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Archive for May, 2019

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Kit Carson slides through State Line Rapid on the Withlacoochee.

If you are under the impression that this year’s Paddle Georgia 2019 on the blackwater Withlacoochee and Suwannee rivers in South Georgia and North Florida will be a lazy float down a meandering river, you’d be badly mistaken.

This week, I was joined by intrepid Paddle Georgia veterans Kit Carson and Cary Baxter and my Rome buddy, Joel Megginson, on a marathon scouting adventure of the Withlacoochee’s shoals (we covered 65 miles in two days). You see, when we originally ran this river last August, it was flowing at 1000 cubic feet per second (cfs) and the river’s shoals were washed out–most barely detectable in the high water.

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State Line Rapid. The obstacle is a series of shoals and ledges that extends along about 600 feet of river along the Florida-Georgia state line.

This time the river flowed at 450 cfs and the excitement that was previously buried was revealed. Yes, the Withlacoochee–despite its home in the Coastal Plain flat lands–is home to regular shoals. It’s all about the rock. The Withlacoochee and Suwannee rivers flow through a land chock full of karst limestone. Outcroppings are numerous, as are soaring bluffs where the gnarled roots of sweet gum and oak twine through the holey limestone and inexplicably anchor their 50-foot-tall frames along the river banks. 

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The crystal clear water of Madison Blue Springs meets the blackwater of the Withlacoochee.

This same geology that creates challenging shoals at places like State Line Rapid also gives rise to one of the highlights of this year’s journey–a paradise of blue hole springs too clear and cold for the river’s gators to occupy. Hardee, Coffee, Madison Blue, Suwannacoochee, Lafayette line the river and wait to welcome hot and weary paddlers. A dip in these crystal clear holes is a religious experience, every bit as cleansing as an old-style baptism.

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Cary Baxter enters State Line Rapid cloaked in an early morning fog.

But, I digress. It’s the Withlacoochee Whitewater you’re hear to learn about! Don’t become too alarmed. The shoals are largely of the Class I variety–simple ledges or shoal fields that create swift moving water and an occasional good wave. But, at two locations–State Line Rapid–appropriately named for its location on the Florida-Georgia line–and the Withlacoochee’s last gasp about 3 miles above its confluence with the Suwannee there’s enough fall and flow to challenge your paddling skills and get the heart beating. So, brush up on your paddling strokes and get prepared. Meanwhile, our crack team of volunteer safety boaters will be preparing to direct you to the safest route and together, we’ll get through round side down and dry.

In short, there’s just enough shoals to keep the paddle route diverse and entertaining.

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A typical Withlacoochee scene–limestone and oaks, cypress and tupelo festooned in Spanish moss. The only thing that is missing is you!

And, entertaining it is. The river corridor alternates between typical willow and sandbar-flanked river scenery (veterans of the Ogeechee River will find it familiar) to the high, bleached limestone bluffs that Flint River paddlers of southwest Georgia will recognize. And, then there’s the springs. We’ll mark them on your maps. You’ll not want to miss them. 

The river, of course, is teaming with wildlife. Highlights of our marathon include the sighting of two six-foot gators that crawled slowly from a sandbar on our approach and dipped beneath the black surface; an osprey with a hard-won fish in its talons pursued upriver by a young bald eagle bent on stealing the prey from the smaller predator; gatherings of swallow-tailed kites that swooped and soared on their forked tails and slender wings; mullet exploding from the river’s surface; ibis, anhingas, muskrats and more.

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Cary Baxter and Oconee, the scout dog and River User’s Guide cover girl, ready for another day on the Withlacoochee.

We’ve warned to expect the unexpected on this journey, though that’s true of any river journey. We can’t control water levels or weather. If it ceases to rain for a month, we will curse the Withlacoochee whitewater as we drag our boats across the dry shoals.

In the meantime, pray for regular rain and prepare yourself for what I expect will be one of the best river venues in Paddle Georgia’s 15 year history!

Consider this: with the completion of this year’s journey we will have traveled some 1500 miles of Georgia rivers together and along the way created positive change for every river system we’ve visited. The Georgia River Network staff and I look forward to sharing another grand adventure with you June 15-21.

–Joe Cook

 

 

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