Wednesday, March 31, 2010

I Never Have to Say, “I wish I had paddled Florida’s Suwannee River”

In late March, we spent five days paddling seventy miles of the upper Suwannee River. Dundee paddled his fifteen-foot aluminum Grumman canoe, Shaun was in an eleven-foot Old Town Cayuga kayak, and John and I in my sixteen-foot Old Town Penobscot canoe.

Florida has designate the Suwannee River as an Outstanding Florida Water. The Suwannee flows and winds 265 plus miles from the Okefenokee Swamp in southern Georgia to the Gulf of Mexico in Florida. It has fifty plus springs along the way. The river’s limestone outcroppings and a drop in elevation create Florida’s only whitewater rapids at Big Shoals and Little Shoals.

Put-In at Cyprus Creek South Tract

My sister Barbara and husband Larry drove us to our put-in at Cyprus Creek South Tract in northern Florida where CR 6 crossed over the Suwannee River.

This was our first paddle in Florida, and we were not sure what to expect. Interestingly as the trip went on, we recognized similarities with our NH/ME/ treks, such as in New Hampshire we kept our eyes open for moose, whereas on the Suwannee we watched for alligators. In Maine we would admire stands of pine trees, while here in Florida we saw Spanish moss hanging from stately Cyprus and Live Oak trees. Our northern river paddles often passed through ledges and canyon-like sections, whereas in the Suwannee we experienced high bluffs of limestone walls funneling the river.

The river is lined with sandy banks and beaches made from the thick limestone that underlies the entire state. The Suwannee River pulverizes the limestone into white beach sand, and hidden underwater stone formations cause the river to whirl as if there was a spring or a whirlpool waiting to draw us into its black hole. Often, particularly at sharp bends, twisting water would atttempt to turn our vessels upstream.

We frequently saw rope swings along the river. Summer had not yet come here, so we could only let our minds wander as to how much fun it would be to swing over the water, release, and drop into the cool Suwannee.

The upper and middle Suwannee is a dark brown-black color. This color is tannic acid released by decaying vegetation.

Our GPS showed the current to be around 3 miles per hour from our put-in through Big Shoals. Thereafter we noticed the current to be around 2 mph.

Day One – A Twenty miles Paddle to Big Shoals

In mid-morning we met two Florida State biologists. They demonstrated their shocking technique to inspect fish. This was particularly interesting, as last spring Dundee and I assisted NH Fish and Game as volunteers to stock salmon fry on the Souhegan River, and we were told about monitoring the fish population with a similar shocking technique.

Big Shoals is the Suwannee’s (and Florida) only set of rapids. Big Shoals was at Class III level, so we decided to portage (about a quarter mile carry). We camped on the bluff overlooking Big Shoals for the night. Click this video to enjoy our unique breakfast prepared by Chef John (or as we nicked him, Emeril Lagasse).

The below video shows the Big Shoals rapids, our superb breakfast, and our portage around Big Shoals.
The picture here is a fellow named Matt who built his own self-powered sail boat. He shared with me he was in a friendly race around Florida with six other competitors. His boat was most intriguing.

Day Two – sixteen miles to Swift Creek camp

We did see four alligators, but as they lie on the banks they look like logs, and when they spot us, they quick slid into the water before we can get a picture. We spotted many large turtles throughout the trek. I spotted a river otter twice, but again they are quicker than my picture taking. Hawks, red cardinals, and vultures flew overhead. We heard what appeared to sound like Barred owls at night.

Ogeechee Tupelo Tree

As we paddled we noticed a tall odd-shaped tree that was similar in color to the Cyprus and height, but obviously was a different category. In planning for this trip Dundee and I visited his relative who had worked along the Suwannee, and he told us to be aware of the Ogeechee Tupelo tree near or in the water. The tree is unique to warm and wet areas in northern Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina. The trees we saw were close to 40 feet in height and with a spreading flat-topped crown. Multiple, irregular branches and roots emerged from their trunks. It had dark brown or grey, ridged bark, and the base of the tree had swollen buttress-type roots. We were told that local people often use its fruit to make jelly.

