Nancy and I attended the first annual Tour de Apalachicola, a gathering of KLRs and other dual port adventure riders. Attendees began gathering Thursday at the Indian Springs YMCA Camp located about near Wakulla Springs 15 miles south of downtown Tallahassee Florida .
This area looked prime for some backwoods exploring with the 565,000 acre Apalachicola National Forest just to the west and the 68,000 acre St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge stretching along the coast to the south. Nancy is always dragging me into these sparsely populated areas of the country to find a new challenge for her insatiable appetite for difficult riding. Joining us were our newly converted dual sport riding friends Cynthia and Jen.
Friday was a free day for everyone to find their own adventure. We were lucky to have Cynthia with us since she had lived in the area and knew some of the places that might interest us. The weather was threatening as we met with the early arrivals at the main building before heading out in the misty morning. Because of the weather we decided to stick to the paved roads. Two other North Carolina KLR riders decided to tag along with us.
We headed east on FL 267 passing through the small crossroads town of Wakulla on Bloxham Cutoff Road. At US 98 we took a left, crossing the St. Marks River, and then a quick right onto CR 59 ( Lighthouse Road ) which led to the coast. After dodging a few small deer we paid the $4.00 per bike entry fee at the gate and took a quick tour of the museum/gift shop. The museum offered a quick preview of the flora and fauna that can be seen in the refuge.
The weather cleared as we putt-putted down the Lighthouse road scanning the trees and tidal pools for a glimpse of the animals that might be lurking there. We observed several different species of ducks, herons, and other waterfowl, a bald eagle guarding its nest, and an alligator. The lighthouse, located right on the Gulf, was constructed in the early 1800s. It has been moved once as the shoreline has changed over the decades and rebuilt after suffering major damages in the Civil War. We then headed back north seeing the deer still lingering along the roadside on the way back out.
We soon ran into the rain again and the wind whipped us from one side of our lane to the other. We decided to head back to camp for lunch hoping the weather would break.
After a hot dog and baked bean lunch we checked the weather. It gave us a two hour window before the really bad stuff would arrive. We decided to take a short jaunt to make the most of the day.
This time we had a group of eight KLRs as we pulled into the Wakulla Springs State Park . After paying a $4.00 entry fee per bike we motored down to the Wakulla Springs Lodge which was built in 1937 by Florida railroad magnate and financier Edward Ball. The lodge, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, still offers hotel accommodations ($85-$105 a night) and meeting rooms year round. A glass case in the lobby is the resting place of Old Joe, an 11 foot plus stuffed alligator who once lived on a sandbar at Wakulla. He was shot by a poacher in 1966.
Just outside the Lodge is the spring fed Wakulla River . A sign warning people of alligators in the river is posted at the entrance to the large swimming area. Not very reassuring after seeing Old Joe’s huge body a few minutes earlier, but at least you have been warned before you are eaten. Tour boats are also available for a 45 minute cruise along the river at $6.00 per person. The spring itself comes out of a cavern more than 300 feet deep and nearly a mile long. The bones of extinct Ice Age mastodons have been recovered from the extensive underwater cave system.
We opted out on the cruise because of the threatening weather and headed south a mile or so to the Cherokee Sink. The entrance is signed and the drive is about a mile of fairly hard packed sand. This 80 foot deep sink hole filled with jade green fresh water is lined with limestone rocks, some 30 feet above the water line. The sink serves as a summer picnic, swimming and diving location.
The clouds were forming as we headed back into camp and secured everything that might blow away in the winds. There were tornado warnings along the Florida/Alabama line not too far distant. The wind and rains came, but did little more than shower our RV with hickory nuts from the trees above.
The storm passed and we went looking for a place to get some seafood. After driving by several places in Wakulla we headed closer to the coast at St. Marks and decided on the Riverside Cafe located right on the St. Marks River. The atmosphere was Florida rustic with pelicans perched on pilings and fishing boats unloading at the fish market next door. There were no walls on the back part of the place overlooking the river and the cold wind was blowing right in. Two 7 foot tall gas heaters provided some warmth once we moved closer to one.
After some raw oysters on the half shell we ordered grouper broiled, blackened, and fried and all the dishes were excellent. I especially liked the lightly fried grouper fingers done to perfection. The side dishes of hush puppies and coleslaw left something to be desired, but the fish and beer was all we needed anyway.
More riders had arrived on Friday with some thirty showing up for the Saturday morning pre-ride meeting. One group went out early to tackle a single track, but we opted out because of recent injuries to Jen and Cynthia and Nancy ’s healing foot surgery. A group ride was scheduled to leave at 10:30 am and we were suited-up and ready. By 11:00 am we were getting antsy and Nancy shouted-out that we were here to ride and would heading-out in 5 minutes. Scott, a local BMW rider, tagged along saying he too was ready to ride.
Our small group of five turned west on FL 267 crossing US 319 and turned left onto FR 313 and then right onto FR 361. Then we took a left onto FR 350, a right onto FH 13, a left onto 348 which bounded the Bradwell Bay Wilderness Area, a left on 357, a right on 356 (Lawhon Mill Road) where we once again saw private properties, and eventually hit US 319. It was getting to be lunch time so we headed west on paved US 319 into Sopchoppy, population 465.
