The banjo melody of “Waaaay down upon the Suwanneeeee River” was strumming through my brain as I paddled a kayak down that namesake water course in North Florida.
I was part of a group of more than 100 paddlers attending the Suwannee River Paddling Festival — the final outing of non-profit group Paddle Florida’s 2014-15 season. Despite the large crowd, I was pretty much alone. Everyone had become fairly dispersed, moving at his or her own pace or in twos and threes over the 20-mile route from Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park to the Suwannee River State Park campground.
With the river flowing briskly south at 3 to 4 miles per hour from recent rains, it was an easy paddle. You could just float and steer occasionally rather than engage in brisk aerobic exercise, enjoying the quiet and the lush scenery surrounding you.
But the imagined strains of the Stephen Foster folk tune were suddenly interrupted by a loud splash behind me to the right. Startled, I twisted around only to see a six-foot-wide frothy wake, but not what created it. Whatever had done it disappeared too quickly beneath the tannin-stained waters.
Looking back, I saw a couple of kayakers about 100 yards behind me and waited for them to catch up, hoping they had caught a glimpse of the mysterious sea monster.
“I didn’t get a good look at it,” the male paddler said. “But it was a big fish. At first I thought maybe you had flipped your kayak.”
I puzzled over the monster’s identity for the next hour or so before reaching the campground, then tracked down a park ranger for a tentative identification.
“Almost sure it was a sturgeon,” she said.
Gulf sturgeon, which can grow to the size of an alligator with similar bony plates covering their bodies and classified as a threatened species, are frequently spotted jumping in the Suwannee and other rivers that flow into the Gulf of Mexico, especially in summer. Numerous collisions with boaters have been reported over the years, including some serious injuries. And the spot where I witnessed the aftermath wasn’t far from the confluence of the Alapaha River — a major sturgeon spawning site.
Wild encounters like this, coupled with extraordinary scenic beauty, draw thousands to the Suwannee each year. Flowing from its origins at Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp south and west for 235 miles to the Gulf, this ever-changing river is Florida’s second largest, but also one of the least polluted or modified by man’s design.
Sparsely developed, it begins as a narrow stream in its northernmost reaches then widens between its porous limestone banks; gets fed by the Alapaha and two other tributaries, the Santa Fe and Withlacoochee, and also by nearly 200 springs large and small. In its midsection, the river meanders amid a broad, wooded flood plain, then becomes a coastal marsh as it nears the Gulf.
The section we explored with Paddle Florida featured powdery white sand beaches; steep, pocked limestone banks that resembled thousands of miniature Mount Rushmores; and endless stretches of maple, pine,cypress and oak. The background soundtrack consisted of hooting barred owls, the piercing cries of hawks, and the tapping of woodpeckers. Several paddlers spotted gators, snakes and turtles relaxing along the riverbanks.
Several years ago, a public-private partnership established the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail — a system of hubs and river camps spaced a day’s paddle apart where visitors can spend the night, access bicycle and hiking trails, and even shop and attend musical concerts. Our Paddle Florida group stopped at one of them — Holton Creek — for lunch. It was equipped with screened camping shelters, picnic facilities and even showers.
Paddle Florida, formed in 2008, is a favorite among Florida paddlers and those from out of state who want to explore the state’s natural waterways without having to organize canoe and kayak shuttles or carry several days’ worth of food and supplies. The organization — led by executive director Bill Richards of Gainesville and a board of directors — scouts destinations in advance; takes care of all shuttle and camping arrangements; caters all meals, and books local entertainers, naturalists and scientists for evening get-togethers.
The Easter weekend Suwannee Festival featured a nighttime “ghost walk” in an abandoned cemetery, two days of paddling on the Suwannee and Withlacoochee rivers, a talk by a springs conservationist, water expo, photo ops with the Easter bunny, and a concert by two popular local folk singers.
Over the past 20 years, I’ve made multiple trips to the Suwannee and covered a good bit of it but never the entire river end to end. Someday, I’m hoping to change that.
If you go
Paddle Florida will return to the Suwannee River Oct. 22-27. Visit paddleflorida.org.
For more information about the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail, call 800-868-9914 or visit SuwanneeRiver.com.
To rent a canoe or kayak, contact Suwannee Canoe Outpost at suwanneecanoeoutpost.com or call 386-364-4991.