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Paddlers: Stew, Tom, Sam, Dave
Note: Tom drove down from Wisconsin, the rest are from various areas in South East Florida.
Kayaks: Current Designs Expedition,QCC 700, QCC 500, Current Designs Solstice GTS same order as paddlers list.
The trip report below has a recurring theme about how cold we were. To be honest, there were many times when we were so cold we were miserable but the spirit of adventure, being with like-minded friends, and just being outside in nature on our own made up for the challenges we faced. Sometime in the first 3 hours of paddling we remarked how beautiful the Okefenokee Swamp was and if we didn't see anything else, this was worth the trip all by itself. We met kind and interesting people, saw an eagle soaring overhead, and witnessed clouds forming right before our eyes, growing and then disappearing all in a matter of minutes. The morning fog on the river was magical and something many a paddler can appreciate once they’ve silently glided through it. Being in your kayak, connecting with yourself, friends, adventure, and nature makes any trip worthwhile. Just be safe...
Friday, Feb 12, 2010 Drive to Live Oak, FL
Stew, Sam, and Dave drive in Sam's truck from south Florida (east coast) to north Florida (middle) at Live Oak. We were worried (not Sam) about getting 3 kayaks and all our gear and ourselves into the truck. Drive up was uneventful but we could feel it getting colder with every mile north we traveled. We went through a cold front which brought torrential rains. When we get to Live Oak it is cold (30s) and raining. Tom had arrived earlier (from Wisconsin) and booked two rooms at a hotel because of the rain. Original plan was to camp out at The Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park but this was a much better idea. It was cold, blustery, and raining. The forecast was looking good with clear days and nights ahead, getting warmer with each day of our trip. Too bad the forecast was wrong!
Day 1 Saturday, Feb 13, 2010
After spending Friday night at the motel we arise at 4 am, pack up and drive to the Suwannee Canoe Outpost located in The Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park. 2461 95th Drive, Live Oak, FL 32060. As promised a van and kayak trailer is waiting for us to load up. The driver, Dave arrives at 6 am on schedule and we pay Steve the owner the agreed upon fees and we’re off. I don't think Steve was awake yet as he didn't remember being there when I talked to him later about this. He admits to not being a morning person.
Dave was the same driver who shuttled us 3 years previous when we did the Suwannee from Fargo to the Gulf. It feels cold but we are dressed for it and we are confident it will be warming up as the sun comes up. The drive to Steven C Foster park in Georgia was nice – we stopped for coffee and donuts and continued on our way. The park is located at the end of CR 177 and it took a little less than an hour and a half to get there. We passed a few deer on the side of the road, their eyes glowing in the headlights. The van we were in was haunted – the dome light kept going on and off at odd intervals. We made a joke about it because the same thing happened 3 years ago with us.
We arrive at the park and the gate was already open. We were worried it wouldn't be because the park doesn’t officially open until 7:30 am. All excited we unload the van and place our provisions on the side of the road and place our kayaks near the water – a channel that leads into the swamp. As usual, Dave gets frantic trying to finish up because he always is the last to get all his stuff packed in. Luckily and as usual again, he brings an extra dry bag to strap to the back of his kayak in case all his stuff doesn't fit inside his kayak. The dry bag gets stuffed and strapped to the kayak and now everyone is ready to shove off.
The plan is to paddle in the wrong direction (westward) for 2 miles to a place called Billy's Island because we read that that is the very beginning of the Suwannee River per sherpaguides.com. We called and emailed a lot of people and most just said it starts at the Sill or to just put in at Griffis Fish camp. Being anal, we just had to know we hit the beginning of the river and to also hold true to our trip's name "Unfinished Business Tour" because we started in Fargo last time and always regretted not starting at the very beginning.
We dressed somewhat lightly for the conditions in the belief that it was going to warm up and with our paddling, we would be comfortable. I think it was in the 30's when we set out for Billy’s Island and we had a nice warm-up paddle to get to the island. 3 of us – Stew, Sam, and Dave did not have cold water paddling gloves. Tom our cheesehead friend from Wisconsin did. Guess who's hands were freezing? All of us have been in the cold before and know it gets better as the sun comes out and warms everything up. Not worried. We get to the island, take some pictures and turn around to really start our journey down the entire Suwannee River!
