Suwannee River, March 2005, Part 2
Wednesday, March 23.
The flapping of my tent walls woke me around 3am. Outside the winds had really picked up and there was a constant low howl in the distance. My weather radio said that there were storms likely through late morning, so I was expecting another thunderstorm to come bowling through. The wind speed kept increasing, and I listened carefully, wondering how close a tornado really sounds to a train. Brian was outside and so I put my rain gear on and got out of the tent. Tom was inside his tent, but also awake, and apparently he'd been out earlier and it had been blowing like this for some time. Brian and I took down the tarp and tried to secure other items in camp. Finally the winds peaked and then settled in with a stiff breeze. I decided to head back to my tent. I was exhausted and fell asleep in my rain gear, which was fortunately dry.
It was around 7:30am when I woke to the guys stirring around the camp. I was hot and soaked, as I had sweated profusely sleeping in the rain jacket and pants. I got changed and opened the tent vestibule to a partly cloudy morning and even a little sun! We had survived the night intact and it was looking to be a fine day. Little did we know that it would be a long day.
Our stuff was fairly dry, but covered with debris from the trees. Tom's miniature broom came in handy. We cleaned up and packed, and were underway at about 10am. A stiff breeze was blowing, and nearly always seemed to be moving upstream, hindering our paddling efforts. Once again there were some very nice sandbars just downstream of our camp, and a gator sunning itself on one of them.
After a couple hours of upwind paddling, we knew we were close to the infamous "Big Shoals." With the river level being up, we wondered if the whitewater might have been "washed out." The general recommendation is to portage the shoals (i.e. go ashore and walk your boats around them), but I had read that the signs to the portage were poor. We did spot a weather-beaten sign indicating the shoals were ¾ mile ahead. The current was picking up, and we were on the lookout for any sign of the portage. The Tennesseans had done this stretch before, but they weren't good on recalling the distance...somewhere from 100 to 500 yards, they'd said, so we really had no idea how far up from the shoals the trail would begin.
We came upon a poor landing next to a trail, but weren't convinced that it was the right place to stop, so we decided to continue on. Fortunately some hikers on the opposite bank told us that the portage was further downstream. The current sped up some more, and we could hear the roar; the whitewater was there, all right. A better sign warned "Class III rapids ahead!" Just before we got to the shoals, we finally came upon a sign for "Big Shoals Portage" on the left bank. We got out and did a little scouting. For this paddler who has never done more than a class I rapid, Big Shoals was impressive. The tannin-stained waters frothing over the rocks had an ominous look. I decided right then not to try it. Brian and Tom agreed, and thought it might have been fun to run in a smaller boat.
It was a good time for lunch, and we took the break before beginning to haul our gear. I took a short hike down the trail to see where we were supposed to put the boats back in the water. There was no sign indicating it, but the put-in was just below a small campsite, maybe 200 yards down the trail.
As I was preparing to transport my gear, another paddler arrived at the portage and kidded us for not trying the shoals. He was a character with his mustache and his boisterous laugh, and was apparently a biologist for the state of Florida. Just out for the day, he didn't have much gear to lose in his small green kayak, and he was determined to try the shoals. Tom offered to capture his run on video. He and Brian ran off to get in place for the run and I hurried down to the campsite to see the kayaker come out the other end of the shoals.
The kayaker's challenge of Big Shoals didn't last long. The video captured him going down behind a standing wave and he didn't come out the other side intact. He clung to his upside-down boat and rode out the rest of the shoals. Fortunately he was OK and good natured about it, and said he'd do it again. The bad news was that he had lost his paddle, and couldn't get to the bank where we were; he ended up drifting downstream to a sandbar on the opposite shore. We never learned his name, but we later dubbed him "Dr. Shoals."
Then we began the process of unloading the boats and transporting the gear. I think I made about five trips of gear, back and forth, and then one more for the boat. We carried the boats for a little ways but found it was easier to drag them down the sandy trail. The whole time on land for lunch, the shoals adventure, and the portage had taken about two hours.
Finally we were ready to get back on the river. Dr. Shoals had waited for us on the sandbar, but got back on the water when we did. At first I thought he had found his paddle, but instead he was using a big tree branch. I offered for him to use my spare paddle and he accepted for the stretch we'd be paddling together.
I had forgotten about the wind but it was still blowing against us as we moved downstream. The river was full of foamy swirls from the shoals for at least a mile after them. Tom had "Little Shoals" marked on his GPS, but we saw no sign of them. In a couple places we happened upon what were probably "tolls" levied by Big Shoals from some paddlers who tried to run them. We found a decent canoe paddle which we gave to Dr. Shoals, and a bag with serviceable tiki torches, fuel, and propane canisters.
Just as we saw the Highway 41 bridge near White Springs approaching, we happened upon Dr. Shoals' lost paddle. We'd found it just in time. He returned my spare paddle and we bid him goodbye as we made a stop at the bridge. There was a boat ramp there and a small city park, but no bathrooms or garbage cans. A plethora of graffiti on the side of the bridge spoke ill of a local young lady. Supposedly White Springs was a place to resupply, and we wanted cold drinks and ice. Tom and I decided to find the store while Brian kept an eye on the kayaks. We had to walk a quarter mile to the gas station/grocery store.
