At times I feel really silly while kayaking slow moving rivers. I begin to sing and Robert Goulet I am not. Murky, muddy waters prompt a few lines of the Doobie Brothers. Oh black water keep on shinin’ on me. Wider waterways have me belting out the lyrics to Proud Mary, screaming out the words with gusto like Tina Turner does, scatting full orchestration. Rolling, rolling on the river. On my Class I river trips there is no humming the death metal, industrial and acid punk songs preferred by the Class V Narrows of the Green whitewater paddlers.
It is only natural when I set out to paddle of a 8-mile section of the 240-mile Suwannee River Wilderness Trail, the words of Stephen Foster’s Old Folks at Home would play perpetually on repeat in the stereo system of my mind. No way of getting rid of it once it’s in there. Drat.
The Suwannee gurgles out of the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia. The tight upper section in North Florida features towering limestone bluffs. During periods of high water levels, Big Shoals near the town of White Springs boasts Class III whitewater.
My adventure begins further downstream near the town of Chiefland as rivers such as the Santa Fe and the Withlacoochee join the Suwannee on its journey to the Gulf. The river widens here and is conducive to my 17’ sea kayak.
Before launching onto the Suwannee, I make a stop to break up the long drive from North Carolina at the ghost town of O’Leno on the Santa Fe. “Old Leno”, once called Keno in honor of the gambling game, was a thriving boomtown in the 1800’s. During its history, the townsfolk tried to improve the outpost’s image renaming it Leno. The railroad passed Leno by, eventually leaving it uninhabited. In the 1930’s the CCC developed the area as a state park, building a suspension bridge that still stands today. Visitors enjoy canoeing and kayaking on the river and hiking and mountain biking the park’s 13 miles of trails. During my visit, two problems make a kayak journey from O’Leno State Park to the Suwannee impossible. One the water level is extremely low. The far bigger challenge stems from the fact that the Santa Fe flows underground 3 miles before re-emerging downstream.
Among the memories from my hedonistic school days in nearby Gainesville are the penny-pinching Kraft Mac and Cheese dinners, the refrigerator filled with beer cans and no food, and adventures at two locations along the Santa Fe. At Ginnie Springs, I learned to scuba dive, earning college credit in the process. And on hot Saturdays, the nearby Ichetucknee River would (and still does I am sure) fill with bikini-clad college bombshells, floating inner tubes from the headsprings to the Santa Fe. Even if it was 90 degrees out with 90 percent humidity the water in the spring run is always cold enough to numb your rear into hypothermia during the 3-hour meander.
The crystal clear springs feeding into the river provide the major allure for me on this 2007 trip. Fanning Springs serves as my put-in, and the southern terminus of my lazy journey is Manatee Springs.
During Florida’s winter months, West Indian manatees congregate in the spring runs to enjoy the warmer water. In the river, it can get a bit chilly for a warm-blooded mammal during the winter, even with a cushion of blubber. The water gushing from the spring head is 72 degrees year round, bathtub temperature for a manatee, but as previously mentioned, a cause of frozen butt cheeks for humans floating on inner tubes. By the time of my early April trip, grazing sea cows have vacated Manatee Springs. From May through September, the springs draw hordes seeking relief from the Florida heat. Scuba diving the underwater cave systems is popular. During my kayak float, while Stephen Foster’s classic plays ad nauseam in the head, I can look forward to a cool, refreshing swim in the spring upon completion of my paddle.
Timucuan Indians plied the waters of the Suwannee over a thousand years ago. As I launch at the U.S. 19/98 bridge, I wonder if they constructed dugout canoes from the cypress, gum, tupelo or maple trees growing along the banks. Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto visited the region in the 1500’s seeking gold. In the 1700’s, William Bartram explored the area. A splinter group from the Creek tribe of Georgia became the Seminoles and settled in the region. On this the day of the National Championship basketball game between Florida Gators and Ohio State Buckeyes, no Gator-rival Seminoles can be seen. Upstream from my launch site, in shallow water, lie the remains of a nineteenth century paddlewheeler. The river was once the conduit for lucrative industry-cotton, rice, cattle, tobacco and logging. Now tourism and recreational opportunities are bringing new visitors to the area.
