December
12 was a beautiful sunny day when we launched at Cone Bridge West
near the intersection of FL 6 and US 441 to canoe 32 miles down the
Suwannee River. We were Okefenokee-smooth-water and canoe-camping
experienced, but our knowledge of the Suwannee was limited largely to
Clyde Council’s
Suwannee Country
(1988) and Linda Carter and John Pearce’s
A
Canoeing and Kayaking Guide to the Streams of Florida, Vol. 1

(1985). Both books are accurate, interesting, and useful. Carter
and Pearce are more informative about the two sections we paddled.
One useful updating, according to David, who operates the Suwannee
Canoe Outpost near Suwannee Springs (he did not offer his surname)
the property on the south bank adjacent to Big Shoals is no longer
privately owned.

Cheryl
and Gordon Young and Steffen Pope and Mark Wilson rented tandem
canoes from David (whose shuttle fee is also very reasonable; the
Suwannee Canoe Outpost is open year around: 1-800-428-4147). Michael
Shain was my paddling partner in my 16-foot “Chattooga”
(purchased new at half-price 20 years ago as a “cosmetic second”
from which Perception had removed its proprietary name).

The
first day’s paddle was about 10 miles to Big Shoals. The river was
characterized by its dark water and the beautiful and haunting
exposed intermingled roots of tupelo trees interspersed among cypress
that lined the occasionally steep banks. Early on, based on my
vague recollection from reading Joyce Hudson’s book
Looking
for DeSoto
(1993) we tried to
find/imagine where the 25-foot bluff might be that was described in
the journal of one of DeSoto’s officers where Indians killed with a
bow and arrow a war dog that was trying cross the Suwannee River in
pursuit of them.

We
had launched about 10:30 a.m. and reached Big Shoals about 3:30 p.m.
with a leisurely lunch stop along the way. Since we were camping at
Big Shoals, we portaged the gear approximately 250 yards to a nice
spot on the bluff overlooking the end of the shoals. I had taken my
ABS canoe so I could run the shoals. The water was relatively low,
but a “new” class III is still a thrill to this old timer.
I invited Cheryl, our next-most-experienced white water paddler to be
my partner. The first drop was a bit tricky and Cheryl got splashed
a little (she says “soaked”) but overall we handled it well
enough. The others preferred to save the risk of damage (at their
expense) to David’s aluminum canoes, so we carried them to the
campsite and began the enjoyable tasks of setting up tents, etc.
(Now, how does that vestibule go?)

Although
a front had been forecast to pass through with possible thunderstorms
and the clouds were variously threatening, it remained a dry and
occasionally clear evening. We took a night hike to get far enough
away to escape the masking “white noise” of the river’s
shoals, so we might hear some of the other night sounds. We heard
hunting hounds barking in the distance, and from the sound of the
dogs, we speculated that a ‘coon may be meeting its doom, but we
never heard a shot to fell it from a tree. It began to sprinkle
light rain the next morning during breakfast preparation (Gordon and
Cheryl, who eschew red meat, had brought some gift venison sausage
from a Tennessee neighbor that the more carnivorous among us devoured
with great relish).

Fearing
that worse rain may be yet to come, we broke camp quickly. Loading
below the shoals was a bit tricky with slick banks, but all went well
and soon we were on our way. The sprinkle never increased to the
point of needing rain gear, and the sun soon shown through.

A
couple of miles later and to vary things a little, we wove in among
some trees where the water appeared passable between trees and bank.
Finding a dead end and reversing, we returned and saw a water
moccasin we had passed lying mighty close on an exposed root about 18
inches above the water. We gave it due respect and went merrily on
our way.

Merrily
included a stupid game someone suggested (me… I learned it recently
from a performance by an Athens barbershop quartet… hey, we are
“high class” in Athens). Actually, it can be fun. You
sing “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” and the first time a
word beginning with “B” is sung, you raise your arms, with
the next B-word you lower your arms, then raise, then lower, etc.
with succeeding B-words. The idea is to end up the same, and when
sung at normal tempo, it is not as easy as it might seem.

Anyway,
at one point we linked the boats abreast to form a raft and used our
paddles instead of arms. Soon we were a choreographed unit suitable
for the Water Bowl parade. You can do stuff like this when you are
in the deep wilderness where no one else sees what fun you are having
(or fools you are).

