My kids said it was a midlife crisis, but I knew it to be the dream vacation of a lifetime ― before I got too old and brittle to do it. Adventure called and I went. I paddled the Suwannee River from the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia, through North Florida to the Gulf of Mexico, solo, and wasn't scared!
I studied up of shelf-stable foods and packed enough for two weeks, with plans to stop in towns along the way to restock provisions. I spent a year acquiring gear, like a water filter, solar power, a sleep system, emergency kit, etc., and spent four months working on a very detailed Google map, where I pinned camping spots, towns, locations for hot showers, historical points, daily mile markers, and where the crystal-clear springs are located. I shopped online for those disgustingly expensive outfits that’ll make me look the part, but, instead, made a run to Goodwill and racked up on everything I needed from the Cody Lundin collection. I vacuum sealed my dried foods and toilet paper, and organized cookware, clothes, a latrine kit and toiletries bag, and then drug my kayak into the living room and practiced packing and unpacking over and over till everything fit perfectly.
After driving for six hours listening to nothing but banging vibrations of ratchet straps on the roof of the car because they drowned out the sound of the radio at full blast, I pulled into the “Gator Motel,” a 60’s-style four-room motel in a one-horse town. There is no “check-in.” You call some guy’s cell phone to make a reservation, and you’ll find your name taped to the unlocked door to your room with the key laying on the dresser. And to check out, you put the key and $37.50 back on the dresser and lock the door behind you. The most hassle-free place I’ve ever stayed! Loved it!
I launched at the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp, where within the first 100 hundred feet of the launch I saw a couple supersized Cretaceous-period leftovers basking in the sun. I’m gonna need a bigger boat. Another hundred feet past the alligators was a small heard of deer. Fifty feet past the deer, a flock of turkeys. Fifty feet past the turkeys, white ibis. I’m off to a good start. My anti-social moto is proof that “Good things come to those who avoid people.”
The beginning of the river started out narrow and winding, with a very nice current. The bends are sharp, so I give my rudder a workout, screeching this freighter around corners and drifting into eddies like I was a bad stunt driver in Tokyo Drift. The water was still up from Hurricane Irma, so there were sections where I was floating through a wonderland of cypress trees and low-hanging Spanish moss, with the sounds of white ibis and egrets coming from the swamps on either side. I feel like I’m in the jungle. Pinch me!
For the first four days of my trip I had a guide showing me the ropes, how to identify solid ground for a tent, how to hang a bear bag, how to deter gators, what to look for in selecting a good campsite, like staying away from spots with alligator slides and disturbed ground where boars have been rooting, and always keep an eye out for snakes. You know when you ask a teenaged driver to follow you to Downtown Atlanta and they drive four inches off your bumper the whole way? That’s how I paddled behind my guide. I got the feel of it, though, after only a few days, and he let me take the lead. I almost got lost once when I was about to turn down an inlet, but used my common sense at the very last minute when I noticed the current carrying leaves and water bubbles in a different direction, and thought it best to follow those. I think I’m a natural.
We make camp on a beautiful white sandbar. Dale pitches his tent, builds a fire and eats his MRE, all within the time it takes me to unpack my first haul of gear. So my first real lesson is “less is more.”
With his spare daylight time, Dale goes exploring and finds old evidence of boar activity, comes back to get me, shows it to me and we have a lesson. I’m really digging this. We sit around the fire and chat till dark, then hit the sack with hopes of catching the mist floating on the water early in the morning.
I wake up in the middle of the night and hear boars! I hold my breath, don’t move. I’ve seen on TV how these fierce beasts have mauled hunting dogs with their tusks. Not gonna lie, I’m scared. I hear them again. A low snort. I’m estimating they’re about 50 feet away, probably close behind Dale’s tent. I’ll betcha he hears them, too, and is getting his gun, so I’m not too worried. I hear them again. Oh, wait. That’s Dale snoring.
An hour later I’m still vibing with nature when I hear a mega splash in the water just 20 feet from my tent. I sit straight up, eyes bugged out, listening hard to see if an alligator is climbing the bank. I hear another splash and think he’s slapping his tail in the water to assert his dominance to reclaim his beach. I’m hoping Dale hears it, too, and is getting his gun. I doubt it, though. I grab the flashlight, unzip the tent with lightning speed and scan the water for glowing eyes. Nothing. I lay back down and hear it again. I jump back up and do another scan. Nada. Probably just fish jumping. Another hour later I hear an armadillo approaching my tent. I know it’s an armadillo because it sounds like an Army troop stomping through the woods. Two hours later, just as I start to doze off, I hear coyotes howl in the distance. This beach needs sageing.
By the third day I had broken every single fingernail, and didn’t even realize it till I needed them to pry something open. Then I noticed all the dirt under my nails, too. I found it remarkable that I was so preoccupied with doing whatever that I never noticed the condition of my nails. That just means that I’m having fun, though. But thank goodness my toes are painted.