A very short distance downstream from my launch point sits Fanning Springs. I pull off the tannic Suwannee into the spring run. Mosses and ferns line the upper banks creating a lush, jungle feel. This is one of 33 first magnitude springs in Florida. Here, over 50 million gallons bubble up from underground each day. “Springs are bowls of liquid light,” wrote conservationist Majorie Stoneman Douglas. The water here is an otherwordly blue. Peering out over my cockpit, I can see several feet to the bottom. Fish dart through underwater eel grasses. A few years ago when paddling Wekiwa Springs, near Orlando, I was lucky to catch sight of a river otter swimming under and around my kayak. Trying to envision the scope of all the pure water flowing out of the ground under my boat is awe-inspiring. Here I float on the surface of a giant aquarium, peering down into the exhibits below.
Florida was once a shallow sea. What remains from this antediluvian sea today is a ground strata of limestone. This limestone or karst topography is very porous. Rainwater seeps from above into the aquifer. Subterranean conduits of moving water dissolve rock and eventually permeate the surface creating springs like Fanning and Manatee. These springs create a short creek or run that enters a larger body of water like the Suwannee. Sometimes the limestone collapses creating surface sinkholes. I remember a TV news story as a kid of a luxury car dealership being swallowed by a giant sinkhole.
Working my way downstream from Fanning Springs, I stop again, this time at the Andrews Wildlife Management Area. This natural area features ten miles of trails adjacent to the Suwannee. During a short break for hiking, I catch an unusual wildlife sighting-A full pigpen’s worth of feral hogs, busy digging up a clearing.
I’m back in the boat. I pass sandy beaches and stands of enormous bald cypress. I am watchful for the giant gulf sturgeon, eight feet long and prone to startling kayakers by jumping six feet out of the water. I do hear an inexplicable big splash. Kingfishers, swallow-tailed kites and ospreys fish from the air. Shortly before I reach my takeout, I spy a small gator on the bank-No manatees today.
The water becomes clearer as I near where the springs run meets the Suwannee. Like Fanning, Manatee is a first magnitude spring with an even higher flow, over 150 million gallons per day. As I make the turn into the spring run, I am greeted by a limpkin, a mottled brown waterbird. The limpkin has his favorite food in beak-an apple snail. Again through the clear water it is easy to see schools of catfish and turtles. A boardwalk follows the run from spring head to the Suwannee.
Preserved human remains found nearby have been radiocarbon dated at over 10,000 years old. Mastodons, ground sloths and saber-toothed tigers once drank from this spring. Fossils from prehistoric animals have been found at Ichetucknee.
The ecosystem has been in balance for thousands of years, but I learn on this trip that nutrient pollution is rising from phosphorus and nitrogen from fertilizers that are washed from lawns and pastures and run into sinkholes and leached into the groundwater. Manatee Spring’s outflow shows high levels of nitrates. These contribute to algae proliferation. Septic tank and wastewater leakage from the 60 square mile basin from which the spring draws also plays a factor in decreased water quality.
I land my kayak and break out the mask, snorkel and fins. It is time to cool off. I swim over the springs and dive about 25 feet toward the spring opening. Scuba divers entering the cave often report a strong current, but I can’t detect it. Apparently, outflow comes in surges. As I swim around, I see what I think is a snapping turtle. Better to avoid it. As I leave the water, a banded water snake swims by. A boy approaches me and asks, “Have you seen any snakes today? I’ve seen four.”
The remaining 232 miles of the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail beckon, but will have to wait. Tomorrow I plan to paddle the Rainbow River from the headsprings of Florida’s fourth largest spring.