We noticed as we got closer to Big Shoals, the river bank changed to more rock than sand, and we stopped seeing Ogeechee Tupelo trees.

Admittedly, the Ogeechee Tupelo tree looked weird to us, and you can judge for yourself by playing the video we took.

Day Three to Swift Creek

We generally sought camp on the river between 4 and 5 pm. Edwin McCook, Land Management Specialist for the Suwannee River Water Management District, had given us maps and GPS points of preferred riverside camp sites, and these points came in handy in looking for a good night’s accommodation.

I spotted a three foot brown and tan spotted snake, but again no picture.

Dundee decided to pitch his tent on a sand island in the River. In the morning he was on a peninsula as the River had dropped a few inches. Think of what might have happen if it had gone up!

Day Four – fifteen miles to Holton Creek River Camp

The Suwannee River Wilderness Trail River Camps (, such as Woods Ferry and Holton Creek, are spaced a day’s travel apart, and generally accessible only by the river of hiking trail. We stayed overnight at the Holton Creek River Camp, and its resident host, Ed, made our stay exceptional. We highly recommend these river camps.

We started noticing orange trail markers, similar to the painted white trail signs on the Appalachian Trail (AT).  These markers signify The Florida National Scenic Trail (FNST). The 1400 mile trail comes across from Osceola National Forest to the Suwannee at Big Shoals on the east bank. It follows the east bank to White Springs and crosses the river at SR 136 Bridge and follows the north bank of the river to near Dowling Park in Twin Rivers State Forest where it turns west to the Florida panhandle. During our stay at Holton Creek, Shaun and I hiked two miles of the FNST.

Sulpher springs on the Suwannee River were once promoted as a cure for almost any ailment. Today these sites are simply places of interest.  At Suwannee Springs there is an old pool built out of limestone around a spring that was a resort in the late 1800’s and in the early 1900’s Folks would come and soak in the sulfur spring water for its healing properties.

Day Five – Thirteen Miles to Take-Out at Suwannee River State Park

John had a challenge with his navigation, as his GPS gave us “as the crow flies” miles to go, whereas, the river twisted and turned many times. For example, his GPS read 8.4 miles from Holton Creek to the Suwannee River Park, whereas, the sign read 13.4 miles. Our map showed many U and S turns along the way.

Larry and his Dad met us at our take-out at Suwannee River State Park.

Enjoying the Suwannee – and more

This was a fabulous trip. We had only paddled in northern New England, and we were all pleasantly surprised with the ecology, cleanliness of the river shoreline and campsites, and its ecosystem with many birds, trees and animals. As northerners, we were a bit hesitant about being in alligator country, but we quickly learned gators were most likely to disappear when they saw humans.

The Suwannee's height  at the White Spring's water guage marker ramp at the Stephen C. Foster State Park was 60 feet above sea level. This river water level was perfect for our riverside camping and paddling.  Anyone considering paddling the Suwannee should check the water level at the SRWMD's web site before starting their trip.

If one did decide to paddle the Suwannee, based on our seventy mile trek, I would recommend extensive planning with the GPS in anticipation of campsites. Our late March trek was perfect for minimum bug intervention, and it rained only one night. We did three nights of primitive camping (read that to mean no showers or toilet facilities) and on the fourth night at Holton Creek river camp the screened shelter, toilets, and showers were divine. If primitive camping is not your forte, then certainly the river camps offer a pleasant alternative.

Web site references are: Suwannee River Water Management District at, and Suwannee River Wilderness Trail at

Learn about the Ogeechee Tupelo tree at

I definitely would consider doing the remaining 155 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. The Suwannee is a gem for a paddler’s delight.

I never want to say, "I wish I had paddled the Suwanee River to the Gulf of Mexico".

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