This was to be our 10-year anniversary trip back in 2016.
It was delayed until 2018, but what a trip!
Our trip was on the Withlacoochee River (North) and started around 30 miles northwest of Valdosta, GA near Ray City where Hwy 37 crosses over the river.
Paddlers: Stew, Sam, Dave
Sea Kayaks: Current Designs Solstice, QCC 500, Current Designs Solstice GTS (same order as paddlers)
Trip Conditions: Temps low to mid 80s daytime with clouds and no rain, Low 60s night – almost perfect!
Meals: We each brought our own meals: breakfast – oatmeal, granola, fruit; lunch: peanut butter on fajitas, peanut butter sandwich, sometimes vienna sausage on fajitas,: dinner: MRI meals or goumet pre-pacage meals, and rice/noodle envelopes with added meat usually chicken in a pouch.
Snacks: Nuts, crackers, nutritian bars, etc
Water: we each had at least 5 gallons each in 16.9 oz bottles,some liter containers and water bladders
As usual, we were all excited to start our trip. We met at Stew’s house to consolidate our stuff into Sam’s truck and load the kayaks. We then drove up from Jupiter, FL to Live Oak, FL – around 5.5 hrs. We had a good time talking and catching up – we don’t really see each other much if at all except for these kayak adventure trips.
We stayed at a Comfort Inn and there was a pub within walking distance so we went there, ate dinner and had a few brews.
Day 1 7 miles
The next morning we drove to The Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park where the outfitter is. Our driver was there waiting for us so we put our kayaks on the trailer that is meant to carry canoes and we mentioned among ourselves that maybe we should pad them a little better. Nah, they will be okay and anyway we wanted to get started. We asked the outfitter to bring us up to highway 37 just northwest of Ray City, GA. They advised that we really shouldn’t go further up than just north of Valdosta but we insisted so they said “fine.”
It is around an hour trip and we hit some pretty bad bumps along a side road. When we got to the put in, we noticed Stew’s kayak had cracks on both sides in the rear that went all the way through! Dang it! We thought the trip may be over before it started. Sam’s kayak had a similar injury but it looked like it didn’t crack through and just cracked off some gel coat. Dave’s kayak didn’t have any damage.
Luckily Stew kept his cool and asked if there was a store nearby. As it happened, John, the Withlacoochee Riverkeeper came to see us off and offered to take him to a Walmart not too far away. Meanwhile, the outfitter got a call and had to hurry back so he left. Stew returned with a spray can of instant seal for water leaks. He sprayed that on and put duct tape over it. You are supposed to let it cure for 24 hrs but we were in the water within an hour. It worked very well.
As we began, Dave turned around to see John the riverkeeper standing on the bridge looking down at us. He yelled “Where is the river?!” John pointed straight into the woods. That was an omen because as soon as we went around 200 yards, we lost the river due to the overflow going over and through the woods. No problem, we’ve done this before, so we continue.
The trees were very close together but we knew the river was narrow up here. Very soon we could not paddle due to it being too shallow, trees too close together, various downfall and log jams.
So we alternately paddled, walked, paddled, pulled our fully loaded kayaks over and around fallen trees, and repeated as necessary – which was constant. Our legs and shins were getting bumped and cut as we walked into things underwater. We tried not to think about alligators and snakes as we pulled our boats through the marsh feeling like Humphrey Bogart in “The African Queen.” It was exhausting, but really stressed us out because it was unexpected. Had we known ahead of time we would have been mentally prepared. After around and hour and a half we looked at each other and said, “Maybe we should go back” but then decided we wouldn’t be able to find our way back either. We knew if we kept following the flow we would eventually get back into the river.
Sam brought a Garmin Oregon GPS (and plenty of batteries) with the water maps loaded and that saved us. He said we were off to the right a little so we made our way back several times. Still, no discernable river, just shallow with lots of debris to navigate around. Most of the time we walked in knee to chest-high water with episodes of it swiftly getting deep – over our heads. Stew laughed at Dave as he was hanging onto the side of his kayak trying to get to a place where he could stand. In retrospect, that was probably the river we were crossing! We paddled when we could but it was usually short-lived.
It was a very tough first day and we started looking for big trees to indicate where the river bank was and hopefully dry land. It was getting late and around 4:30 pm we came upon an area of dry land. We’re saved! There were grass roads coming into this place and we saw a deer stand not too far from where we camped. We had a nice fire, made our meals, and had a celebratory first day beer – Sam brought a 12-pack of IPA.
