Traveling the Suwannee River by stand-up paddleboard

WHITE SPRINGS — Over the years, I've seen the Suwannee in flood and drought.

I've paddled the upper reaches of this legendary waterway in the dead of winter when a 12-foot alligator charged my kayak under the light of a full moon.

I've traveled it by canoe in the heat of summer with a 4-year-old boy who wanted to stop every 100 yards to search for dinosaur bones along limestone banks that glistened in the sun long before humans arrived on this spit of land we now call Florida.

All in all, I've made a dozen trips or more down this 250-mile river that rises from the Okefenokee Swamp in southern Georgia and eventually drains into the Gulf of Mexico near the town of Suwannee.

Some might consider me an expert in regard to Florida's quintessential river. But I've always viewed the Suwannee sitting down, and to really get the most from this river, you need to stand up.

SUP-ping it

Stand-up paddleboards, or SUPs for short, are nothing new. They've been around Florida for several years now, but mostly on the coast, not on freshwater rivers filled with alligators and water moccasins.

But if you had to pick a river to tour by paddleboard, the Suwannee would be it. A gentle current, 2 mph on a recent excursion, will keep you moving at a leisurely pace.

Every mile or so, you pass a feeder stream, some of which are worth exploring. There's no shortage of sandy beaches inviting you to pull over and rest. There are also plenty of cool, clear springs where you can take a swim.

But the thing that makes the Suwannee ideal for "SUP-ping," as the die-hard paddlers say, are the river camps.

Owned and operated by the state, these waterfront areas, complete with restrooms, fresh water and screened-in sleeping platforms, make it possible for travelers to carry minimal equipment as they mosey on down this lazy river.

The camps and state parks are spaced roughly a day's paddle apart, so river runners can have some of the creature comforts of home and still experience a true wilderness adventure.

Roughing it

About six hours after we started one muggy July morning, our paddling group of six pulled into the Woods Ferry river camp, roughly 10 miles south of White Springs. The camp is nestled in a hardwood hammock, up on a bluff, and it would be easy to miss were it not for a sign.

Under normal circumstances, a paddler would not be able to access a camp so high above the water. But the state has built a large dock and boardwalk that allows river users to get off the fast-moving water and climb the steep bank, gear and all.

Darry Jackson and Dr. George Stovall have been paddling the Suwannee in other watercraft since the early 1970s when the river had no amenities. Back then, you carried what you needed and camped wherever you found a piece of dry land.

"This is great," Jackson said as he threw his gear inside one of the wooden sleeping platforms. "What luxury."

Jackson, whose family owns Bill Jackson's Shop for Adventure in Pinellas Park, usually sleeps on the ground during overnight adventures. Not with these digs.

Stovall echoed his longtime paddling partner's sentiments. "A ceiling fan … " he said. "Can you believe this place?"

Fit for kings

But our luxurious accommodations seemed almost wasted on Jon LaBudde. The paddler and owner of St. Petersburg's Reno Beach Surf Shop had heard some pretty awful stories about our previous expeditions.

"Plan for the worst and hope for the best," I told him before we headed for the river. "When you are with me, things often don't run according to plan."

But after seeing our lodging for the night, LaBudde suspected that Jackson, Stovall and I had told some tall tales about the hardships of life on the trail.

"This doesn't seem so bad," he said.

Brody Welte, who runs Kahuna Kai Paddle and Beach Shop on Madeira Beach, had paddled with us before. But when he heard where we would be staying — at a river camp — he loaded his YOLO (You Only Live Once) paddleboard with food and cooking gear.

"We will eat like kings," Welte proclaimed. "Tonight's menu includes bacon-wrapped fillets, roasted red potatoes, corn on the cob and couscous (with) garlic or parmesan cheese."

Then, as if things couldn't get any better, photographer/videographer Brent Puckett broke out his iPod, complete with portable speakers, and turned on Willie Nelson's Stardust.

As the sun set below the horizon and the temperature dropped to a very un-July-like 71 degrees, we kicked back around the campfire and wondered aloud when we would get the time to do all this again.

If you go

Preparation tips

Plan: Do your homework. Know where you will start, where you will end and what to expect in between.

Prepare: Be ready for sun, rain and cold. Pack plenty of snacks and drinks. Remember the sunscreen and mosquito repellent. And if your child has a favorite blanket or stuffed animal, bring it along.

Flexibility: Just because you have a plan doesn't mean you have to stick to it. Reserve the right to make changes based on weather, attitude, etc.

River camps

River camps are available at Woods Ferry, Holton Creek, Dowling Park, Peacock Slough and Adams Tract. Call toll-free 1-800-868-9914 for reservations. Each of these river camps has five screened sleeping platforms, which comfortably accommodate six to eight people.

The 170-mile Suwannee River Wilderness Trail starts in White Springs and flows to the Gulf of Mexico. The trail has an office at 10499 Spring Street, White Springs. Call (386) 397-1919 or go to floridastateparks.org/wilderness.

National Geographic published an excellent map of the Suwannee several years ago. To view an interactive version, go to nationalgeographic.com/suwannee.

You can rent canoes at American Canoe Adventures, White Springs, aca1.com, (386) 397-1309 or the Suwannee Canoe Outpost, Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park, Live Oak, canoeoutpost.com, (386) 364-4991.

State parks

There are several state parks along the river, several of which offer camping and cabins. Go to www.dep.state.fl.us/parks to learn more about Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park, Suwannee River State Park, Lafayette Blue Spring State Park, Peacock Springs State Park, Troy Springs State Park, Fanning Springs State Park and Manatee Springs State Park.

Frequently asked questions

Should I be concerned about alligators?

If you spend any time in the Florida outdoors, sooner or later you will cross paths with an alligator. If you paddle the Suwannee during times of high water, it's doubtful you will see many gators. But in times of extreme low water, keep an eye out. During the 2001 WaterTribe Challenge, a 12-foot bull gator came close to tipping over my kayak in the middle of the night. Lesson learned: Treat all large reptiles with healthy respect.

Should I be concerned about snakes?

Chances are you won't see any snakes. But if you do, give it a wide berth. It might be a cottonmouth. During a trip down the river in 1996, we stopped to rest on some flat rocks sticking into the river. My brother-in-law napped in the sun until I pointed out a water moccasin coiled in the rocks about 3 feet from his head. Lesson learned: Florida is snake country.

Is it safe to swim in the dark water?

The Suwannee's tea-colored water isn't dirty, it is just stained by the tannin leaching from trees upriver. But the current can be swift, and alligators may be lurking, so don't tempt them with small children. It is safer to swim in one of the Suwannee's many springs than the river itself.

When is the best time to go?

The Suwannee is a beautiful river any time of the year. If you paddle during the summer, be mindful of afternoon thunderstorms. In the winter, temperatures can drop below freezing. My favorite times to canoe and camp are spring and fall.

What if I have an emergency?

Cell phones don't always work in the wilderness. Whenever venturing into the woods, be prepared to perform a "self rescue." That means pack a first-aid kit, spare food, clothing and water, as well as some signaling device, such as a whistle or mirror.

Terry Tomalin,

Times Outdoors Editor

Traveling the Suwannee River by stand-up paddleboard 07/16/10 [Last modified: Saturday, July 17, 2010 12:06am]

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