Suwannee River Sojourn

by Reinhard Zollitsch
March 2000

The State Song of Florida

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 that 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.

Cypress Tree
Cypress Tree

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 “The river of Reeds” and “The 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.

80 individual springs and aquifers and several sizable tributaries add to the tannin-laden dark waters of the river. It also has the only white-water 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.

Northern Snow bird 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. Without fail, the day of my departure is a snowstorm with major delays in the Northeast. But I make it to a Jacksonville airport motel by 9:00 pm planning a 6:00 am pick-up by Suwannee Canoe Outpost the next morning.

Dave and his daughter were right on time with my rental 15’ aluminum Grumman on top of their car and a small bottle of propane for my cook-stove. (You cannot bring that on a plane!) I learned that the Okefenokee and the Sill (the outflow of the river) were closed due to low water. Spring is normally the high water season, but El Niño had done a job on this area also. Put-in would be at the Fargo route #441 bridge, the usual put-in for the river trip. My approach from the Okefenokee proper, the first 17 miles from the Stephen Foster State Park, would have to wait for now.

Low water challenge

Even at Fargo the water level was low and the river was slow for the first 21 miles to the route #6 bridge. At times I had to wend my way around huge cypress trees and their stout upright sprouts, often standing in the middle of the river. The triangular lower trunks all looked like junior teepees to me, and the tupelo trees were equally unique and looked as if they had each swallowed a huge pumpkin. But most impressive were the curtains of Spanish moss hanging from almost all taller trees. This was so completely different from my evergreen pine, spruce, birch and maple northwoods world.

Spanish Moss
Spanish Moss

7 1/2 hours in the boat were long enough for the first day, so I set up my little Eureka tent on a sand bank about a mile above the route #6 bridge because I did not want to hear the traffic rumbling across it all night. The nice thing about the low water was that it exposed a lot of sand banks all the way down the river so that I never had any problem finding a suitable overnight spot just for me.

Since I was fully self-contained as usual, having packed all my food and camping gear, including my favorite paddles and life jacket, at home in Orono, Maine, I did not have to stop at any town or store or campground, except for the occasional phone call home to let folks know my whereabouts. All I had to do was add water.
The first night the temperature dipped down into the thirties. I felt right at home, and slept in polypropylene, polar fleece, wool cap, and wrapped an aluminum survival blanket around my sleeping bag.

Brief whitewater at Big Shoals

Low water and a slow boat made going more laborious than I had anticipated, but the closer I got to Big Shoals the more defined and deeper the river became. The cypress trees were no longer in the river but on its bank. They were still bare so early in the season and everything looked quite different from the evergreen mangrove forests of the Everglades, where I had spent a couple of Spring breaks before.

But I made it to Big Shoals in less than 6 hours the next morning, scouted the rapids from the portage and decided I could run it fine, even with all gear, except for one drop. I walked the course, marked the eddy where I would take out along the right shore, and it was no problem. I unloaded, lined the boat over the drop, repacked my gear and was off again.

Portages are hard on my 61-year-old bod, and I have done a lot of white-water and even ocean canoeing, but I am not saying you should run it. There is a great wide and level portage trail on the left. Look for the take-out sign and listen for the falls. Walk the path all the way down to the put-in, a steep slippery drop over a bank, and decide what you can do, not what you wish you could.

Big Shoals looks like a gear eater, and at flood stage could be downright dangerous. And remember, this is the only stretch of white-water of any significance. If you plan to camp here you could just as well take out and pitch your tent at any of the nice level spots along the trail.

I like falls and like hearing the rushing water all through the night, and since I had paddled another 22 miles, my daily target for the trip, I decided to stop here and pitch my tent on the high banks on the right just below the falls, all alone, as always. Some other boaters must have stopped along the portage trail, but I did not see or hear them, which was just right by me.

The night was cold again, and mist was hanging over the river early in the morning. An immature bald eagle was flying by, lighting on a tall cypress for a moment, only to go on its way down river. The spell of tranquility was broken when I approached White Springs. The river almost disappeared and became a river in a river, in places only 5’ wide, with sharp limestone edges, which aluminum canoes do not like at all.

