Monday, September 12, 2005

Suwannee River, White Springs, FL

I have been watching the Suwannee River water level and discharge for a year since the hurricanes last summer. Both readings have been very high, too high to paddle. And then last night--surprise! It's back to normal. So of course I had to go.

Got to the big Stephen Foster Culture Center State Park--whatever they call it--in White Springs at 10:00. It's huge, with a museum, gift shop, craft something-or-other, playground, campground, cabins, and it's on the Suwannee. They have a "canoe launch."

After checking out the campground (all RV sites), I went to the "canoe launch." The park sits high above the river. When I got to the launch, which was not included in ANY of the direction signs, such as the cabins and picnic area and Gazebo were, I found that there is a nice paved (with stone) car-width path, complete with turnaround area, that leads down to the water. And that they have blocked this to vehicle traffic.

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I walked down to see how far I would have to go to get to the river. A LONG way. Luckily, I had my Paddleboy kayak cart in the car. The other thing is that you have to unload here, WAY away from the river, and then park near the Gazebo, which is over 1/10 of mile away down a nicely bricked path.

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This is the view from the unloading area to the parking area. So you have to get your boat and gear down a long paved, driveable but blocked hill, walk back up the hill, then take your car an unusually long way away to park it, then walk back down the brick road and back down the paved ramp to get to the boat. Heaven forbid you forget something that's in your car once you get back to the boat. While I was checking out the water and current, a park employee came down. He said the river has dropped more in the past 6 weeks than he has ever seen it. Works for me.

I am in good shape, it was early (well, by the time I finished with all this it was 11:00), so fine--it's inconvenient but not a real problem. I have sorely missed paddling on this river.

The first 30 minutes were pretty bad. Faster current than I anticipated (this is not exactly where the measuring station is), with many small underwater springs, which act like whirlpools in reverse and push the bow around. I was almost ready to turn around but decided to go a little farther.

Good thing I did! It got wonderful. It's a little creepy after being used to the crystal-clear Wacissa to be on a river where the bottom cannot be seen, the depth and underwater debris cannot be gauged. But the banks are so utterly, utterly different from the Wacissa and Wakulla, and even Lake Talquin. It's the Suwannee! After awhile the current went down to almost nothing and I was very happy. Lots of traffic noise for the first hour, though. And no wildlife. This is a river rich in scenery but poor in animals, at least at mid day.

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Ok, so here's where it gets interesting. Up ahead was a sandbar.

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I planned to get out at the sandbar and have a snack. As I approached it, I noticed that the water was moving VERY, VERY fast to the left--the way to the right was blocked by trees, and so the river narrowed considerably and the water was moving, at the risk of being redundant, very fast. When I got out, I looked upriver and it seemed like it widened again immediately and went back to normal. I had my snack. It was pretty (the view, not the snack).

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So I decided that I would take a run at the fast water, and if I failed, then I would just go back downriver. It took me an hour to get here--short trip, but if I couldn't paddle up through the very fast moving water, then forget it.

Paddle, paddle, paddle!! It wanted to take me into a bunch of tree branches, and ruddering and sweep stroking to get away from those cost me forward momentum. Paddlepaddlepaddle! Made it!!!

Ok, fine, it went back to normal. I've had this happen before and going downstream through it has never been a problem--it was fairly wide and short in the fast part and so that wasn't much of a concern.

A little way upstream I encountered 2 canoes with 3 people in each, all about 60-ish. One had a man at the stern and two women, the other had three women. I said to the first boat people, "You are coming to a VERY fast section, but if you get through it, there's a nice sandy island to the left to get out." This was the boat with three women. One of them said "Faster than we're going now?" I said yes, much faster. She looked nervous so I said it wasn't whitewater or anything (there actually is a dangerous area in this vicinity called Big Shoals, Florida's only whitewater), it was just fast. Then I came to the second canoe. They had heard this and they asked which way should they go? I told them they wouldn't have any choice, and I said they would be fine in a canoe.

They went on, I went on. I listened. I first heard nothing, then I heard the distant gabble of people talking. Then people talking a little more excitedly. Then a loud and prolonged splash...the type you might associate with people falling in the water. I stopped paddling, wondering if I should go back. What could I do? However, I did have my cell phone with me. Then I heard someone say "Are you ok?" and I heard a woman say "Yes!" so I figured they had it covered. I went on.

It was so pretty. Lots of minimal current. After an hour and 45 minutes from put-in, the current picked up again so I decided to turn around. That was enough.

I had noted where the fast water was, right after the steps leading to a sign for the Suwannee Valley Campground (full hookups!) As I approached the fast water, I could swear I heard voices..... As I got closer, getting myself in position to zoom through it, I saw those tree branches I had barely avoided on my way up. Is that...? It looks like..... It is. It's a sideways canoe, smashed up against the debris in the middle of the fast water. In fact, the entire bottom of the canoe was literally smashed, bent in.

I go through the fast place straight as an arrow (gotta love the Mystic). On the other side of the fast water, sitting on the island, are two of the women from the 3-woman canoe. I said "Well, you GUYS...."

"You told us about it, but we messed up anyway..." said one of them.

I said I was coming over to take a breather and sit with them, and maneuvered around to where I could get out. I went over and sat on the sand with them. Then I noticed that the third woman was all the way across the river, sitting on that bank. I asked "What happened?"

The one I was talking to said that it just came up faster than they thought and they got turned sideways so of course they tipped when they hit the branches. They lost 2 cameras, a beach towel, and she lost her shoes. Those two went to the left in the river, the other woman went right and got swept a bit downstream before she could get out and walk back to right across from where they were. Apparently the canoe with the guy in it made it through, and they had gone on to get out at the park and get help. Their canoe was there when I got out, no sign of them.

So I sat and talked with the women for awhile about this and that. They had rented the canoes, they were doing a float, only going the one way.

After a while I headed on out, back downstream. They had said that they had passed a 6' gator shortly before the fast water (that must have come back to them while they were in the water!).

I got back and did all the necessary stuff to get the kayak loaded in the car.

I don't think I will go there again for any reason--they have made it too hard and impractical as a paddling place. But this was still interesting!

New word on the Wakulla is that the edges are now clear, though the middle is still murky. Maybe it won't be as long as thought to clear up completely.

In other news, I am adding an Impex Montauk to my "fleet." I had hoped to go pick it up later this week, but it's in coastal NC, and Ophelia is just hovering endlessly right off the shore, thwarting those plans.

Stay tuned for New Kayak news and another paddling trip. The weather is cooling, I have several new destinations selected.

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