Suwannee River, March 2005, Part 1
Here's the story of three guys tackling 70 miles of the famed Suwannee River in southern Georgia and northern Florida.
Sunday, March 20.
I met Tom and Brian at 8:30am in Lexington, SC and we loaded our gear. Our friend Joe had loaned us his canoe/kayak trailer (thanks Joe!) which held our three kayaks nicely. Between the trailer and my Saturn Vue SUV, we had room for all the gear. By 10am we were ready to hit the road. We drove to Augusta on I-20 and then made our way south on US 1. This took us as far as Waycross, at which point we made the detour west to stop in Fargo, Georgia.
Fargo was to be the starting point for the next day's paddle. They have a new visitor center there and we spent some time wandering around. The Suwannee River was up some and had flooded into the lower areas of the parking lot.
After the visit we drove south to Florida and then west to the Spirit of Suwannee Music Center, a campground which also happens to be the home for the Suwannee Canoe Outpost. We met Debbie Pharr there and she showed us where to set up camp and where to load the boats for the next morning's shuttle.
We got our camp set up and then headed back to the camp entrance where they have a pretty decent restaurant. We enjoyed a last real meal before the upcoming days of boiled pasta variants. Then it was back to camp, where we spent the evening listening to "The Shadow" on Brian's radio. It sprinkled a bit that night but nothing heavy.
Monday, March 21.
We awoke early on Monday to ready our gear and load up for the shuttle to Fargo. Taking the shuttle with us was a group of five, mostly from Tennessee, and their two dogs. They were going to put in 13 miles upriver from us and land all the way down at Branford, making our trip look short. At 8am, David Pharr and his blue heeler Sam shuttled us back to Fargo and dropped off our boats, then headed upriver with the others. The water level at the visitor center looked to be about the same as the previous afternoon (the gage at White Springs read about 63.5 feet for our entire paddle).
It took a while to for us to get our gear arranged properly in the kayaks. My boat has two tiny 7" diameter hatches which makes loading tricky. I have to stuff my sleeping bag in the hatch a little at a time, and the other items have to go inside in small batches. But I succeeded, and Tom and Brian got theirs loaded as well. The Tennessee group had accidentally left a small dry bag with us (it contained nothing critical for their trip), so I clipped it on top, figuring we'd meet up with them sooner or later. I had wanted to make one last stop in the visitor center's immaculate bathrooms, but I found the center is closed Mondays and Tuesdays. We were ready by 10am, and after a group photo, we shoved off into the tannin-stained waters of the Suwannee. We left just as a large group of Boy Scouts arrived with their boats at the landing. I was anxious to put some distance between us and the pack of teenagers.
It was cool, in the high 60s, and partly cloudy. Once we drifted under the Highway 441 bridge, we entered perhaps the most remote stretch of our trip. Nothing but water, trees, and sporadic belted kingfishers. Along the banks were big trees, Spanish moss draped cypresses and pollinating loblolly pines, creating yellow streaks in the water. There was a strange high water mark of sorts in the smaller trees, maybe 10 feet above us; they were starting to bud above this mark, leaving distinct gray and green bands in the scenery. Occasionally the view was accented by a tree budding in red.
The high waters flooded the low ground and some trees, while the steep banks covered in saw palmetto made landing difficult. Apparently the river level had scattered the wildlife as well, as we didn't see a whole lot during the entire trip. The flooded trees and sandbars beneath our boats played tricks sometimes, creating eddies that would change your course quickly and unpredictably. In addition, I had a five gallon bag of water in the cockpit beyond my feet, which made my kayak somewhat front-heavy early in the trip and the boat didn't steer as well.
We paddled along for a few hours with the river all to ourselves. Eventually we began looking for a lunch spot, but accessible dry ground was hard to find. Finally we came upon a notch on the right that led to an old gravel access road. It was too shallow to paddle all the way to shore, but we got close enough and walked the rest of the way in. Brian had brought along a small tarp, perhaps 6 ft. square that made a great spot to sit for lunch and came in handy during the whole trip.
Back on the water again, we finally came across some interesting wildlife. Soaring above the river were a pair of swallow-tailed kites, which my field guide describes as "uncommon and local." The bird has a distinctive shape in the air with a long forked tail.
Soon we began to look for signs of crossing into Florida. It's only about 13 river miles from Fargo to Florida, and we debated as to whether we were already there or not. Eventually we came upon a tree with a small sign indicating the "GA State Line" and we had made it! It was the first time I've entered a different state on a river. Around a sharp bend in the river we floated over what must be a good sandbar campsite when the water is down. A knife had been stabbed into a tree, and a cord of clothespins hung from a branch. We grabbed the freebies and continued downstream.
Around 3:30pm we started to look for potential campsites. The high water and saw palmetto banks didn't offer much to choose from. We joked about the "20 minute rule," where no matter what site you chose, a better one was bound to be less than 20 minutes downstream. A clearing to the left caught my eye and I called for Tom to check it out as he drifted by. It turned out to be a huge open campsite, and it had been used before as it came complete with a fire ring and teakettle. We were off the water and setting up camp by 4:30pm. We were about 15.5 miles downriver from Fargo according to my GPS.
With all the room at our camp, we expected the Boy Scout troop to float by at any minute and turn our peaceful spot into a zoo of activity. But they never arrived, so they must have called it a day upstream. We were able to spread out our tents a good bit on the open site. Since there were a couple trails leading to the area, Brian speculated that it might be part of the Florida Trail, but we weren't able to find out for sure. At any rate, the water was high enough that the trails were cut short. I walked around a little looking for bugs but the sun was beginning to set and the light was poor.
