Suwannee Trip

Dec. 2, to 15th 03

            I have always wanted to travel the Suwannee River.  In the past, I have taken lazy days trips on the Suwannee, but the river was still not known to me.  I’ve traveled in the Okefenokee on multi-day guided canoe camping trips, and saw the beginning of the Suwannee at the spillway, but the river was mostly a virgin to me.

            I do not know how I got the idea to travel the whole river.  In the past I have participated in some multi-day group trips, both in kayaks and canoes.  They were fun.   Now I’m 59, in good health, retired, and still love adventure.

            Bill Logan’s book on the Suwannee (Canoeing and Camping The 213 Miles of the Beautiful Suwannee River) sealed my decision.  I tried to get others interested in my adventure.  In the end, no one wanted to go in December ’03.  Since I am retired I could go anytime, but December water levels were good (I hate pullovers), the bugs were gone, and rain is usually scarce.  No one wanted to go in November or January either. December it was.

            For 10 years I had a Keowee kayak, built by Aquaterra.  It cost about $400 new.  It was my first kayak, after we sold the aluminum Grumman war boats.  Aluminum canoes were great when we went river camping with the kids, but my youngest is now 25 and the grandchildren are too young for overnights with me.   The canoes were heavy and noisy, but we were always amazed about how much “stuff” they held.  The Keowee was 9’2”, weighed 36 pounds, very stable, and I had over-nighted in it a few times.  I always stored it in a shed, since the sun ruins plastic kayaks in Florida. Still, after 10 years, the plastic lost its elastic, and one day on a fast North Florida river I hit a rock going too fast. “Crack” and I sunk, upright, in 3’ of water. Ruined my day, but it was close to the takeout.  It was the last day of a 2-week series of day trips on Florida rivers.  I hauled the kayak home, and in spite of what all the experts said about patching plastic boats, I did it.  I used a real estate sign (aluminum), cut in half, and stuck half on the inside and half on the outside with marine sealant. I then drilled through the sandwich, and put over 50 pop rivets in the holes.  Worked fine, but I would not trust it on the rapids of the Suwannee.  In addition, it was too small for a 2 week self supported trip.  There is no pizza delivery on the Suwannee.  I sold the Keowee for $100, and bought a used Pungo.

            Pungo is a plastic boat, made by Wilderness Systems.  It is 12’1’’, weighs 50 pounds (ugh), and is rated at a 400 pound capacity. I weigh 220, so that left a lot of gear room, or at least capacity.  It has a padded seat back, foot braces, deck rigging, large cockpit, and is very stable.  Can it roll?  I do not know, since I did not have a spray skirt until my wife made me one just before my trip.

            At this point I will tell you that I also have a 17’ Current Design Solstice fiberglass kayak.  It is an ocean cruiser, and I have gone on several 2-3 day trips with it.  Fiberglass is not compatible with the rocks in the Suwannee, or most of the other rivers in Florida.  The decision to use the Pungo was obvious.

            I had planned a 3-day shakedown trip circumnavigating Lake Apopka, but stuff comes up, things happen, and I did not do my shakedown trip.  In fact, I never overnighted in my Pungo.  I did spend some time making a packing list, trying all my equipment, putting it in my 5 dry bags, and then into my kayak. It all fit, except for the dry bag with my sleeping bag.  It would have to go on the stern deck, held with bungees. No way I could roll it now.  I did not know how stable it would be, but the sleeping bag was the lightest dry bag.  I did not weigh it all, and did not know how much freeboard, if any, I would have.

            My plan was to portage with my strap on wheels. Great invention, the wheel. The wheels became my bow deck cargo.

            Bill Logan had mentioned he had used Canoe Outpost at Spirit of the Suwannee.  I have used other Canoe Outposts before, and all these firms, while affiliated, have independent owners.   This Canoe Outpost offers pick up and drop off along the entire Suwannee.  The clincher, for me, is that they were 85 miles from Lem Griffis Camp on the upper Suwannee.  If I decided that I did not want to do the whole river, I could stop at mile 85 at the Outpost, get in my car and go home.  Actually, the Outpost has 18 put-in and pickup points on the river, so changing your plans is easy.  Changes involve an additional fee, but that is business.

            Having my car at mile 85 also gave me a resupply point (my trunk.)

           

Tuesday, December 2, 2003

 

            I loaded my kayak on rooftop Yakima rack, and headed for the Outpost.   I got there at 11 AM, paid my fee, and Graham from the Outpost took me up to Griffis Camp.  We took my car, so there was no unloading at the Outpost.  Griffis was deserted, and I paid my $2 launch fee in the honor system box.  I said goodbye to Graham, and he took my car back to the Outpost.  By 12:30 I had eaten my sandwich and was on the river. I was on a roll, or at least a paddle.  Lots of water, the sun was shining, and I had the river to myself.

