2005 Wilderness Trip Report:
Canoe-camping on the dark and mysterious Suwannee River
By Andy Scholberg
My younger son David, a college freshman at Northeastern University, had a week of Spring Break just before Easter. We decided to use that break to go canoe-camping somewhere in the Florida or Georgia wilderness.
Our first choice for a canoe-camping destination was the alligator-infested Okefenokee Swamp in Southeast Georgia/North Florida. This giant swamp, which is the source of the Suwannee River and the St. Mary River, has over 100 miles of fabulous canoe trails. Many of the campsites in the Swamp are “chickees.” A chickee is an open platform with a slanted roof on stilts above the water. The Indians who lived in the swamps of Georgia and Florida built and dwelled on chickees in open, breezy areas to avoid the bugs. The Swamp sounds like a really cool place.
The Okefenokee Swamp is managed much like the Boundary Waters Canoe Area wilderness. You need a permit to enter the Swamp for an overnight trip. Your best chance of obtaining a permit is to call the Swamp headquarters EXACTLY 60 days before the desired entry date at 7:00 a.m. when the office opens. Unfortunately I didn’t call until a month ahead of time. I wasn’t surprised to find out that all the permits for the end of March were taken.
Next year I’ll be Johnny-on-the-spot to get a permit. David and I definitely want to canoe and camp in the Swamp. But all was not lost this year. I found out that canoe-camping on the Upper Suwannee River is wonderful.
Warning: ‘River too dangerous to canoe at high water’
I called the Suwannee River Canoe Outpost at Suwannee Springs and told them David and I wanted to canoe the 42 miles from White Springs to Suwannee State Park, which I had heard is the most beautiful part of the Suwannee to canoe. The guy guaranteed we wouldn’t be disappointed. I told him all we needed was shuttle service, since we were bringing our own camping equipment and canoe.
The drive from Chicago to North Florida is long and tough – about 20 hours – but we took turns driving and knocked it off in one swipe.
At a gas station a few miles from the Canoe Outpost the guy at the cash register told me the water level on the Suwannee was high and the current strong. He warned me it was dangerous to canoe in such conditions.
That scared me a little. It reminded me of some of the intense scenes in the movie “Deliverance” in which the canoes were shooting through dangerous rapids. But I knew there were no rapids on the stretch of river we’d be doing.
And according to my Internet research, the gauge at White Springs was at 63 feet above sea level – about 10 feet above normal but 14 feet BELOW flood stage. According to Bill Logan, at “www.Canoe-Suwannee.com,” a website about canoeing on the Suwannee, 63 feet above sea level at White Springs is ideal for paddling because you’ll never scrape bottom or have to line the canoe through any shoals. But if the water is too high, the campsites disappear. When David and I first glimpsed the river at the Canoe Outpost boat launch, we were amazed by its beauty and strength. Indeed, we could easily float all 42 miles. All we had to do is use our paddles to steer.
Water dark as coffee, beaches white as sugar
The Suwannee River is dark and mysterious. The water looks like coffee, and the sandy banks look like sugar. The coffee-colored water isn’t polluted. It’s naturally stained by tannin in the vegetation from its source in the Okefenokee Swamp.
The outfitter dropped us off at the White Springs boat ramp, and we slipped our canoe into the water at 10:30 a.m. on Palm Sunday. Because of the high water, we had to avoid a nearly submerged sign that was probably near the base of the boat ramp. We paddled to the center of the river, and thus our adventure began.
The weather was perfect: not a cloud in the sky. It was like the Garden of Eden.
At 11:00 a.m. we heard the carillon chime the hour as we passed the Stephen Foster memorial at White Springs. It’s ironic that Stephen Foster, whose song “Way Down Upon the Suwannee River” made the river famous, never saw the Suwannee during his whole life. Why did he write a song about it? Well, he just decided to write a song about a river in Florida, and he needed a river that had only two syllables. “Way down upon the SOMETHING River…” But most of the rivers in Florida have Indian names with four or five syllables – like the Caloosahatchee River. I guess the Suwannee River is about the only Florida river with only two syllables, so that’s how Foster came to write a song about it.
The Suwannee is wild and untamed. There aren’t many houses along its banks. Most of it is pure Florida wilderness owned by the State of Florida. Periodic severe flooding discourages building. The few houses along its banks are usually built farther back on high stilts atop high banks. And at flood stage the occupant would have to boat to his home.
