On January 18-20, I organized a weekend car camping paddling trip down the historic, black water Suwannee River in Florida for the Georgia Canoeing Association (GCA). Eighteen GCAers showed up for the three days of paddling and camping. We made our base camp at the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park, which had ample campsites for RVs and tent camping. The Spirit of Suwannee had a camp store, cafand live music each night at their Music Hall and during the warmer months, the Music Park has huge music festivals. For this trip, the Spirit of Suwannee proved to be a great, accommodating campground to launch day trips from and serve as our base camp.
I arrived at the campsite on Friday morning, but many folks got to the campground the day before. I was quite impressed with the various tarps and tarp structures that were erected over some of my fellow GCAers campsites. I figured they would come in handy because there was a high probability of rain forecasted for the weekend.
We ran shuttle and put on the Suwannee around noon where we planned to do a 9 mile paddle from Woods Ferry to the boat landing at the Spirit of Suwannee. The Woods Ferry boat launch is tucked away on public lands. It is highly advisable that you contact Edwin McCook (see below resources) to get a map to this boat launch because you will probably not find the launch site otherwise. A map of this launch can also be found on the Suwannee River Water Management Districts website (see below resources). The water level was 51.64, which proved to be plenty of water for this section of the river. We had 13 boats on the water ranging from sea kayaks, rec kayaks, solo and double canoes. The day was overcast and chilly with highs only reaching into the mid 40s.
Immediately, we were struck by the beauty of the river. The Suwannee meanders and twists through a cypress swamp forest and cuts its way through high limestone bluffs. As with most black water rivers, the water shimmered like a mirror and was extremely idyllic and peaceful. On the insides of most bends, were pure white sand bars that seem to invite us to rest upon. About an hour later, we decided to stop for lunch and enjoy one of these sand bars for a bit.
Toward the end of the paddle (around mile 8), we stopped to explore a historic landmark called Suwannee Springs just off the river left bank. From the water, the antique looking wall looked like an old fortress and upon further investigation we found a spring hidden behind this wall. Apparently the spring was once a medicinal resort in the 1920s and 30s and people flocked to the spring for its mystical healing powers. I couldnt convince anyone to test out the waters of the sulphur smelling spring, but everyone seemed pleased to explore the remnants of the resort.
After our brief break at the Suwannee Spring, we headed on down river for about another mile and got off the water at the Spirit of Suwannees boat launch around 4pm. Taking out at this boat launch was very convenient as it was at our campground. Everyone was pleased with the days paddle and looked forward to the following days adventure.
That evening, most of us sat around the campfire and traded river stories over adult beverages. A couple of folks in our party walked to the music hall to listen to blue grass music. We all speculated about the next days weather that promised to be rainy, but I figured just maybe we could eek out a short paddle.
The following day (Saturday) we awoke to a heavy downpour and I didnt want to leave my dry and warm tent. The thoughts of paddling in the heavy, cold rain just didnt seem very appealing to me. As I wandered around the various tarp sanctuaries, I found only one person willing to paddling in the horrible weather. I remained optimistic thinking that the weather would break long enough for us to get in a paddle.
Around 10 the rain slacked off and I mustered several hearty souls that were willing to paddle a short section of the Suwannee. I figured we would paddle a 6 1/2 mile section of the Suwannee from the Spirit of Suwannee boat ramp to the Boys Ranch. After running shuttle, we put in around 11 am. The temperature was in the lower 40s and there was no rain. After about a mile, we passed a small tributary to the river and thought that it might be fed by a spring. Several of us landed our boats and scurried up the steep banks in search of a spring. There was a trail that meandered parallel to the stream, which we speculated was part of the Florida Trail. After about 5 minutes of walking along the trail, we abandoned our search for the illusive spring and returned to our boats.
The scenery of this days paddle was much like that of the previous days paddle with picturesque limestone bluff walls and ancient cypress towering over the river. It drizzled off and on, but there was no significant rain while we paddled. We paddle for about 3 1/2 miles and decided to stop at an inviting sand bar for lunch. It was very peaceful and we enjoyed the respite from the rain.
Around 2:30 pm, we spotted the take out. As we were getting ready to run shuttle back to most of our cars, the sky broke loose and heavy rain ensued. Unfortunately, we had to leave two folks in the cold rain with the boats until we could retrieve our vehicles. Fortunately, it was a short shuttle, and we loaded boats in very cold (around mid 30s) rain.
The miserable weather conditions prompted many of us (to include myself) to retreat to the warmth of local hotels for the evening. A few tough folks roughed it out and slept in their tents. No one really wanted to cook dinner in the horrible mess so most of us went out to dinner at a nice bar/pub in Live Oaks called Bulldogs Endzone restaurant. Others in our group opted to eat prime rib at the Spirit of Suwannees Music Hall. The food at the Endzone was really inexpensive and very good. As we departed for the evening, everyone was tired, but in good spirits despite the nasty rain.
The next day (Sunday) we decided to paddle the Ichetucknee River, which was about 25 miles south of our campground. The Ichetucknee is a spring-fed river and is very beautiful. The section we were doing was only about 3 miles, but most of us were planning to head home after the paddle so a short paddle was preferred.
Id heard of the Ichtucknees beauty and had always wanted to paddle it. The temperature was in the low 40s, but it was a pretty, sunny day. We had to launch one at a time because the launch area was so small, but it was worth all the effort. The Ichetucknee starts at the headwaters of Ichetucknee Springs in Ichetucknee Springs State Park so its very narrow and crystal clear with a cypress forest bordering its edges. It reminded me of the Juniper Springs and river. There was an abundance of birds (herons and ibis) as well as turtles. We stopped to eat lunch and soak in the beauty of the river. I felt like a kid that was having so much fun I didnt want it to end.
We got off the river around 2:30 and loaded our boats and said our good-byes. Despite the messy rain, everyone said they had a great time. It was about a 4 hour drive back to Atlanta. Later that evening, I looked at the photos on my digital camera and was still amazed at the beauty of the Suwannee and the Ichetucknee. I was a little sad that the trip was over and started to dream of returning to paddle more of Floridas wonderful rivers.
Edwin McCook of the Suwannee River Water Management District was very helpful and mailed me lots of very good maps and information. Most of this info can also be found on their website, which is listed below.
We camped at the Spirit of Suwannee Campground (www.musicliveshere.com/default.asp). The campground was very nice and I would recommend it.
We also stayed one night at the Holiday Inn Express in Live Oak. Some others also stayed at the Best Western in Live Oak. Both hotels were very nice as well.
Necky Elaho, Sea Kayak, but others paddled rec kayaks, solo canoes and tandem canoes
If you do an overnight paddling trip, you will have to get special use permits to stay on the Suwannee River Water Managment lands, but other than that there are no permits or fees for day trips.
Map of Access Points and Mileage:
For access maps and other info:
Edwin McCook, Public Use Coordinator
Suwannee River Water Management District
9225 CR 49
Live Oak, Fl 32060
Excellent website with info on the Suwannee River:
Suwannee River Water Management District (Water level, Maps and Contact Info):
Map of Access Points and Mileage:
Suwannee Canoe Outpost (rents canoes and kayaks and provides shuttle and they are located at the Spirit of Suwannee Campground):
Suwannee River Wilderness Trail Website:
Ichetucknee Springs State Park (put in and take out):