Some Cautions when Paddling Lake Charlotte

While Lake Charlotte is in most ways a paddler's paradise, there are some associated dangers which could seriously inconvenience or kill the incautious.

-- Waves and Wind:  Lake Charlotte is a fairly large lake, about 1.5 miles across, and this provids a lot of room for the wind to build-up some potentially dangerous waves.  As little as a 10 mph wind can lead to a rough day on the water, with waves up to a couple of feet high.  This scales up rapidly, and wind variability can make things worse.  Don't forget that waves moving into shallow water become even higher - this can make putting-in and pulling-out at Cedar Hill Park a challenge, particularly when the wind is from the south.  When the water is high, and the wind is from the south, waves from the lake interact with the southward current coming out of Mac Bayou to generate some particularly dangerous conditions near the mouth of the bayou.  The effect of the waves will vary with the style of the boat, with kayaks generally handling them better than canoes.  In general, the wind and waves will try to turn a boat 90 degrees to the wind, so that the waves and wind hit it from the side, a condition very much to be avoided.  In my lightweight ~17' solo canoe I have learned to check the weather forecast and avoid the lake when the wind exceeds 10 mph.  I also worry about thunderstorms in terms of lightning danger and associated winds, not to mention the rain.

Apparently the problem with the waves in Lake Charlotte has a lot to do with the size of the lake.  For a particular wind speed, wave height and wave length (corresponding to wave velocity) increase with the distance (fetch) which the wind has to act on the wave, until an equilibrium is reached where the wave is traveling about half as fast as the wind.  This equilibrium only occurs in the deep ocean, and lakes are far too small to allow it to occur.  Wave height increases faster than wave length, and Lake Charlotte seems to be large enough to develop waves with rather a lot of height (at least 2-3 feet) without so much length, leading to a pattern of closely spaced high waves which can be quite troublesome to handle, particularly when the distance between the peaks is less than the length of the boat.  My experience has been that this is not so much of a problem on bodies of water less than half the size of Lake Charlotte (no problems on Miller Lake or Mud Lake, for instance), nor on lakes of more than double that size.

-- Overturning:  An experienced paddler in a classic kayak can quickly do an eskimo roll to recover from an overturning.  The rest of us aren't so lucky.  If you are alone and experience an overturning in water more than 2/3 your height deep, especially in high waves, there is no practical means to re-enter, and you may as well just start swimming towards shore - hopefully wearing a life preserver, and whether you attempt to drag the canoe along will depend upon how far from shore you are along with how cold the water, and don't forget that you share the water with alligators.  Bearing this in mind, it is well worth checking the lake gage prior to venturing into the lake.  I have measured the height of the deepest part of the lake at about 4.5 feet on the lake gage.  If the gage is showing a level of 7.5 feet, then the deepest point in the lake is no more than 3 feet below the surface making reentry feasible, and paddling through the center of the lake should be fairly safe in otherwise non-ideal conditions.  On the other hand, if the gage is at 10.5 feet then the lake is up to 6 feet deep, and it would be wisest to remain near the shore unless you have a very stable boat and the wind is very light.

-- Alligators:  There are lot's of alligators in the vicinity of Lake Charlotte, some of which are very large (perhaps larger than your boat).  Alligators are probably not going to be a problem, but you should be aware of them and their habits.  Generally speaking, alligators will attempt to hide from people unless they are guarding their young.  With this in mind, be particularly careful exploring shallow marshy areas with lots of reeds and bushes which an alligator might consider an ideal nursery.  Learn to recognise the nasal "chirping" sound of a young alligator in distress - if they're chirping, you should be retreating.  Don't attempt to get too close to an alligator, as they may feel the need to defend themselves or simply cause you to overturn as they're trying to escape.  Inevitably you'll manage to startle the occasional 'gator, and the splash they make as they try to hide will startle you in return (being overturned is rare, but can happen).  Try not to look like food.  Alligator attacks are rare.  I have never heard of an alligator attacking a canoe, yet I have read multiple accounts of them attacking kayaks; I would speculate that this is because a canoeist stands higher above the water and is shielded by a gunwale, whereas a kayaker sits pretty-near at water level.  This influenced my selection of a canoe over a kayak.  With this in mind, most of the paddlers that I see on Lake Charlotte are in kayaks, and I have not heard of a dangerous incident, so were I in a kayak I would simply be aware of the potential danger and try to avoid getting into particularly worrisome situations.

