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Take a Break on the Lower Suwannee River

By Johnny Molloy • Dec 17, 2017 at 7:00 AM

The lower part of Florida’s Suwanee River is within easy striking distance of the Tri-Cities area and a good place for a winter canoe camping trip. It is one of my favorite rivers in Florida upon which to canoe camp. The Suwannee offers ample public lands to pitch your tent as well as a scenic waterway interspersed with sandbars, crystal-clear springs and limestone bluffs, all of which conspire to make an excellent destination.

My wife Keri Anne and I recently took a float trip down the Suwannee. Our friends, native Minnesotans and Florida winter residents John and Barb Haapala helped us with the shuttle so we could run the Suwannee.

This particular adventure ran from the town of Branford Springs to the town of Fanning Springs, a 42-mile trip. The temperatures in north-central Florida around Christmas time can vary from warm and mild to downright cold. Though the skies were cloudy most of time during our three night canoe camping adventure, the temperatures ranged from the low 70s to the low 50s, good enough for us, especially considering how much colder camping would have been in the mountains above Johnson City and Kingsport.

John and Barb dropped us off at a boat launch at Branford Springs, a popular cave-diving area. Intrepid divers explore the honeycombed underwater passages of these Florida springs, mapping them as they go. We preferred to stay above water and thus jumped into the canoe, letting the tannin-stained Suwannee push us downstream.

Below Branford Springs, Keri Anne and I passed along some Suwannee River Water Management District lands, where there are campsites aplenty, interspersed with enclaves of private houses. These riverside dwellings do not mar the scene as they are interesting to see. Keri Anne and I commented on the pluses and minuses of the houses while passing by.

Limestone banks become still more sporadic below Branford. On higher ground stands live oaks and pine. Low-slung humps of willow, river birch, and cypress line the river. Behind many of these humps are extensive swamps that fill when summer’s thunderstorms drift over the Suwannee River valley.

We came to the confluence with the Santa Fe River after 10 miles. There was a once Spanish mission here in the 1600s, near the confluence. We pulled over the canoe, unloading the gear in a waning sun. Despite being significantly farther south than the Tri-Cities, the late December days were still short. Keri Anne gathered wood while I pitched the tent, for even in December mosquitoes are still liable to around dusk and during the night. The two of us gathered around the fire, watching stars overhead before retiring to tent to read. Winter nights in the great outdoors can be long, even down Florida way.

The river widened to 200 feet below the confluence with the Santa Fe River, making a fairway for winds. Luckily for us, the winds were calm, though the dark skies threatened rain. Keri Anne spotted an alligator along the bank. They are seldom seen this time of year but we luckily happened upon a big one. And he didn’t shy away when we paddled closer for a picture.

A segment of the west bank below the confluence is Suwannee River Water Management District lands, leaving wild scenery. Turtle Springs, at 12 miles, is a keyhole-shaped pool that makes a short run to the Suwannee. More houses appeared along the river. The width of the river brings a corresponding increase in boat size. Manatees may be seen here. In addition, this is where you begin to see warning signs about jumping sturgeon. In the summer, sturgeon — as long as 6 feet — jump out of the water in response to passing motorboats, landing in the boats and injuring those in the boats.

The jumping sturgeon are a strange but true aspect of the Suwanee. People have died when these sturgeon jump from the water and land in moving boats. The sturgeon posed no hazard to us, since it was winter and we were paddling a canoe.

Rock Bluff Springs is on the left bank. Cypress trees with huge buttresses flank the spring run. It has a large pool near the site of an old ferry crossing. Privately owned, the spring pumps 27 million gallons daily. But as long as we stayed in the water we could paddle up the spring run and see the emergent waters and big trees.

The FL 340 bridge just below Rock Bluff Springs is reached at 19.5 miles. Gornto Springs, at 21 miles, is abutted by a little county park with a boat ramp, a few campsites, and a nice dock. We stopped at the dock, walked around and at lunch.

Below Log Landing, at 24 miles, SRWMD lands abut both sides of the river. We found an alluring riverside camp, making it easy to unload the boat and set up camp. Off and on drizzle forced us to put up the tarp. Our campfire illuminated the misty night.

A welcome sun rose the next day but strong south winds came with it. Keri Anne and I were paddling south, thus making the day more challenging. The warm day more than made up for the wind. We passed Hart Springs on the east side of the Suwannee. Hart Springs has a campground and camp store.

Our third day was cut short as we were running out of public lands upon which to camp, finding a slender level ribbon of public land below a bluff. The clear skies led to the coolest evening, but by East Tennessee standards it would be a mild December night.

We woke up the last day and paddled the short distance, reaching the town of Old Town before pulling out at Fanning Springs just after the US 98 bridge, the last span over the Suwannee before it flows into the Gulf of Mexico.

Interested in undertaking this adventure? Here are the directions: The takeout in Fanning Springs is at the Joe H. Anderson Sr. boat ramp, on the Dixie County side of the river, opposite Fanning Springs State Park. From the bridge over US 98, head west, toward Perry, then turn south on 989 Street, then turn left on 155 Avenue to reach the boat ramp. There is also a paddler launch on the opposite bank at Fanning Springs State Recreation Area. If you’re leaving a car overnight, consider leaving it at one of the local adjacent campgrounds for a small fee.

To reach the put-in at Branford from Fanning Springs, take US 98 north to Old Town. Turn right on FL 349 and follow it north to US 27. Turn right on US 27 and follow it to the bridge over the Suwannee River. On the east side of the bridge is Ivey Memorial Park and a boat ramp. The USGS Gauge is Suwannee River at White Springs, Florida. It should read between 51.6 and 65 feet for the best paddling.

For more information about paddling the Suwannee River or many other waterways in the Sunshine State, please check out my book Canoeing & Kayaking Florida, from Menasha Ridge Press.

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