Suwannee River Sojourn (Shorter Version)

By Reinhard Zollitsch

Florida's State Song

Practically everybody in America knows Stephen Foster’s song: “Old Folks at Home” and can give you a pretty close rendition of Florida’s State song “Way down upon the Swanee River”, but few know where to find that river on the map. An outfitter in Old Town, Maine admitted that she did not know there really was such a river.

I had heard about the Suwannee River and the Okefenokee Swamp since my early English classes back in Germany and vividly remember our class of all boys having fun with the swoopy melody.

Well, fifty very busy years have gone by since then, most of them in this country.  I felt it was about time to check out this river, and since my motto has always been “wenn schon, denn schon” (go for it), I had to do the river from top to bottom, from the outflow of the Okefenokee swamp near Fargo, Georgia to the Gulf of Mexico near the little town of Suwannee, Florida, what else.

A lot has been written about Stephen Foster, the river and the song.  Fascinating trivia for me was to learn that Stephen Foster never visited Florida or the Suwannee River, and that the river immortalized in his “Old Folks at Home” song was originally the PEEDEE river (named after the Peedee Indians of South Carolina—Try that one on for size: “Way down upon the Peedee River...”)

The origin of the name Suwannee is also not clear. It could have been derived from the Creek Indian word “sawani”, “echo river” or “San Juanee”, a colloquial pronunciation of Little Saint Johns River. It has also been called “River of Reeds” and “River of the Deer”. Whichever it is, the fact remains, it is there and drains the Okefenokee swamp to the west in one mighty S-curve of 245 miles, which makes it the second largest river in Florida.

Eighty individual springs and aquifers and several sizable tributaries add to the tannin-laden dark waters of the river. It also has the only whitewater stretch in Florida, has lots of caves and is navigable most of the year, even for powerboats. The Suwannee is one of Florida’s most loved and frequented canoe trails and has several outfitters who could help you set up a trip. Needless to say, people know about this river and are using it, some say overusing it. I had to find out for myself.

Snowbird on the Suwannee

Spring break in March is the only time I can get away, and living in snow-bound Maine, believe me, I am ready for some warmer climes come March.  Spring is also the high water season, usually making it possible to start at the Stephen Foster State Park, in the Okefenokee proper, instead of the #441 bridge at Fargo, the low water starting point, 17 miles downstream. But don’t scoff at low water: it will compensate you with lots of sugar-white sand banks all the way down the river so that you will never have a problem finding a suitable overnight spot just for you.

In any case, the first 60/43 miles to Big Shoals are slow, past huge teepee-shaped cypress trees, unique tupelos that look as if they each swallowed a big pumpkin, and under impressive curtains of Spanish moss hanging from almost all taller trees. This is so completely different from my evergreen pine, spruce, birch and maple north woods world or the mangrove forests of the Everglades.

The closer you get to Big Shoals the more defined and deeper the river becomes. Scouting the rapids from the portage trail on the left is absolutely necessary and portaging would be easy, especially if you decide to camp here anyway. Think twice before running the falls with a loaded canoe. Big Shoals looks like a gear eater, and at flood stage could be downright dangerous.

At White Springs you’ll come upon your first big spring, White Sulfur Spring, and you can still see the huge old stonewalls around it, looking like an early romanesque swimming pool, now defunct. The overflow water is still running vigorously into the main river through a beautiful masonry archway, crystal clear into the richly organic, tannic acid laden dark waters of the Suwannee.

Minutes later you will hear chimes wafting over from the Stephen Foster State Folk Culture Center. I had to stop briefly and pay homage to this prolific writer and composer. Pompous marble steps led into an otherwise friendly park, but the non-stop loud chimes did me in and I was back in my boat after a very swift run-through and phone call home.

Through a limestone canyon

Slowly the river becomes a river again and the banks become steeper and turn into all limestone. Millions of years ago the entire Florida plate was an ocean floor, I had read, which was then lifted and tilted towards the Gulf side. For the next 100 miles or so the Suwannee cuts its bed through this shell, coral and sand former ocean floor. In places the banks are 30-40’ high and very steep. With its chalky white color and pockmarked, gnarly surface, even small grottos and caves, it felt like paddling through a coral reef - complete with fossilized shells - where someone had let out the water, a dry-dive, if you know what I mean.

The stretch to my canoe outfitter’s home base at the Spirit of the Suwannee campground was absolutely spectacular. But at the Suwannee River State Park and the confluence with the Withlacoochee River some 30 miles downstream, the steep white limestone canyon-like shores gradually flatten and turn a dirty yellow brown, often covered with lichen, mosses or algae.

The wildlife

I noted in my log that I had not seen much wildlife on my trip so far, some hawks, an occasional eagle and of course lots of vultures drying their wings in the tree-tops, like cormorants early every morning. Once or twice I thought I saw an anhinga with its long tail and white wing streaks.

At night I heard several big 8-hooter owls, often seemingly calling each other or even chatting with one another, a most unusual experience for me. And during the day I would hear big splashes and occasionally see huge fish jumping clear of the water. I was told they were sturgeons coming up the river to spawn, weighing up to 100 pounds, which I could believe.

Below Branford, “the diving capital of the world”, as local people proudly refer to their little town, sand banks become rarer and homes and summer camps more frequent. The mouth of the Santa Fe River looks enticing and would be well worth exploring, as would the many caves around Branford, if you are into cave diving.

Manatee Springs and the Gulf

A couple of good-sized gators and lots of turtles later you will eventually want to paddle up the outlet stream to beautiful Manatee Springs. Lots of paddlers end their Suwannee River trip in this well-appointed state park, but why: it is only one more day to the mouth of the river in Suwannee.

At this point the character of the river changes yet again. It widens into a formidable river, the banks get lower and eventually recede behind a curtain of humungous lily pads and grasses. The trees are gradually replaced by lush green mangrove thickets and tall grasses. The river winds its way through an extensive marshland and swamp. Yellow Jacket and Fowler’s Bluff are the only human habitations. It feels very Evergladian all of a sudden, as this river is about to dissolve itself into grassland and the endless shallows of the Gulf of Mexico.

It made me think of all the great river stories I had read in my life, from Mark Twain to Hermann Hesse, and especially the concept of the “river of life”. The Suwannee, I thought to myself, is a perfect example of that, with its beginnings in the Okefenokee swamp, its brief whitewater rebellion, its decisive cut through a limestone canyon, an old ocean floor, past towns with people and commerce to an even bigger swamp and the ocean eventually, from where it will evaporate and start the circle of life anew as rain in some other watershed.

Before you notice it you will arrive at Miller’s Marina in Suwannee, the last take-out point on this river.  213 miles in 10 days is perfectly doable, even solo in a rented two-person canoe. I had arranged to be picked up here and shuttled back to Jacksonville airport from where I would fly home to the cold Northland of Maine and another month of winter. Brrrrrrrr!!!  


For more info, check out: (Canoeing in Florida) (Suwannee River Canoe Outfitter) (Suwannee River Water Management District - river map)
NOA chart # 11408
Allen de Hart: Adventuring in Florida. The Sierra Club Travel Guide to the Sunshine State. Sierra Club Books. 1991.

© Reinhard Zollitsch