-- Canoes versus Kayaks:  I like canoes.  I've grown up with them, and have no experience in a kayak.  I like to be able to sit back and relax and have a snack or read a book without worrying that I'll inadvertently roll over.  I like to be able to carry stuff with me, and I like the roominess and security with respect to alligators that a canoe provides.  A long canoe is ideal in flat water, but can be a liability in high waves and wind or current, all of which are better handled in a kayak.  Given sufficient funds I would have a canoe for days when the conditions are good (light wind and/or low level and current) and a kayak when the conditions worsen.  In the real world I made a choice that I felt would make me happy most of the time, and you'll need to make your own choice.  Just be aware of the limitations, whichever choice you make.

-- Current:  Water current is not so much a problem on Lake Charlotte itself as it is in the channels leading into and out of the lake.  Mac Bayou, in the segment connecting the north of Lake Charlotte to the Barge Channel, can develop a pretty hefty current when the Trinity is high.  In both places I have measured the current at up to 3-5 mph, and substantially higher on the Trinity.  I have a fairly fast canoe, and I can cruise at 4 mph but max-out at 5.  To the south, Lake Pass is mostly free of troublesome current until it is within about a quarter of a mile of the Trinity.  You won't encounter rapids in either case, but there may be some mild standing waves (or worse near the mouth of Mac Bayou if the wind is from the south).  The current presents two problems.  One, if the current is faster than you are able to paddle, then you may find yourself on a one-way trip into unknown conditions, possibly being pushed into a fallen tree or a dangerously flooded Trinity.  Two, a high current in a narrow channel leaves little margin for error, and you may find yourself driven into a tree or other obstruction which flips the boat.  Aside from the Trinity (which I am inclined to avoid) I note 3 particularly troublesome locations.  As already mentioned, one is the section of Lake Pass in the last quarter mile prior to emptying into the Trinity (current, narrow, danger of being forced into Trinity), the second is near the mouth of Mac Bayou (current + waves = bigger chaotic waves), and the third is the 1/10 mile segment of Mac Bayou between the old pipeline crossing and the Barge Channel, where the water has just made a 90 degree turn and is a bit chaotic - a transverse twist in the current might flip a boat with a keel here.  I have also seen some moderate standing waves downstream of the pipeline, so it seems there is some sort of obstruction near the bottom there.  The Trinity is a whole other issue, best avoided unless the current is low - apparently there have been a lot of drownings in this region of the Trinity, and at the very least I have seen a flood-level current clearly in excess of my ability to paddle upstream against it.

-- Spiders and Snakes:  I've seen rather a lot of hefty spiders nearly the size of my hand on the cypress trees bordering the lake. 

These are big enough that you can hear the sound of their feet scuttling over the bark, and occasionally they'll drop off into the water and swim back to that tree or another.  They're not brown recluse or black widows, but I sure wouldn't want to have one in the canoe with me.  Otherwise I encounter a lot of smaller innocuous spiders, particularly banana spiders with webs that stretch among trees and bushes.  I have heard of problems with wasp nests overhanging the Lake Pass channel, but I haven't had a problem with them.  There are plenty of snakes about, largely unseen, but occasionally I'll see one hanging from a tree limb or swimming in the water.  You will of course want to be careful to avoid brushing up against a bush with a snake hanging from it, but they're otherwise not a problem.  Swimming snakes are not a problem in a canoe, but may be an issue in a kayak which they could easily swim on top of; usually they run away rather than approach.

-- Poison Ivy:  This is common on the solid ground all around the lake.  Just be aware of it, know what it looks like, and don't touch it.