The Sand Banks Café looked to be the place to eat in the tiny backwoods town of Sopchoppy . We were greeted by some very friendly waitresses who brought out samples of their coleslaw, hush puppies and deep fried biscuit balls. The fried grouper sandwich was excellent; fresh, not over-fried and melt in your mouth tender. The side dishes were good too, with the puppies fried just right and an unusual coleslaw with a tartar sauce flavor.
After lunch we continued west on CR 22 ( Rose Street ) and then took the right fork onto 375 ( Smith Creek Road ). A right onto FR 314 took us back into the Apalachicola National Forest and sand roads along the western edge of the Wilderness. We turned right onto FH 13 and stopped to view the 70 year old long leaf pine trees housing the endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers. You can spot the trees as they are painted with white rings.
We then took FR 348 north, took a right onto 309, passed the Brown House Hunt Camp, a left on 360 past Buckhorn Hunt Camp, crossed FL 267, continuing north on 360, then east on 374 and south on 367 to 305 and then east past the shooting range to Clear Lake. This one section of 305 which is heavily traveled was the worst road of the day with severe bumps for several miles. We exited the forest on 305 and headed home.
A word about the hunters here. It is the most insane method of hunting that we have seen. Two or three groups of hunters will work together sending dogs out into the woods to rustle-up a deer in the mid-day sun. Meanwhile the hunters station themselves along a long straight section of forest road waiting for the spooked deer to dash across the road. Only trouble is they are shooting in the direction of each other when the deer comes out of the woods onto the road. We were real courteous as we approached these armed men, slowing to a crawl, waving hello, and smiling broadly.
We found all of these Forest Service roads well maintained and easily passable. Most were hard-packed sand dual tracks with a washout here and there. Some washouts had a lot of new gravel dumped into them and some were puddled with water after the previous day’s storm. We hit a few places where loose sand required a little throttle to straighten out the bikes.
Returning to the camp we were all pretty well tired after the 120 mile day. We headed over to the meeting hall and found that our day was probably more exciting than the other riders who had left after us. Many wanted to know our route and where to find the water holes.
Sunday morning the temperature dropped into the 30s so we bundled-up for the prayer service held by Big Al. We had decided to take the single track tour after hearing that it was not too extreme. A little prayer might get us through this ordeal a little safer. After the service we mounted-up and headed out with some 24 riders to try our hand on a Panhandle single track.
Gerald, who organized the event, took the lead on this old MX course. As we pulled off the pavement and entered the woods Nancy took the first tumble wanting to get it over with early. All the bikes were stopping in thick sand forming a rather good cluster of inexperienced off-road riders. She pulled in looking for room to stop and went over in the sand. She used her usual dismounting technique of jumping clear so as not to be wedged under the bike.
In a few minutes we were off into the woods. It was great fun as we encountered sandy twists and turns, rutted trails, hidden stumps, whoop-dee-doos and trees barely far enough apart to allow passage on our big KLRs. I remember thinking how brave Gerald was to lead such a group into so many dangers. After about 20 miles we stopped at a large power easement intersection to let the big boys play in the sand. There were drag races, wheelies and rooster tails to thrill us average riders.
Back in the saddle we did another 5 miles of single track before returning to the paved road and heading for the all you can eat buffet which boasted on their sign “where pork fat rules”. Nancy couldn’t take the food orgy so she went across the street for an energy bar while the rest of us clogged our arteries.
Returning to camp we had to make one more run through the forest. We took 267 east, 61 north, 260 west and US 319 north to FR 322 west and within a few miles found some washouts with standing water. I took the dry way around the edge and looked in the mirror just in time to see Nancy go for the center of the mud hole. She found it much deeper than she expected and disappeared in the spray of muddy water. She stayed up but I almost laid it down from laughing so hard. At the next washout I slowed and offered her the puddle ahead, but she wisely declined and followed me on the safe route.
We jogged north on 373 and then west on 305 and the north on 358 and passed the Silver Lake Recreational Area before heading west on 301. A beautiful Florida sunset was gathering ahead of us as we turned south on 367 and the west on 305. We jumped on the pavement (267) and headed home.
The roads on the north side of 267 are much sandier than on the south side. The land is higher and the trees are thicker. It also seems to attract more traffic and littering.
We visited with the few remaining riders at the meeting hall Sunday night reminiscing about the fun on the single track and expressing our hope that this would be an annual event. It was reassuring to find that people with so many differences could find a common interest and spend three days riding and jawing about their favorite pastime …. riding dualsports.
We wanted to do some additional exploration of the Forest Service roads west of the Ochlocknee River , but just didn’t have the time. I also wanted to return to Carrabelle where I recall having the best fried oysters of my life some 25 years ago. There are several Forest Service Campgrounds located along the Ochlocknee River near the southern edge of the National Forest that might be more centrally located for exploring all these areas.