An Ever-Shifting Landscape
It was midday and 95 degrees with scattered thunderstorms forecasted throughout the afternoon. The conditions were perfect for a lot to go wrong.
Without much of a plan, Alex and I loaded our kayaks onto his Hyundai Accent and headed south on US 441 to the Paynes Prairie scenic overlook, a long boardwalk nestled between Gainesville to the north and Micanopy to the south.
To provide a little context for this story, Paynes Prairie Preserve, a 21,000-acre karst depression located on the edge of Gainesville, has been flooded since Hurricane Irma back in 2017. Paynes Prairie connects to the Floridan aquifer via Alachua Sink, a sink hole that essentially functions as a drain. Every once in a while debris plugs the sink hole, and Paynes Prairie turns into Alachua Lake.
Currently, Alachua Lake engulfs the entire northern end of the prairie, and an observation platform at La Chua Trail is inaccessible by anything but boat. Alex and I have consequently been crafting a plan to kayak to the platform and camp overnight. However, we wanted to first ensure we could reach the platform before attempting it in the dark. The trip I’m describing in this post was our test run.
Partly because we’re hard-headed and partly because we have a subconscious fetish for pain, we chose the hottest part of one of the hottest days of the year to make our run. With my iPhone in my pocket and my Mamiya 7ii packed away in a waterproof bag, we drove to the 441 overlook completely oblivious to the bizarre things we’d experience that day.
I can’t overstate how hot that day was. Despite sunscreen, protective clothing and plenty of water, I felt like I was on the verge of a heatstroke by the time we reached the platform. I spent the better part of an hour cooling in the shade before taking pictures.
The storms were coming. They were moving faster than I had anticipated, but I wasn’t quite ready to paddle back out into the sun. We decided the smartest plan was to wait out the storm under the cover of the platform and then make a run for it once a window opened.
As the wind picked up, we noticed the most peculiar thing: little pods of plants and animals that appeared rooted in the ground began to move around the prairie. The entire landscape was shifting like a kaleidoscope!
It started as small pods. But as the storm grew closer, entire masses hundreds of feet across began to move. One of them crashed right into the front of the observation platform, closing us off from the outside world. (See video below)
Surrounded by plants on all sides, our little nook became a refuge safe from the wind and waves of the storm. Fortunately, there was a small opening at the northeast corner we were able to slip through. We waited until most of the storm had passed and then made our move. Lightning continued to crash in the distance, so we paddled swiftly.
While we knew the direction we were heading, the wind had shifted the entire landscape. The route on the way back to the car was completely different than on the way in. Nevertheless, we navigated correctly and made it to the car safe and sound.
What began as a simple scouting mission turned into quite the adventure. I spend most of my time exploring the Juniper Prairie Wilderness, but this little adventure opened my eyes to the possibilities all around.
Stay tuned for part two when we paddle out to camp on the La Chua Trail platform, and be sure to check out Alex’s blog post here, which features a beautiful video of Paynes Prairie.