been up Salt Creek before and I have seen at least two springs here. The main spring is very small and looks like a milky blue pot of boiling water in the otherwise brown/clear water. I will not go up Salt Creek today. After Salt Creek, you pass the island and the river really opens up to about 200-300 feet wide. Potter Creek enters ahead from the North. The shoreline differs here as well; it is lined with countless palm trees and turns into a salt marsh area. There are several half sunken boats and dilapitated houses, some of which have slid into the river. There are a few that look OK, with solar panels mounted on the roofs,possibly accomidating off the gridders. One big one at the bend of the river has the American and Confederate flag flying proudly overhead as if to state that politcal correctness and anti-Americanism, "don"t fly around here". The simple life.

Potter Creek off the Chaz

 The Chaz, at this point, enters the wildlife refuge area; the water turns murky and you can see for miles, as this area turns into a salt marsh/prairie area. Besides a few clusters of palm trees, the dense oak and hardwood forest has disappeared. Marsh grass lines the banks and the low tide exposes mud banks. I pass two creeks that join the river from the East, and pass the third one which is Crawford Creek. the water clears considerably at this spot, signifying a true, spring fed source. Up ahead, I spy a couple of large, dark masses that rise slowly up and down into the water. They must be manatees. I see a fourth creek entrance that I believe to be Ryle Creek, and decide to explore it. I turn into a narrow and twisting waterway with a dark and muddy bottom; many swirls appear ahead of my kayak signaling the presence of much underwater life. I get an isolated and spooky vibe from this place as the grass towers over me and the creek narrows considerably. I spot a lonely trio of palm trees missing their palms;their appearence is that of a big saguaro cactus I might see in Arizona. I turn back a few moments later and head towards Dog Island, which is unremarkable, except for a fishing dock and restrooms. I head back downriver towards Crawford Creek.
My dream house at Beetejay Springs

 Wendell Crawford Creek has a wide entrance of about 100 feet or so with clear water. I don't know who Wendell Crawford is or was, but I hear the creek is lovely. There is a sign at the entrance of the creek with Wendell's full name on it. I was under the impression that creeks or rivers have only one name and that bridges often have the "full" name. I soon come to a couple of homes to the right of more "off the gridders", complete with a dock and  24 hour surveillance cameras.After passing the homes, the river gets more narrow and a little deeper and is absolutely rife with fish. I see clouds of mangrove snapper and schools of mullet racing away from me. The heavy oak vegetation returns and the river becomes canopied. Up ahead lies a natural bridge, a huge oak tree blocking the creek all the way across.I barely duck under it, snapping my seat strap in the process. My back will love that. From this point, the creek is stunning. It narrows to 10 feet across and the current picks up considerably. The bottom of this spring run is covered with eel grass. It becomes very difficult to fight this current and weave through obstructions in this shallow water. Ahead and to the right there is a hand made wooden sign that labels this area as "Beetejay Springs", and gives precise information about how much water is discharged from the spring's vents. It is considerable as the surface is rippled like small rapids that are insane to paddle against. Looming in the trees is the most gorgeous house  I've ever seen, complete with a walkway over the spring run that leads to the spring behind the house or mansion. There is a walkway on the shore along the spring run that leads to a small dock where the sign is. My dream house! I turn back downriver chasing some bass with my kayak. This creek is a must paddle. For another time, there is another run just after the houses near the creek mouth, that leads to another spring. It gives me an excuse to come back. You could spend a week exploring this area.
swift flow of Beetejay Springs

upper Crawford Creek

 Coming up on Potter Creek, I take a break a few yards by a fisherman , to apply more sunblock and rest my arms.To my left, after sensing I was being watched, I see a big alligator head in front of me. The fisherman in the kayak has been catching fish and the big alligator has noticed. I leave quickly. Never a good sign to see an alligator approaching or showing interest in you. Potter Creek is very isolated and wild and is bordered by palms and oaks; it's probably just shy of a mile long and dead ends at the spring that bears its name. It is a large spring that seems deep. It is a cloudy, milky blue color. I don't see the bottom. Ruth Spring run enters directly behind it. It is very narrow(4-5 feet across) and twisty, with obstructions. The water is very clear and deep, well over my head in some spots, remarkable for such a narrow cut of water. It has a beauty that is unmatched by anywhere I've paddled. You are cutting right through a thick, lush, green jungle, through and around branches and spider webs. The current is very strong and you soon see a large cut in the limestone bottom. It is in a very tight area and the water is very deep here. Up ahead and to the left is a pool area which I believe is Ruth Springs. It's about 10 feet deep here. I have been here twice before, and have never seen it this clear. I disembark on a deep wooded bank, that looks like someone has been here before. My suspicions are confirmed by a footprint in the mud. It feels good to get out of my yak and stretch. I take a few photos and admire this area of isolated beauty that few people know about or see. This is paradise. This area looks just as it did hundreds of years ago-minus the footprint.
Headed up Ruth Springs Run on an earlier paddle