            For shelter I was using a jungle hammock, with a separate rain tarp.   Three hours of paddling and I found a nice campsite.  Nice for me was 2 stout trees about 10’ apart, with other places to tie off my tarp.  Set up for my hammock and tarp took about 30 minutes. Sleep came easily, and at dawn I felt great.

 

Wednesday, December 3 

 

            More of the same. A narrow river with a good water flow.  No alligators.  Where were they?  They showed up on my last day.  Maybe the cold kept them somewhere else, out of view.  There are no signs of civilization on the upper Suwannee.  No bridges, houses, power lines.  Was I in Florida yet?  One day I will have to learn how to use my GPS.  The night was cold, and my sleeping bag was not warm enough.

 

Thursday, December 4 (Day 3)

 

            The day started OK, but by noon the rain started.  There were deer, but they ran off when they saw me.  The rain was no problem, but my gore tex pants had lost their water repellence.  My jeans underneath were damp.  By 3 PM the rain stopped, but a 10’ fog layer hugged the river.  Visibility was 50’, and I was not sure where I was.  Then I saw the signs about the shoals.  Then I heard the shoals.  I could not see the shoals, but they sure sounded like Class 3 Rapids. Inching along, running out of light, I decided to camp on the side of the river.

             

            The best site I could find was half mud. OK, in my hammock.  I went to sleep without bothering to cook dinner. I heard a shot, and remembered that it was still deer season.  I did not have an orange vest.  The night was long, due to worry and more rain.

 

Friday, December 5 (Day 4)

 

            I climbed the bank and tried to walk downstream to scout the shoals.   There was no path, so I paddled down until I saw a takeout sign.  The bank was steep, and my portage wheels did not allow me to set any speed records for portaging.  It was work pulling a loaded kayak up the banks and down the trail.  The put in was rocky, and there was no way to get in and keep your feet dry.

            The river past the shoals included some rapid water.  I would think this is risky for inexperienced boaters loaded to the gunnels.  I got through OK, but some quick paddle strokes were needed.  I saw my first Florida beaver.

            Since it was Friday, I decided to stop at White Springs for the night.   At the Spring House on the river at the Stephen Foster State Folk Culture Center there is a concrete sidewalk.  I pulled my kayak up to the road, and then across the street to the Suwannee River Motel.  The road must be 100’ over the river, and the walk exhausted me. The motel, while not a Holiday Inn, was only $23 single.  Clean sheets, hot water, warm rooms, and cable TV.  This was camping!

            Nice homey restaurants, with good plentiful food.  Places to restock your food supply, which I was planning to do along the way. Nice town.

 

Saturday, December 6 (Day 5)

 

            My cell phone was not getting good reception, and I had to climb a river bank to make a call.  My AM/FM radio with headphones was my companion on this trip, but there were not a lot of stations to select from.  The weather reports were from Tallahassee, Atlanta, Jacksonville or Ocala.  They are predicted frost for this evening.

            The weekends are supposed to be busy on the river.  I saw one Jon boat.  The locals knew this was not good weather to be on the river.  I got to the Outpost about 3 PM, and decided to drive back to White Springs for another warm night.

            For those of you who crave night life, stay away from White Springs.  The County is dry, but you can buy beer a retail stores.

 

Sunday, December 7 (Day 6)

 

            I decided to use the day to rest.  It was still cold, and my body was tired.  I went to a 100+ year old church with a historical marker.  Seven people there, including me.  Looked like a dying church.  Did a load of laundry.  Read the Sunday paper.  Called home.   Repacked and dried my gear.

 


 

 

Monday, December 8 (Day 7)

 

            It was cold.  Frost on my windshield.  Drove back to the Outpost, and was on the water by 7 AM.  Still cold.  Paddled 5 minutes and put my hands in my pockets to warm them.  Did not bring gloves.  Ice on kayak not melting.  Paddle splash freezing on kayak.  Turning into a kayaksicle.  Coldest weather I had ever kayaked in.  By 9 AM the sun was on the river, and conditions were tolerable again.

            By 3 PM I was at the Suwannee River State Park.  A nice ramp to wheel my kayak up to a campsite.  A table and hot showers, but a cold night.  There were other campers there, and it was nice to stand around a fire and talk about the things that campers do.

 

Tuesday, December 9 (Day 8) 

 

            Disaster struck at 2 AM.  I was awoken by a load ripping noise, and then a “thunk.”  I found myself partially on the ground, with my feet about 2’ higher than my head.  No more noise. What happened?  It seems my jungle hammock ripped, and the “thunk” was me hitting the ground.  I closed my eyes and grabbed a little more sleep, since there did not seem to be anything I could do about the problem at 2 AM.

            When the sun came up, I saw what the problem was.  The seam had ripped, and this was not something that safety pins and duct tape could fix.  I had a bivvy sack tent, but it was back in my car.  I decided to continue, and rig my tarp as a tent.

