A Family Suwannee trip report,
to 16th, 2007 at extreme low water,
By Bill Pretsch
Suwannee River Trip & Camp Sites
Bill, Leslie, Ethan & Austin
After seeing the Suwannee River 18 years ago, the stars aligned to fulfill one of Dad’s dreams—an extended trip paddling the river. The White Springs river gauge was 51.42’ on Monday March 12th and dropped slightly to 51.25’ by the end of the trip Friday March 16th. We had a wonderful trip due in part to advice freely offered by Bill Logan. We also owe our gratitude to Ken Zinniger and Marinell Davis who wrote a detailed trip report on this river section following their November 2006 kayaking trip. As with any river, but especially this upper section of the Suwannee, the water level dramatically changes one’s experience. As explained below, we cut our trip short after 5 days and 4 nights on the river, exiting at Hwy 41 in White Springs. This change in plans was due chiefly to the low water level.
We purposely began our trip on a Monday morning to avoid any weekend trippers and to allow the spring break crowd to get ahead of us. It turned out that spring break isn’t a significant event on this upper wilderness section of the river. It was also wonderful timing because there were no mosquitoes or flies. We called Steve with the Canoe Outpost and arranged to have him meet us in Fargo, GA, since we were driving down from the north. This cost a few extra dollars because it required a second driver to take our vehicle down to the Outpost, but it saved us the 1 hr. 15 min. drive south to Live Oak, FL and then back north again. The drivers promptly met us at the 441 put in at 10:00 a.m. Note that the visitor center adjacent to the boat ramp offers the last indoor toilets to voyagers—but it is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.
Starting Point: Fargo Boat Ramp N 30° 40.912 W 82° 33.600
After loading up our gear, our two canoes pushed off at 10:50 a.m. with the White Springs River gauge reading 51.42’. The skies were clear blue with a high temperature of 79°. The river was tightly winding with Bald Cypress and Tupelo trees growing within the riverbed. We had not expected any current at all, so we were delighted by even the meager 0.7 mph flow. Stopped for lunch after paddling 3.25 miles. Just downstream was a better stopping point, and excellent camp site at N 30° 39.100 W 82° 35.711. We planned on stopping around the state line for the evening—a run of ~9.5 miles according to our map. After traveling 9.51 miles, my GPS showed that we were still 3.6 miles from the state line! I believe that the Georgia mileage is understated on some older maps, which might explain other trip reports stating that this section of river seems very slow paddling! We had had a very busy day, so we chose to stop at 3:45 p.m. Our traveling speed was 2.5 mph. Our total time on the water includes time spent taking a couple of snack breaks, a lunch stop, etc.
Camp 1: “Still In Georgia” N 30° 37.725 W 82° 38.496 Monday Night 3/12/07
4 hrs. 55 min. on the water, traveling 9.51 miles downstream from put-in
Wide sand bar offered a nice campsite, appropriate at higher water levels too. Along this stretch of river, property on river right (looking downstream) is posted. Slept hard (low temp 48°), with the only distractions a dog barking in the distance and several deer wandering through camp just before dawn. At 8:15 a.m. the sun was still below the horizon. Traveling with two kids we move slowly, and after a leisurely breakfast we get back on the water at 10:40 a.m.
Limestone Outcrops / Changing Topography
The state line seemed very distant. We paddled 2 hrs 40 min and then broke for lunch. After lunch the topography changed with hard limestone rock outcroppings on one side of the river, then the other. Son Ethan began counting the “Posted” signs on river left and stopped at 138. Stopped for the night at “Sand Dunes Camp” as named by others, paddling a total of 4hrs 50min.
