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Saturday, March 1, 2014

Way Up Upon the Suwannee River: Okefenokee Swamp to Fargo Paddle - by Guest Blogger: Julie DeVore

I was working at the Visitor Center one day, when I got a really interesting call from a lady that was planning to paddle into the swamp to Floyd's Island, and then on down the Suwannee River to Fargo, Georgia.  She went on to tell me that this is the last section of the Suwannee River not yet paddled  to have done the entire river. We continued to chat and I ended up inviting her to paddle the St. Mary's river with friends and me.  She couldn't schedule it but I hope to get to paddle with her before I leave. 

And she agreed to tell me all about the trip.  It was so interesting, I KNEW you would want to hear about it too. 


Julie and her Dad ready to start out
My Dad, Paul Hoobler and I have been paddling sections of the Suwannee River for the last 3 years. We had not been able to paddle our last section - the first portion as it comes out of the Okefenokee Swamp - because of low water and fires. (A fire in 2011 burned 80 % of the swamp and burned for nearly a year. ) But now the water is up so we planned a paddle. We also wanted to spend one night in the swamp so we left out of Stephen Foster State Park. This is the West entrance to the Okefenokee and  we paddled to our reserved campsite on Floyds island, approximately nine miles east of the entrance.

Trails are well-marked


Dad on paddle break


Suwannee River View - going upstream

The trail is beautiful, and because it was the warmest day so far this year, we saw countless gators. It's a long paddle between rest stops. There is only one place to stop and it is a shelter about 3 hours in, depending on the current flow. The paddle is all up-stream till the turnoff from the red trail, then it is flat water.


After the turn into the canoe-only trail off the Suwannee


One of many gators we encountered

After turning off the red trail it got interesting. The canal narrowed to only five-six feet, but the gators were getting ever bigger. We had the choice to either use half of a paddle or paddle straight up and down for about an hour.   It was pretty shallow so there was no where for the gators go get away from you. I'm just glad the water is dark so we couldn't see how close we were to them. 

Me

Once we reached Floyd’s island we set up camp. The weather was perfect, except, surprisingly enough, that  the mosquitoes were out, in February, so just be prepared any time of the year here. I never camp in Florida/S GA anytime of year without a thermacell pad to be ready for cold weather.   

The cabin is really neat, but I’m sure Floyd had a hard time getting a woman to live out in the middle of the swamp. The east side entrance trail to Floyd’s island is totally blocked. There is a bathroom on the island, but no water. We did see a deer the morning we were leaving, heard there is a bobcat, but never saw him. (note from Marilyn: Volunteers are currently working to clear all the blockages on trails leading from Floyd's Island.)

Dad at Floyd's Island
The next morning, we packed up and headed back down the small creek to the red trail, back by the Stephan Foster entrance and headed to the Suwannee River Sill. (You need a permit to go through this area. )We encountered a storm along the way that caused us to seek cover under a tree, sit in our kayaks of course with ponchos that really did not help in this storm.  


Stormy Weather

We waited for the heavy rain and lightening to pass and then paddled about an hour in rain to the shelter.  We got changed, dry and waited out the storm for 1 ½ hrs at Minne’s Hammock Shelter and then kept going.  It was a nice break for lunch and hot coffee.  (Yes I bring a bullet and French press, I have my vices, LOL.)  Unfortunately this put us behind about 2 hrs, and the fact we were told it was 2 miles to the sill from the west entrance and it is over 4 miles, made for a long day. 


Drying out at Minnie's Hammock Shelter

On this stretch we had a twelve- fourteen foot gator lift his head and make a barking noise at us. He didn't move so we went to the other side of the river to pass him, and give him his space.  We paddled through a grass prairie on the way to the sill that depending on water levels, could have you paddling grass, not water, with gators lying within arms reach. There was one log across the trail and portage is not an option, we could not touch bottom with our paddle, it is over 10 ft deep and only grass.  So you just had to work over, and rock, and rock, you know…..


Grassy area

When we reached the sill, we portaged around it, not because it would be hard to go through it, but because the rule is you have to and my dad is a stickler for the rules. A nice local put our yaks in his truck and drove them to  the ramp, It is about a 100 yard carry. We paddled about three more miles and set up camp.  We found a great spot, the view was amazing as you can imagine.  Had a nice fire, great dinner of sweet potatoes in tinfoil on the fire and chicken with artichoke hearts, fresh spinach and feta in tinfoil on the fire.  And of course a bottle of wine.


Campsite

This made for a long day of paddling and I guess we did about 16 miles and lost time to breaks during  the storm, So we didn't start setting up camp until forty-five minutes before sunset.  I prefer to have a spot way before then, so if you do this trip, hope you have good weather and start early. 

There are plenty of spots and flat ground from a couple miles past the sill to Fargo. There was only one road that came down and it must have been Griffs fish camp, because we never passed anything else till Fargo. At this water level there are no sandbars. This is a beautiful stretch of the Suwannee. There is no development, and we saw some of the biggest gators of the trip on this stretch….

It is 21 miles from the sill to Fargo and so we had about 18 to go, but the water was really moving and we were able to do a mile every 20 minutes.  We were at our car by 4.  I was definitely off the grid. I have T-Mobile and did not have service the entire trip.  I kind of like it that way.

Happy Paddling,  
Julie Hoobler DeVore

Water information:
The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Floyds Island and the Suwannee to Fargo.
Water lever 10.2, approx. 53 miles