White Sulphur Springs
White Sulphur Springs

They stop dead in the river when they touch that stuff, unlike Royalex boats, which I am used to, coming from Old Town Canoe country. After two bridges and White Springs proper, I saw the huge old stone walls around White Sulfur Spring, an early romanesque swimming pool, now defunct. The overflow water was still running out into the main river through a beautiful masonry archway, and some water was bubbling out of the ground, crystal clear into the richly organic, tannic acid laden dark waters of the main river.

Minutes later I heard 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 became a river again and the banks became steeper and turned 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 ocean floor. In places the banks were 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 where someone had let out the water, a dry-dive, if you know what I mean.

Camping in a limestone canyon
Camping in a limestone canyon

I saw fossilized shells in the walls, and was absolutely spellbound by its brilliant white beauty and decided to stop for the night on a sand bank inside of such a limestone canyon, at about mile #155, according to the free official Suwannee River Water Management District map which counts the miles upriver from the Gulf of Mexico.

Limestone canyon
Limestone Canyon

The stretch to my canoe outfitter’s home base at the Spirit of the Suwannee campground was spectacular. Since the rock hopping was over, Dave even offered me a swifter boat, a 17’4’’ fiberglass Mohawk Blazer which I gladly accepted since I had 150 more miles to go. According to him, I had done all right in the old stubby 15’ Grumman: a bit over three days to here. And what a difference a boat makes. The Blazer ran absolutely quietly and had a glide, which came close to my 18’ Jensen at home. I was impressed and pushed off eagerly after I topped off my water tanks and took care of phone and trash.

I made it early to my next overnight spot past the route #751/249 bridge and the confluence with the Alapaha River - 20 miles in 6 hours paddling time. And I was glad I stopped, because I had barely set up my tent on a small sand bank, when a powerful thunderstorm hit. The storm front tried to buckle the tent poles and blow me off the sand bank.

All I could do was sit inside and absorb some of the impact shock by holding on to the poles from the inside in the very center of the tent. EUREKA did it again, but then the rains came, and kept coming, and I was thinking of flash floods. I packed most of my gear and made plans for a hasty escape up the bank behind me - but the river never rose more than a couple of inches, which was fine with me.

A leaden sky greeted me in the morning. The tent was still wet, but the gear had stayed dry, which was most important. It was a long straight 21-mile haul today to the southwest past Suwannee River State Park and the confluence with the Withlacoochee River. A mostly quiet 6-hour paddle, including 1 hour for breaks, except for a very brief sporty white-water stretch below the route #90 bridge. The steep white limestone canyon-like shore gradually flattened and turned a dirty yellow brown, often covered with lichen, mosses or algae. I finally pulled out on a small insignificant sand bar at mile #115 above Dowling Park, a large Christian retirement community.

The turkey shoot

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 on the water and occasionally see huge fish jumping clear of the water and then slamming back on the water, mostly on their right side, never on their softer belly.

I asked a ranger at the park about these fish and was told they were sturgeons coming up the river to spawn, weighing up to 100 pounds, which I could believe.
And then today I heard turkey calls, real close to the shore. Since I had never seen a wild turkey, I had to try and get a glimpse of him. I slowly, quietly approached the shore, and was delighted that the calling continued.

I strained my neck to see him, I waited 5 minutes, then 10, when suddenly a shot rang out. It was so close, so loud and so unexpected that I froze for a moment. Then suddenly images of “Deliverance” raced through my head and I was in the middle of the river and headed downstream with full steam before I knew what I was doing. Come to think of it, I never heard an impact, never heard a bird fall out of the sky. So had the shot missed, or was I the turkey? I’ll never know, but I heard “Dueling Banjos” playing in my mind for a long time that day.

On water trail stewardship

Day 6 took me another 22 miles down the river to a small sand bank island at mile #92 below Luraville. A strong headwind made going harder today, keeping me in my boat for 6:40 hours. (including 40 minutes for breaks). But I saw my first real big spring today, Blue Spring, gushing from two pools on the right into the river. Even though I had a hard time seeing the blue color, it was clearer than the river and was flowing quite strongly over a stone dike into the main river.

