James Francis McDonald, missing since October 2012, was last seen just east of Franklin County.
On March 25, Gloria McDonald was 83 years old. She waited by the phone all day for her son, James to call but, for the first time ever, he failed to wish her happy birthday. His family is desperate to know what happened to him.
On the morning of Sunday, Oct. 14, Park Manager Robert Steele was making his rounds in Ochlocknee River State Park when he noticed a large yellow kayak pulled up onto the bank near the bathhouse provided for campers. He felt sure the kayak didn’t belong to a registered camper and took a closer look.
A man approached Steele from the surrounding woods and identified himself as the owner of the craft without giving a name.
“He appeared to be someone on a long kayak trip. We get a lot of those here. I had no reason to believe he was in trouble or distress or in need of help,” Steele said. “He seemed to be doing exactly what he wanted to.”
The man seemed well-supplied with camping gear. The ranger noticed the kayak had interior storage and a dry pack lashed to the bow. The traveler didn’t want to talk, which Steele said is unusual.
Steele continued his park inspection. When he returned to the bathhouse, later in the day, the kayak was gone.
That night, Steele glanced at the television and saw a familiar face on the evening news. The Coast Guard was searching for a missing kayaker named James Francis McDonald.
“I talked to that guy this morning,” Steele told his wife.
The ranger phoned the authorities and reported what he had seen. He also sent an alert to coastal parks west of the Ochlocknee River but nobody else reported seeing the missing kayaker.
Steele may have been the last person to speak to McDonald or it might have been you. The kayaker is still listed as a missing person in Dixie County.
Family and friends say he was a consummate outdoorsman. Could he be hold up in the wilderness?
Dayle Flint, manager of Journeys of St. George Island, speculated McDonald could have traveled from Ochlocknee River State Park down the river to Ochlocknee Bay. From there, he might have returned to Suwannee or followed the Intercoastal Waterway to Apalachicola Bay and continued west as far a New Orleans. He could have stopped over in Apalachicola or on St. George Island, or traveled north on the Apalachicola River as far as Atlanta.
If he turned north and headed inland on the Ochlocknee River, he could have followed the Crooked River to Carrabelle or continued up into the swamp on the Ochlocknee.
McDonald was traveling in a bright yellow, Solstice touring kayak, probably a 17’7” Solstice GT Titan. Flint said he could easily carry enough food and water for a week in the kayak, along with gear, especially if he supplemented his diet by fishing. Since he had been traveling for five days when he reached the Ochlocknee, he may have stopped for supplies somewhere in Franklin County.
McDonald is described as frugal and reserved with strangers, especially men.
The circumstances that led McDonald to Ochlocknee are complicated.
After splitting up with his long-term girlfriend, Heather Barrett, he visited his parents on or around Oct. 6. He was highly distraught.
“I had never seen him cry before,” said Kirk McDonald, James’ father.
On Monday, Oct. 8, having retrieved his kayak and gear from his cabin in High Springs, McDonald traveled to the home of his friend and former teacher Yvonne Streetman on the Suwannee River and spent the night.
McDonald frequently visited her and launched his kayak from her property. Streetman was traveling at that time, but McDonald spoke to neighbors and one of them saw him launch his kayak on Tuesday morning, Oct. 9.
While in Suwannee, McDonald called his mother pretending to be in Gainesville. This is his last known call to a friend or relative.
McDonald took his cell phone and driver’s license with him as well as a Discover card. The phone was last used Oct. 9 and the credit card has not been used. How much cash he was carrying is unknown. He did not take his passport.
When Streetman returned home on Tuesday afternoon, Oct. 9, she found McDonald’s 1995 Chevrolet pick-up truck in her driveway and his keys on her kitchen table. Initially, she didn’t worry about his absence. He was in the habit of making long, solitary paddle trips.
Barrett also was out-of-town when McDonald set off on his paddle. When she returned to their shared home, she assumed he had traveled to Miami, where he was employed part-time refurbishing a yacht or had embarked on an impromptu journey. McDonald was able to support himself without a regular full-time job.
On Saturday, Oct. 13, knowing McDonald was distraught over the breakup with Barrett, Streetman decided to contact another friend, Travis Cooper, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) officer. Cooper and another man came to Suwannee on their own time, probably Sunday, Oct. 14, and searched in the area for the missing kayaker. This was the same day Steele believes he saw McDonald at Ochlocknee River State Park.
On Monday, Oct. 15, the FWC started an official search from Suwannee south to Tampa, which was McDonald’s regular haunt for solitary trips. Together, the FWC and Coast Guard covered 500 square miles of territory by boat and helicopter. They found nothing and the search was called off on Wednesday, Oct. 17.
Jeff Summer, a public information officer for FWC said since there was nothing to indicate an accident or foul play. It was believed McDonald simply decided to leave.
Since then, there have been no reported sightings of James McDonald.
Both Streetman and McDonald’s parents, Kirk and Gloria, wonder what has happened to James. Although he is quite fit, they fear he may be suffering from a recurrence of Hodgkin’s disease.
Friends and relatives have made trips to Ochlocknee River State Park and the surrounding area searching for James McDonald and found no trace. No formal search has ever been made in the Panhandle, and while posters have been circulated at local marinas and some other businesses, most Franklin County residents seem unaware a kayaker disappeared here.
McDonald and Barrett once resided in New Orleans. Friends there have been informed he is missing, but nobody has seen him.
James Francis McDonald is 6’ 2” tall, and weighs around 200 pounds. He has brown hair and brown eyes and may have a beard. He is athletic and enjoys bicycling and kayaking. He is now 46 years of age, but appears younger. He has worked as a photographer, mechanic, carpenter, bartender and art teacher. He is skilled in boat repair and maintenance.
If you have seen McDonald or his 17 foot yellow Solstice kayak, please contact Kirk McDonald at (352)372 7444 or Lois Swoboda at the Times (850) 653-5857