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.
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.
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.