On Day 4, my guide's parting words are, “Remember, take your time and enjoy the float. Sleep late if you want. Stop at the springs and spend some time enjoying them. Call or text me if you need anything, and I’ll come right away. And be sure to start setting up camp with plenty of daylight left.”
I had a plan, one that’s been vivid in my mind for over a year. I’m envisioning me floating down the river with the current, my hands folded behind my head, watching the gators slink into the water while listening to the sounds of flocks of ibis. I set up camp, build a fire, and sit around it cooking some respectable food. I’m chillin’, staring into the flames, mesmerized, listening to the crackle and reflecting on what a peaceful paddle I had that day, and then lay in the tent at night reading a novel from my favorite author while listening to crickets chirp. It went NOTHING like that. Nothing.
Mainly, I was scared, and my anxieties were in overdrive, so I paddled fast to get to the next campsite for fear of running out of daylight before I found a suitable spot, rushed to set up my tent before the mosquitoes rang the dinner bell, and slammed some food down my throat because I was in a hurry to study the printed map because I forgot to download the electronic Google map that I spent four months creating, and then “tried” to sleep, which is hard to do when there are no sounds of crickets. And everybody knows why you don’t hear crickets; there’s something out there scaring them. I’m on a nighttime head trip, seeing every bear outside my tent even though they’re not there.
So my first night alone was spent at a boat ramp in bear territory. Double whammy. But Dale assures me that the bears and the people are friendly. I believe him about the locals, because just two miles upriver we ran into a group of paddlers that stopped and said a prayer for me when they learned I will be thru-paddling alone, a prayer so good and so strong that I wish I had a waterproof transcript of it so I could dictate it when I saw an alligator. As for camping at a boat launch, the boat launches where I live are notorious for criminal activity, so I don’t get much sleep, regardless, and hightail it at first light. Let the games begin.
Up till now, I’ve been relying on my guide to set the pace and find a campsite. He’s a regular on this river, so he knows where the good camping spots are and how long it takes to get there, and where all the springs and stores are located. I pull out my waterproof map and strap it to the deck in front of me. I need to keep up with the bends in the river and find them on the map so I’ll know how many more turns I have till I reach the next campsite. I’m planning 10 to 20 miles a day, depending on my wide-ranging mood.
It’s November, and temps are in the 90s during the day and freezing at night. How do you pack for that? Mother Nature’s not in compliance. I brought a bathing suit and sweats. The noon-day sun is scorching, and there’s no shade to paddle under. By the time I reach camp and unpack my gear, I’m sweating like a pig, on top of menopausal hot flashes ― and couldn’t go swimming because of the gators. I opted to leave my miniature USB rechargeable fan at home to save weight and space, so I dug out my latrine trowel and used that as a fan, a sure sign things are going south. I reeked of body sweat, DEET, and sour clothes because my clothes didn't dry after I washed them because I washed them too late at night because I didn’t start setting up camp with enough daylight left, and I didn’t have the wherewithal to think to drape them on top of the kayak in the morning to let them sun dry. And I so desperately want to come out of this bra, but you just never know who you’re going to run into on the river, or where those girls may roam off to.
My next stop is Big Shoals, the largest rapids in the whole state of Florida, which I will portage, which I really, really dread because it’s such a long portage, according to my standards. I’m hauling a LOT of weight in gear, plus a 65-pound kayak, so I had to bring a kayak cart to help me transport. I detest portages. With a bad back and rickety knees, I prefer floating the whole way. I’m stressing over this big time, enough to consider running those shoals. Not really, though, since paddlers tell me that running a kayak over that sharp limestone just below the surface is like running it through a paper shredder. And heaven help if you flip; you get shredded, too!
My anxieties get jacked into the red zone the closer I get to the shoals. I’m picturing me getting chewed up by the shoals, my battered and bloodied body washed ashore with bears sniffing me. I do some anti-hyperventilation exercises. When I’m at home paddling on the Chattahoochee, I whip out my phone and open Google Maps, and the little blue dot shows me where on the river I’m located. But since I’m here in Timbuktu with no reception, I have to rely on my common sense, which is sketchy.
When I hear that unmistakable roar I shimmy over to the bank, skootch up real close and creep along till I reach the portage take-out. The shoals are just around the bend out of sight. I start unloading the kayak. I have to lift it thigh high over a natural stone embankment to get to the trail. I’m so mad at myself for not scaling down on gear, sticking to just the essentials, but I had it in my mind that I was going to be lost at sea and have to live off of what was in my kayak for the rest of my life.
I didn’t want to make two trips, one for the kayak and another for gear, because I’m too lazy to walk a mile and a half, so I piled all the gear on top of the kayak where I placed the wheels at the bulkhead for support and stability, and got it done in one trip. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE my new Trail Trekker wheels. They’re wide and stable, and I NEVER have to worry about the kayak falling off the cart. And they float! Since I was alone on this trip, I made doubly sure that everything was waterproof, floatable, and tethered, in case I flipped.
