Middle Suwannee River
The Suwannee River flows nearly 250 miles mostly through Florida, from the Okefenokee Swamp in south Georgia to the Gulf of Mexico. I have been most familiar with the upper section of the river from just south of the Georgia state line to where the Withlacoochee River(the northern one) joins the Suwannee, having canoed and kayaked numerous overnight trips and several day paddles with water levels that varied from extremely low to flood stage. But I had only done a few short day paddles at a couple of places downstream of mile 128 while visiting various riverside state parks.
Life events intervened last year and prevented a planned summer section hike on the Appalachian Trail with my friend Daniel, but we finally managed to pick a time in early December for some kind of adventure, deciding on a week-long kayak trip on the Suwannee River. My first thought for a trip was to start near the sill where the river leaves the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia, but the low water levels would have made this difficult if not impossible, especially upstream of Big Shoals. We decided on the middle section of the Suwannee, all but a couple of miles of which would be new to me, all of it would be for Daniel who had not been on any part of this river.
Virginia and I met Daniel at Suwannee River State Park, where we all stayed a couple nights in one of the modern cabins, giving us a day to deploy a vehicle at our paddle destination and explore the park a little. Daniel and I hiked the trails along the river to the no longer balancing rock and the Lime Sink loop. We had this late afternoon view of the Suwannee River from the trail bridge over Dry Run Sink.
Suwannee River Afternoon
As we were loading our kayaks at the boat launch, a fisherman launched his small motorboat and mentioned that we would have some rapids soon after passing under the bridges (a railroad and both old and new US highway 90). My kayak is a fiberglass ocean kayak that I purchased used 15 years earlier and that has been on many excursions. Daniel was paddling his skin on frame that he recently built, the first camping trip for this kayak. After many week-long kayak camping trips over the years, I have tweaked and refined where and in what order items are stowed for most efficiency and best convenience.
We finally got underway and passed the fisherman near one of the bridges then came to the rapids soon after that, providing a bit of fun for this paddler who has spent most of his canoeing and kayaking on slow moving streams, rivers and other flatwater. After the unexpected excitement of the rapids we had a gentle paddle the rest of the day. At nearly 15 miles, this was the longest day on the river for our trip. Here you can see a long wide bend in the river with the rocky bank exposed below a line of trees.
While the upper Suwannee has a number of springs including White Springs, Suwannee Springs and various smaller ones, this middle portion of the river is by far the real springs section. We stopped at several of these to check them out, including Charles Spring, Lafayette Blue Springs, Telford Spring, Royal Spring and Troy Springs where the hull of an old steamboat lays at the bottom of the spring run. The Madison was scuttled there by its owner during the Civil War to keep it from falling into Union hands. Many small unnamed springs could also be seen along the river, such as the one below.
Unammed Spring on the Suwannee
We landed on a beach next to the outfall of Charles Spring Run and walked up the run to check out the spring, one of the few places on this trip that I had been to before, having kayaked up from Lafayette Blue Springs State Park several years ago. There was barely any flow from the spring at his time. Above the spring near the parking area Daniel found a historic marker mentioning that the Bellamy Road came by here. That was the first major Federal highway in territorial Florida connecting Pensacola to St. Augustine, following a path used by Native Americans and then the Spanish. The section between the Ocklockonee River and St. Augustine was constructed in the early 1800's by a man named John Bellamy and came to be known as Bellamy's Road. Several years ago I walked a hiking, biking and equestrian trail in River Rise Preserve State Park that follows a section of this road where it crosses the natural land bridge over the Santa Fe River.
Looking down Charles Spring Run towards the Suwannee River
Our trip was planned so that most nights we would be in one of the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail river camps. These camps have several screened in platforms for sleeping, each next to a picnic table, grill and fire ring. We did sleep under a tarp at Lafayette Blue Springs State Park in the middle of the trip and stayed in a small cabin at Suwannee Cove south of Branford the last night. The thumbnail image at the beginning of this post shows our kayaks 'parked' on the stairs leading up to the Adams Tract river camp.
We had a short day of paddling after camping at Lafayette Blue Springs, so that morning we explored the park and walked the sink trail before getting on the river. There are a number of sinks on this trail that are all connected underground to the Blue Springs cave system.
Another one of the sinks in this park is Egg Sink and you can see photos of it during both low and high river levels at the Wild Florida Photo Egg Sink page
Where we had our kayaks tied up below the campground there was the trunk of a tree that had fallen out over the river. Anytime the river level was much more than a foot higher than it was while we were there, this log would be underwater and perpendicular to the river flow. This had worn the wood into an interesting pattern that resembled waves.
Waves in Wood
Another historic note from our trip was passing an old turnstyle railroad bridge that had been placed across the river around 1901 to extend a rail line owned by the Drew Lumber Company. The bridge was hand operated, apparently by two men. It was in service until 1920 and has been in the current open position since then. Drew Bridge is among the oldest surviving swing railroad bridges in the country, having been built in the late 1800's, bought used, then barged from Brazil to its current location.
Due to the low water levels from Dowling Park to Adams Tract there were occassional shoals, none of which were as big as the first day's rapids, but still provided a welcome break from flatwater paddling. And except for the day that we passed Branford we almost had the river to ourselves, seeing very few other boats on the water. And even that busy day all the motorboats were small, carrying people out fishing and those that were underway were very courteous to us paddlers. Our last day we paddled down the river which was noticably slowing down as it approached the confluence with the Santa Fe, which we paddled up the mile to Ellie Ray's RV Resort where we had left Daniel's truck. The Santa Fe was yet another completely different river, now flowing through a broad cypress swamp. We loaded the kayaks and our gear in the truck and went into the bar there for a beer before heading home after a great trip.
For even more photos of the Suwanee River, visit the Suwannee River page at Wild Florida Photo.
March 21, 2023