chillin' at the end of Ruth Spring Run

  Next is Baird Creek which lies almost a mile from the boat ramp. I don't know how many miles I've paddled today, but my body is starting to feel it, not to mention I desperately want to swim. Although it is a perfect day for weather(70s no humidity), the sun is really beating down on me. Baird Creek is a beautiful mile long run that is much different from Potter Creek as it changes personality in a few spots. It starts off with wooded banks, like a hardwood hammock with a few trees on the side that look like bonsai trees.  There is an area of marsh grass and one small section where you go through a small alley of towering grass.On the other side of this section, there appears to be a spring as the water deepens and turns from a shallow clear run to a deeper smoky blue color. Further up is a larger pool of the same description. It appears to dead end here, however, there is a small gap between a tall riverbank, just wide enough for a canoe or kayak to squeeze through and continues downstream some more. You pass through another section where the waterway narrows and the water deepens, possibly another spring. Soon it turns into a true creek, and often times you have to get out and drag your kayak behind you in the shallows for about 200 feet or so. Then the area opens up into a large, shallow pool area where there is a visible zigzag crack in the limestone bottom. This spring is appropriately called "the crack", or inappropriately as "Ms. Maggie's crack", as I have seen it named!

The crack

It is a very beautiful area that , unfortunately is very popular since it is close to the boat ramp, and today is no exception as I count about 10 kayaks lining the shallow run leading up to "the crack". I stop and eat a PBJ sandwich in  solitude and then , leaving my kayak there, head to the spring with my mask and snorkel. "The crack", is around 8 feet deep or so to the bottom and I often see blue crabs and pinfish swimming near the bottom, reminding me I am in mixed salt and freshwater. The water tastes somewhat salty on my lips around the snorkel. It is refreshingly cool spring water and chills me to the bone. All is well with me as I feel the cool water and admire the beautiful forest around me.
 Heading back, I aim for the grand finale, the "solution holes", a series of seven small holes in the hard limestone bottom. From the boat ramp, it is very close, about 5 minutes away. To get there you cross over the very deep Chassahowitzka spring, which lies 40 feet or so down. Today, I can see all the way to the bottom. The boil from the vent is visible on the surface. The "solution holes" run lies to the left after the spring after passing a large tree on the same side.
3 of the 7 solution holes

main solution hole on the Chaz

This is a very shallow area which is popular with swimmers. Today, it isn't too bad for this time of day which is about 3pm. The popular thing to do here is to snorkel or dive through one hole and come out of another, kind of like cave diving. And yes, some people have died here trying to do just that. Whether it be shallow water blackout, alcohol related, or just losing their wits and panicking, it has an element of danger to it. I dock my kayak atop a large tree root and seek to cool off in the main hole which is about 8 feet across and about 10 feet to the bottom. A young guy is there with his mother. He is doing muscle poses while standing over the hole. He looks like a bodybuilder and is obviously happy with the way he looks.I can't tell if he is doing this for the two pretty young ladies nearby or for his enjoyment. After hearing him explain to his mother about how he wanted to buy a loincloth and work on his "Tarzan yell" I disappear through the hole and spy several snapper lurking in the shadows and crevasses below; the sun's rays glimmer off their silver colored bodies, illuminating them in the darkness. I look into some of these crevasses, wondering if these were the spots where the young woman got trapped underwater and died, a young medical student who died two or three years ago. I exit through a different, smaller hole, heading for the sunlight. I snorkel downriver and find some other holes to snorkel through. It is beautiful and eerie. Once, the first time I came here, I got trapped in a small hole on the way out. I told myself, "You panic, you die!" I backed up and went out the way I came in. Leaving, I explore a small little run behind this area which was never there before. I turned around after the first obstruction, a tree blocking the creek. 
  I pull up to ramp at 4:15pm, roughly 7 hours on the water . I estimate that I may have paddled 12-14 miles or so today. How many springs? My estimate would be 15. Wildlife was 2 alligators, manatees, a raccoon and one Tarzan wannabe. If you love birds, though, this is the place. I have never seen a place with so many fish as I saw in Crawford Creek.If you want it all in one day, the Chaz is the place to come and explore, and luckily for me, it lies only an hour and change away.

The Chassahowitzka River campground and boat ramp lies at the end of SR 98 after crossing US 19. Follow the signs. 5 bones to park. Nice campstore located at the launch and they supply river maps and info. Kayak and canoe rentals for a very good price as well. I recommend camping there to see everything and bring a fishing rod. Freshwater and saltwater license required.    

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