We cooked dinner and Brian got a campfire going. A few mosquitoes waited nearby but a little bug lotion was enough to keep them at bay. After we ate, we hung our food from a nearby tree and spend some time listening to Brian's radio by the fire. Tom was thinking about his freebie knife, and wondered aloud if it was bad luck to take it, sort of like that Hawaiian idol in the Brady Bunch episode.
Around 8:30pm a light rain commenced and we retired to our tents.
Tuesday, March 22.
The day began with overcast skies. Either the rain or a rising river had caused water to pool around the fire ring and was very close to Tom's tent. We had a quick breakfast and packed up camp. Brian tried out his small solar shower bag and washed his hair. Tom decided on leaving the mysterious knife in a tree at the camp.
We loaded the kayaks and pushed off into the brisk current at about 9am. The "20 minute rule" came into play as we passed a nice sandbar on the left maybe a quarter mile past our site. We weren't going to complain as our site had been pretty good. Just after that, we entered a stretch where the left shore had "No Trespassing" signs every hundred feet for several miles. Despite all the property markings, there were otherwise few signs of man and it was beautiful wild country.
The right-hand bank started to show little green "Posted" signs that were hard to read, but one legible one said "Still Hunting Only" and we got the impression we were paddling by state-owned land. Soon we came upon a boat landing on that side, and stopped for a break. A sign identified the area as Cypress Creek, part of the Suwannee River Water Management District. An old fisherman arrived in a pickup with a boat on the trailer and told us we were at the Roline Landing. Brian asked how far the next landing was and he said maybe four to five hours at "your speed." We thanked him and got back to the river.
Brian is very good at identifying trees and foliage. The dogwoods and a few other trees were blooming.
We came across one, full of pinkish-white flowers, which Brian told us was a wild azalea. Beautiful and much bigger than the little shrubs in my yard.
Then the batteries in my Garmin Geko 201 GPS started to give out. The GPS is small and light, and only takes two AAA batteries, but it eats them up pretty quickly. I had some spares in my deck bag and managed to change them out without accidentally dropping the GPS overboard.
In this area, we saw our first and only snake of the trip. It was gray with darker markings and 3-4 feet long, probably a Gray Rat Snake. It swam across the water, then climbed into some low tree limbs as we passed by. It started to rain a bit and we all fished our sprayskirts and jackets out while we paddled.
A little later, the rain let up and we came across another boat landing, much sooner than the fisherman had predicted. We took another break. This landing had some rusty bridge supports adjacent to the ramp. A similar pair was directly across the water. The sign told us this was Turner Bridge Park. It had a parking area, a small picnic shelter, and a lot of trash strewn about. A path along the shore led to some wild azalea I could photograph up close. Some pretty yellow Jessamine vines were blooming here and there, which Brian informed me is the South Carolina state flower.
Back on the river, and it wasn't long before we spotted the first alligator of the trip, sitting onshore in a little nook of the bank. I turned the boat around to get in position for a photo, but it had seen us and disappeared underwater.
Then we came to our first bridge of the trip at Highway 6. It was odd hearing traffic noises after hardly hearing any for over 24 hours. We drifted a while and came to a twisty old Oak tree hanging over the river. Brian wanted to climb one for a picture and Tom videoed has ascent, hoping for a "money shot" if Brian were to fall into the river. He didn't fall, but he stopped after only going halfway out on the trunk. It made for a decent picture anyway.
We stopped for lunch on a small sandbar on the left side of the river. The clouds gathered as we ate, and threatened to rain at any moment. We rushed our meals a bit and jumped back in the boats, attached the sprayskirts, and hit the water. It proceeded to rain hard, but it wasn't that big of a deal with the boats battened down. The rain kept up for maybe a half hour before it fizzled out.
After a few more miles we came upon a nice sandbar on the right side of the river. It was about 2:30pm and we had already done over 17 miles, so we figured it was a good time to call it a day and set up camp. Brian rigged up a neat common area with a tarp "roof," anchored with ropes and paddles. We got our tents assembled and made efforts to dry out some of our gear.
I heard some voices from upriver and looked to find some of the Tennesseans in a canoe and kayak. They were making pretty good time, but they needed to be as they still had a long trip ahead. It gave me the opportunity to return the dry bag inadvertently left with us. Then they were on their way, and the other canoe in their party came by 20 minutes later.
We had a pleasant afternoon and a good supper that evening, but the clouds began to thicken as night set in. My weather radio indicated that a cold front was coming in and thunderstorms were on the way. That news made me nervous as it has every time I've camped since an unpleasant thunderstorm experience in Australia in 1998.
We began to see frequent flashes to the northwest, and the thunder followed. Tom timed the thunder to try to keep track of the distance. It was a few miles away and thankfully was staying north of us. We wondered about the Boy Scouts who were almost certainly camping in that area. The storms let up and it gave me a chance to call my wife. Cell phone service was available for much of the section we paddled.
Then the winds picked up again, and lightning appeared in the distance west of us. The gap between light and sound got closer and closer, and we wondered aloud what the storm would do.
Then blam! A strike of lightning so close that the thunder was instant. "How are you supposed to avoid that?" I asked, and Tom replied "lay flat on the ground." So we did. The rain began to fall heavily as we flattened ourselves, face down on the ground under the protection of the tarp. The storm ran right over top of us, dumping buckets of rain. We hadn't set up the tarp for good drainage and periodically it would sag and dump a gallon over the side.
We thought the storm was subsiding when bam! Another lightning strike even closer than the first shocker. It was back to kissing the ground for another half hour. Despite the protection of the tarp, rain gear and a mat to lay on, I began to get cold and was very glad when the lightning subsided and we were left with a steady rain. It was approaching midnight at this point, and we went to our tents to try to get some sleep.