That night we had a nice fire and heard lots of owls hooting and chattering. We didn’t have any other visitors – we thought maybe there would be raccoons but there weren’t. Dave had it in his mind that if the next day was like this one that he may want to bail at the next road they find! We sat around and discussed our situation and put it into perspective: We have provisions for 7 days and this is just day 1. If our entire trip is just getting out of this swamp then well, that is an adventure in and of itself. We were confident in each other to work as a team and knew each of us has the gumption to persevere through hardships on our trips. Sam’s GPS said we were right on the river…
Day 2 22 miles
This was a good day. After we packed up and loaded our kayaks we pushed off to see what this day would bring. We went clockwise around the island we had just camped on and immediately found good flow and deep water. Yay, the river! Here is a link to a video on YouTube (hopefully it still works)
We saw a bunch of large snakes in the water – one was intent on trying to join Sam in his kayak so he had to fling it away with his paddle. We also saw deer and beavers. One beaver was on land and stood up as we were passing. Dave tried to get his camera out in time but it laid down and slid down the muddy embankment and into the water. It was really fat and Dave thought it looked a little like Jabba the Hut (from Star Wars).
Beautiful scenery and you could smell jasmine in the air. There is a wild vine with yellow flowers that grows in this area and smells like jasmine, not sure if it is or not. There were a lot of birds in the area and you could hear them all at once chirping, cawing, screeching, etc. It is enjoyable and a lot more pronounced in the early mornings.
We are still trying to avoid low branches and frantically paddling our almost 18-foot sea kayaks through/around small spaces and running into log jams. I guess they are called sea kayaks and not river kayaks for a reason. Very difficult with 3 mph current turning our kayaks and pushing us into trees, log jams, whatever, as we try to make a run for an opening. You have to paddle hard and fast towards your spot and cannot hesitate because if you do, you will miss the small space you were hoping to go through and the current will push you into something. Sometimes what you thought was an opening really isn’t and then you either crash into a tree or other debris, or get lodged sideways against a log jam. Good exercise and a heart-pounding experience.
We took turns getting out of our kayaks to help the others go over logs and debris that blocked our path. We also took turns being the lead trying to find a good path. The two paddlers watching would either follow or learn from what happens to the first person and find a different route and/or make better decisions.
Stew almost made it through one and went over – the first time anyone on any of our trips went in. It was scary because we called out to him and he did not answer right away. Luckily the only thing harmed was his ego.
We started looking for a campsite around 3:30 pm and found a suitable place to camp on river right. We set up camp, eat dinner and start a fire – our usual routine. That night around 8 pm we see lights and hear some kind of vehicle approaching. This ATV type with four wheels and a very bright row of lights on top comes down the road near our camp. Three inebriated guys come out and say “Hey! Ya’ll want some beer?” We said “yes” and they gave us cold Busch Light. Dave drank his quickly – it was cold and went down well. Stew and Sam waited until the guys left and dumped out the remainder of theirs. We were told that the land we were camping on was owned by the University of Georgia and we won’t be bothered. Another nice night with owls hooting and aside from our visitors, no other disturbances.
Day 3 27 miles
We get up leisurely around 6:45, enjoy the birds chirping, make breakfast, pack up and push off again around 9 am. Amazing scenery and just great being outdoors and one with nature. The only negative was that as we were in the vicinity of Valdosta, the river had large amounts of plastic bottles piled up in log jams, etc. After we were south of Valdosta, plastic bottle sightings were scarce.
Stew was still finding more than his fair share of trees and low-hanging branches causing things to fall into his kayak. Spiders were taking a liking to him and even making webs in his cockpit. We think one web said “Some Pig.”
We camped at a boat ramp that was a hang-out for the locals – especially young people. It was sandy and muddy and people would show up in trucks and spin their tires while getting their shiny trucks muddy. A young local told us that this place has a lot of people hanging out on weekends. Glad we missed it! We only had three trucks come by that evening. We made sure they could see our fire and headlamps. It was another nice night.
The next morning around 8 am a guy in a pick-up truck drove up next to the ramp and was drinking a beer. He called out “You guys fishin’?” Dave replied “No, just exploring.” The guy just says “Huh” with a quizzical look on his face.
