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MONDAY, APRIL 2, 2012

Suwanee River - Okefenokee Canoeing, March 2012

I meant to keep notes, but forgot a notebook.  Here is from memory....the trip consisted of Keith Finn, Dave Seslar, Jeff Haven and Walt Taylor.  Dave and I were in solo canoes, Walt and Jeff in touring kayaks.


We left Friday (March 16) mid afternoon, drove


 to Statesville, NC - where we found the clerk at Microtel had not made the reservation I placed.  The night clerk was more than helpful, and found us a room.  


Saturday found us in Folkston, GA.  We would get up early on Sunday and head to Fargo, GA to put in on the Suwanee River for a 5 day trip down to Spirit of the Suwanee Music Park and Canoe Outpost.  But, things happen.  When we arrived in Fargo (about 1 hour from Folkston), we found all kinds of emergency vehicles at the boat ramp.  We then found that this was no drill, a young man named AJ Martin had drowned in the river Saturday night and a search was on for his body.  The boat ramp was closed and nets were spread in the river downstream - the trip was not going to start in Fargo!


Fargo is a very isolated spot - the only camping option is the Stephen Foster State Park in the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge.   There are no motels in Fargo, but there is a fish camp a few miles out of town.
Stephen Foster State Park
We decided to delay the river trip and put in one bridge further downstream, the Florida Highway 6 Bridge.  Unlike Ohio, Florida and Georgia almost always have a boat ramp located at a highway bridge.  Instead we went to the state park, go a campsite and would do some day paddling around the western side of the Okefenokee.  
Okefenokee Canoeing

2011 was a year of fire in the Okefenokee.  We found that most of the good canoe trails were closed due to dangerous trees that had not been cleared out after burning.  In fact, I had been able to get an overnight pass for Friday March 23 on pure luck.  I had 'liked' the Okefenokee NWR on Facebook, and they sent out a notice on March 1 that a few platforms would be available for a one night stay - you had to reserve one two weeks in advance.  I managed to get the Round Top platform.  But, back to today.   We found a campsite, reserved it and took the boats to the ramp.    Had conflicting info of where to paddle - decided to head west to the "River Narrows", one of my favorite spots.  Trail was closed when we actually got to the non-motor section of the trail, but went onward to at least see Mixon's Hammock.  Very buggy!  After seeing the hammock, we wandered off to another canoe trail and found it choked off with lily pads.  One of the things I remember is the smell of the yellow water lily flowers - if you can imagine a combination of sweet green tea and grass.  


Headed back east toward Billy's Island - island was closed due to fire damage, and the canoe trail to Big Water was either closed or open, depending on what ranger you ran into.  Dave, Walt and Jeff went farther east, but I rafted up toward shore to look at the fire damage and regrowth. 


 Met back up with Jeff at the boat launch, and we were off the water by 6:30pm.   Set up tents and then decided to setup the screen tent, and good thing we did.  Had a beautiful sunset.  Also discovered the old coleman fuel Jeff had brought would not work - it was not volatile enough!  None of us had ever heard of Coleman fuel going bad, but there we were.
Contacted the Suwanee Canoe Outpost Monday morning, and setup the shuttle.  We then embarked on a fruitless search for Coleman fuel!  Eventually Walt and I found a gallon in a Wal-Mart in Lake City, FL.  The stuff is getting hard to find.  That delayed our launch until after 4pm, quite a late start for a canoe trip.  We headed downstream until about 6:30pm - when we found a nice sandbar for camping.  
I made chili for dinner, and proceeded to pass out about 10pm and slept well and deeply!  Very few bugs bothered us on the river, but in the morning I found some kind of sand gnat had chewed my ankles - they never itched, but looked repulsive! 

Tuesday turned into a long day.  This was the lowest level I had paddled the Suwanee, so things were a bit different.  We knew that we would have to deal with Big Shoals today, either run the rapid, line it or portage.  We took a good look, 


and Jeff and I decided to run the left side.  I was setup well for the run, things were waterproofed and well strapped in.  This was a good thing, I missed the good line and hit 2 converging waves in the upper drop of the rapid - this swamped the boat and I flipped.   I was able to push the boat over to the bank quite quickly, and the results of the flip were mitigated.  I lost my spare paddle and water bottles, but we recovered everything downstream except for one water bottle.  After that, Dave decided to run down to just above the first drop - then line the boat over next to the left bank, get back in the boat and run the second drop. 


