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Suwannee River Trip

caddepa

Well-Known Member
Aug 27, 2003
63
0
New Jersey
#1
Around mid-December the weather was turning colder in New Jersey, so I thought a nice way to end the year would be a paddle trip down the Suwannee River. I had made the trip 10 years ago and really enjoyed the experience, so made arrangements with Canoe Outpost for the shuttle. The Outpost is located near Live Oak, FL, which is at about Mile 150 (Mile 0 is the Gulf) on the river map. River Miles are not marked on the GA side, but the Stephen Foster Park put-in is about Mile 242. This enables use of your vehicle 92 miles down river. Final pick-up is arranged with a phone call at river’s end, the town of Suwannee.

I left NJ on Dec.15th for the 1,000 mile drive down I-95 and launched into the Okefenokee Swamp, GA on Dec 17th. The Okefenokee, which translates to “Land of Trembling Earth” is one of the largest swamps in the world, covering over 650 SQ miles. It is the headwater of both the Suwannee and St. Mary’s Rivers; the former flowing into the Gulf and the latter into the Atlantic. I had already paddled across the entire swamp on my first Suwannee trip, and Bill Logan, Chuck, Mac and I paddled it just a few years back. So I had no desire to cross the entire swamp again. Instead, I launched on the west side, at Stephen Foster Park, so it is only a 4-5 mile paddle to reach the “sill” (earthen dam) which is considered the beginning of the Suwannee River. I had called ahead to obtain a “sill crossing permit number” which is required to carry over into the river proper. It was a very pleasant paddle through the swamp, bright sunny skies and lots of wildlife – ‘gators and birds. After reaching the sill I made the first carry (portage) of gear. On the return trip I happened to look at the dam and noticed the gates were missing!! Apparently they removed them a few years back to allow the swamp to drain to its original water level. So, I simply paddled through without further gear portage. Seems to me the ranger could have mentioned this when I called for the crossing permit?



Okefenokee Swamp

The upper river is mostly swamp, so I pulled up early on a small sand bar to make camp for the night. Once camp was made I tuned into the weather channel on the VHF radio. Seems I had made a fatal error in judgment, I made the mistake of emailing Chuck the previous night. That email alone was apparently enough to invoke the wrath of the Rain Gods: Forecast now called for “heavy rains, gusty winds and flood warnings for certain low-lying areas”. Fortunately I had packed the Cooke-Sewing tarp and spent the entire next day sitting under its protection. Thanks Chuck!!



Cooke-Sewing tarp

Resumed travel on Day-3 in much colder temperatures: Nights dropped into the upper 20’s and days only reached mid-50’s. By late afternoon I could hear road traffic and knew I was nearing the town of Fargo, GA so I pulled up on a nice sandbar and unloaded all gear. I noticed a big clearing just in the distance and took a short walk to check it out and found a deer feeder hanging from a big oak tree. The feeder was half full of corn, so I knew it was still being used, and me not wearing any Hunter Orange clothing!!! It didn’t take long to re-load the canoe and paddle back upriver, well out of gun range, to another bar on the opposite side. At about 8 PM, a group of hunters started a drive near where I had seen the feeder. The drive was on the opposite side of the river, but headed in my direction. Best I could determine there were maybe 6-8 hunters who would call when an animal (deer?) was located; then all hell broke loose. Sounded like shotgun fire with perhaps 12–15 shells being fired each time prey was sighted. This went on until about 10 PM with a total of 6-7 shotgun volleys. Being a Saturday night, I would imagine a bottle of Jim Beam was being passed around amongst the good ol’ boys? I have no idea if the hunt was successful, but if so, the meat sure must have been lead tainted from all of that shooting, especially if they were firing buckshot. I actually wasn’t THAT worried, since birdshot/buckshot does not carry too far, but I didn’t rest easy until almost midnight.
Note: These hunters had every right to be hunting in what is probably their own backyard. They had no idea I was camping in the area. Incidentally, I heard many more shots being fired over the next several weeks. December is hunting season, so expect shooting.




Upper river

I reached the town of Fargo early on Day-4 and was surprised to see an impressive new Visitor Center located on what had previously been a large sand bar littered with beer bottles and trash. The display is well organized and the 10 minute video informative. Unfortunately, the local café is closed on Sunday (most of the entire state of Georgia is closed on Sunday) but I did get a hot breakfast sandwich at the local (only) convenience store.



Fargo Visitor Center

Continuing down river I passed many tupelo and cypress trees. The river was higher than last time I paddled, so current was much swifter. Actually, I covered distance much quicker than I anticipated. Seems I would paddle more in the AM to keep warm, and in the PM to buck a head wind.



