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Archive for August, 2018

Ordinarily at the end of each year’s Paddle Georgia, we announce the following year’s destination. We didn’t do that this year. Instead, we thought we’d let you decide.

The winner of our survey was the Withlacoochee and Suwannee rivers. Running a close second was the Upper Flint River. The Savannah, Oconee and St. Marys were distant 3rd, 4th and 5th runners up while the Satilla got the least votes.

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Kit Carson, Terry Pate and Chris Thompson drift down the Withlacoochee River near Valdosta. 

Thus, in our never-ending pursuit of river adventure (and solving the logistical challenges of finding campsites and transportation for 300-plus people for a week), we did what we always do. We hit the river.

In this case, we hit the Withlacoochee and Suwannee. Specifically, Paddle Georgia veterans and Georgia River Network board members Kit Carson and Terry Pate along with 1400-mile Paddle Georgia participant Chris Thompson and I surveyed about 90 miles of the rivers over four days.

First a note on river conditions: it being a wet summer, we were riding on about twice the average flows for the month of June. The river was full and moving and the river’s shoals (yes, there are shoals on the Withlacoochee) were mostly washed out.

Second, a note on next year’s destination: the river is still undetermined. Campsites, transportation and other logistics must be explored further, but the Withlacoochee and Suwannee made a strong case for themselves.

What they (our river adventurers) said: “A cross between the Ogeechee and the lower Flint.” “Class A Rating.” “Beautiful. The springs were worth the paddling.”

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Yes, the Withlacoochee has shoals. There’s lots of limestone and in several places the outcroppings create small shoals and rapids. 

Highlights of the four-day journey: surprising Withlacoochee shoals; wildlife including swallow-tailed kites, massive sturgeon leaping from the river and, yes, alligators (actually, only 2); and springs, springs and more springs.

The Withlacoochee does have small shoals, and in low water these can be impediments to progress, but at the right water levels they add an unexpected dimension to this blackwater river.

Did you see any alligators?  Yes, we saw one unfortunate critter who had his snout stuck in a fish basket. We ran into the owners of the trap shortly afterwards who reported that the 8-foot beast had been rescued and released…tired, but still living. We saw another on the last day of our journey. So, they are out there, but rarely seen. Oconee the Dog and her human companions swam and were not eaten. Fear not, ye fearers of gators, it is highly unlikely that you will be eaten by an alligator if you paddle the Withlacoochee.

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The Withlacoochee and Suwannee’s limestone bluffs are reminiscent of those found on the Flint River. It’s all the same limestone geology underpinning both watersheds of southwest Georgia and northwest Florida, giving rise to the numerous blue hole springs. 

The real aquatic star of the Withlacoochee and Suwannee, however, are gulf sturgeon. These prehistoric fish that can reach lengths of up to 8 feet and weights of more than 200 pounds can often be seen leaping from the water. We were lucky enough to view one full jump and see the splashes of many others. It is a sight to behold. It’s like seeing Russian weightlifters perform synchronized swimming–bulky, ugly muscular primeval creatures doing something wholly unexpected.

But, the real reason to paddle the Withlacoochee and Suwannee are the springs. Those who have paddled the lower Flint (Paddle Georgia 2013 and Fall Float on the Flint) know of what I speak. Like the Flint, the Withlacoochee flows through karst limestone and is fed primarily by springheads issuing forth 70-degree, crystal clear water. Madison Blue Springs, Morgan Springs, Lafayette Blue Springs and countless others line the rivers.

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Terry Pate explores Madison Blue Springs on the Withlacoochee River, a beautiful deep swimming hole of 70-degree crystal clear water. 

We snorkeled at Madison Blue Springs State Park to see schools of mullet and scores of turtles the size of large hubcaps. We paddled up the run at Morgan Springs to find a hole so deep blue in color that it looked more like a swimming pool that a natural body of water. The extensive decking and landscaping on the private property surrounding the pool added to the “civilized” feel. And, we explored unnamed and unmapped springs that were equally beautiful, regulating our body temperature in the summer heat with timely dips.

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One of many unnamed springs bubbling forth along the banks of the Withlacoochee. 

These grade A swimming holes put the Withlacoochee and Suwannee right up there among my favorite scouting trips. We’re now working to line up campsites and transportation. Hint: one possible campsite could provide you the opportunity to upgrade to a bunk and hostel-style accommodations for a nominal nightly fee (air-conditioned, real mattresses and showers and restrooms) or stay in a private hotel room for more…all at our main camp…which overlooks the Suwannee.

I, for one, am excited. For our 15th anniversary we could be doing something completely different–a journey down blackwater rivers, pocked with shoals and punctuated by unbelievably beautiful blue hole springs.  And, for the first time in Paddle Georgia history, we’d be venturing into a neighboring state!

But, lets not jump the gun. The Upper Flint has its charms as well, especially when it has enough water in it to float canoes and kayaks. We’d love to hear what you think. Leave a comment or post a comment on our facebook page!

Joe Cook

August 2018

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Kit Carson slices through the blackwater of the Suwannee. With its headwaters in the Okefenokee Swamp, the Suwannee is a true blackwater river. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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