 Worked like a charm, this is what I should have done!  Walt was a little nervous, but ran a very nice line and came thru the entire rapid in fine form. 
Here is a photo of the river below the rapid.  The white foam is not pollution, but a natural result of the acidic water getting aerated by the rapids.


  Then the search for the campsite started! 


 Dave found one a couple of miles below Big Shoals that was also a Florida Trail campsite, but we rejected it for not being "perfect".  Too bad, because that was the best campsite we saw for the next 25 miles!  We ended up paddling 20 miles that day, and found no decent campsites at all between Big Shoals and White Springs.  We finally found a small flattish spot just upstream from the White Springs bridge, but it was in no way a "nice" campsite.  Since it was 7:30pm, it would have to do.
We started out later on Wednesday and checked out White Springs.


Since we had paddled so far on Tuesday we decided to slow down a bit and find a decent camp spot early.  Tough to do at this level!  Too high for plentiful sandbars, but the banks were too steep to get access to the bluffs.   But the views from the river level were really cool - the limestone walls along the river were 8-12 feet high! 


 We pretty much drifted 10 miles and then found a very nice campsite at about 4:30pm.   Jeff made his very good Chicken mole with black beans and rice
.   
Thursday was last day for Suwanee River trip, we had 13 easy miles to go.  The high limestone walls continued, but better campsites began appearing. 


 We would find great sandbar campsites on the 180 degree bends in the river.  Too bad we were taking out today!   


Dave and I checked out a small spring run, 


and Walt tried out a riverside rope swing.  We were able to actually paddle into the old Suwanee Springs walled enclosure.  


We got to the take out at about 4:30pm, just as a thunderstorm was coming in. 


 We got boats stowed on the truck and things loaded before the storm cut loose.  Back to Folkston, for an early start on Friday and the Okefenokee.   


Friday morning is hot & sunny.  We get to the Okefenokee Admin building a little after eight o'clock, and sign in for our trip.  The staffer tells us the paddle out to Round Top is 12 miles (I thought it was 6-7 miles, my right shoulder already twinges in anticipation...)  she also tells us the last 3 miles are chocked with lily pads and may be really rough going.  We pay the 10 dollars per person per night  for camping, and head out to the boat basin.  It takes about an hour to get the boats off the truck and loaded, and off we go.  This is the first time any of our trips to the Okefenokee have left before 10am!  The rule is that is you are not on the water by 10am, you are not allowed to leave for an overnight trip!    Once we get past the boat ramps, it is apparent the the fires last year had a big effect in this area.  The area is much more open, with most of the dense shrubbery burned back, and many of the trees that were not cypress or slash pine are dead, burned trunks.  And there are swamp grasses growing in the canal - I have never seen that before. 


 The Suwanee Canal paddle was always the most boring in the NWR, but not anymore!   With the burn off of the shrubs, and the intrusion of swamp grass it is like a whole new trip. 


 After about 6 miles, we come to the Coffee Bay shelter.  This is normally just a bathroom / picnic stop, but they are allowing overnights right now due to the lack of available overnight stops.  The last time I was at Coffee Bay, it was a pretty sorry affair - but this shelter is brand new, and really well done.  


We stop for lunch, and begin to think this may be the place to stop for the night.  Thunderstorms are closing in, and I think both Jeff and I are dealing with back / shoulder issues.  Since we would have seen anyone heading out for Coffee Bay by this time, it seems like there is no one else doing an overnight in this part of the swamp tonight.  We decide to stay at Coffee Bay, and take the rest of the afternoon off.  Dave decides to do some more apddling, and ends up going all the way to Round Top and back - a 12 mile round trip!  Walt naps and messes around, and Jeff and I read - a favorite occupation for a afternoon break.  


Dave gets back just in time for dinner, and was comprehensively hosed by the thunderstorms we avoided under the shelter.   An excellent evening is had, with quite a few lightning flashes all around but no more rain.  We are kept company by a couple of alligators all night, and the frog chorus.   Saturday brought another warm morning, and the last pack-up.  Save for a thunderstorm, the paddle out was uneventful.
We were back to the Suwanee Canal entrance in the early afternoon, packed up and had to visit the Chesser Homestead.


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