Tricky paddling over whirlpools and boils
The Suwannee River has about 200 springs – more than any other river on God’s green earth. I was astounded to see a good, strong boil at practically every river bend. Canoeing over the boils was an odd experience. Sometimes it felt like the canoe was on a conveyor belt – almost as if we were canoeing on a cushion of air. At other times the boil would grip our canoe and try to turn us around. The currents at the boils were tricky and unpredictable, with lots of vortexes and whirlpools. And we quickly figured out that a beautiful sandy bank indicates the presence of a boil – the bigger the bank, the bigger the boil.
At flood stage (77 feet above sea level), the springs stir up all the sand, and when the water level goes back down, the sand re-settles to form gorgeous sugar-white beaches. Each new flood reconfigures the sandy banks and beaches.
After canoeing over several boils, we really got the hang of it so we could easily canoe right through any of them. It was definitely an advantage to have a canoe without a keel. A keel would be a curse in unpredictable currents, making it difficult or impossible to keep the canoe on course. Our flat-bottomed cedar-strip canoe, built by my father-in-law, easily handled the boils and whirlpools once we learned how to paddle across them as a team.
A very personal matter
Camping along the Upper Suwannee is primitive – much like camping in Quetico Provincial Park adjacent to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area wilderness. There are no bathroom facilities. But I came prepared. I brought my trusty “U-Dig-It” collapsible trowel in a sheath strapped to my belt. When in Indian country, you have to do like the Indians. And yes, we remembered to bring the toilet paper.
The only thing that seemed odd to me about the Suwannee was the absence of cypress knees (the knobs that stick up out of the water around cypress trees). We didn’t even see one cypress knee. They were all underwater. But at least our canoe never scraped bottom.
We canoed 13 miles our first day and made camp on a sandy beach. David and I relaxed on the beach in our beach chairs with our feet in the dark, cool water. Unfortunately David felt sick to his stomach later that evening and didn’t feel like eating supper. I guess the GORP (good old raisins and peanuts – in other words, trail mix) or the Slim Jim he ate for lunch didn’t agree with him. He felt better by morning.
We were in no hurry, so we slept fairly late, enjoyed some coffee with hot chocolate and a good breakfast of scrambled eggs with Jimmy Dean maple-flavored pork sausages. We didn’t even get our canoe into the water until 11:30 a.m.
The amazing spring said to cure EVERYTHING!
During our second day on the water we saw ruins of the old 19th century spa at Suwannee Springs. The walls of the old springhouse are still standing, but the glorious hotel of a bygone era is no more. It was said that the sulfurous spring water had medicinal value, which would supposedly cure rheumatism, constipation, gout, or whatever ailed a person! Wealthy people came from all over America to stay at the posh Suwannee Springs hotel and soak in the healing waters of the springhouse.
We paddled another mile or so to the Canoe Outpost and had our lunch break there. After chatting again with the outfitter, we re-launched the canoe and continued our adventure downstream. David spotted a beautiful beach on the right bank a few miles downstream and said we should make camp there. But around the bend we noticed an even more spectacular beach on the left bank. We decided to make camp there.
Gargantuan whirlpool spans the river at very high water
But a gargantuan whirlpool spanning the width of the river – about 30 yards in diameter – was rotating counter-clockwise at the river bend. We avoided this contrary current by sticking close to the left bank. What a campsite. WOW! After walking through the campsite we set up our beach chairs and marveled at the natural beauty of the place. It was enough to make me forget that my first choice was the Okefenokee Swamp. We only made 11 miles our second day, which meant we had 18 miles ahead of us to get to our final destination.
I pulled my fishing pole out of the canoe and tried casting into the whirlpool and elsewhere along the bank of our campsite. I was going for bass. In addition to largemouth bass, the Suwannee River also has striped bass and a unique variety called the Suwannee bass, which likes to hang out by the springs. I won’t tell you any “fish stories.” I’ll tell you the unvarnished truth: I got skunked.
Well, at least I have a good excuse: It’s a lot tougher to catch fish in a river at high water than at low water. But one of the Florida natives told me that if I set out a properly baited hook at night, I’d have a 30- to 50-pound catfish in the morning – “guaranteed.” I didn’t try it, partly because I wanted to catch bass, not catfish. Besides, catfish are hard to skin – even though they say there’s “more than one way to skin a cat.”