The trail leading to the campsite is a much easier trek than I expected. It’s actually a beautiful pathway. Nice and level, no roots or rocks, covered in a thick layer of pine straw, an easy incline, and pine trees and palmettos on either side. I reach the halfway point at the top of the hill where the campsite overlooks the shoals. I look around for the other half of the trail that leads to the put-in but only see a drop-off and lots of downed trees from Hurricane Irma. I’m assuming the rest of the trail is somewhere under those trees.
After I pitch the tent and get settled in, I climb down the drop-off via roots to get a close-up of the shoals, and I’m surprised at how mild they look. I immediately think to myself, Pft, I coulda done that. What a bunch o’ sissies. I see some shelves, but, overall, it doesn’t look that bad. I spot a few lines where I thought it looked doable, then the water shifts and I see the jagged limestone. Whew, those sharp edges could make quick work of skin, as well as punch a hole in the bottom of a boat.
To prepare for the next day, I lower the boat down the drop-off and drag it about 75 feet to where I’m going to put in ― so I won’t have to risk pulling a muscle doing it first thing in the morning ― and then hang the bear bag in that same area, away from my tent. In hanging my bear bag, I did what my instructor did, tie a stick to the end of the rope and give it a toss. Miss after miss after miss, I finally hook a limb, but the rope wrapped around it a few times and got tangled. Took FOREVER to untangle it with a long stick and a lot of cussing. I sure wish I had learned the art of knot tying before I left, because I was always tying up the boat or clothes line or bear bag in a bow, like you’d tie your tennis shoes. Embarrassing.
I’m a member of a “Kayak and Canoe Camping” Facebook group where members discuss every aspect of paddling trips to help each other prepare, from how to dehydrate food and which waterproof bags are best to compact stoves and GPS monitoring, but let me say that the discussion of hygiene maintenance within that group has NOT been discussed enough! What a learning curve that was! After no bath or shower in a week, I filled up one of my Trangia bowls with soapy water, and then the larger billy pot with rinse water, heated them both and took a bird bath in the vestibule of my tent. I was sick of wet wipes, and needed to feel human again.
My plastic dinner plate fits perfectly on the bottom of my cook pot for storing, so I don't notice it stuck there when I place the pot over the campfire. I manage just fine without a plate for the rest of the trip. I have a chicken and rice dish for dinner, wash dishes, get everything packed for the next day, and then lay in the tent with my eyes closed, smiling, enjoying being clean, listening to the shoals, and just savoring being here. This is the first time I’ve slept through the night in five years. I wake up not knowing what year it is.
The next morning when I pulled the string to untie my bear bag to let it down, I forgot to hold the rope and it crashed to the ground. I hate to have to admit to that one. I launch right at the base of the shoals and let the strong current shove me on my way. I steer the boat with my rudder foot pedals while I eat a granola bar — at least till I see more rapids quickly approaching, when I throw my granola bar in the floorboard and start scrambling to get my cockpit bag closed, and leash down anything that’s roaming free, then frantically start searching for the V. My son always stands up in the canoe to look for the V, the safest shoot to run, and tells us where to go. My old self doesn’t have that luxury, but I find an opening all on my own from this low vantage point, and make it through without touching any limestone. Bam! I’m just that good.
I reach my first river camp at Woods Ferry, a 1,059-acre preserve where only paddlers and hikers are permitted to camp. It’s not accessible by car. At first glance, I want to keep paddling. There is what looks like a mile-long switchback boardwalk that leads up a cliff to the camp. My back and knees prefer a sandbar where I pitch the tent right there where I dock. But this river camp has five screened sleeping platforms, each with an electrical outlet, ceiling fan, water spigot, flood lights, picnic table, fire pit, and community restrooms and hot showers! And the best part is, it’s FREE. There are numerous river camps like this one along the river, all free. I have a new illusion: When I reach the end of the river, I could just haul my stuff back to the top of the river and do this all over again, and again and again, and just live here.
Once I get out of the kayak, I see a wagon at the base of the boardwalk for visitors to load their gear to haul up the cliff. Very nice compensation. I spend two days here, just so I can relish the amenities, as well as have some extra time to study the map. I take more zero days at the other river camps, too, because I was the only person there. Nice! Fall is a great time to paddle this river. There are fewer people, fewer bugs, and cooler temps.
It’s remarkable how a toilet and hot shower can transform your violent mentality. I love primitive camping, but not total caveman style for long periods of time. Toilets and hot showers are still highly coveted. I take a one-hour shower, and use double the shampoo and work up a colossal lathery afro. Rinse and repeat till I squeak.
Week 1 done. I feel so mighty!
