A Peach of a Paddle
The celebrated Suwannee River originates deep in the bowels of the Okefenokee Swamp and flows southeast, draining small portions of Ware, Clinch, and Echols counties before escaping into Florida. Once safely across the border, the Suwannee heads southwest and eventually empties into the Gulf of Mexico.
There are few streams in American folklore and culture better known that the Suwannee, thanks to legendary American songwriter Stephen Foster. The mere mention of its name stirs fanciful visions of stately moss-draped cypress, sultry southern days, and a way of life long past. If the lifestyle has disappeared into history and imagination, the Suwannee remains, substantially unchanged, and available for any paddler to experience. No more beautiful than several dozen other southern Georgia rivers, the Suwannee is nevertheless a living legend.
Only a small portion of the Suwannee flows within the state of its birth, a fact made much of by Florida tourism promoters. This section, however, isunique among all the river's stretches by virtue of the almost mystical aura conferred by the Okefenokee Swamp.
Deep in the middle of the swamp the Suwannee is born at the confluence of the East and Middle Forks of the Suwannee, by the northern end of Billy'sLake. Access is available at the nearby Stephen Foster (who else?) State Park. You will quickly find, however, that paddling within Okefenokee isheavily regulated. If you proceed downstream and out of the swamp, you will have to cross the sill, a man-made levee constructed to stabilize the depth of water in the swamp. The portage is short and easy, but a permit is required.
If this sounds like the heavy hand of bureaucracy, remember that this regulation and several dozen more (like carrying all human waste out of the swamp) have preserved the pristine integrity of one of America's irreplaceable natural wonders.
Once across the sill, the Suwannee settles into shallow, white, sandy clay banks and flows southward through a watery flood plain forested with pondcypress, swamp black gum, sweet bay, swamp cyrilla, slash pine, magnolia, and palmetto. Since animals and birds do not need permits to cross the sill,the incredibly diverse fauna found in the Okefenokee can also be found along the rest of the upper Suwannee.
The water is dark red, stained by tannic acid from decaying vegetation, and the current is slow. Below the sill to the GA 94 bridge crossing at Fargo, the river flows through several large midstream stands of cypress and gum, which at higher water require some heads-up navigation and present a nice opportunity to get lost in the surrounding inundated lowlands. While the flow of the main current is usually easy to follow, there are times when map, compass, and a little swamp luck are helpful. Access between the state park and Fargo is almost nonexistent, except at a private fishing camp off GA 177. You should obtain permission before putting in there.
Below Fargo the Suwannee remains isolated in pristine, exotic wilderness, flowing languidly along a shady, twisting course of moss-draped cypress. Thefirst access point below Fargo is FL 6 just over the Sunshine State line. If you continue, you will notice that the banks are higher and more well defined where numerous feeder streams begin entering the Suwannee. Farther downstream, Florida's largest rapid, Big Shoals, and the Stephen Foster (who else?) Memorial await you.
The Suwannee's level of difficulty is Class I throughout its Georgia course. The current is slow to moderate. Dangers to navigation are confined to dead falls and, unfortunately, to a group of"good old boys" who get drunk at a park site near the GA 94 bridge crossing. Since campsites are rare above Fargo, paddlers should cross the sill with sufficient daylight remaining to make Fargo before dark. Canoe rentals and shuttle service are available in the area.
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Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication