Sunday, June 5, 2016

Beyond LA--Kayaking Simpson Creek to Nassau Sound and Back-Florida

This is a trip I did while vacationing on Amelia Island, FL. Talbot Island is just south of Amelia Island, and this route is a part of the Timucuan Preserve, which offers a ton of paddling options. This route is also a part of the Big Talbot Island State Park.
Every time I study the maps of the southeastern Atlantic coast, I feel the urge to move (that's the kayaker in me talking). There are so many options, with such a variety of conditions. Most of the route I'm describing here is perfect for almost any paddler, in almost any boat, assuming they can paddle at least 7 miles and handle some current. But, this trip takes you to Nassau Sound, and venturing out into the sound is not something just anyone should do in just any boat. Read on...

First and foremost, one word needs to stay in the forefront of all of your planning for trips on the Atlantic Coast: TIDES. On the Louisiana Coast, tides are roughly every 12 hours, and the tidal range is usually a foot or two. Along the Atlantic Coast, however, tides change every 6 hours or so (two highs, two lows, each day), and the range is several feet. In Louisiana, it is pretty easy to plan an entire trip with the tide either going out or coming in the whole time--you have about 12 hours to play with, and sometimes you have a pretty measurable slack tide also. And, with the relatively small tidal range, paddling against the flow of the tide often just means working harder for part of the trip. Along the southeastern Atlantic Coast, it's a much narrower window, with two highs and two lows each day, so you can expect the tide to change while you're out. Not always, and on a lot of one-way trips, you can work with one-way tides quite nicely if you time it right. But if you're doing multi-hour round trips or loops, or tricky crossings, you need to work with the timing of the tides. While I was there, one of the low tides occurred in the middle of the day every day. And, with a 5' range, if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time, you could be in for a fight. That's a lot of water moving, and it's being funneled into channels and sounds, so it speeds up. And (very important), it's very possible to launch at high tide and return at low tide to  hundreds of yards of mud between yourself and your take out spot. 
But, this is not meant to be a lesson on tides--just a warning. Do your homework.
On to the route:

kayak simpson creek nassau sound

I chose this route because my paddling partner had not paddled in a while and didn't want to have her boat handling skills tested too much. Simpson Creek itself is a typical tidal creek in that it will always feel like a creek (no waves), but the current changes speed and direction with the tidal flow. And where it meets the Nassau Sound, you do have options to go play in waves. You exit the creek into a beautiful sandy lagoon. From here, you can decide, based on conditions and your comfort levels, whether you want to venture out into the sound: out to Bird Island or simply follow the beaches of Talbot Island. This trip was just around 9 miles.
We chose to use the launch provided by Kayak Amelia, on Heckscher Road, in the Little Talbot Island State Park. The fee was $1 per person, with safe parking and someone willing to offer info and a map. They also have a restroom and bottled water for sale. 
By the way, Kayak Amelia offers various guided tours, kayak rentals, has a gift shop in the state park and in Fernandina Beach, and has a very helpful, friendly, knowledgeable staff. And a decent variety of rental boats---next trip, I may leave my boats in Louisiana and just rent from them. Here's their website:

And here's our launch/take out:

"Riding the tide":
On the day of our trip, low tide was at 11:13 in the morning. The tide moves out of Simpson Creek from the launch, towards Nassau Sound to the north, or towards Fort George River to the south. Then, at high tide, the creek fills back up. So we planned to follow the tide out, play in the sound for a bit, and then follow the tide back in.  We launched a little later than I wanted--around 10:40, and the water was already very low. Kayak Amelia has two launch spots here, and the gravel "high tide" launch was in a small bay of mud. So we had to carry our kayaks across the large yard, down the ramp and to their floating dock.

The launch at low tide (note the mud below the grass, and the oyster bed just above the center of the picture.

However, three hours later, at high tide, we paddled right up to the gravel launch to take out:

This is the same spot at high tide-3 hours later. Note the lack of mud or oyster bed.

Because we launched so close to low tide, the banks of Simpson Creek were muddy or sandy, often covered with oyster beds, and then there was typical marsh grass 3 or 4 feet above that. The current was barely noticeable at this late stage (the speed of the flow tends to peak in the middle of the tide period, and be slower at the beginning and end), and if we felt any benefit from it, it was minor. We passed several sand bars and sandy islands, and saw quite a few shore birds. 

kayak simpson creek

Note the oyster beds on the right. Lots and lots of oyster beds are visible at low tide.