I’m sick of bird food and dried soup, so when I spotted the Suwannee River Rendezvous Resort I screeched my tires and pulled in for whatever’s cooking. Actually, I smelled it before I saw it. I park my kayak at the outlet of the crystal clear Convict Spring, and walk over to Grandma Susie’s Cookin’ Shack where I order a burger all the way with fries and a large Coke. I had the ENTIRE dining room to myself. I take a window seat overlooking the river where I see my kayak pulled up to the bank, and I smile big. This trip is no less than euphoric. I can’t believe I’m here. I say grace over my burger, take a bite and roll my eyes in ecstasy. I regret nothing. I burped it for the next five miles, and said grace after every burp.
I hit a grocery store that was close to the bank and got a cantaloupe, a can of Dinty Moore Beef Stew (yuk), Rice-A-Roni Fried Rice, a pack of beef jerky that turned out to be moldy and rotten, and a family-sized bag of Cheetos Puffs. I leash down the grocery bags on top of the deck and paddle to my next home for the night. I ate that whole bag of Cheetos Puffs for dinner.
I’m 54 years old, a little over weight, bad back, rickety knees, definitely out of shape, and agile free. I was prepared for a few physical challenges, but this trip's a bit harder than I expected. I always seem to be on my knees, either crawling in and out of the tent, setting up a bed inside the tent, crawling or falling in or out of the kayak, crawling up an embankment for a potty break, or kneeling down to dig for gear in the hatches. The top of my battered shins and knees have softball-sized bruises on them, and stay scraped up. Every time I bend down and stick my head in the hatch to look for gear blood rushes to my head and gives me a headache, so I get smart and stick my camera in there and take pics, and can see exactly where everything is.
I slipped on mud at the launch at Adams Tract River Camp and fell flat on my back onto sharp limestone. I hit the ground so hard I could have thrown off earth’s gravitational pull. Lord knows how, but I didn’t cut or break anything. Absolute miracle. And I was glad to have my first aid kit with tweezers when I had the mother of all splinters jabbed into the side of my hand. And by Day 11 I dreamed I broke both wrists. I didn’t pack NEAR enough ibuprofen for this trip. I need to reset my body to factory settings.
A cold front brought the temps down to freezing on several nights. I was so cold that my phone couldn’t detect my fingers, and my metabolism dropped to that of reptilian. Whoever recommended filling a Nalgene bottle with hot water and tossing it down the sleeping bag to warm it up is a freaking genius and should win some sorta Nobel Prize. But I still crave a morning fire big enough to clear a 20-foot radius.
I did some barbaric dumpster diving when I reached Holton Creek River Camp and saw a trash can with a bunch of brand new applesauce cups, packets of pop tarts, mini bags of cereal, granola bars, and individual packs of crackers. Score! I screeched to a halt and dug them out, and ate them greedily. I also salvaged many a dropped food under the international three-second rule. And cleaned my utensils with just sand and water and dried them with my shirt. And used a slab of tree bark as a plate. Funny how all those germophobe tendencies take a back seat when you're on a camping trip — having fun.
Never underestimate the therapeutic power of very loud music. I had it all — Bob Seger, CCR, Doobie Brothers, Gorgon Lightfoot, Jim Croce, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Paul Simon, The Doors, The Eagles, Simon & Garfunkel, ZZ Top, John Denver, George Jones, Porter & Dolly, Charlie Pride, Barry White, Marvin Gay, jazz, gospel, blues, indie, you name it. An endless supply of bliss in that itty bitty MP3 player. And before you stroke out, yes, I wore head phones. Don’t wanna disturb the wildlife, right? Smh. I had enough music to last for days. I protected that thing from water more so than my phone. I can’t describe the all-time high I’m on when listening to music while paddling. I’ve never smoked crack, but the combination of kayaking to your favorite music has GOT to be comparable! It really is indescribable. I swear I can feel a palpable change in my core when the music starts. I observe a moment of silence for those high-rise city slickers riding their stationary bikes, looking out their windows at more tall buildings ― then crank it up.
There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about the culmination of this trip, reaching the ocean and paddling to the deserted Cat Island with its white sand beaches to spend a few nights like Tom Hanks. I plan to set up my 16 x 16 tarp over my tent, chair and table, and savor the ocean breeze and listen to the waves crash onshore. I'm three days out. I check the weather, and there’s an 80 percent chance of rain in two more days. Perfect. I love the rain. I’ve been waiting for it to rain since the day I launched. I want to sit and listen to rain drops pound the tarp while I read my book. I calculate the mileage and current and figure I can make it if I paddle hard. To make good time, I turn the tunes to ZZ Top for a fast cadence and start popping Skittles like speed.