There’s something about cooking over an open fire that makes the food taste better, but I did have one cooking mishap. At our second campsite I put some brats on the portable grate. Unfortunately one of the brats rolled off the grate onto the sand. I picked up the sand-caked brat and, unwilling to throw it away, took it to the river and gave it the “Suwannee swish.” Then I put it back on the grate and finished cooking it.
But as I chewed the brat I immediately felt the odd sensation of grittiness. The powder-white Suwannee sand is so fine it’s practically impossible to wash off.
Though I’m not a smoker, I do light up a fine, black cigar once in a while. That’s what I did in the evening by the campfire. When I was through with the cigar, I peeled off the ring to throw in our garbage bag, and then I tossed the spent cigar in the river so it could float the remaining 145 miles downstream to the Gulf of Mexico. You might think that was an act of pollution. But remember, a cigar is nothing more than a rolled up leaf. Let me assure you that millions of leaves fall into the Suwannee River every year and float down to the Gulf of Mexico. On our final day we launched the canoe at 10:00 a.m. We easily knocked off the last 18 miles in four-and-a-half hours including the time we took for lunch.
And we took our lunch break at an amazing place: the confluence of the Alapaha River and the Suwannee River. I was amazed at the boils and strong currents. And I learned an astounding fact: At low water, the Alapaha River goes underground for its last 17 miles. At low water it delivers its water to the Suwannee only through springs. But this was high water, so the Alapaha riverbed was full and strong. It delivered its water to the Suwannee both underground and above ground in a dramatic and impressive way.
Close encounter with angry gator
A couple years ago I had an uncomfortable encounter with an enormous gator – up close and personal – when I was kayaking by myself on Deep Creek in Southwest Florida. The gator was quite a bit longer than my kayak. I tried passing the sunbathing gator, but despite my attempt to give the gator a wide berth, I disturbed its sunbathing. The gator, who was with a little gator I hadn’t seen, was obviously irked at me. I survived that heart-pounding incident by keeping my cool and paddling on through.
Though I’m afraid of gators, David and I were hoping to see some. I guess I have an approach/avoidance conflict with gators. They’re nasty and ugly – and fascinating. Unfortunately we saw no gators on this Suwannee River trip – perhaps because of the high water or the season. We’ll certainly see quite a few gators when we paddle the Okefenokee Swamp, which has 10,000 of them.
I love the sounds of the Florida wilderness. A wide variety of birds were singing, including one that had an amusing laugh almost as good as a loon.
The bugs weren't bad. They're only starting to come out in March. When the mosquitoes became bothersome in the evening, I applied some good bug dope, which solved the problem. David preferred a different method. When he saw a mosquito flying around his bare legs, he'd grab a handful of fine, white Suwannee River sand and throw it at the mosquito to try to ring the mosquito's bell. Sort of like a shotgun blast.
Best kept secret in North Florida
Though the Suwannee River is surely one of the finest canoe-camping rivers in America, we came across no canoe-campers during our entire three-day trip. Not even one. On our first day we encountered one day-tripping canoe party and a couple of kayakers. On day two we came across a party of seven or eight people in three canoes. And this was in March – probably the most ideal month for canoeing. The joy of canoe-camping on the Upper Suwannee must be one of the best-kept secrets in North Florida.
And I was astounded that we only encountered two small powerboats the whole time. I had expected to see and hear a lot of powerboats zipping up and down the river, especially considering the water level was ideal for powerboats.
Why were hardly any powerboats on the water? I think it’s because boaters in North Florida assume the Suwannee River is too shallow for their powerboats – and usually it is. When the water is high enough, the boaters apparently assume high water means danger. In fact, the Suwannee is only dangerous at flood stage.
When we got to our final destination at Suwannee State Park I shook David’s hand to congratulate him on a fine job of paddling. He’s a good canoe man and woodsman. He’s a genius at knots.
I’m looking forward to our next canoe-camping adventure next August in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area wilderness between Minnesota and Ontario. And one of these years we’ll canoe the spectacular White Cliffs of the Missouri River in Montana on the fabled Lewis and Clark Trail.