At the beautiful route #51 suspension bridge I had lunch but was appalled by the trash and beer bottles along its banks there. I had never seen anything like that. In Maine and most other New England states all bottles have a deposit and one hardly ever sees a bottle lying around anymore. Furthermore, most of our popular rivers or hiking paths like the Appalachian Trail or Maine Island Trail have groups or individuals who have adopted a stretch of trail and take care of it, including keeping it clean.

That is what this river needs, an active stewardship program in which hiking, boating, fishing, outfitters or nature clubs adopt a stretch of river near their home base and keep it clean, monitor its use and feel responsible for it. If people don’t want a state agency to come in to protect the river with all kinds of restrictions, they should become responsible users themselves, advocate the new policy and discourage the old abusive attitude towards rivers.

Compared to the Northeast and other parts of the country I have seen, this area has a long way to go. It is sad and seems shameful how such a unique and beautiful river is disfigured by human negligence and misuse. The Suwannee River Water Management District seems to be working in that direction, but needs more active help and support from the actual users of the river.

On to Manatee Springs

But the river does not let you linger long, not even with thoughts like this. It pushes on like the river of life. Then suddenly there was a guardian from the past, a wide-open railroad swing bridge, long abandoned and rusting out, an eerie reminder of the past.

Since Dowling Park I also noticed more and more camps and houses along the river’s edge, most of them with multiple decks or platforms halfway down the bank, with elaborate stairways of pressure-treated or cypress wood. But I never saw anybody sitting on those platforms sipping mint juleps, southern comfort, tea, coffee or what have you, not once all the way down to the Gulf; but decks definitely were the thing to have.

At mile #92 I had gone another 22 miles, and found a lovely sand bar attached to a small mid-stream island - perfect stop for the night. Next morning was very windy, and with the river widening, I had to slug my way through whitecaps. But when the going is rough, one digs deeper. So I still covered the 16 miles to Branford, “the diving capital of the world” as local people proudly refer to their little town, in about 4 hours. Since it was Sunday, I noticed some people swimming at some springs on the right and left of the river, but the powerboat traffic was still minimal, which surprised me nicely. But 4 sea-doos can make quite a racket, and I was glad I was on my way again after the necessary service stop.

Sand banks became rarer below Branford and homes and summer camps more frequent. The mouth of the Santa Fe River would have been a nice stop for the night, but was simply too far, so I opted to pull out at a minimal sand bar at mile #69, which served me just fine. I had barely set up my tent when the rains came down again. Fortunately my tent spot was a bit elevated, so most of the water flowed around, not under, the tent and ground cloth.

The rain kept coming down almost all night and into the morning. The trees and vegetation along the banks were soaked and were steaming in the first sparse rays of the sun. There was time for a second cup of coffee, before heading out in Gore-Tex.

The Santa Fe area looked as enticing as anticipated and would be well worth exploring. But the river and my time constraints pushed me along towards the route #340 bridge instead, where I had a brief conversation with some cave divers who had come all the way from Exeter, England. A few miles further down the river I surprised 2 good-sized alligators basking on the warm mud flats, the first on this trip so far.

I had thought of stopping for the night at or near the Wannee boat ramp, but was unmistakably reminded that there was no overnight camping in Gilchrist County, “for sure”. So I made myself inconspicuous again and disappeared somewhere towards Sun Spring on a level spot on the riverbank. I won’t tell where exactly.

The night was cold again. I wore wool socks and sweater in my sleeping bag, but was feeling great, fascinated by the delightful conversations of the 8-hooter owls in the tall trees around me. With the mist slowly rising over the river I pushed off refreshed and hopeful, because I felt I was finally getting somewhere. Manatee Springs State Park for the night, what an exciting thought. And then only one more day to the mouth of the river and the Gulf of Mexico.

Six hours, a couple of gators and lots of turtles later I paddled up the outlet stream of Manatee Springs. There I beached my boat, and inquired about camping facilities. I was told to come to the front gate, a good mile and a half up the road, to check in. I thought someone was surely jesting, but no, they insisted. Not wanting to rock the boat, being an out-of-stater, I hitched a ride with a ranger vehicle, but when I found out where I would have to camp, I asked the driver to return me to the river. The camping spot was almost a mile from the water. Fat chance that I would carry all my gear there and back again to the river the next morning. And no, I could not camp in the little grassy area near my boat, I was unmistakably told.