I’m paddling through a section of river where there seems to be a private dock every 20 yards. Nowhere to camp. I see a large, green tract on the map that indicates conservation land, the ideal spot. No people. I paddle till dark to get there, and now it’s too dark to survey the bank for a good campsite, so I just grab the first spot with a clearing. But the bank is chest high from the boat. I don’t want to risk tipping over when I stand up to get out, so I flop out on my belly and crawl out on my elbows. I start to tie off the kayak and I’m immediately flogged by a flock of mosquitoes with jaw teeth. You think I’m kidding. This is gang warfare turf, and this breed bites to kill. And I’ve never heard that many mosquitoes, ever. I duck like I'm being shot at, and consider paddling on, but I'm spent, and can't paddle one more inch. So I quickly grab the tent, throw it up and jump inside and listen as they dive bomb. They’re so loud. The constant buzzing could fell a weaker human.
My tent is on a major incline, and I’m scared it’s going to lose traction and slide right into the river with me zipped up inside it. KAYAKER DROWNS IN TENT. That’s what the headlines will read. This is the start of a miserable night.
Forty-five minutes later the mosquitoes are still at it. I’m starving, so I chance it for food. Since the bank’s higher than the kayak, I have to lean far down to reach the hatches. I’m on my knees leaning way down, blood rushing to my head, when a 6- by 12-inch chunk of clay under my knees just falls off into the water. I catch myself with the kayak, and I’m teetering there, using whatever stomach muscles I can muster to pull my top half back to the bank.
I run back to the tent with my food and stove. I forgot the fuel, so I make another mad dash. Then I realize I forgot the spoon. I’m starting to get mad. But I’m so happy with myself at the talent I have for opening and closing the tent door without letting in a single mosquito that it's a trade-off. Then I see my Nalgene bottle is almost empty. I don’t have enough water to cook my dried soup, and I’m not going out there to filter water, so I eat a bunch of granola bars. After I eat I lay back on the hard clay, mad at myself for not grabbing the sleeping bag while I was out there. I try sleeping like a Neanderthal, but make another run. I feel so inadequate. So inexperienced. So mad at myself for not being better organized.
By midnight I’m blowing up my sleeping pad. This steep incline and slick tent floor make my pad slide. I could easily build enough momentum and speed to rocket this tent off the bank. The chance is great, and I’m seriously getting nervous. I reposition the pad a million times before 1 a.m. when I say screw it and decide to move the tent. There’s a second level to this bank, flat ground four feet above where I am now. The misquotes have died down, somewhat. I empty the tent, and with a hefty sling I chuck it up the bank, hoping there’s no fire ant mound I’m throwing it on. I gather up my gear, toss it up the bank, climb up and jump in — right on top of briars that poke through the bottom of the tent into my hands and knees. Pain, blood, and expletives. What the bleep?! I got one foot out the door to losing my salvation. I’m gonna have to get saved all over again.
With all this rearranging, I’ve got the mosquitoes stirred back up, but I desperately need to get that bullet proof sheet of Tyvek out of the kayak and lay it under the tent so the briars don't poke a hole in my sleeping pad. I'm out longer this time because I have to dig to the back of the hatch for the Tyvek. Like, I’m totally upside down with half my body in the hatch when I realize I have to somehow get out of this position. This triggers a mega hot flash, making me light-up like a glow stick for the mosquitoes, and I’m cussing up a blue streak, and on the verge of tears. By the time I finish getting the Tyvek under the tent, I have puncture wounds on my arms, legs, back, butt, and feet, so much so that once I got home I thought I had chiggers all over my lower half.
I turn in for the night at 2 a.m. and hear buzzing in my ear, like right IN my ear. I turn on the Lucy Light and hang it up so I can use both hands to kill all the mosquitoes in the tent.
I wake up and see that it’s light outside, and I’m mad at myself for sleeping late. But then I realize it’s 5 a.m. and the moon is full and extra bright. Since it’s clear I’m not going to get any rest here, I decide to pack up and go, before the mosquitoes wake up. A nice moonlight paddle ought to help rectify things. I throw everything in the kayak without even packing it, shove off, look back and shoot the bank a bird.
Not having had much sleep, and totally lacking the ‘sip-a-dee’ part of my ‘-doo-dah’ ay, I have a full-blown come-apart when the zipper on my Ziploc snack bag derailed and wouldn’t open, so I frantically slash it open with my knife, spilling snacks out all over the floorboard of the kayak. I’m ashamed and embarrassed by my mini meltdown, even though no one saw me. I’m on vacation, and supposed to be enjoying myself. But the combo of direct sun, hot flashes, hunger, and no sleep are more than just a buzz kill. I’m resolved to having more down time over the next day or two.
Cell reception is extremely poor. Most of the time I can at least text a Google Map dropped pin of my camping location to my river guide, but sometimes I'm totally incommunicado, and I'm surprised I'm not having a full-on panic attack. There are days when no one on Planet Earth knows where I am, and that feels kinda cool.