After over an hour of paddling, we were not getting warmer and our hands ached with the cold. Sam isn't looking too good and kept saying how he hates being cold. As we are approaching the park again since we back tracked after reaching Billy's Island, we decide to take a break and let Sam deal with his issues. He actually was turning green and we figure it was a combination of being too cold and something he ate the night before. The people at the park office/ranger station were very nice and we got some hot soup into Sam. While at the office, we met a very interesting, genuine guy (Marty Johnson – see resources at end of this report) who does everything from shuttling kayaks/canoes, environmental speeches, leads hikes/paddles, catches snakes, etc who also agreed that Sam did not look well and commented on how dilated his pupils were. Just what Sam needed, a second opinion! He said, "Here, take my card and give me a call if you need me." Someone was watching out for us.
At around 10:30 am we start out again. Sam is feeling much better but we are all still cold. As we paddle through the swamp we come into an open area that is just beautiful and we all comment that if we see nothing else on this trip, this one view was worth it all.
There is an area called the "Narrows" and they aren't kidding. There were times when we didn’t know where the river was because it was in flood stage and we were going over what normally is dry land. We were having difficulty navigating trough the trees with the current and many turns with our 18 and 19 foot kayaks. We surely didn’t want to tip over in the middle of nowhere in the cold and no dry land to be found. It was neat and interesting but I would not recommend it for a casual paddler in those conditions. It would have been very easy to get pinned to a tree or branch and flip over.
Amazing scenery and we make it out of the "Narrows" and eventually to the Suwannee Sill which is a man-made levy that separates the swamp fron the regions below – mainly the Suwannee River. I believe the sill was built to control the water flow out of the swamp. We paddle through the sill and a few of us hit the concrete pilings as we tried to go through – it was like going under a low bridge but the current was going through on a slant and if you weren't ready for that, you clipped a piling.
We finally make it to Fargo – the day has become long due to our earlier set back and the fact that our hands are freezing and our cores are getting cold too. To our dismay, the Fargo visitor center in closed because it is underwater. We were hoping to get something warm and rest a bit. At this point we are worried we may not find a dry place to stop before night fall and decide to camp there. We pitched our tents right in the parking lot on a grassy area next to the building. We didn't know if the police would kick us out or not but we figured we were too cold to continue and I personally was thinking jail would be better than freezing to death.
We set up our tents, make dinner and all fly into our tents because it was getting a lot colder as the sun was going down. What a cold night! Dave hardly slept because he got cold and never warmed up and thought his sleeping bag would do the trick – but it didn't. A 35-degree bag in 25-degree weather on a river bank does not cut it. His speech was slurring and he probably had the initial onset of hypothermia. The rest were cold too and no one was eager to get started the next day.
Day 2 Sunday, February 14, 2010
No paddling today. Dave wakes up from a very uncomfortable and cold night and is still shivering and finding it hard to think straight. He does pass out cards to all the guys since it is Valentine’s Day after all. Each card had a before and after picture of the recipient. First photo was normal but the second photo was their face placed on a scantily clad woman! The cards read: "Most people see you as you are but on this trip..." Open the card: "I'll see you as you can be!" "Lock your tent!" Oh well, Dave thought it was funny.
The tents are frozen (ok frost covered) and there is frost over everything including our kayaks. 27 degrees and wet out. Brrrrrrrr. He mentions that it is probably not a good idea to go out into the water this early with it being so cold and knowing that the next 50 miles of river was supposed to be faster with a lot of tight turns, the possibility of one of us going over was on our minds. We knew from the day before that maneuvering our 18 - foot kayaks in tight areas was difficult and we were lucky not to have been pinned or tipped by a tree while in the swamp.
I truly believe if I went over I would have died from hypothermia – and I am not exaggerating – we were in danger. We talked it over some and decided to give in to our common sense and not paddle today and try to contact the outfitter for a shuttle. It was difficult to concede but it also may have saved one of our lives. Never before had we backed off from a trip but we were that cold and not prepared to deal with someone going over in these cold conditions.
A guy in a truck and a woman in a van with a kayaks on the roofs pull up as we are standing there shivering and being miserable. They belonged to a kayak club out of Jacksonville, Florida and were reconning for their trip today. We told them our story and about the conditions from the swamp to here in Fargo. They were going to do the same trip but decided against it after speaking with us. They did offer to drive us to a store just down the road and we all hopped in. The store was soooo nice and warm and they had a bathroom too! We were very thankful for those people lending us a hand like that.