Tupelo Tree



Cypress trees

There are usually plenty of places to pull off for a rest, or camping.



Canoe

Notes on gear:
The canoe is a Kevlar composite Hemlock, Peregrine solo 15’ 9” with a 28” beam. It is a fast flat water boat that I use mostly on BWCA trips where lots of portaging is involved; it weighs only #38. The tent is a 2 person MRI, Hubba Hubba model and the black backpack is Navy surplus – waterproof. The Sealine backpack carries sleeping bag, air mattress and spare clothing, while the Igloo cooler contains enough food for the entire trip. The blue Tupperware container is designed to house a Coleman single burner stove, 3 spare fuel containers and all cooking utensils. This is NOT the way I would outfit for a trip involving numerous portages. I carried 2 paddles, a Voyageur Kevlar/cedar and an otter-tail design made from cherry.

A few miles further downriver I encountered a cypress tree that formed a natural tunnel: Could I squeeze through?



Natural tunnel



Enter tunnel



Exit tunnel

I made camp just beyond the Georgia State line. No Florida Welcome Center???



GA state line

On the morning of Day-5 there was a light mist on the water.



River mist

But it cleared early and turned into a beautiful day. The river banks are a bit steeper and the first limestone rocks appear.



Steeper Banks

There are a few cattle ranches adjacent to the river. Apparently one of the cows got his head caught in the fork of this tree?



Cow skull

The reflections are just awesome.



River reflections

I got an early start on Day-6 in order to allow time to portage Big Shoals. You can hear the rapids for some distance upriver and the approach is well marked.



Shoals marker

The portage is wide and flat, like a walk in the park!!



Portage

The shoals at this river level (I think 52-53) could easily be run with a tandem canoe, or a solo with a bit of rocker: My guess would be a Class-2+. I ran them last trip with an Old Town, Discovery 13-3, no problem.



The shoals

I might mention that I had not seen another canoe, boat, or even bank fisherman on the river to this point. In fact, I did not see ANY human life on the river until just north of Branford, another 100 miles downriver from the shoals: That’s a total of about 160 miles river travel without human contact on the river itself. A short distance beyond Big Shoals appear a series of rapids known as Little Shoals: They provided a fun little bounce.



Little Shoals

I took a break at White Springs, which was one of the first tourist attractions in Florida. Wealthy people from all over the country traveled here to soak in the “healing waters”. Luxury hotels accommodated the rich and famous. Today, at current river level, the spring no longer bubbles forth. Instead the river flows INTO the spring in a slight swirling fashion that resembles a toilet being flushed. The town of White Springs is rather historic but somewhat on the decline. Florida’s Stephen Foster State Park offers camping.

Note: There are dozens of springs on the Suwannee, but I did not encounter one discharging water until Guaranto Spring, 115 miles further south.



White Springs

Just south of the springs, I located a nice camping spot atop a huge sand bar.



Camping spot

On the morning of Day-7 I stopped at Woods Ferry Camp, one of 5 new camps built by the state for the exclusive use of river paddlers and hikers. I must say, these camps are impressive, well managed by friendly hosts, impeccably clean and absolutely FREE OF CHARGE!! Each camp has 5-6 tent platforms 16 x 16 that are fully screened, with a ceiling fan/light and each has a motion activated outdoor flood light. They also have a fire ring and picnic table. The rest rooms are heated with hot water showers. There is also a community pavilion and several canoe storage racks. They are located along the stretch of river from Mile-160 to Mile-85 so are spaced close enough together for an easy day’s paddle. I believe there are one or two more in the planning stage. I didn’t stay at Woods Ferry, but spent quite some time talking with the host, Gator Bill, who was as about as friendly as they come. Pictures should tell the story.




Woods Ferry



Ramp



Shelter



Shelter inside



Rest room



Canoe rack



View from the top

Late that afternoon I arrived at Spirit of the Suwannee Campground, where Canoe Outpost and my truck were located. Weather forecast called for more heavy rain, thunderstorms and possible flooding. The Rain Gods must have known I would contact Chuck via my laptop. So I wimped-out and drove into Live Oak to wait out the storm in a motel. Made a few minor purchases at Wall-Mart and sat for 2 hours at the China Buffet.

Got a late start on Day-8 and only made 14 miles to the next River Camp at Holten Creek, which was a good idea since it rained most of that night. It’s very convenient to have your tent set up inside a shelter under those conditions. Once again the camp hosts were absolutely super; they even gave me a huge slice of homemade cake as a Christmas Eve gift.



Holten Creek Camp



Tent setup

On Day-9 the river wound through some higher limestone bluffs, and the current picked up a bit at the Alapaha River junction, and even more so at the Withlacoochee junction. I camped that night on a convenient sand bar.



