Suwannee River Trip 7-9 April '08
By Bill Fite
Late morning on Monday five WCTSS members met at Ivey Memorial Park on the Suwannee River in Branford, FL. Ted Jean, who left from his cabin a few miles above Branford, brought his wooden Chesapeake 17 kayak with sail rig; Mark Stewart of Marietta, GA removed the amas/akas and sail rig from his sailing tri "SharkBait", and brought it configured as a large kayak; Terry Polling drove down from the Tallahassee area with his 18' Seda Impulse kayak; and Steve Wood and I drove up from the Tampa Bay area tailoring our sailboats, a Bay Hen and a SeaPearl 21 respectively.
We loaded and staged our boats without difficulty, and Terry watched them while the rest of us drove south to establish a shuttle. The takeout was a small relatively new county park a mile or so south of the Alt US 27 bridge at Fanning Springs, about 43 river miles from our start. Leaving three cars and trailers there, we piled into Ted's car and returned to Branford. By the time we got back it was lunch time, so Steve and Terry joined Ted at Nell's Diner across the highway from the park while Mark and I watched the boats. For future reference, all agreed that Nell's served good food at a good price.
It was a little after 1:00 pm when we got underway. The sky was partly cloudy, and the weather seemed to be improving steadily from the front we had all experienced the past weekend. Wind was supposed to be 3-6 mph from the east, but it was very hard to judge on the river. The river level was 58 feet, described in at least one website as excellent for canoeing and kayaking. This level was considered to be on the high side by a park ranger we talked to later, in part because many springs were covered by the dark tannin-stained river waters. The current was generally about 1.5 knots, but sometimes was as high as two knots and as low as one knot when I checked it with my GPS while drifting.
Few pleasures surpass the successful start of a boating adventure. Our spirits were high as we sorted ourselves and our craft out in a setting that was quite different from that of most past WCTSS outings. The paddle-only kayakers Mark and Terry quickly found a groove and pulled a little ahead. I rowed Moon Shadow with the mizzen up, ready to shift to sail when and if that seemed promising. Ted used his single paddle as necessary, but tried to sail whenever possible in hopes of easing the strain on old shoulder and neck injuries. Steve had left his yuloh (a single oar employed in a back and forth motion) behind because of an arm injury, so he put the Bay Hen's full sail up and used his motor as necessary to catch up with the others.
Through the afternoon we made our way down river, each at his own pace, enjoying the boost from the current and the quiet beauty of the river. The houses seemed to be in groups, leaving long stretches of cypress, pine, and oak trees with the Spanish moss that provided the Deep South look one associates with the Suwannee. Fish jumped frequently, but we only saw one large sturgeon clear the water. Only a few powerboats passed each way&emdash;all agreed that a paddling trip in this wide and accessible part of the river must be on weekdays.
By around 5:00 pm we had traveled about 10 miles, arriving at the confluence of the Santa Fe River and the Suwannee, our planned destination for this first day. Some of the area was posted, but Terry found a very nice campsite on level ground about 20 feet above the water on the west bank of the river just down from where the Santa Fe entered on the east. Thanks to Ted's foresight in bringing firewood and Steve's ready willingness to haul it in his boat, we enjoyed a nice campfire. The bugs weren't bad at all on this trip in any case. We all enjoyed our various dinners of mundane camping food like canned soups except for Mark, who grilled a steak and onions on his nifty ventilated frying pan/grill.
Tuesday was a beautiful day. Ted left first a little after nine, and Steve followed shortly after. I decided to motor up the Santa Fe for a few miles before returning to the Suwannee to renew rowing at about 10:15. Terry left at 11:00, while Mark, not one to be hurried after his breakfast of bacon and waffles, left some time after that.
At 12:30 I caught up with Ted and Steve at Rock Bluff Landing where SR-340 crosses the river. They raved about the chicken salad sandwich they had at the café there, so I tied up as they left and ran to get one for myself (it was delicious!). Terry was at the landing when I got back to the boat. He had already eaten, but we relaxed and waited a while for Mark. When he didn't show by 1:30, we pushed off downriver, knowing that Mark would satisfy himself as to pace. Less than two miles downriver we passed Ted and Steve, who had stopped at Gauranto Springs on river right for a bath. They followed, and we pretty much kept each other in sight until we reached Hart Springs Park by 5:00 pm, 23 miles from our campsite of the night before. The others entered the park via a small channel from the springs and started setting up camp. I took a bath in the river and then motored upstream to check on Mark, who was happily paddling toward us a few miles away. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay at this nearly deserted park, for which we paid $22 for our one campsite (Steve and I slept on our boats). As before, the campfire BS was of excellent quality.
Ted again left first in the morning, followed by Steve and then Mark, Terry, and I. The land was lower and flatter now, and we noted that potential campsites were fewer. We passed under the old Seaboard Coastline railway bridge above Fanning Springs, the only bridge we encountered for which trailer sailors would have to lower masts. For a few miles after that the wind was fairly strong against us, which made for tougher paddling and even tougher rowing. Without the helping current this stretch might have been more drudgery than enjoyable.
We were loaded up and shaking hands by around 3:00. All of us, I believe, felt the trip or something like it was definitely worth doing again. Paddling was ideal, of course. Sailing was impractical most of the way of the 43 miles we covered. Steve and Ted made the best of it when they could, but the wind was often swirling and usually weak. The river was 175-200 yards wide (I'm guessing), which did give room to tack, and the current ensured that each tack would gain ground. Depth or obstacles were never a problem. I rowed the entire way, which was good exercise and quite pleasant. To me it would be worthwhile to do the trip in "trawler mode" and leave masts and sails at home, even with a boat that couldn't be rowed. It wouldn't be sailing, which is mostly what we are about, but it would be peaceful messing about in boats in a beautiful natural setting&emdash;what's not to like about that?