Day 4 32 miles
Today we know we will pass into Florida and we heard there were some potentially dangerous rapids due to the sharp limestone rocks. That was on our minds as we were paddling. The river now is comparatively wide from what we saw the first two days. It is still very pretty but we were spoiled with our sometimes too close look at the trees and river banks on the previous days. Not many obstacles – just the occasional tree or downfall to avoid.
The banks were getting higher and steeper and we were wondering how easy it would be to find a campsite later on. We were making excellent time with the river flowing close to 3 mph and us paddling. We were averaging almost 5 mph even with stops!
The rapids turned out to be fun and exhilarating due to our anticipation but not anything to really be concerned about. This was due to the high water level had the rocks submerged enough not to be troublesome. We still picked our way around what looked like areas where the rocks were close to the top.
We decided to push on to Madison Blue Springs – that would mean a 32-mile day. Throughout the last few days we were watching turtles along the banks and on tree trunks go crashing into the water as we approached. It got to be fun to see which ones would do tricks. One did a flip when he launched himself off a tree. We were amazed at how high up some climbed. The best one was this one turtle high up on a bank, maybe 6 feet. He saw us and then slid down the mud like he was at a water-themed park! We were wondering if later he climbed back up just to do it again. We noticed that in places where the turtles may see people regularly, we could sometimes go by without them going back into the water. The more remote places had the turtles diving in long before we got close. We didn’t see much other wildlife except birds and an occasional squirrel.
At Madison Blue Springs there isn’t a designated campground but we were lucky to find that on the southern part of the property there was a nice sandbar and ledge where there was a good place to camp. We off-loaded, set up a stealth camp and had our last round of beer. Dave found a baby water turtle near the top of the ledge and let him go – it seemed very happy to get into the water again.
Sam and Dave went skinny dipping in the river with soap Stew provided. BTW, they went into the river at different times! It felt great. We quickly found firewood, ate our dinners, and sat around the campfire. It was a long day due to pushing for an extra 6 miles but we were glad we did. The end is near.
A neat thing we saw is when we checked our kayaks at night to be sure the river wasn’t rising too much, we saw what looked like hundreds of little gems in the sand when we lit it up with our head lamps. Green glowing things – maybe we found emeralds! When we looked closer, it was the eyes of spiders – they glow green in the light. It was neat.
Day 5 14 miles
Today we know we have around 14 miles to go – probably less. We eat breakfast and slowly break camp. Stew finishes early and says he wants to float down the river ahead of Sam and Dave. So off he goes. Sam and Dave launch around 9:10 am and stew had maybe a 15 minute head start. It took 45 minutes to catch up. Stew commented that he very much enjoyed just floating all alone on the river – very peaceful. No wild animals to be seen though.
We are excited but also depressed that our adventure is coming to a close. It did turn out to be quite an adventure. We made it to the confluence of the Suwannee River and the Withlacoochee River around 11:30 then paddled upstream on the Suwannee to the Suwannee River State Park where we planned to camp that night. Paddling up river against the 3 mph current seemed pretty hard. We had talked about maybe just paddling the 20 miles to the outfitter upstream but decided a nice dinner and beer would be more fun.
At the confluence (I like that word) we headed north on the Suwannee maybe .2 tenths of a mile to the park. We then called the outfitters and they gave Sam a ride back to The Spirit of the Suwannee Park to pick up his truck. When he got back, we loaded our gear and the kayaks in the back for a short ride to our campsite. We tried to get a cabin but they were booked. Of course Sam bought beer and an Ice chest on the way back so we had some celebratory cold beer. Then we set up camp and went into town for dinner. We found a small bar and had hamburgers and a couple more beers. On the way back to camp we bought more beer and happily consumed them once back at camp.
We made a nice little fire, took a short hike, then called it a night. The next day we drove back to south Florida discussing what our trip will be next year!
Link to more photos of this trip : https://photos.app.goo.gl/LgVk...
Canoe Outfitters at The Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park for shuttle (bring lots of good padding if you will be in composite kayaks!)
Withlacoochee Waterkeeper for addd info – they have a website and John answered a lot of our questions.
Google Maps and Google Earth to measure distance and look for campsites/roads
Due diligence research on the internet.
Highly recommend bringing a decent GPS if you intend to go into the swamp area, especially if it is in flood stage as it was with us.
Good sense of humor, good friends, and perseverance.