The single most panic-inducing concern with this whole trip is having to poop in the woods. I’m not the sort of woman that shares the bathroom her husband. I barely admit to using the bathroom. It’s not lady-like. So I run through every worst-case scenario in order to prepare ― falling, deer cams, hunters in deer stands within close proximity, poison ivy, snake bites, sticks that I might accidentally touch, can’t stand back up. Contorting my body in unnatural yoga poses that it wasn’t meant to do proves this is not normal. I should have practiced lunges or squats or sit-ups or something. And “Take wet wipes,” they said. I laughed when I heard that, but now it’s right up there with food and shelter. Mentally and physically, it was an absolutely horrifying ordeal. I may need recovery counseling.
When I reached Adams Tract River Camp, a sweet river angle by the name of Laurel Waters Greene had a huge bag of food delivered to my cabin, along with a load of firewood and fat wood lighter. I was downright giddy. It was like Christmas. When I opened the bag of food and saw how organized everything was, I was embarrassed at my own attempt at preparing for this trip. She had each meal in its own Ziploc, with all individual meals in one larger Ziploc. In one bag was a Santa Fe chicken MRE ― that was OMG yum! ― an individual pack of crackers, a vacuum sealed tortilla wrap, personal salt & pepper packets, carbohydrate electrolyte lemon-lime beverage powder, an individually packaged moist towelette, a napkin, a plastic spoon, and a personal-sized bag of Skittles. Seriously? I should crawl under a rock. My meal plan was dried soup. Add water. And I had to unpack my entire kayak to find my spoon. I’d never had an MRE before. This is the way I’m going from now on! And the quality of her Ziplocs were even far superior to my Ziplocs! Oh, and she also included a snack bag that had a pack of roasted pistachios, mini Slim Jims, a dark chocolate mocha almond bar, a chewy chocolate/peanut butter bar, a cranberry/cherry fruit bar, a small packet of applesauce, and Crystal Light flavored water packets — compared to my stash of beef jerky. The girl’s got skills.
The wildlife on this river is phenomenal. I saw my first-ever coral snake, and it was swimming right alongside my boat, acting like it owned the river, which it did. I saw loads of animal tracks in the sand every time I stepped out of the boat. Deer, raccoon, otter, coyote, heron, buzzard, and bob cat tracks. I saw my first barred owl, roosting in broad daylight. Most mornings there were muddy, sandy footprints all over my kayak from raccoons, and even buzzards and pelicans. I saw cormorants, ducks, great blue herons, great egrets, pelicans, gulls, a little blue heron, red-tailed hawks, buzzards, osprey, kingfishers, woodpeckers, turtles, gators, and more. It was all I could do to not grab my phone and take pictures of them, but it would have ruined the moment.
I get on the river early Sunday morning, and it was as if I were wearing ear plugs. There is NO sound to be heard. Nothing. No birds, no wind, no rustling leaves or squirrel chatter. It was like God pressed the mute button. Absolute pure unadulterated silence. I stop paddling to quiet the water drops, and just float, enjoying the sound of nothing, when waaaaaaay off in the distance I hear the echo of a woodpecker pounding a tree. The sound filled the thick misty morning air all around me, and I could almost visualize the sound approaching and passing by me on both sides. It was such a divine moment. I held morning worship service right there on the spot. “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” I counted the woodpecker.
And there are owls EVERYWHERE along this river. I dozed off listening to owls sing the song of their people every single night. You just can’t top that ― unless you hear a big-boy gator bellowing. THAT’ll make the hair on your legs curl. And it’s all fun and games till you see a 2-inch 20-pound palmetto bug run for cover under your sleeping pad. I fashioned new karate moves and pulled hammies but got that palmetto bug to go home to be with Jesus. Speaking of freaks of nature, Florida ought to annihilate the banana spider. I saw one as big as my hand! That mac daddy of all daddies built a murder hammock right outside my tent door overnight, and I almost face planted it! I flung my head back so fast and so hard that it threw me off balance. Like, who’s playing Jumanji down here?!
I pull into Manatee Springs State Park looking like 13 cents. I’m weary. I’m one day out from reaching the ocean, and I want to wind down and enjoy the last bit of this beautiful Suwannee River. I paddle around this crystal clear spring, with its emerald colored bottom where I can see every detail, and I’m mesmerized and rejuvenated, but not energized enough to walk the mile and a quarter to the check-in to pay for the site, so I thumb a ride. And my driver was so nice, she waited for me to register so she could drive me back. The people here! The campgrounds are a half mile from the boat ramp, so one of the rangers drove me to my campsite in their golf cart ― thank goodness I didn’t have to lug all that gear ― and then arranged it so that I would be picked up the following morning at 8:30 and driven back to my boat. I felt guilty inconveniencing someone for my comfort, but I was just so happy to have it that I didn’t let it bother me too much.