We get back to camp and decide to call Marty - the guy we met at the ranger station at Stephen Foster Park yesterday and it turns out he lives 10 minutes away. He shuttled us from Fargo to White Springs – the Suwannee Valley Campground which we knew of because we stayed there before. The ride was great in his nice warm truck. Along the way, we pass a pig farm and Marty comments: "We buy a baby pig every now and then, raise it, feed it and then we kill it." He said it like it was normal everyday activity but us being city boys found it amusing and somewhat disturbing. We used that phrase many times during our trip for amusement – thanks Marty! This guy is really interesting and full of great stories of real-life adventures he and others he knows have had. We could have ridden around with him for a few more hours listen to his stories. Ask him about when he got bit by a rattlesnake – he also is a snake handler…
We set up camp at the campground and check out launch sites through the woods and since it is only just past noon we decide to hike to town. It was maybe 2 miles to town and a nice walk. Not much to the town but somewhere I want to visit one day with my wife and bicycles. They had some cozy looking Bed and Breakfasts and the streets looked great for a lazy ride to explore the area. An historic-looking old Florida town – I think it was White Springs.
The hike did us good and when we got back to our campsite we decided to head for the warm shelter of the social hall on the property. We cooked our meals and a nice old gentleman offered us spaghetti and meat balls. Actually, he saw how bad we looked and demanded we eat it. That was great and we thanked him very much. He wouldn't even let us help with the dishes. Nice people everywhere we go.
We watched the news and weather report – dang, 31 degrees tonight. None of us wanted to go back to our tents but we had too. I was thinking of sleeping on the old couch in the hall but decided to tough it out in my tent. We plan to launch by 8 am and to eat breakfast in the Social Hall where it will be warm. The owners said they would leave it unlocked for us and we again were very grateful. At least we went to bed dry and warm which made all the difference in the world.
Day 3 Monday, February 15, 2010
Woke up with frost all over everything and the tent flaps stiff with ice/frost. Not as bad as yesterday but still very difficult to get up in the cold. Breakfast in the hall was a great idea and we warmed up somewhat with coffee and oatmeal. Then back outside in the chilly air to break down camp, carry the kayaks to the launch area that was a nice hike through the woods, and then load and launch. 8:30 am and we’re off for another day of paddling. Forecast is for the weather to deteriorate and rain from noon until 3 pm. We saw two otters in the river which was a treat and then the clouds started rolling in.
Without the sun it is very cold again and then we get this steady. heavy down pour that lasted exactly as they predicted – noon until 3 pm. We stopped by the outfitters in the Spirit of the Suwannee park and I didn't mention just throwing in the towel because I was afraid everyone would quickly say "Yes!!" It was really cold and miserable in the rain with no place to hide. Sam charged his cell phone in his truck for around 15 minutes and then we were off. Paddling warmed us up a bit but our poor hands were just freezing. Dumb, dumb, dumb, not having paddling gloves for cold weather.
We make it to Holton creek just after the rain stopped and quickly unload and move our kayaks up to dry land. Sam just has to make a fire and does even with damp wood. The fire was great and we found another treat with hot showers that really warmed us up until we had to get out and walk back to camp. The river camp was deserted because they evacuated the hosts due to high water – the roads were washed out – but they called us before our trip and said to go ahead and use the facilities. This is a great site with enclosed platforms, bathrooms, showers, and electricity. The bummer was that the weather forecast called for 27 degrees tonight. Some stories around the campfire and clothes set up near the fire to dry and then we're off to bed before the bitter cold sets in. The night was cold and we were protected somewhat by being on the platforms which kept us drier. I wore my long-johns, a silk lined for my 35-degree sleeping bag, and this is what clenched it, I used an emergency/space blanket to wrap around my feet and lower half. That night I was comfortable as were the rest with my new sleeping arrangement.
Day 4 Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Up at 5:25 am and it is damn cold out! Ice on the kayaks – not frost but the droplets of water were ice. The plastic bottles of water were frozen solid. One kayak's compass didn't move and appeared to be frozen – must have had a drop of water in it. When we launched someone’s rudder didn't work because ice was jamming it. 37 miles to go today and our hands never defrosted. At this point I've lost feeling in three-quarters of my hands. Somewhat concerning but at that point I'm still in denial about getting frostbite.
Sam doesn't look good – he is having great difficulty dealing with the cold. He absolutely hates being cold. A side fact is that Sam raises reptiles and I think his aversion to cold may be what attracts him to them – similar attributes. Come to think of it, Sam would always lay down on any concrete structure we stopped at to get warm – just like a lizard. Hmmmmmm. We all tried it and it does work. Sam did start looking better and he had no episodes today. The scenery was beautiful but still very cold out. Lunch time found us warming up and our fingers actually got some feeling back.
