Blog Index

My blog is an intersection of art and nature. It is where I write about my adventures into Florida wilderness.

An Ever-Shifting Landscape

 
190704-paynesPrairieKayaking-web-17.jpg
 
 

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.

 
A snapshot of my gear packed and ready to go.

A snapshot of my gear packed and ready to go.

Our kayaks loaded on the roof of Alex’s Hyundai Accent.

Our kayaks loaded on the roof of Alex’s Hyundai Accent.

My kayak sits on the edge of Paynes Prairie Preserve prior to launching from US 441.

My kayak sits on the edge of Paynes Prairie Preserve prior to launching from US 441.

A view of the Paynes Prairie Preserve scenic overlook on US 441 shot with the Mamiya 7ii.

A view of the Paynes Prairie Preserve scenic overlook on US 441 shot with the Mamiya 7ii.

A large storm looms in the distance during our paddle out to the La Chua Trail observation platform in Paynes Prairie Preserve.

A large storm looms in the distance during our paddle out to the La Chua Trail observation platform in Paynes Prairie Preserve.

The La Chua Trail observation platform rises from a flooded Paynes Prairie.

The La Chua Trail observation platform rises from a flooded Paynes Prairie.

Alex rests under the platform, the only protection from the intense sun.

Alex rests under the platform, the only protection from the intense sun.

A first person view of my kayak parked under the La Chua Trail overlook. It was like having a personal two-kayak garage in the middle of the prairie.

A first person view of my kayak parked under the La Chua Trail overlook. It was like having a personal two-kayak garage in the middle of the prairie.

 

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.

 
Alex paddles by the La Chua Trail observation deck in Paynes Prairie Preserve. Shot with the Mamiya 7ii.

Alex paddles by the La Chua Trail observation deck in Paynes Prairie Preserve. Shot with the Mamiya 7ii.

 
A large storm forms over Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. Shot with the Mamiya 7ii.

A large storm forms over Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. Shot with the Mamiya 7ii.

 
Alex sits in his kayak as a massive thunderstorm sweeps across Paynes Prairie Preserve.

Alex sits in his kayak as a massive thunderstorm sweeps across Paynes Prairie Preserve.

 

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)

 
 
Alex investigates the giant mass of plants from atop the observation deck.

Alex investigates the giant mass of plants from atop the observation deck.

 
Our kayaks enclosed beneath the La Chua Trail observation platform.

Our kayaks enclosed beneath the La Chua Trail observation platform.

 

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.

 
Alex and I paddle back toward the car. The storm made the water feel more like an ocean than a lake.

Alex and I paddle back toward the car. The storm made the water feel more like an ocean than a lake.

Alex gestures toward the US 441 overlook while tying down the kayaks.

Alex gestures toward the US 441 overlook while tying down the kayaks.

With the kayaks strapped to the roof, we made our way home through the rain.

With the kayaks strapped to the roof, we made our way home through the rain.

 

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.