Camp 2: “Sand Dunes” N 30° 31.829 W 82° 43.234 Tuesday Night 3/13/07
4 hrs. 50 min. on the water, traveling 13.75 river miles, trip total 23.25 miles
This site is river right, after a long straight stretch, on an elevated sand bar 75 yards wide and 300 yards long. There was some garbage on site, as it appears to be popular due to its size. Anyone would kick off their shoes to enjoy feeling the fine white sand between their toes. There were Cypress by the water’s edge, and the typical Pine, Live Oak, and Palmettos higher on the bank. For the day we saw one otter, two gators, several woodpeckers, and one stubborn heron. The heron flew ahead of us, a few hundred yards ahead, for nearly an hour. High temp today was 81°. Set the solar shower and opened a bottle of wine for a delightful evening in camp.
Up at 7:30 a.m. but we weren’t on the water until 10:05 a.m. It was a warmer night, with the low temp a very comfortable 55°. This camp site was our family favorite for the trip. Once in our canoes, the river banks became noticeably steeper. We ran a fun little riffle just above Hwy 6 and a larger one at the bridge itself. With this water level (~51.3’) we were barely able to scrape by without getting stuck. The best channel is at the farthest left edge of the river. We stopped beneath the Hwy 6 bridge briefly, noting the time was 11:15 a.m. and the mileage from Fargo to the Hwy 6 bridge was 26.35 miles. This was my first trip using my Garmin eTrex Vista Cx—what a useful / fun GPS for backcountry trips!
After passing the bridge there were a few weekend homes up high on the bank, unoccupied mid-week at this time of year. Not so much development as to be objectionable, but they sure don’t need any more. Fortunately, we still haven’t seen another person this trip. There was a lot of wildlife visible—especially alligators. Most of them were far ahead of the canoes, typically visible as we rounded a bend. For the day we saw 18 or 20—mostly just the heads in the water. We did pass a large 10’ carcass on a river bank, which was great excitement for 2 boys. The highlight was coming around a river bend and watching a 7-8’ alligator lunge into the water. As we passed the bank we saw first one little 14” baby, then another 6 or 7 siblings. All were well camouflaged in the leaves along the water’s edge. Nice high of 82°.
Spring Colors on the Suwannee River
The higher river banks and changing terrain limit the number of desirable campsites. We began looking for a place to stop, and passed a few until arriving at one spot frequently described as the “last chance” for many miles. So like adventurers before us, we pulled up at the series of hard “s” turns:
Camp 3: “Live Oak” N 30° 26.890 W 82° 40.358 Wednesday Night 3/14/07
4hrs 35min paddling, 12.1 river miles, 2.6mph moving avg, 35.39 trip miles
This is a scenic site, on river left, after a couple of tight “s” turns. It is up a steep 20’ tall river bank, and sits under a canopy of Live Oaks broadly surrounded by Palmettos. It is heavily used, but nice nonetheless. Set up our tent, took out some chairs to relax when through the brush came a monstrous 4wd pickup truck. It passed from one site of our campsite right through the other side and proceeded to drive along the river bank. Two hours later it came back, the driver offering that the catfishing wasn’t very good because there were too many bowfins in the water. Peace again descended on our camp until sunset—when along came two more truckloads of locals along with their 4 wheelers. Apparently we were camped at their destination—so they stopped about a 100’ away, set up a massive bonfire and turned on the music. Argghh! Long after we went to bed, the locals let out a few massive yells and proceeded to go home. Up to this point we hadn’t seen a single person, so this was a very disappointing interlude by “civilization”. The rest of the night passed peaceably. Most noteworthy were the numerous croaks & squeaks of baby alligators in the river beneath us. We were pleased to have camped so high on the bank!