Once we returned from the store, there wasn't much to do but get back on the water. It was already 4pm, and we needed to find a place to camp. We hadn't seen any decent spots since the camp at Big Shoals, and we didn't want to camp so close to the city.
A white object floating the water caught our eye. It turned out to be a small cooler, but the lid was missing and it was empty. We came around a bend and saw another bridge, this one was Florida Highway 136. Just past the bridge was an odd looking structure, a sort of octagonal roofed balcony atop a tall concrete foundation. The foundation had openings on the riverside and was partially flooded. Tom and I paddled in through the opening. It didn't look much different inside, though markings in the concrete made it appear as if the balcony had been raised at some point. As we left, a fisherman on the shore informed us it was the Stephen Foster Spring House. The Suwannee is fed by many springs, but the water was so high, we didn't see any definitive signs of them during our trip.
Next we came upon Stephen Foster Folk Culture State Park (that's a mouthful). Brian spotted a Great Horned Owl flying over the river here and I found it in my binoculars, which is the first owl I've seen in the wild in the U.S. The park had a couple riverside landings, one of which we stopped at. Brian and Tom went off to see about camping opportunities while I watched the boats. Several pre-teens were running around the landing and asking mostly sarcastic questions about our boats. Brian and Tom came back and decided it wasn't a good place to camp as we'd have to haul our gear quite a distance to the campground. I didn't mind getting away from the noisy kids either.
After White Springs, the river became less wild, and we frequently saw dwellings on both banks, which lessened our camping options. Around 6:30pm, the sun was setting as we pulled into a decent-sized sandbar for a break. According to our GPS units, we had done about 60 miles of river. Both the Canoe Outpost website and the Suwannee River book we had claimed it was only 64 miles from Fargo to the Outpost. At that point we decided to continue on, since the weather was great, the landing was close, and we'd soon have a full moon to paddle by. So we got out our sprayskirts, jackets, and headlamps, and continued paddling.
About this time the cooler floated by, and I was reminded of the story of the haunted barrel from Mark Twain's "Life on the Mississippi," which followed the river rafts and plagued them with bad luck. But we left the cooler behind and paddled into the evening. A few bats fluttered overhead. The full moon coming up over the Spanish-moss-covered trees reminded me of a mythical scene from a Louisiana bayou. It was beautiful and a little spooky at the same time.
We were at about 64 river miles when we realized that the estimate from the book was wrong. Brian had a map from the Suwannee Water management, and we examined it to find out that it was really more than 70 miles. Debate ensued as to whether we'd finish the trip that day, but we agreed to keep at it.
There was no doubt we were getting close to Interstate 75. The high-pitched roar of the highway was unmistakable, and it continued to get louder. Soon we could see the lights of cars and trucks speeding across the bridge. We tried to take some pictures, and probably made some drivers think they'd seen UFOs down on the river.
After we crossed I-75, the river started to become a little wild again. With the road noise dampened, we could hear the natural night sounds. In a couple places we heard a large splash near the banks. The obvious thought was that the sounds were gators, but in the absence of seeing any glowing eyes, Brian wanted to believe they were tarpon as mentioned in the Suwannee book. I thought it was a long way from the coast for a tarpon; it turned out that the book actually mentioned that sturgeon come well upriver in the spring. I still think they were gators.
We began to happen upon some fantastic sandbars, gleaming like pearls in the moonlight. We stopped on one for a bathroom break, and Brian and I were almost ready to collapse on the dune and sleep without a tent. Tom was gung-ho to reach our goal and coerced us to continue, so we did. I think my kayak was ready for a rest though, as we passed many sandbars where the swirly eddies tried to steer the boat to shore.
In a couple spots we passed other groups camping. We didn't recognize the Tennesseans among them, but I figure we probably passed them after the monumental mileage we were racking up that day. On the left bank we came across a large dock under construction, which we think was the landing for the Woods Ferry campground. Too bad it wasn't open since the website makes it look pretty attractive for paddle camping.
We floated under the Highway 129 bridge and were finally on the home stretch. There was a fair amount of activity on the left shore as we got close to the campground. Golf carts roamed some of the trails and one group had a big fire going. One of their members had a grating Woody Woodpecker laugh which carried over the water. I was apprehensive that our camp would be noisy but things quieted a bit by the time we reached the boat landing.
Our marathon day of 40 miles ended at about 11pm. We had paddled about 73 miles in three days, averaging 3.9 miles per hour and 18 hours, 40 minutes underway.
My first priority was some warmer clothes, as the night air was cool. Then we began the task of unloading the gear for the second time that day, although Big Shoals had seemed days ago. I found a decent place to set up camp, wolfed down a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and sacked out, oblivious to the teenagers still buzzing around in their golf carts after midnight.