This is the first time I’ve ever stayed in a state park. In general, I don’t like people, so when I go on vacation I want to go where there are none. There are giant tin cans everywhere here, parked way too close together for the residents to truly enjoy being immersed in nature. It's a scene straight outa Griswold’s National Lampoon's Vacation. It’s like a cult. These folks take this seriously. They have nameplates with their last name on a pole stuck in the sand. They have streamers and strings of lights draped around their perimeter. Lawn chairs, rugs, loud generators, barking dogs, burgers on the grill. And there's old people everywhere! I mean, everywhere I look I see grey hair. It looks like a hippy fest, a bunch of old folks grovin’ to Jimi Hendrix, trying to relive Woodstock. And I could swear I caught a whiff of weed.
And here I am, stuck between two massive RVs with just my itty bitty tent. To be honest, I was hoping my neighbor would invite me over for a burger, but since I have that don’t-look-at-me/don’t-talk-to-me persona, I have to walk a half mile to the concession stand where I order up two dogs, chips, and a Coke. I should have chewed slower. Or maybe ordered double. It's dark as I head back to my tent. I'm a little unnerved walking through a park alone at night. I have my switchblade on me, though, just in case one of them old people is on an acid trip.
On the flip side, this place is immaculate. Absolutely spotless. And the showers are so awesome. Roomy shower stalls with a bench for your clothes, towel and toiletries, great water pressure, and top-of-the-line shower heads. And deer freely roam throughout the park like they're tame, walking between campers and strolling through the commons area. There are also hundreds of black vultures perched all around, like they’re waiting for one of these old folks to die. They don’t spook easily, either ― the vultures, that is.
Twenty-five more miles till I reach the ocean. I need to do this in one fell swoop, and in a hurry, because the terrain and fauna changes to marsh on either side of the river, so there’s no solid land to get out on to go to the bathroom. Someone recommended I take a wide-mouthed peanut butter jar. Yeah no. Like I’d even be coordinated enough to pull that off, never mind living with that image the rest of my life. ― But I took one anyway, just in case.
I paddle my little heart out and get to the ocean at the city of Suwannee in record time. This place is really neat. It’s like streets of waterways. You can paddle right up to a store or someone’s house, park your boat and go inside. I paddle up to the gas station and ask for directions, then paddle on over to the river camp check-in, which is a fish camp/bait & tackle shop with pelicans perched on the roof, walking along the sidewalk, and floating in my parking space. I shoo them away and park, and sit there with my head in my hands for so long that a lady at the bait & tackle shop comes out and says, “Hon, you okay?” Bless her heart. These folks down here really are just the sweetest. I tell her I’m just winding down from a long paddle, and that I need to check-in to the river camp.
I go in and sign the paperwork, get the key to the bathroom and she points to the river camp, which looks nothing like all the other river camps. This camp is basically a patch of grass behind a motel where you pitch your tent. And the bathroom is one of the bathrooms at the motel. There’s an RV park on one side of the motel and a boat ramp on the other. There’s also a screened-in cook house at the grassy patch, and she tells me I’m welcome to sleep in there, if I’d like. I explain that I’ll be staying one night, then paddling to Cat Island in the morning to stay for a few nights. She looks surprised, and says, “You be careful going out there, hon. Two sisters in their 70’s paddled out to that Island some years back, and they were never seen or heard from again. And they lived here their whole lives, knew the area and paddled it a million times.” First, I’m thinking, Does she think I look old and senile or something? I act concerned enough to sufficiently satisfy her, but I have no intention of backing out.
Soon as I pull the kayak onshore and start to unload, sandflies bust a move and get medieval. This is worse than the mosquitoes. These guys aren’t just annoying, they inflict pain! I guess these no-see-ums must just hang out on the coast, because I didn’t have any problem on the river. They’re brutal. I’m shocked. I’ve never experienced anything like this before. I start digging fast for my 98.11% DEET, and pump out three pumps worth before the wind knocks it into my face and down my lungs, and I have a coughing fit.
The portrayal of perfectly chic outdoorsy women in magazines in fashionable apparel staring out at a sweeping horizon has taken a turn for the fabricated, because the reality is that I look like I’ve been to a WWE smack-down cage match that got out of hand, with hair that looks like it's been styled with an electric mixer, fur on my teeth, and could be the poster child for a full-body waxing. Although, I have honed my skill level to that of Rambo and Sasquatch, by embracing the suck and doing the tree-hugging hippie thing at the same time.
I step into the cook house. Concrete floor, two picnic tables down the center of the room, two ceiling fans, screened walls halfway up, and one wooden counter. At the far end under a spider web are hollowed-out giant roach carcasses and miniature animal bones of a mouse or bat. I'm a little alarmed. I get out my extra bright flashlight and start looking for a banana spider.
