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Topic: Paddling TR: Exploring My Backyard Creek, My Little "Lewis & Clark" Expedition< Next Oldest | Next Newest >
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PostIcon Posted on: Jun. 10 2013, 1:19 pm  Skip to the next post in this topic. Ignore posts   QUOTE

For the past couple of years, I wondered if it was possible to kayak down Limestone Creek (in my backyard) to Oneida Lake? Well, I knew it was “possible”, but was it feasible? After watching a Ken Burns documentary about Lewis & Clark a couple weeks ago, I was inspired, and decided I’d give it a go.

I’d been a couple miles downstream several times, and knew that after the 1-mile mark, there were several log jams that required time-consuming and energy-sapping portages through mosquito-infested stinging nettles, poison ivy, and thorny brambles. Really, really annoying. As a result of those trips however, I realized that the easiest passage is when the creek is in flood stage since the water overtops many of the log jams or allows passage in the flood plain to either side.

But the problem with a creek in flood stage is that it is very powerful. Even when the water looks flat and calm, the current carries A LOT of power. Add a tree that has fallen over the creek, and you end up with what’s called a “strainer”. Basically, the current pushes you into the branches, and if the branches are stiff, they catch you. Once caught, it is incredibly hard to free yourself against the power of the current. And there is a good chance that the current will overturn the kayak and suck you under, still trapped against the branches. About 10 years ago, some kids canoeing down adjacent Chittenango Creek died in such a manner. My route would involve countless blind turns around oxbow bends, and this is what had deterred me in the past.

On Saturday morning, I realized that the logistics were just as daunting as the trip itself. First, there were the typical food and water requirements. I also needed to find my dry bag, hand pump, and life vest. Then I needed to review the map to determine exactly where I’d be going. I didn’t want to look at aerial photographs to keep the trip itself “pure”, but I did look at the section that entered the Cicero Swamp since I wasn’t sure if the channel was obvious or if it broke into a hundred braids. It was obvious. Of primary logistical concern however was my extraction point. The land near the mouth was all private. I spied a couple of private marinas on the creek that could work in a pinch, and found a couple more on the lake itself near the mouth. The nearest public launch was 5 miles away from the mouth. I finally settled on two options… 1) Lake Option: a small park on Lakeshore Drive, about 1.5 miles from the mouth, and 2) Creek Option: a bridge over a small stream on Tuttle Road (if the lake was too choppy).

Gear, maps, and food/water set, I began my journey by dragging my kayak from the backyard to my launching area on the creek. Unfortunately, my normal launching point was not possible due the high water level , so I searched for another. And searched and searched. Not a good way to start my trek. Finally I decided to launch from the rip-rap on the side of the bridge. This option had its own set of minor problems, but I “easily” overcame them and was soon paddling down the creek.

Other than a loud red-tailed hawk screeching its displeasure with my presence, the first half-mile was as uneventful as it had been in the past, but then I reached the first major obstacle… an abandoned, broken dam with a 90-degree bend immediately after. The water pinches through the broken section, and thus, the flow is fast. A strong whirlpool forms at the bend. To add to the difficulty, I noticed that a willow tree had fallen over the open section of the dam. It couldn’t have fallen in a worse place. The good news was that there weren’t any strainers immediately downstream of the dam. I was able to find a small 4-foot gap under the tree trunk near the bank, and despite the strong current, I was able to steer the kayak right to the exact point. I was pleasantly surprised that the ever-present log jam between the dam and Kirkville Road bridge had either broken up or was overtopped by the high water. I dared to think that maybe my portages would be few and far between.

Halfway between Kirkville Road and the Thruway, I saw the first logjam. I thought it might be possible to skirt around one of the edges, but realized I’d spend more time looking for a passage than just portaging around it. I found an easy exit point on the left bank and began dragging the kayak behind me. Stinging nettles were everywhere, so I was glad that I decided to wear pants and a long sleeve shirt. After passing the log jam, I began searching for a launching point. Unfortunately, the bank on this side was high, so I kept dragging the kayak. After about 10 failed opportunities, I came across a suitable entry point.
About 200 yards downstream, I came across another log jam. This one was so well established that it had vegetation growing on top.  As before, I spied an easy exit, dragged the kayak, and couldn’t find a good launching point. Then I came across some oxbow waters. Thankfully, the entrance was easy and the oxbow directly connected to the creek.

Although I only had about 2 feet of clearance, I was able to continue under the Thruway bridge. That was especially good news because I didn’t want to cross the Thruway while carrying a kayak. I continued past a partial log jam, but just as my hopes got up, I came across another that stretched across the entire creek. Same routine as before, except I easily found a launching point.