Manatee Springs State Park
Manatee Springs State Park

I was very disappointed that the park only catered to campers arriving by car or who were picked up by car finishing their river trip here. There was no policy in place to accommodate small boaters who were going on like me. So I decided to jump back into my boat, which by the way had floated off the beach and could have gone to Suwannee without me had I not tied it to a tree. I was unaware that the outflow volume from the spring fluctuated - the water level had risen several inches.

Under the vulture roost

Back on the main river, I looked around for a break in the trees, a level spot for my tent, a take-out, and found it more or less across the river, but it looked that I would have to share it with about 50 buzzards, not a pretty thought. One by one, very reluctantly and with a lot of groaning, they left for another tree roost, I suppose, and did not come back till early in the morning, to dry out or warm their wings in the early rays of the sun.

The vulture roost (birds in a big tree)
The vulture roost

I pitched my tent to one side of their roosting tree, pulled my boat up on shore and out of sight and was ready for some serious reading, writing and supper, the high point of each day. I even went swimming here as I do every late afternoon wherever I travel - very carefully, just floating in shallow water and facing the river. Then a pileated woodpecker decided to attack my tree and showered my tent with wood chips, but that was better than what the vultures dropped when they came back early next morning. I tried to shoo them away, but too late, they had already bombarded my tent. I hurried to get out of there, rinsed off my rain fly and ducked to my boat. No free overnight this time. I should have known who was in charge here.

Towards the Gulf

The character of the river changed yet again. It widened into a formidable river, the banks got lower and eventually receded behind a curtain of humungous lily pads and grasses. The tall, often still bare trees were gradually replaced by lush green mangroves, and the grasses got even taller. My map and chart confirmed my observation.

Giant lily pads
Giant lily pads

The river was now winding its way through an extensive marshland and swamp. Yellow Jacket and a bit further down Fowler’s Bluff were the only human habitations. It felt very Evergladian all of a sudden, as this river was about to dissolve itself into grassland and the endless shallows of the Gulf of Mexico.

I was suddenly thinking 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, was a perfect example of that, with its beginnings in the Okefenokee swamp, its brief white-water 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.

But my drifting off into thought was suddenly stopped at mile #7 when I noticed the tide was coming in, and quite vigorously at that. But by 1:15, 5:45 hours after leaving Manatee State Park, I arrived at Miller’s Marina in Suwannee, the last take-out point on this river. Another 22-mile day for a total of 213 miles in 10 days, and I still had one day to play with. I liked that.

So the last day was spent exploring the mouth of the river, as I had hoped to do when I first planned the trip. I drifted down West Pass with the end of the ebb tide to the very mouth of the river. I saw lots of big gators sunning themselves on the mud banks or cruising right by me like beavers or muskrats in my neck of the woods. I then went around a myriad of flat grassy islands, swinging north, occasionally walking my boat over sand bars and mud flats back up all the way to the top of Salt Creek.

Gulf of Mexico
Gulf of Mexico

At the standpipe I hoped to find a crossover into the marinas on the riverside, but couldn’t, though I tried several arms. There was nothing else to do but to portage across the obstacle, the only street into town, to the riverside, which would get me back to Miller’s eventually. In the end I had added the 17 miles I had to forfeit in the Okefenokee to the Gulf side of the Suwannee, which brought the trip total back to 230 miles in 11 days. Not bad for an old geezer like me, I thought.

And as I was sipping my coffee, leisurely sprawled in my Crazy Creek chair in front of my tent, thinking thoughts of accomplishment, and wondering what I was going to do next spring, my old Everglades friend Thornton drove up with a hearty hello. I had told him before I left on this trip, that I would try to make it to Miller’s Marina by high noon on March 23, but did not really expect him to come all the way over here from Sebring to visit for a couple of hours. I was flattered and honored by his trust and friendship, and impressed that he found me.
Thanks, my man.

And it was oh so nice to see Dave at 6:00 AM the next morning, reliable and cheerful and right on time for the ride back to Jacksonville, from where I would fly home to Maine. What a trip this has been. Now back to the cold Northland of Maine and another month of winter. Brrrrrrrrr.


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