A
couple of small shoals inform of the approach to the US 41 bridge and
the impending appearance of White Springs. We spoke with a future
Suwannee paddler who was standing on the bridge, an older man who
said he planned to kayak from Fargo, Georgia, on December 27th.
Some fellows in a nearby roadside park offered a questionably
unpleasant exchange with some in our group… I had already paddled
ahead and did not hear the exchange.

A
friend who is now a college professor in Missouri told me later that
he grew up in that area and had paddled that part of the Suwannee
many times. He said in the early 70s, in his hippie days, that he
and a friend canoe-camping had many shots fired over their campsite
in that vicinity one night by “lowlife rednecks” having fun
with the hippies. Glad I had not heard that story before this trip,
because we did see one apparent hunter crash through the woods the
next day as we passed, but he whirled quickly and returned to the
woods without saying anything. Bottom line… we had no unpleasant
experiences other than the comments mentioned above, and by no means
would I hesitate to take this beautiful trip again.

We
lunched at a nice spot before reaching White Springs, but landed at
the spring house itself shortly thereafter to seek ice and beer.
There is a convenience store near the spring house, and the warm sun
was beer-drinking inducing. Soon after we relaunched, the Stephen
Foster Memorial carillon in White Springs chimed out 2:00 p.m. The
scenery began to change from tree lined banks to a mixture of trees
and limestone walls. Such walls can be eerie (appearing as exposed
mass graves… bones) or beautiful (“castle walls”)
depending on how you want to see them.

David
from the Suwannee Outpost had recommended a “45 minutes to 1
hour” paddle beyond I-75 to the beginning of sand bars which are
public domain for camping. Now, I am one who generally does not like
sand all over my gear, but camping on that sand bar has changed my
attitude for good I think. Or maybe it is the Suwannee River sand.
It was white and clean and brushes off easily. It made a soft
foundation for my mattress and a charming arena for our night fire.
There was a plentiful supply of prime firewood in a drift on the
sandbar ranging from starter to mid-fire to fine feeder logs to
sustain us into the night.

Michael
slept beside the fire in the open air, and we even had a bed of
starter coals the next morning. The sand bar showed various animal
tracks before we arrived, as well as fresh tracks in the morning. It
appeared obvious the next morning that a deer had visited our site
and had, perhaps, bumped into and jumped over a canoe. The night was
clear, and we were blessed with a meteor shower to view. The cold,
clear night and the warmth of good whiskey made all very well with
the world.

The
best was yet to come. It was another warm and beautiful day. We had
paddled more than 1 hour past I-75 to find the sand bar on which we
had spent the night. That made the next day’s paddle to the take-out
at the Suwannee Outpost only about 8 miles away. (Incidentally, the
Suwannee parallels I-75 for several miles, and despite the long
paddle we made after the I-75 crossing, the traffic noise was
amazingly constant throughout the night, adding a very small, very
slight sour intrusion into paradise.)

The
views remained excellent and, best of all, we had time to leisurely
enjoy a very large sand bar about mid-day that abounded with animal
tracks… mammals, birds, and reptiles. One very intriguing track
fit no schema that any of us had. It was clearly was not mammalian,
and it did not seem to fit bird or reptile either. As we pondered
and discussed and followed it, good fortune revealed its maker… a
very large locust that was walking, not jumping, along.

There
were some nice live oak trees to climb, sit among its branches and
sip beer (Cheryl, Gordon, and me) and soft sand and easy shade to
shield the sun’s brightness for contemplation or a nap (Steffen).
Mark seriously considered a dip in the river, and Michael stretched
out in the sun on the sand in deep thought. It was very hard to
leave that sand bar, so we all just lay down again and made “snow
angels.” But eventually, time and duty called, and it was to
the boats again.

A
couple on their first canoe outing passed by as we were launching,
but we passed them a while later as they pulled into a sand bar.
These two and a single canoe of three men, who we speculated were FSU
students, who launched when we did at Cone Bridge West, were the only
other paddlers we saw. The three said they were paddling to the
Gulf, and we never saw them again.

Soon
we came to the remains of the Suwannee Springs house where we landed
for a short visit… if you don’t like the smell of sulfur, don’t get
too close. We paddled below the old, abandoned, but beautiful, steel
truss US 129 bridge and then the newer and appealing-in-its-own-way
concrete US 129 bridge before hitting the final stretch of a couple
of miles to the Outpost. Some trips you want never to end.

by
Roger Thomas
From The Eddy Line, February 1997