It was a long, hard paddle and reminded us that maybe next year we will start doing some paddling months before our trip to be in better shape. Tom was the only one of us who paddled regularly since our trip a year ago. The rest of us hadn't paddled all year except maybe for a few short paddles. We arrive at Layfayette Springs park around 3:50 pm and are not looking forward to another cold night. The springs here are not much to look at and with the high water were nothing to look at. Still, a nice park with facilities.
As luck would have it, we asked the park ranger about cabins and one was available. That was a no-brainer – of course we took it! It was really nice and somewhere I will visit again with my wife. The cabin had an outside deck with tables and rocking chairs and a swing. The inside was nice with a kitchen and a fireplace which we had going in no time. Each of us cooked our dinners using the stove and made use of the availability of hot showers. This time the showers were even better because when we came out we were still in a nice warm cabin. We had a very nice night in the toasty cabin. Weather forecast for tomorrow is a balmy 30 degrees in the morning...
Day 5 Wednesday, February 17, 2010
By now we were all laughing at how cold it is every morning. Today was no exception. Damn, we're in Florida! Will it ever get warm again? Will I ever feel my fingertips again? Brrrrrrrrr!
Well, we make multiple trips from the cabin to carry our stuff to our kayaks by the river and by 7:30 am we're in the water. We are treated to a beautiful morning with fog on the water and an incredible experience paddling into the sun and through the fog. Yeah, its worth it.
Today our target is Dorothy Land boat ramp just south of Branford near river mile 66. We remembered meeting a nice guy by the name of George last time and his dog, precious. George was quick to point out that his wife named the dog. Also at this site is a memorial to a Chief Leroy – he was well liked in the community but one night he sped down the road and ran into a tree just before the Suwannee River and was killed. We camped close to the marker.
This is a nice little park at the end of a long, straight road. We saw George again – he visits the park to walk his dog a lot. Then we made camp, ate dinner and we made a nice big camp fire. The fires really made a difference in our attitudes and are a great way to relax and just sit around and talk. It was feeling a little warmer this night but it really didn’t warm up much if at all. Tom was talking about sleeping in his hammock and pitched it between some trees and got in it. He thought better of the idea as soon as the cold wind blew through and slept in his tent.
Day 6 Thursday, February 18, 2010
Tired of hearing that it was cold? Well, yes, it was yet another cold morning with frost on the tents and kayaks. Get up around 6 am and launch around 7:30. Sam was having issues (not feeling well) again with the cold but he is a trooper and shook it off. As if he had a choice being in the middle of nowhere and self-supported.
Today we saw something that we've never witnessed or maybe just hadn't noticed before. The sky was a brilliant blue and every now and then we would see little white clouds. Then the clouds would be gone. So I started watching the sky and sure enough, a little white pin point would appear, grow to a small shape like a baseball, get larger and turn into something that resembled Mickey Mouse, continue growing into a dragon, grow and split into two diverging butterflies. Then the cloud would slowly fade away and disappear and presto, blue sky again. I started looking for these points of white that were growing into clouds and then disappearing and sure enough, they were happening at regular intervals. We all started looking for them and it was a treat. We figure the moisture was rising and would become clouds as it rose and got cooler but then they became heavier and would sink to an altitude of higher temperature that would cause the cloud to dissipate. Pretty cool and I have not witnessed that since. Then again, I haven't been sitting in one place with nothing much to do except look at the clouds. That's a shame – I plan to make time to do that more often.
Today’s goal is Fanning Springs around river mile 34 – a leisurely 32-mile day. Tom was setting a fast pace and we averaged 7 mph while paddling the first 4 hours. We got a welcomed push from the Santa Fe River where it joins the Suwannee around a mile from where we camped last night.
Beautiful scenery as usual but you notice how high the water is all along the banks. The river is unusually high and we were told by a local that it gets this high once every 10 to 15 years. We continue taking our breaks and seeking out places to stand that are in the sunshine and out of the wind.
We make it to Fanning Springs and were looking forward to this stop because it is close to town and there is a good BBQ place there. The campsite is nice but what make it especially good was a large fire circle and lots of cut wood that the rangers had gathered for campers. We set up our tents, paid for the campsites and moseyed on into town for our feast. It was a very good meal and afterwards we walked around some in town and explored the park.
The rangers we met were very friendly and knowledgeable. One is involved with trying to prove that Stephen Foster actually did visit the Suwannee River. Most books state that although he wrote the song (Old Folks at Home), he never saw the Suwannee River. There are a few people who remembered him visiting and wrote it down and they were currently looking for a hotel register that had Mr. Foster's name on it. Or some story like that – I apologize if I got it wrong but the jest of it is that there are some who say Foster did indeed visit the Suwannee River.