The Myers Road bridge provides the least clearance of all the bridges, and I was confident that I’d have to portage over it. To my surprise, I fit under. Barely, but I fit. Just beyond, Butternut Creek entered from the left, and just beyond that, a double log jam. A mother goose wasn’t happy with my close proximity to her goslings, but all she did was honk at me. Again, another easy exit, drag, search, and entry. This was getting tiresome.

The next section of creek to North Manlius Road and Chittenango Creek was exceptional. I’d been down this section just once before, and it required several forays into shallow flood plain waters to avoid log jams, along with a couple of portages. Today, I was able to easily get through or around all of the jams. Granted, it required some accurate navigation, but that made the section all the more interesting. I saw a family of mallard ducks, a turkey, and a great blue heron in this section. From this point forward, I’d be paddling on Chittenango Creek. Both water bodies being similar in volume, the channel becomes much wider. That should mean that log jams would be much less frequent.

Immediately after the confluence and continuing all the way to Peck Road, the flow was relatively fast. Navigation was a bit more difficult, but it also meant that I got through the section much faster. The next section was a rare straight course. It started raining so I found a dry spot under a maple tree along the bank. I grabbed my food/supplies from the dry bag behind me and had pulled out a snack and drink. I set off again, just floating downstream as I ate and drank. The nice thing about paddling downstream is that I continue forward even while taking a break.

Sooner than expected, I reached the oxbow turn that signaled the end of the straight section. This next section winds its way all over place for about 2 miles. But as the crow flies, I’d be travelling about one-quarter mile to the north. This section, too, was much better than expected. No log jams, and it had a very wild feel to it. So wild, in fact, that by the time I reached the end of the section, I thought I had gone much further downstream. I came across several great blue herons and some wood ducks. For a fleeting instant, I thought I saw a moose. But it turned out to be a horse. It was the only time I can recall seeing a horse in the woods. I also saw some deer that had an exceptional orange-red coat. Almost like a red fox coloring.

Soon I came to the confluence with Black Creek, and Bridgeport-Kirkville road paralleled me on the right bank. I came across a very large black duck with red “warts” on its face. After looking on the internet, I found that it was a Muscovy Duck. A bit further downstream I found another with grayish markings. Being relatively close to civilization, I’m not sure if they were domestic or feral.

The channel became even wider and I felt like I was paddling on a river. I decided to take a short break on the left bank, and was surprised when the invisible current spun my kayak 180 degrees. It was a reminder of the power of the current. A couple of times the creek became very wide at the confluence with oxbow lakes, and the correct path wasn’t initially obvious. But after reading the water for a few seconds, the flow could be determined and the right path chosen. I spooked several more great blue herons. They are a majestic bird, but their alarm call leaves a lot to be desired. They sound a bit like a large cat dry-heaving.

The next section was on the edge of the large Cicero Swamp, and definitely had a wild feel to it. A great blue heron perched on a branch about 20 feet overhead and watched me intently. I felt malice in its stare. A large black vulture rose from the bank and squawked at me from a perch. I decided to take another break and  “beached” the kayak on some vegetation along the bank. After about 2 minutes, I noticed that the kayak was covered with bugs and spiders. I normally don’t mind such creatures, but there were so many that even I got the heebie-jeebies. I brushed off as many as possible and quickly launched off. I splashed the remainder off the kayak with my oars. Definitely a creepy section, and I hadn’t even entered the swamp yet.

After navigating a couple more oxbow turns, I entered the swamp, but it wasn’t entirely obvious. I was expecting a spooky feel, but it was actually quite pleasant. The creek straightened a bit, and I was able to able to glide along instead of aggressively combating the twisting current. Some high-voltage power lines crossed overhead, and I spotted a very large nest on top of one of the towers, but I couldn’t tell what kind of birds were perched on it. Soon after, I came to a log jam. The first in a very long time. It actually felt good to get out of the kayak and move my legs.

I easily found a launching point, but just before getting into the kayak, I noticed a large, thick streak of blackness on the middle section of the creek that contrasted with the typical milk chocolate colored floodwaters. My initial thought was “oil spill”, but then I wondered if the black water was coming from the swamp. I’d heard of something similar where the Rio Negro enters the Amazon River. The waters are of different color and density, and don’t immediately mix. Now I was excited to explore the situation.

Upon closer inspection, the blackness didn’t have any sheen or odor. I paddled upstream and found the source coming from a stream exiting the swamp. I entered the blackwater with a bit of foreboding. But the kayak didn’t sink, and no kraken attacked. Looking at my white oars underwater, the water had the color of strong tea. From tannin leaching from the decaying swamp vegetation, I assume. As I continued up the blackwater stream, I became a bit confused. The water was so black and still that the reflection of the trees was absolutely perfect. It was hard to distinguish the real trees from the reflection, and land from water. Disorienting, but really neat as well. I reached a small log jam and turned back, but I will definitely be visiting this area in the future.

