Saturday, March 02, 2013

Way Down Upon the Suwannee River

(click to view photos)

From a distance the water looked black. Up close it was the color of strong tea - colored by tannin from  decaying leaves and vegetation. Along with all the Spanish moss hanging in the trees it gave the river a a feeling of mystery. With all the bird and insect sounds it felt a bit like being in the jungle, except without the nasty bugs and tropical diseases. (Although historically, Florida did have tropical diseases like malaria and yellow fever, and global warming appears to be bringing them back.)

At the start of our trip the water was quite low and the river was quite small - narrow and shallow. They measure the water level relative to sea level and where we started it was about 50 feet. By the end of our trip it was over 60 feet and would probably peak about 65 feet i.e. an increase of 15 feet! This was due to all the rain both locally and in Georgia where the sources of the river are. The river grew as we paddled down, both due to tributaries joining and to the rise in water level. It was all good, but I think I liked the more intimate feel of the upper river. Another benefit was that there weren't any power boats when the river was smaller.

Due to the low water levels when we started we couldn't have started much further upstream. But when the water is higher you can start up in Georgia at the Okefenoke Swamp, the origin of the Suwannee. That would be fun. Lower down the river, closer to the ocean it's bigger and gets a lot more motorboat traffic. So although it would be neat to go all the way to the ocean, I don't think the paddling would be as nice.

As we launched the kayaks our outfitter pointed to the railroad bridge 20 feet above the water. "The water was up to there when it flooded last summer." You could tell how high it must have been by all the debris stranded up high in the branches of the trees.

It was still early in the spring and too cold for a lot of wildlife, but in the first hour we passed an alligator lying on a sandbank. I wonder if he was unhealthy since he looked scrawny and barely moved when I approached within a few feet. If it hadn't moved I would have wondered if he was dead. Later we passed another bigger one that behaved more as I'd expect, sliding into the water and disappearing as we approached.

We also saw a couple of beavers. I tend to associate beavers with the north, it's funny to think of them cohabiting with the alligators. There were lots of birds around but they were hard to spot in the forest. Often we could hear them but not see them. Great blue herons were common. There were a few cormorants and a few skittish ducks who took off as soon as they saw us.

Apart from the birds, the most common wildlife were the turtles. Once the sun was high enough we'd see them out on logs and rocks soaking up the warmth. There were some big ones with shells that looked well over a foot long. I'm not sure where the babies are - we didn't see anything smaller than about four inches. Most of them looked similar to the red-eared sliders we see as pets but with yellow "ears". We also saw a couple of soft shelled turtles.

It was off-season and mid week - we didn't see a single other kayak or canoe. Both the river camps we stayed were empty apart from us. We saw about one fishing boat per day. Even the houses along the river weren't too intrusive since they had to be well above the river to handle flooding. Much of this stretch of the river is a state park.

Considering the forecast was for 90% chance of rain for four out of five days of our trip we did pretty well for weather. Despite the forecast the first day was beautiful - no wind and mostly sunny. That changed that evening when thunderstorms and rain started and continued all night and all the next morning. We were thankful for the roofed shelter at the river camp. It slowed down at noon and we packed up and headed out, but the downpour resumed (accompanied by impressive lightning and thunder) and needless to say we got soaked. The rental kayaks had big cockpits and no spray skirts and we didn't even have rain pants (travelling light). We also only had our ultra-light Black Diamond First Light tent which is ok for rain showers but not extended downpours. But we had planned ahead and knew there were cabins to rent at our next stop. It was a bit of a cop out but we sure appreciated being able to get out of the rain and dry out our gear.

Overall we had a great trip. We only had rain the one day - the rest of the time the weather was beautiful. Since it was still winter / early spring some of the trees were still bare, but there was enough greenery around. Some of the trees were just starting to get their leaves and were a beautiful shade of bright green. The paddling was easy and the distances aren't excessive. The developed river camps with their shelters are great, but if you don't mind camping with no facilities you can camp just about anywhere along the river since it's mostly state park. There are also cabins for rent at a few spots. We spent two nights at river camps, one in a cabin, and one night just camping beside the river. There are boat launches at regular intervals along the river so you can start and finish at a variety of places.

American Canoe Adventures supplied us with our kayaks and transportation. They did a good job of looking after our needs.

See also: Shelley's photos and post: Kayaking the Suwannee River

See also: all the posts from this trip and all the photos from this trip

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