With our bellies full and a very nice fire raging, we sat around the fire and did our nightly ritual of talking and telling stories. We found that throwing pine cones into the fire makes for a nice display and just fun to do.
Day 7 Friday, February 19, 2010
Today is Tom's birthday so we all wish him the best. We re-start the fire, make our breakfast and are on the water by 7:40 am. Today is the day we end our journey and we are excited. It is also probably the warmest morning so far and we are psyched. We paddle hard for a while and Dave’s back tightens up. Hurts to breathe and very painful bending over but he can paddle ok although not so aggressively. Nice day, scenery is more swamp-like as we near the coast.
It is windy and getting stronger as we continue and the water is becoming choppy. Finally we see the town of Suwannee. Sam and Dave paddle hard to get to the town which is on the other side of the river and hopefully get out of the wind. Stew and Tom were behind so they waited near a sea wall. It was getting late – just after two in the afternoon but we were determined to make it into the Gulf and then return. Stew and Tom decided to just go into town and set up camp since they had already gone into the Gulf here before. Sam hadn't so he and Dave paddled the extra 3 or 4 miles into the Gulf, visited an island, then returned.
We set up camp in an old cook house – the camp ground was previously a fish camp. Tom was determined to sleep in his hammock and did so. Finally we had a decent night that wasn't to frigid.
Dinner was at Sarah's restaurant and I'm telling you that the very best hamburger you can buy is at that place. I told Sam that before and during our trip and he rolled his eyes at me. Then he had to try one. He commented "You know, that was the best hamburger I've ever had!" We bought Tom key lime pie to celebrate his birthday.
Drank a bunch of beer and headed back to camp where we made our last fire. A very nice ending to a somewhat challenging trip. Dave fell asleep in his chair and thankfully Sam woke him up before he slid into the fire!
Day 8 Saturday, February 20, 2010
We had a nice night with the warmer weather (40s) and went over to Sarah's for breakfast and walked around a bit. The outfitter was right on time and we packed up the van and loaded the kayaks. A two hour trip back to Spirit of the Suwannee Park and we're ready to go home. Loaded up our vehicles, secured the kayaks and said goodbye to Tom until next year. Not sure if there was going to be a next year but as I write this, we have made tentative plans to base camp in the Okefenokee Swamp for 4 or 5 days and then do the Fargo to White Springs portion of the Suwannee River that we missed this year. May call the next trip "The Missing Link Tour" to emphasize the need for us to complete the portion of this year's journey...
The best advice I can give is to plan a trip and JUST DO IT! – BUT... know the weather forecast. We knew the forecast but it was wrong by 20 degrees which made parts of the trip more dangerous - beyond our acceptable range - and a lot more uncomfortable than we had anticipated. If in winter, be prepared for freezing weather - have cold water paddling gloves (biggest mistake we made was not having these), a good paddling/rain jacket and pants, dive booties or other good method to keep your feet warm while paddling. For camping, have warm camp and sleeping clothes, a sleeping bag rated for 15 degrees or combination – mine was rated at 35 degrees and with an extra silk liner and space blanket, I was just okay – barely okay. I have since bought neoprene gloves and a dry top. I am looking into dry pants and non-cotton clothing for layering.
Get the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail brochure from Suwannee River Wilderness Trail 800-868-9914 and on the web www.SuwanneeRiver.com There is a National Geographic Destination Map of the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail too that is pretty good. Not sure which organization sent that to us – ask for it.
We were very happy with The Canoe Outpost in the Spirit of the Suwannee Park in Live Oak. Great for leaving your car and getting a shuttle to launch site and pick up.
Suwannee Canoe Outpost
2461 95th Drive, Live Oak FL 32060
800-428-4147 (800 number not listed on their website)
They have a website too: www.canoeoutpost.com/Suwannee/outpost.htm
www.aca1.com - American Canoe Adventures in White Springs
Wendell was very helpful and knowledgeable and they also offer shuttle service. His positive email two days before our trip sealed our resolve to start in Fargo, GA even with low water.
Marty Johnson – the gentleman we met at Stephen Foster Park in the Okefenokee Swamp.
He does just about anything and if he doesn't he'll probably figure it out and do it. A great resource and Help. He lives in/near Fargo so if you are near there, give him a call.
paddleacrossflorida.com Our website for more photos and other trips we've done
www.canoe-suwannee.com – Bill Logan's site
We also used maps.google.com to get a better idea of the terrain and research as well as just plugging in "Suwannee River" and "Suwannee River Wilderness Trail" into Goggle.
PFD's (Life Jackets)
Touring Kayak Paddles