After one or a couple of failed attempts, a friend and I finally manage to do an overnight paddle and camp sampling of Lake Norris and Black Water Creek near Mount Dora FL.
On the Friday of the weekend trip, the adventure is still a question mark. One member of our threesome needs to bail out due to a malfunctioning truck. There is also a question about whether a "frigid" weekend of weather would force another trip postponement ("frigid" for Florida means temperatures in the 20s).
But both my friend and I have already packed the day before, so the trip is on...
Driving down to Mount Dora on Friday evening is an adventure in itself. Heading south on US 441 between Ocala and Eustis is not for the faint of heart. The highway in that area is a nearly unrelenting horror of "Anywhere USA" strip commercial. Auto dealers, drive-thru fast food "restaurants," shopping centers, 8-lane road sections full of angry and aggressive motorists, and glaringly obnoxious signs and flashing lights creates nearly an hour of driving misery.
To add insult to the agony, street addresses along this strip commercial blight-fest are nearly impossible to see when the buildings are so far from the street. Which means that we need to make a few U-turns to spot our motel on that first night.
After checking in, we set out for our first treat: A dinner in the walkable downtown of historic Mount Dora. Too cold for us to walk much, but we locate a pleasant place and have nice dinners (Palm Tree Restaurant?). For a nightcap, we find the Frosty Mug Pub, and have a taste of their dark ales.
The next morning, we arise to weather well-suited for a paddle. Mostly sunny, dry, and moderate temperatures without wind.
We drive out to Lake Norris and check a few potential put-in points along the way. We are alarmed and amused to notice that there are signs up in the lake area noting places like "Winn-Dixie Boy Scouts" and "Bank of America Boy Scouts." It is clear that the local boy scouts have sold out, and we wonder about what sort of instruction and field trips they are being given. ;-)
The decision is made to park the truck at a Lake Norris Conservation Trail Head parking area.
With the water at low levels due to the drought, it is a challenge to launch our overloaded kayaks into the creek (overloaded with our camping gear, dry clothes, and food).
But once in the water, we find the paddling to be quite good. On both days of our paddling, we experience a VERY quite, peaceful setting. No noticeable roar of cars. No motorboats. Few planes. It seemed like we have the Seminole State Forest to ourselves (the lake and creek are within the 22,000-acre Forest). The Forest boasts an impressive collection of ecosystems, including almost all of the naturally occurring communities found in Central Florida-over 13 natural communities are found here, such as flatwoods, scrub, and bottomland forest.
With no wind and no motorboats, the 1,100-acre Lake Norris is like glass. Paddling a short distance upstream to the lake along Black Water Creek, we immediately enter an extremely impressive and unusual bald cypress forest. A large collection of cypress trees ring the lake and stand in several feet of water. The trees are stunted and have an enormous base or root ball (see photo top left).
We are able to paddle and weave through the trees (see photo above left). It is the unique experience of paddling instead of hiking through a dense forest.
The cypress trees here are home to an exceptionally large number of osprey nests. We see a number of osprey, hawks, and vultures.
The water in both the lake and the creek are the darkest I have ever seen. Hence the name for the creek...
It is also interesting to note that despite the cool weather we paddle in, the water is rather cold to the touch, indicating that it is colder than 65 degrees, and suggesting the creek and lake are fed more by marshes than by springs.
We discover a place to camp-a rare commodity along Lake Norris and Black Water Creek, as both are almost entirely bordered by wet cypress forests, marshes, and bogs. Our site is an earthen spur boat ramp built to provide access to the lakeshore from a cattle pasture on the west side of the lake.
As good fortune would have it, the site does not appear to have been used in the past as a campsite, since we effortlessly find large amounts of dry wood nearby to build a campfire, and there is no sign of previous fires at the site.
The campsite is lovely. Again, we find quiet and solitude. The view of the lake is filtered in a pleasant way by those impressive and unusual cypress trees, which, the next morning, gives us a great framing of the sunrise on the eastern horizon of the lake from our site (photo above left).
The morning of our overnight camp includes a visit by two women walking a black Labrador. They report to us that they have seen 7 black bears in the past 7 days, which explains why, when we drove toward the forest the day before, we were appalled to see a new subdivision called "Black Bear Reserve" and a "Black Bear Road."
On Sunday, we paddle for a few hours downstream on Black Water Creek (photo at left). Black Water Creek runs 18 miles from Lake Norris to its outflow into the Wekiva River. The gentle Black Water Creek has very little current, which makes upstream paddling very easy. Like the lake, we paddle through a dense cypress swamp forest with a noticeable amount of bird life. We also spot alligator and deer along the creek. Low water levels require us to fight our kayaks over a few trees that have fallen across the creek.
According to the St Johns River Water Management District, the Lake Norris Conservation Area is purchased by the Water Management District to protect the extensive hardwood swamp that lies on the western shore of the lake and the shoreline of Black Water Creek, a major tributary of the Wekiva River. Lake Norris is a spectacular dark water lake that supports an impressive number of osprey. Staff at the Boy Scout Camp located on the northern shore of the lake have reported counting more than 100 active nests in the cypress trees that ring the lake. The upland portion of the Lake Norris Conservation Area consists of improved pasture, scrub and a small amount of planted pine. These uplands provide important habitat for the threatened black bear and for burrowing owls, a species of special concern in Florida.
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