Once again in the main channel, I followed the line where the black and brown waters slowly mixed together. Within a few hundred yards, the waters were uniformly mixed again. Soon after, I spotted a couple of bald eagles. One perched about 20 feet above me. The other flew downstream, began shrieking, and quickly flew back overhead chased by a nimble falcon. Just before entering the Village of Bridgeport, the flow picked up. Considerably. I had to navigate through standing waves, and soon I was just concerned with picking a line through the immediate “rapids” rather than the path ahead. Before I knew it, I had passed under the Route 31 bridge and was on the far side of the village.

Adrenalin now flowing, I entered another section of calm waters. Houses and camps dotted the banks and the creek no longer had any wild feel to it. The flow of the creek seemed to stop or even flow backwards. I felt this was possible if the creek was receding after last week’s rains, yet the nearby lake was still rising. This section was quite unremarkable and uneventful, and time seemed to drag along especially since my goal was now to merely reach the lake. I began noticing low frequency swells on the surface, and knew that the lake couldn’t be far away. I was surprised just how far away it still was.

When I finally spotted the lake, I noticed that it was extremely choppy. I hadn’t brought my kayak skirt, so there was no way I’d be bringing my kayak out onto the rough waters. I was even nervous bringing my kayak out into the mouth due to the relatively large standing waves. Having barely crossed the creek/lake threshold, I paddled backward toward the relative safety of the creek, turned around, and paddled upstream to my extraction point.

Back home, I determined that I had paddled 17-18 miles in 4.5 hours. It was no wonder I couldn’t raise my arms above shoulder-level for the remainder of the day!


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When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be. - Lao Tzu
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PostIcon Posted on: Jun. 10 2013, 1:34 pm Skip to the previous post in this topic. Skip to the next post in this topic. Ignore posts   QUOTE

Wow, that's awesome.  You're pretty lucky, not everyone can have that adventure right in their backyard.

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“I’m just hanging on while this world keeps spinning and it’s good to know it’s out of my control.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned from all this living is that it wouldn’t change a thing if I let go…”
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PostIcon Posted on: Jun. 10 2013, 2:56 pm Skip to the previous post in this topic. Skip to the next post in this topic. Ignore posts   QUOTE

What a great story.

I grew up on the west side of Rochester, NY, and had Salmon Creek go through my parent's yard. One day I put on some ratty sneakers, bagged a lunch, and went strolling. Amazing how you see things so differently than when you're driving past. Made it to my hometown, Hilton, before turning back.


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PostIcon Posted on: Jun. 10 2013, 9:09 pm Skip to the previous post in this topic. Skip to the next post in this topic. Ignore posts   QUOTE

WWBF,

Nice story.  I highly recommend paddling the Fish Creek above Taberg sometime, it is one of the most scenic creeks in NY.  The upper gorge features a winding shale gorge with countless sidestream falls after a rain.  It is a whitewater creek with Class III+ rapids, but it is a must do.  The scenery is impressive.  Maybe you can go in a raft or ducky if you are not familiar with whitewater.  I was up there this weekend and it is always a pleasure to paddle the Fish.  500 cfs might be lowest you can do it, and expect some scraping.
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PostIcon Posted on: Jun. 10 2013, 9:50 pm Skip to the previous post in this topic. Skip to the next post in this topic. Ignore posts   QUOTE

Awesome account, WWBF. It's such a intimate feeling, being in a kayak in nature. It enables you to really get close to animals without spooking them with a motor. LOve the visual of the strainer.

Your description of the currents turning the kayak reminds me of a time in FL. I'd exited the back bay into the Gulf of MX. I was exiting a rather deep pass about 1/2 mile offshore. The receding tide was opposite the wind. Add a sandbar into the mix and I was caught in a 3-ft. chop coming from several directions. The skirt certainly helped. Thanks for bringing back a memory I haven't thought of in years. :)
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PostIcon Posted on: Jun. 11 2013, 12:51 am Skip to the previous post in this topic. Skip to the next post in this topic. Ignore posts   QUOTE

Great trip report.  Thank you.

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"Straight paths made by man
Are unnatural and full of curses
But a trail is a song."

Louis Oliver (Creek Indian poet)
"Songs on Winding Trails"
in Chasers of the Sun
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PostIcon Posted on: Jun. 11 2013, 12:02 pm Skip to the previous post in this topic. Skip to the next post in this topic. Ignore posts   QUOTE

Very cool. :)  I love running rivers for the first time (ones I've never paddled before).  It takes a lot of effort, much like you described, but it's awesome.  Thanks for the report!

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PostIcon Posted on: Jun. 11 2013, 12:12 pm Skip to the previous post in this topic.  Ignore posts   QUOTE

Sounds like a great day on the water.

I have done similar trips in the flooded Hillsborough River near my house.  I have ended up in the swamp away from the river channel.  By just going with the flow I knew I would be back in the river channel.  

A day paddling is always a great day.


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“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain
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