I unpack, settle in and start planning the next day. I can already hear the raindrops in my head. I'm sooo excited. I need to make sure I’m at the island with the tarp up before the rain starts. I whip out my phone to check the weather. NO sign of rain in the forecast. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Bright, sunny skies. The wind literally got let out of my sails. How on earth can the weather change so drastically in two days? I check my phone again, and discover that when I checked it a few days ago I had swiped to a different city. I’m sooooo let down. I want to cry. Somebody please call Joe at the National Weather Service and tell him to have mercy and turn on the rain. Whatever. I'm still going.
I get a shower and rush back to my screened-in cook house before the bugs attack, and to recover from being in that bathroom. The restrooms/showers are horrific. It’ll stop you in your tracks. I’d say it’s comparable to something you’d see in Alcatraz or Shawshank. Concrete walls, peeling paint, used wash cloth, no toilet tissue, broken toilet seat, broken tank lid, broken window, rusty everything, dead roaches, and hasn’t been cleaned in years. But when you’re desperate, your standards are compromised. If you plan to stay here, pack a hazmat suit. It’s bad.
My car is parked across the street. I jump in and drive down the road to the seafood restaurant and order everything they have. The waitress seats me at a wall of glass that overlooks a patio, with a stunning view of the water. It’s such a beautiful scene and such beautiful weather that I ask if I can take my plate outside and eat. I’m a little embarrassed as everyone watches me gather up my plate and condiments and drink and balance them as I head for the door. The sun is beginning to set, and the colors are so lovely. I have the whole patio to myself. I’m out there a total of three minutes before the sandflies hit me like buckshot. I frantically gather up my stuff and run inside, where everyone is laughing. I reckon I walked right into that one like a geeky tourist. And those tiny little corpses sprinkled all over my food didn't stop me from eating. Revenge.
I get back to the river camp and start packing for Cat Island. The manager of the river camp comes over and strikes up a conversation with me, and I tell him I’ll be heading out for Cat Island in the morning. He says, “Naw, hon. You don’t want to go out there. That island’s full of sandflies right now. They’ll eat you up.” WTF! @$! @$! This can’t be happening! Little wisps of smoke start to escape my hairline. My bloodshot eyes bug out and I yell, “Are you freaking kidding me?! What is it with this place?! How do you live here?! And your freakin’ bathroom needs to be burned to the freakin’ ground!!!” Not really. But I wanted to say it. I thank him for the heads-up, and slunk away to my cook house where I pout. It’s over. I spend a couple hours sulking, then come to terms with the loss, and resolve myself to appreciate what I've had. I should be grateful, and I really and truly am. It's been the trip of a lifetime, and I know it.
Since the floor to this screened-in cookhouse is almost as bad as the bathroom, I sleep on the wooden counter like a vagabond. I lay there under the cover of darkness, spying through the screen at the RV park, looking at the shimmer of lights and listening to the chatter in the distance. Even though I’m in a funk over not being able to play Tom Hanks, I’m still happy. The smell of the cool night air is intoxicating. I don’t know why I find that so overly exhilarating, but I do. It transforms my mood. I’m here on the Suwannee River. I can’t wipe this grin off my face.
I love seeing the mist in the mornings. It always sets the stage for my gratitude. Before I pack up and leave, I want to at least paddle out to the ocean for a bit. I paddle through the downtown channels and make my way to the beautiful Gulf of Mexico, where I look out and see . . . nothing. It’s covered in mist. I can barely see 50 feet in front of me. So I tinker around a while till it lifts, when I spot Cat Island in the distance. I do a rendition of old Iron Eyes Cody in his canoe with that tear streaming down his face, then turn the boat around and start to paddle back. But I didn’t check the tide chart before I left my bungalow this morning. I swear it’s got to be at its peak right now, heading out, because I’m literally paddling up whitewater in the water lanes. I dare not stop paddling, or I’ll be swept backwards hard and fast out to sea, never to be seen or heard from again. My stomach muscles, arm and back muscles are on fire, and I'm cussing up a blue streak. This isn’t playing out the way I envisioned it.
By the time I reach my hut, I’m sick and tired of this place and just wanna get the hell outa here. I pull my kayak up to the boat ramp, get out and walk the 75 yards to the cook house where I had everything bagged up and ready to go. I grab the bags and head to the kayak. When I get there, there’s an angry fisherman in a big fishing boat that says, “This is a ‘public’ boat ramp, ya know.” What a prick. I’ve been gone all of four minutes. I'm in the mood to throw a couple birds and FU’s at him, but I just did the ole Southern Belle routine and buttered him up and got him to help me move my boat to the grass.
I fetch my car, load the kayak on top, strap it down, toss the bags in the trunk and slowly limp away with my gimp tire to the next town, 24 miles away, where I can pump it up.
No hoopla. No fireworks. Not even a glass of wine. I want a do-over!
Portage river left, just before the shoals. There is a 120-foot landing, and a 3-foot natural stone wall that you need to heft the boat up and over to get to the portage trail.
Portage coordinates: https://goo.gl/maps/dUbAM2skLY32 (30.340986, -82.681958).