Had we known about the visitors at this camp we would have canoed downstream another 45 minutes (1.9 river miles) to a more isolated camp located at N30 24.497 W82 38.775. As it was we were up at 7:15 and on the water by 9:20a.m. The river was very still, with no visible current. There was a stiff breeze blowing, and the river section before Big Shoals is wide and very much like an exposed lake. My dread increased with every paddle stoke as we traveled ever closer to the Big Shoals and its infamous portage. My anxiety increased looking at the two very heavy Grumman canoes, four full packs, and a half mile trek in front of us (me). Without scouting more than the landing, I immediately shouldered the first canoe and stopped 400 paces later, in a very nicely established campsite. It was in a clearing beneath towering pines, and it looked over the rapids. A quick survey showed that the low water put in was just another ~70’ further, down a slick, muddy slope. The portage wasn’t nearly as long as I had expected. In fact, other adventurers had evidently paddled to the head of the rapids, exiting river left. From this point they portaged along the left bank approximately 130’ before re-entering the river and shooting a small riffle. With this low water level this path was dry, the footing reasonably safe, and certainly easier than the route through the woods. Take a few minutes and scout the safest route at your water level.
Camp 4: “Big Shoals” N 30° 20.31 W 82° 40.940 Thursday Night 3/15/07
3hrs 52min paddling, 10.6 river miles, 2.7mph moving avg, 46 trip miles
There was only one established site, with a metal fire ring and a couple of benches. It had a nice view with the soothing sound of cascading water directly in front of the site. We set camp and put the solar shower in place. As my wife finished her wine and prepared to disrobe, four Mississippi State college guys came walking through our camp—followed by another 10 guys and gals. They were sorely disappointed that we had this camp site, so they took the alternative camp on a large sand bar immediately past the rapids on the right. After portaging their gear, most of their party ran the rapids (with a safety line at the ready). Three of the five canoes were able to shoot the whole rapids and stay dry. The other two boats provided our late afternoon entertainment! About that time a pair of female kayakers arrived too, and set their sparse camp by the landing. Fortunately our neighbors enjoyed the peace and tranquility of the site, and we all enjoyed a quiet evening.
The next morning we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and let our boys play and explore the rapids. Our neighbors, the kayakers who had run the river several times, noted that our trip plan was taking us to the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park, a considerable paddle at this water level. They noted that the developed trails along the riverbank would mean more people than we had seen up to this point. Furthermore, Ken Zinniger and Marinell Davis mentioned that they suffered a miserable night camped within ½ mile of the I-75 interstate bridges. These factors lead me to cut short our trip plan and exit on a high note. My family had enjoyed an absolutely perfect canoe camping adventure up to this point—and the idea of pushing ourselves 22 more miles in slack water sounded like more work than fun. It was the right decision.
We considered spending the night at Big Shoals again, but instead we broke camp around noontime. After calling our outfitter and asking them to bring our car to the White Springs landing, we proceeded to the top of the Little Shoals and had a final picnic lunch. We then had fun shooting small rapids and chutes over a 1000’ stretch of river. There was just enough water to be fun and not get stuck. For this our final day we traveled 4.83 miles in 1 hr and 35 min.
Our trip was a total of 50.9 miles.
After loading the car we stopped at the Stephen Foster State Park for a delightful visit. This is a gem of a park, with a surprisingly good museum chronicling Stephen Foster’s popular tunes. I’m not a shopper, but the gift shop was full of local fare and was interesting to browse. Incidentally, I couldn’t help looking at the river too. It was just a mostly empty, deep ditch as far as I could see downstream. I was so very thrilled we weren’t paddling that afternoon!
Spent the night in the Hampton Inn (Fairfield Inn would be newer / better) at exit 199 in Tallahassee. For dinner we found an FSU hangout called Barnacle Bills—fresh seafood and worth the drive if you are coming or going on I-10.
Sometimes an ideal site is in the eye of the beholder. For us it is a broad sand bar with a few large trees—preferably Live Oaks—in which we could hang our food pack at night, shade us in the late afternoon, and offer great tree climbing to two boys. Additionally, the sites I suggest in this trip report would still be good at water levels another 3 or 4 feet higher. GPS locations for a few good camps:
N30 39.100 W82 35.710
N30 35.668 W82 41.514
N30 37.555 W82 38.789
N30 36.663 W82 40.470
N30 25.938 W82 39.385
N30 24.497 W82 38.775
“Canoeing & Camping the 213 Miles of the Beautiful Suwannee River,” 2nd Edition by Bill Logan
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