The first thing I noticed about the Suwannee River was that it was low, low and slow. The current at the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park (River Mile 148.5) was almost imperceptible. Thirty-foot limestone walls-white and pock-marked-bore silent witness to the drought conditions of mid-October. This promised to be the slowest Paddle Florida trip in its four-year existence. With the west wind blowing fallen leaves on the water, it looked as though the river was flowing backwards! Still, any trip on the famous Suwannee River is special, even one with almost slack water.
Paddle Florida, as featured in an article on this website about paddling the Ochlockonee River, offers large group trips for paddlers in which food, entertainment, educational programs and transportation are provided. For this initial gathering at the music park, we heard from Charlie Houder, Assistant Executive Director with the Suwannee River Water Management District. "Right now, at this water level, you are essentially paddling through the Floridan Aquifer," he said. "Only groundwater is feeding the river right now. It is essentially a giant springrun."
Charlie gave us an overview of the Suwannee's water characteristics and current challenges. "We were shocked to learn only a couple of years ago that we're having a water shortage in this area. Everyone once thought the Floridan Aquifer was endless." From various speakers over the course of the seven-day Paddle Florida event to Manatee Springs, the 35 participants learned about springs that had dried up along the upper Suwannee, low water flow and nitrate pollution in other springs, and ways to develop a water ethic to reverse the trend. We would see the problems first hand one paddle stroke at a time, while still enjoying the refreshing springs, viewing wildlife and leaping sturgeon, and trying out the occasional rope swing. At times, silver-haired adults were giggling like children. It was fun to see.
The initial challenge of the trip was the first full paddling day. I was the sweep boat, meaning that I stayed in the rear to help slow and struggling paddlers. We had several beginner paddlers, mostly women who had finished raising families and were now exploring outdoor pursuits. Most had never paddled more than a couple of miles at a time, and now they were faced with a 21 mile day! I employed my best coaching skills and utilized lots of patience as we negotiated several shallow sandbars. I brought a headlamp and tow belt just in case, but we made it to our spacious camp at Suwannee River State Park before the dinner bell with no problems. We were treated that evening to a special concert by the Big Cypress Bluegrass Band. Besides educational talks, entertainment is a Paddle Florida specialty.
The next day was 25 miles, with some swift shoals just below Ellaville, but paddlers had an optional shuttle at the lunch break. A couple of beginners actually turned down the shuttle. "My husband said I would never make it," said one paddler. "That just makes me more determined to paddle every mile."
Another woman, a more experienced kayaker, added, "My husband supports me coming on these trips because I come home happy. Happy wife, happy life!"
I'm happy to say that all of my "charges" at the rear of the pack made it through the trip with only minimal whining. By the last day, they felt they could climb Mt. Everest! It was empowering for them and rewarding for me. I received lots of hugs at the end and all of the former beginner paddlers vowed to return for more Paddle Florida adventures.
By the way, Paddle Florida is gearing up for another six-day adventure on the Ochlockonee River March 3-9, 2012, http://www.paddleflorida.org/och/ochlockonee.html. Come join us in exploring this scenic, wild river in our own backyard.