Limestone



Limestone rock

Beyond Suwannee River State Park, below Hwy 10, the river begins to widen but is still picturesque and the first palm trees make an appearance. I stopped at Dowling for an ice cream cone and still logged 22 miles for the day before camping on a little patch of dry ground tucked up into the woods a bit on Day-10. Note: Although the new River Camps are very nice, I really enjoy the solitude of sitting by a warm campfire and spent the remainder of the nights “camped out”.



River widens



First palm trees

On Day-11, just north of Branford, the river solitude was shattered when I made the first contact with people ON the river, or its bank. I was disheartened to encounter another canoe, then a John boat with 2 fishermen and finally a power boat (even though he was just idling up river). Welcome to civilization, John! It was late afternoon before I located a dandy little sand bar with adjacent campsite.



Neat campsite



Shoreline changes

The morning of Day-12 found me at Mile-70, where the wider river would make wind and tide an increasing influence. By mid-morning I reached Fanning Springs where I first tied up to the dock for an ice cream walk, and also to call Canoe Outpost to give them a heads-up on my location, not knowing if I would have cell phone coverage further south. Later I paddled down to the spring itself and walked the boardwalk through a maze of cypress trees. There were 2 women bathing in the spring (BRRRRR) and entertaining a baby manatee: The adult manatee seemed content to allow this. The baby would approach to within a few feet then back off a bit.



Cypress maze



Baby manatee

Day-13 came with calm winds and sunny skies, a welcome relief. However, I did encounter a few more power craft; first a power boat, followed by a low flying aircraft. I walked through Manatee Springs but did not spot any manatee, just tourists. There is a perfect campsite just below the springs.



Calm water



Power boat



Aircraft

Most of the lower river is National Wildlife Refuge and not open to camping, so on Day-14, I continued on to Munden Creek Camp, a place I had spent some time at a few years back. In fact, Chuck and Mac visited there for a couple of days and took some photos of the area. The river is much wider here but there are a number of small creeks that you can duck into for a break. I was remembered by the Camp owner, Preston Chavoue, and he provided a comfortable cabin for the night.



Lots of Lilly Pads



Munden Creek



Anxious Buzzards

Day-15 was my last day of paddling, first past the town of Suwannee then the last 4 miles out to the Gulf of Mexico, after which I returned to Suwannee and beached the canoe at Miller’s Marina boat ramp to await my shuttle pick-up. This was Dec. 31, New Years Eve, with a full, blue moon. I would have loved to stay an extra day to do a night paddle at midnight, but the weather forecast again called for heavy rain and gusty winds: Still, it was a wonderful way to end the year 2009.



Town of Suwannee



The last palms



Gulf of Mexico

Some final words:

Wildlife:
Most of the wildlife I spotted was on the upper river, I think due to a lack of hunting pressure. The only ‘gators were seen in the Okefenokee Park, none were spotted on the south side of the sill. However, I did see numerous deer- two of them swimming- otter, turkey, shore birds, a bald eagle and hundreds of wood ducks (almost at every river bend).

Information:
I carried a copy of Bill Logan’s book;
A FREE river map published by the SRWMD.
The “SR Wilderness Trail” brochure (http://www.suwannee.com).
And the great new FREE spiral bound booklet “District Lands…Yours to Enjoy” published by the SRWMD. It is 136 pages of detailed information and maps on district lands: pretty much covers the entire river and the rest of the state. I got my copy at the Fargo Visitor Center, or try http://www.mysuwanneeriver.com.
Dixie County Map, free at http://www.dixie.fl.gov. Very helpful for that section of the river.
I also downloaded a list of river GPS coordinates which gave more accurate distances than some maps. (I did not carry a GPS unit).
The handheld VHF radio provided weather reports at all locations.

If I did it again:
I was COLD!! Many nights in the 20’s. My light weight tent is more suitable for warmer weather; I should have packed the Bibler single wall tent.
Likewise with my sleeping bag. The down filled bag I carried is rated for 20 degrees. That must mean your body will not freeze solid at that temperature. It certainly can’t mean that you will be comfortable!
I did wear 14 inch insulated boots which were a blessing. I also carried lightweight slip-on shoes for around camp and for short hikes.
Insulated waterproof gloves were great for taking down the tent and early morning paddling.
I would suggest wearing an orange hunting vest if hiking in the woods.

Shuttle:
Canoe Outpost provided excellent service at a reasonable price.

First & last night Camping:
I camped the first night at “Spirit of the Suwannee Campground” since that is where Canoe Outpost is located. I would not stay there again. They charge $20 for primitive camping which does not allow you to camp in a regular campsite with a table, electric or water. For just a few dollars more you can stay at a motel in Live Oak, or White Springs and be FAR more comfortable.