This is a very curvy creek (especially at low tide), and my partner chose to use her rudder. The current was subtle, but it and the wind affected our steering. At times, we skimmed through water that was a foot or less deep. Some time after the first mile and a half, you'll start to see the land on your left rise up, and you'll pass Half Moon Bluff.  Note the muddy layer between the water and the dry sand at low tide:

kayak simpson creek

kayak simpson creek
Shortly after you pass the bluffs and the left bank flattens back out, you'll start to hear the surf and you'll come to the northern end of Simpson Creek, where it meets Nassau Sound. The creek widens out and white sandy beaches appear. You come out into a nice, sheltered lagoon on the right, and the opening to the sound on the left. This is a very nice spot to stop and play in the water and on the white sand.

kayak simpson creek and nassau sound
We arrived just after low tide and stopped on the sand bar that is the northern edge of the lagoon. Just as we arrived, someone in a fishing kayak was reeling in a small shark (which he released), and we saw another very small shark swimming in the shallow water. Kayak Amelia told us that it's not uncommon to see sharks and dolphins here at low tide, as the smaller fish follow the tide out of the creek into the sound. Later, at Bird Island, we caught a quick glimpse of a dolphin. 

This is the sand bar across from the mouth of Simpson Creek

There are a lot of sand bars and shoals at the opening of the sound, so in normal-to-calm conditions, the bigger waves break before the opening to Simpson Creek. But I've only been out here twice in one week--I know very little about what's typical out here. The water was very calm on this day, with just a gentle up and down of the water,  so we paddled over to Bird Island a few hundred yards away. Bird Island is very flat, with just shore grass for vegetation, so from the lagoon, as you look across to Bird Island, it appears to blend with the white beaches of Amelia Island, and with the bridge in the background, so your eyes can trick you.

Bird Island at low tide. 

This picture is a little deceiving: it's not as short as this looks, but the crossing from Bird Island to Talbot was a pretty easy quarter mile or so.

After a bit, we paddled back over to the beaches of Big Talbot Island, and could definitely see the tide coming in. Bird Island's sandy beach got smaller, and the long sand bar attached to it shrunk. In fact, Bird Island grows and shrinks so much with the tides that maps seem to have a hard time placing the label in the right place--sometimes the "Bird Island" label seems to be on water. 
As we made the short crossing over to the bluffs of Talbot Island, the rocking swells became just a little bouncier. The extra energy in the water was fun. 
Because the tide was coming in and it was midday, boat traffic increased a little, and we did encounter a group of jet skis as we crossed over to Talbot, but really, traffic was very light.  We pulled up on a rocky beach and relaxed and ate lunch. 
kayak simpson creek nassau sound

kayak simpson creek nassau sound
Over the course of the 30-40 minutes that we relaxed, the tide moved in enough to start moving our boats and I had to pull them farther up the sand twice:
kayak simpson creek nassau sound

When we launched to head back, the gentle rock and swell of the water grew a little, and by the time we got back to Simpson Creek, I was taking a few little splashes into my cockpit. Very minor, but as I mentioned at the beginning: check conditions and know what you're getting yourself and partners into. For us, it was fun to go from roll to bounce, and to get a little wet. I did seal the camera up after the first splash, so no pictures again until we got back to the lagoon and the opening of Simpson Creek.
By the way, when we returned to Simpson Creek, I took the very first available right hand turn, and (luckily) realized this was a mistake. There is a very small, pretty short, creek that you need to go past, and go into the larger opening of Simpson Creek. In my route image above, you can barely see where I started to make this mistake. It's possible this small creek only exists at high tide. Here's the close-up:
kayak simpson creek

Once in the real Simpson Creek, things looked quite a bit different with high tide. The narrow creek with muddy banks became a wide creek through a marshy grassland:

Kayak simpson creek

At high tide, the bluffs look very different.

Where on the trip out, we hardly felt any assistance from the outgoing tide, on the trip back in, we definitely did, thanks to our timing. Our speed was easily a mile or more per hour faster heading back to Kayak Amelia. And the sand and mud between the water and the grass was gone, and we were now on a much wider creek with grassy banks. Only the highest oyster beds remained visible. By the way, after you pass that first right hand "wrong turn" that I almost took and find yourself in the wider creek, keep Half Moon Bluff on your right (even though the bluffs look much smaller now), or you could end up making an extra little loop (see map). No harm, other than a little extra distance and maybe a little confusion for someone with my sense of direction. Surprisingly, I did not take the wrong turn there (and my partner would've known better anyhow).
So, this is a great trip for paddlers of any skill level, and it gives you the chance to experience the surf and beaches of the sound, and the beauty of the northern shore of Talbot Island. We enjoyed Nassau Sound so much that we planned our next kayak trip just around that (another entry will describe that).

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