Lake a Day Challenge: Nelson Lake and Totogatic River

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Another creative place name as we approach Nelson Lake Dam

There is a large lake a few miles north of Hayward and grandfather’s farm that has a story connected with it. I loved hearing my dad tell me about the days when there was a valley there instead of a lake. He was very young when conservationist Frank Nelson proposed a dam to be built on the Totogatic River to create “a lake or backwater, suitable for fish and which would furnish a refuge and breeding ground for all kinds of wildlife.” Dad had memories of accompanying his father who was helping to remove as much timber from the land to be flooded as possible.  The dam was completed in 1936 and Nelson Lake was created. It’s hard to imagine the valley that lies beneath its waters now.  Much of the shoreline is wild and undeveloped and the lake is known for excellent fishing.

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This wild jumble of blooms completely obscured the stair down to the restrooms.

The park at the dam has been a favorite picnic spot for my parent’s generation, for my generation and hopefully for the next generation. I have done my part by taking my niece and nephew there to explore. It was a “must visit” spot for my lake of the day challenge.

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Not real sure about the green water…

Mom and I drove out and found the park a little overgrown but much the same as we had known it. Wild sumac and flowers covered the bank by the dam and the boat landing was busy with fishermen coming in from a day on the lake. There was a lot of algae bloom in the water which made it a little uninviting as far as swimming was concerned. I stayed with the one foot dip. But the views were fantastic and after reading some of the history of the lake here , I was more appreciative of the part the lake and its accompanying flowage played in local commerce.  There is a large island in the middle of the lake accessible only by boat and I think exploring it is going on the list for my next visit.

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Nelson Lake behind the dam, island in view.
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Water is high now and there is good flow going over the dam.
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The Totogatic River downstream from the dam and highway bridge.

Personal Challenges

I have not been pushing myself to write for many months and am feeling the need to challenge myself in some way.  I want to see how many days in a row I can find a meaningful thought or experience to write about, starting yesterday.

Several months ago I had the opportunity to buy a boat, a kayak, something that I had wished to do for years.  And even better, I had someone who also wanted to buy one, and go on outings with me.  We bought our used boats and excitedly brought them home.  Mark, my cousin, has gone out in his boat several times.  He’s fitted it with ropes for his anchor, so he can fish without drifting.  He’s renewed his fishing license.  He’s been out enough times that he’s “settled in” to how the boat feels and he’s comfortable.  Me?  I’ve lent my kayak out to a friend for a month.  That’s it.

So, last week we planned to go out on the water.  We decided to explore the north end of Longboat Key, Florida since my boat was already out there.  On the west of the key is the Gulf of Mexico.  On the east side is the Intercoastal Waterway with it’s bridges, bayous and mangrove hammocks, and that was the side we were most interested in.  It’s waters are calmer, more protected and have interesting features.

I have a lot of questions about my ability as a kayaker.  I know enough about paddling to impress someone who has never done it at all, but I really don’t know how far I can paddle or what challenges there might be when someone starts going out a lot.  I wonder if I could get lost (we didn’t).  I wonder if I could end up in the wrong place and get run over by a yacht (didn’t happen either).  I wonder if I could meet up with dangerous marine life (no).  I wonder if I could get stuck in the shallows, capsize, get tangled in brush ( um.. nearly happened).  For all these reasons, this first trip in my new (used) boat was a challenge, in it’s own way.

There was never a prettier day to be out in a boat!
There was never a prettier day to be out in a boat

Mark and I started from different points with a plan to meet up in the middle.  The first challenge was to time it right and not miss each other.  That was actually pretty easy.  Longboat Key has a lot of man made canals with houses along them, much like streets in a neighborhood.  We paddled south looking at houses and seawalls for a while but that got boring.  Boats were everywhere and the water didn’t look very clean, probably because the canals were deep and the bottom was dark.  I don’t think I saw anything alive in the water either.  I don’t blame the fish for not wanting to hang out there.

Mangroves grow right down into the water ... no beach here.
Mangroves grow right down into the water … no beach here.

We headed out across the boat channel to a more deserted looking island.  It was mildly challenging to avoid all the speedboats and yachts navigating the channel, but kind of fun to ride the waves in their wake.  The water started looking cleaner with a lot of sand bar area and beach with mangroves on the shore.  Very pretty but still not much life in the water or on the shore. We got around the northern point of this little island and had the most fun of our outing.

A wide spot in the inlet where we could turn around...
A wide spot in the inlet where we could turn around…

We spotted a part of the interior of the island that had no trees.  As we got closer we saw a narrow inlet – it looked like someone had swept a path about a yard wide through the foliage and mangrove roots.  It was calling my name.  The path had a current and it kept going further and further into the island.  Lots of birds and lots of minnows.  I would say it was like an estuary where fish go to be born and hide until they get big enough to make it on the outside.  I was a little surprised to see that Mark had been able to follow.  He weighs a bit more than I do and has a heavier kayak, and there were places where the water didn’t look more than eight to ten inches deep.  We were able to get turned around and back out without having to get out and drag our kayaks, but it was a place where you could imagine that happening. Very interesting.

He's fishing, but not catching.
He’s fishing, but not catching.

The second really nice place was a little farther down the shore on this same island.  The surface of the water was very calm in a small curved bay so it was easy to see  when a school of mullet arrived.  The water began to boil with ripples everywhere.  Mullet love to jump.  They are a very exuberant fish.  They are the kind that actually might jump into your boat if you are quiet and stick around long enough.  But you don’t catch them with a fishing pole – they don’t have eating on their little fish minds when they are like this.  We watched for a while and then started the trip back.

The last task we had set for ourselves was to see if my kayak could be safely carried on the roof of my Mazda 3 (a rather small car).  The answer is no, not without a roof rack.  We did get it up there and strapped it down before Mark noticed that the roof was denting a bit.  These are one person kayaks, but they are 13 feet long and hefty for one person to handle.  My goal is to be able to load and unload by myself and I think I’ll be able to do it after I get a rack for my car.  Now we know.

Having made an investment in this form of recreation, and I absolutely love it, I am challenging myself to get out there and get some good experience.  And I love taking friends out with me if anyone wants to come – Mark and I agreed to share our kayaks if we had need for two.  And I need to pick a name for my boat…  what should it be?

 Help me name my blue Ocean Kayak.