All in all it was a great trip, one I highly recommend.
 

oldsparkey

Well-Known Member
Aug 25, 2003
9,870
36
75
Central , Florida
www.southernpaddler.com
#4
John...

The ratings on sleeping bags are like the ones for tents , if it says it is a three person tent you can bet it might be good for two or better yet for one person.
Sleeping bags are rated the same way , a 40 degree bag is good to 60 and the 20 is good to 40 , If the temp looks like it will be in the 40's or near there I take a 0 degree bag. A lot of you know it rains now and then when I go camping and I lucked out a few years ago and found a 0 degree that is waterproof , that is my dream bag for trips.

The Spirit of the Suwannee use to be a good place to camp but I guess they have gotten like all the rest that made me decide to find a close motel and stay there. There are several good things about doing that.

1. The temperature of the area is climet controlled , warm in the winter and cool in the summer.
2. Normally there is a restaurant close by so no cooking is needed for supper of breakfast.
3. No unpacking your gear for the night , everything stays packed and ready to go in the morning.
4. Or repacking your gear and laying it out to double check everything , anything forgotten can normally be purchased close by the motel.
6. A good shower is available and restroom.
7. Normally a TV for checking the National Weather for the area.
8. Pick up last minute groceries at non campground prices.
9. Camping at the Spirit we would run into town for the meals , no need to drive that far you are there.
10. Convience.

Chuck.
 

swamprat

Well-Known Member
Aug 28, 2003
374
0
Venus Fl.
members.findmoore.net
#5
Great report!
The trees along the upper river are swamp tupelos.
People generally aren't allowed to hunt at night. Unless they were hog hunting on private land.I might have been tempted to call the game warden.
and finally, man you can cover some river miles!!!! I've paddlled the sill to spirit of the suwannee and taken 10 days!
Good report!!
 

caddepa

Well-Known Member
Aug 27, 2003
63
0
New Jersey
#6
The trees along the upper river are swamp tupelos.
Thanx for identifying the tree, Swamprat. It came back to me as soon as I read your reply and have edited the post accordingly.
As for the hunters, their shooting could easily be heard in Fargo so they were probably conducting a legal hut: Racoon perhaps? At any rate, they probably wouldn't appreciate a meddlesome Yankee causing trouble. Live and Let....

10 years ago it took 21 days for me to make the same trip. This time I had a stronger current flow, especially after the heavy rains, and a much swifter canoe. Had the weather been a little warmer I may have lingered longer at a few of the nicer campsites.
 

hairymick

Well-Known Member
Dec 8, 2005
2,107
2
Queensland, Australia
#8
Geez John,

That is a cracker of a report mate!

Thank you for taking the time to write it and sharing all those stunning images. I enjoyed every word of it. You should be doing this for a living. Are you a photo-journalist by anychance? If not, you bloody should be.

Mate, I am real interested in that canoe. There is nothing like it available, that I am aware of, in Australia but the design seems bloody perfect! I hope Matt reads this post. I am thinking he might need a little nudge in this direction. :D
 

caddepa

Well-Known Member
Aug 27, 2003
63
0
New Jersey
#9
Happy you found the Report interesting, Mick. That is the reason we go to all of the trouble to post them.

My canoe is a Hemlock, (Falcon series) Peregrine http://www.hemlockcanoe.com/

No, I am NOT any kind of photographer. Were it not for the "shakey" setting I couldn't even take a shot that was recognizable. Camera is an Olympus Stylus 790SW which was one of the first to be fully waterproof. I have had it snorkeling in saltwater many times with no damage.

Send me a PM with your regular email address and I will contact you next week when I arrive in "The Land Down Under". Perhaps we can meet for a paddle?
 

oldsparkey

Well-Known Member
Aug 25, 2003
9,870
36
75
Central , Florida
www.southernpaddler.com
#10
caddepa said:
Happy you found the Report interesting, Mick. That is the reason we go to all of the trouble to post them.

My canoe is a Hemlock, (Falcon series) Peregrine http://www.hemlockcanoe.com/

No, I am NOT any kind of photographer. Were it not for the "shakey" setting I couldn't even take a shot that was recognizable. Camera is an Olympus Stylus 790SW which was one of the first to be fully waterproof. I have had it snorkeling in saltwater many times with no damage.

Send me a PM with your regular email address and I will contact you next week when I arrive in "The Land Down Under". Perhaps we can meet for a paddle?
John ....

I use a Olympus Stylus tough-6000 , the thing fits in my shirt pocket and is waterproof , not because I swim , because it does rain on me at times when on trips and camping. They are some nice cameras.

Chuck.