Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Way down upon the Swanee River

April 8, 2013
Jasper, Florida
Florida Gateway RV Resort

With plans to be here for four nights, we knew we wanted to explore the nearby rivers by kayak on at least two of those days. The Suwannee River (also spelled Swanee) of Stephen Foster fame just had to be one of the rivers as it conjures up images of a laid-back life in the South—albeit one with plantations and servants—which, it turns out, is not even an accurate portrait of the small farms that once inhabited these Florida coastal plains—but the popularity of the song sure adds to the river’s lure—at least for me.

Day one of our kayaking adventures here became a quest for the best place to explore the Suwannee.  The park gave me brochures on some local guide services, but we have our own kayaks and were not interested in paying for a pickup service downriver. We decided to check out the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park in White Springs, about a 20 minute drive, which advertises canoe and kayak launches on its website. We also thought we might like to see the museum and historic craft displays there as well as get in a good paddle. Unfortunately after checking in with the park ranger and studying the river maps, we learned that we might be better off launching further downriver as the ranger said the shoals (end of the line) were only about a mile upriver; however, we later learned that they are 3-5 miles. Regardless, intent on getting our kayaks wet, we forewent seeing the museum and headed about 30 minutes away to the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park and Campground just north of Live Oak, Florida. 

The Suwannee Music Park was not a place we had ever heard of before, but we quickly learned it has quite a popularity among music fans in the south. One of their biggest music festivals of the year, Wanee, is being held here next weekend and it looks like it will be quite a 3-day event with performers such as the Allman Brothers, Leon Russell, Michael Franti, and Tower of Power.  Too bad we didn’t plan a trip to this area and reserve camping there just for this event. May be something to consider for next year although crowds of 30,000 are not usually something we enjoy.

Anyway, we enjoyed seeing the outdoor venue area, campground, and finally the canoe post/kayak launch. The charge for launching our own boat and parking was only $2.00 per person, a reasonable amount for what turned out to be an easy launch.

Aside from its connection to the famous Stephen Foster song, “Old Folks at Home” (the one that begins, “Way down upon the S’wanee River”), this federally designated wild river is a major waterway that flows 256 miles from the Okefenokee Swamp in George to the Gulf of Mexico. The Florida stretch of the river starting at White Springs all the way to the Gulf is now part of the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail, a system of hubs and river camps spaced out about a day’s paddle apart for overnight or multi-day paddles to the coast.

Our plan was only to get a taste of the river by paddling (or pedaling) about an hour and a half upriver, have lunch in our boats, and then float down. We had a beautiful day with temperatures in the low 80s and a gentle breeze. Our first observation about the river was its tea-like dark color, caused by the harmless decay of organic materials on the riverbed leeching out into the water.

Some of the scenes along the river were definitely reminiscent of a simpler time away from all the theme parks and crowded beaches of the more popular Florida known to most tourists.

In spite of the tannic water, we weren’t disappointed with some of the breathtaking scenes that appeared as we wound our way around upriver. A Live Oak tree dripping with Spanish Moss sure conjures up images of the Old South.

The river was incredibly peaceful as we saw only one other kayaker and a couple of kids fishing the whole time we were there. The beach area you see in the photo above is part of the Suwannee Music Park and Campground which was also quiet in preparation for a wild three-day music festival.

We didn't see any alligators on the river, although the guide at the post said people usually see one or two. There wasn't much wildlife to see other than lots of turtles. I heard and saw several Kingfishers but they moved too swiftly across the river for me to photograph them.

As an Oregonian, the sight of a red bird pretty much takes me breath away. I worked hard to capture a photo of this one thinking it was a Summer Tanager, only to discover via the internet that it is a male Cardinal. I thought they always had to have a crest like all the sports mascots but this is molting season, hence no crest. 

After a great afternoon on the Suwannee, we returned to the launch area only to find this beautiful Black Swallowtail just a few feet away from me. I often think these signs are my mother’s spirit reminding me of the beauty that is to be found everywhere when we are mindful of our surroundings and stay focused on the present. Thanks, Mom!

We had traveled about fifty minutes to find our launch spot on the Suwannee only to discover our return trip to the campground took about ten minutes. Funny.  So we came full circle and wasted no time getting in our suits to enjoy our private spa at this campground.  We had to admit the pulsing jets felt really good after our workout upriver against the current, but this luxury is not something we plan to get used to—hah! 

Stay tuned for day two kayaking the Ichetucknee with a shout out to Sherry for her recent recommendation not to miss this river.


  1. Love the Suwannee. We've paddled it several times and always found it relaxing. Great pictures. That swallowtail is spectacular. Can't wait to see your post on the Ichetucknee. Hope it doesn't disappoint and that there are not too many tubers there. Hope to see you soon up here on the "forgotten coast".

  2. We used to be members of the Music park campground. From our vantage point, you do not want to be there during the big concerts. Lets just say that there are a lot more than a few wild and crazy people at these events:(

  3. Love your header photo. What great pictures of your trip down river! Looked like a perfect day.

    That butterfly is beautiful!

    Looking forward to Day 2!

  4. The reflection of the clouds is so pretty in the river. What a pleasant day!

    I agree...the Swallowtail is spectacular!

  5. What a nice sentiment to associate with the butterfly ... I will have to remember that.


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