            I paddled down to Dowling Park, with its Adventist Christian Village.   This was mile 120 for me, and I was averaging 17 miles per paddling day.  I stopped here for the night, and splurged by staying in their motel.  They also have a nice coffee shop and restaurant.  I went jogging to see the town.

 

Wednesday, December 10 (Day 9)

 

            I saw a sturgeon jump out of the water. Awesome.  They have been here as long as the alligators.

            My Upper Suwannee map said there was a campground called Jim Hollis River Rendezvous.  Their big thing was spring diving, but they had campsites, a restaurant, a motel, and other amenities.   It was at the end of my paddling day, so I camped there.  Restaurant was closed. It was off season.  Showers were warm, but boat ramp was sand and pulling a loaded kayak on narrow wheels uphill through sand after a day of paddling was work.  Then the strap holding the wheels on broke.  The wheels wore through the straps.  I took out the stub of a strap and rethreaded the remaining strap. Worked better than before.  Trip was fun so far, but human contact was sparse.

 


 

 

Thursday, December 11 (Day 10)

 

            My map showed me that the town of Branford should be my goal for today.   It had some stores, restaurants, a boat ramp and an off-brand motel.  This was 149 miles for me, and I was still averaging about 17 miles per paddling day.

            A cheap motel is not much more than a campsite, and at this point I had no reliable portable shelter with me.  Off season you do not need reservations, and the food in towns is better than the freeze dried stuff I was making.

 

Friday, December 12 (Day 11)

 

            I passed a big intersection, where the Sante Fe River comes into the Suwannee.  The river gets wider, and allows bigger boats to come upstream.  I saw some tied up on the shore, but no one was moving on the water.  Great trip for a Zen kayaker.

            The Upper Suwannee map was finished.  The next section is the Lower Suwannee. There is no Middle.

            I paddled to Guaranto Springs Park.  This is what it is called on the Lower Suwannee map.  The park is run by Dixie County, and on its map it is called Gornto Springs County Park.  Nice dock and ramp. Nice spring.  It has tables and a shelter.  No showers, and signs warned about drinking the water.  I slept on the ground. Hard, and no pleasant.  The park ranger came by to collect a camping fee.  He also went to the store to bring me back a beer.  I had the park to myself.

            A word about water. I packed 2 water bladders, each of which held 2.5 gallons.  I also had a water purifier, which I did not need.  There are lots of places you can replenish your water supply, and maybe a 100 springs where you can use your water filter to get better water than your home tap.  One water bladder would have been fine, since the weather was cool.  I drank maybe 1-2 quarts per day.  When I drank more, it flowed through me very quickly.  Cold weather does that.  The bladders are great in that they sit in the bottom of the boat, and help to keep it stable.  Water is heavy, and I hauled the kayak many blocks.

 

Saturday, December 13 (Day 12)

 

            There were a few more boats on the river. More houses along the banks, some of which had Christmas lights.  Nice.  Many houses looked vacant, or at least used only in the summer.

            My goal was Fanning Springs, which had a boat ramp and a motel.   It also was a big day in Fanning Springs, with an antique car show in the park, music in the bandstand, a midway with funnel cakes and other carnival food, and manatees (8) in the springs.  Also a cheap motel, but a 4 block walk.

            That night there was a boat parade on the river.  Boats decorated with Christmas lights paraded up the river. It seemed the whole town came out to see the parade.  My kayak was at the motel, but I enjoyed the parade.

 

Sunday, December 14 (Day 13) 

 

            It was raining hard when I awoke, but it slowed to an occasional drizzle when I got on the water.  Paddling in the dark for the first half hour was nice.  I was getting close to the end.  There is not much civilization between Fanning and the town of Suwannee at the mouth of the Gulf.  It was getting to be time for this trip to be over.

            My goal today was Suwannee, the end of my trip. Without my jungle hammock, there were few camping places on this stretch of river.  Fowlers Bluff used have a store and a motel, but they were closed.  My plan was to paddle 30 miles today to Suwannee, and I have never done 30 miles in a day.  I had current, but there were tides in the mouth of the river.  There was also a headwind of 10-15 MPH.  I made it to Suwannee by 3:30PM, and found a motel. They all charge the same price in that town, so expect to pay $55. Campsites are available, but it was cold again.  I lost my wheels to the bottom of the Suwannee.

            My cell phone did not work until I got to the 2nd floor of an under-construction house.  I called Canoe Outpost for a pickup.

 

Monday, December 15 (Day 14)

 

            Canoe Outpost picked me up at 11 AM.  After a fast-food lunch, we were back at the Outpost by around 2 PM.  I said my good-byes, loaded my car and was back in Orlando around 5 PM.  Trip of a lifetime.

 

Epilogue

 

            It took me 2 days to unpack, clean, and store all my gear.  My hammock was resewn by a shoe repair shop.  Anyone who wants any more details can contact me at 407 299-3259 or dorn56@bellsouth.net.