7:30 am, Griffis Fish Camp, Fargo, Georgia. Paddlers in 18 watercraft—canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards—eager to start the Suwannee230. The Suwannee230 is a 230 miles race, from Griffis Fish Camp, just downstream of the Okefenokee Swamp, to Suwannee, Florida, where the Suwannee River meets the Gulf of Mexico.
The exposed sandy banks—flooded during last year’s race—hinted at the obstacles that we would paddle over, under, and around. In last year’s race, higher water obscured the river’s path, and several paddlers detoured into the maze of trees. This year, the lower water made the course clear but exposed obstacles we paddled over last year.
In the morning’s low light, we navigated the twists and turns of the Upper Suwannee, its character vastly different from the broad Lower Suwannee. I missed the boost I had enjoyed in earlier paddles. But no rain—even from Hurricane Ian—meant slow flows and a sporty collection of obstacles, shoals, rocks, and trees.
Soon, the entire group portaged portaged over a log that blocked the entire river, entertaining the campers drinking their morning coffee. On that first day, I paddled around blockages, slithered under trees, and tried to avoid catching my 3″ gummy fin on submerged branches.
Day 1 goal: to reach Big Shoals rapid, a mandatory portage, before dark. Yet, despite my obsessing over this portage the previous night, it was surprisingly easy in the dark. The sign, somewhat obscure in the daylight, reflected brightly under my headlamp’s glare. I hauled my board and gear, stuffed in a backpack, up the bank, along the short trail, and back down the rooty slope to the area beyond the rapid. I had packed minimally to reduce my time on the portage and was on my way by about midnight.
By this time, any ambient light had faded, and darkness shrouded the river. Columns of fog swirled around me, like dust devils, as if the river wasn’t already creepy enough. I paddled gingerly, knowing Little Shoals was less than a mile ahead. And, although I prefer letting my eyes adjust to the darkness, I turned on my headlamp and shined my bright dive flashlight around, even though I would hear the shoals before I saw them. Red eyes and yellow eyes all around—nothing creepy there. For the rest of the trip, the song “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” ran through my head.
I thought I was prepared, headlamps, a dive flashlight, and my gummy, flexible fin. All of my rough water training stresses preparation, to avoid the “and there I was” situations. And yet there I was—running shoals in the dark on my 14′ SIC RS paddleboard which turned out to be remarkably sturdy. I lined my board over the first set as a tandem canoe with far superior lights flew by. Back on the board, I alternated paddling and shining my light as I navigated the remaining shoals.
Just before White Springs, a final shoal sheared off my fin, and I called it a night. I shone my light to find a campsite—the reason I carry that light, and found a sandbar to call home. I woke at 4:30 am to a pair of canoes—again, with better lights—navigating that shoal and went back to sleep for another hour.
Day 2. At the springhouse I retrieved the food and water I stashed. I had little sleep that night, and ambitious plans of a big mileage day faded throughout the day. I craved sleep, and I fantasized about sleep throughout the day. Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park, Suwannee River State Park, and finally the jarring lights of Advent Christian Village before I reached Dowling Park River Camp. And then I slept.
The next morning, Janice, director of Paddle Florida or perhaps an angel, brought me coffee and lasagna. To reduce gear, I didn’t bring a stove so hot coffee was heavenly.
Day 3—I needed big miles, at least 70. A cold front was coming, and I was about over the Suwannee—this year’s race was more demanding. But fortified by a good night’s sleep, coffee, and lasagna, I was ready to tackle the miles. Past Branford and Gornto Springs park, then darkness. As in the previous nights, I let my eyes adjust to the swath of light that revealed the river’s curves. And I read the water in this light for disturbances, branches for example, that could snag my fin. More than anything, I didn’t want to fall at night.
I briefly “rested” at the Hart Springs boat ramp, where camping is prohibited. My Spidey-sense woke me at 4:18, 12 minutes before my alarm. And 12 minutes before the police cruised by, where I stood, holding my paddle and not camping.
Day 4—a mere 35 miles to Bills Fish Camp. I launched into the darkness. My watch read only 2.1 mph. Stupid GPS watch. I stopped and restarted my course. Still slow. D’oh! I turned around and magically my speed doubled. All the other boat ramps had been on the left. Not that one.
At Fanning Springs, I stepped off the board and experienced a few seconds of “sea-legs.” Balancing in the dark—without visual markers—is harder than I thought! Several hours later, I surfed a downwind course as the cold front rolled in. So much fun, but I knew I would pay. I was so close to the finish when headwinds flipped my fun into a slog. Head down, I tucked into the vegetation and pushed through the final four miles.
Done! Despite the low water and obstacles, I beat my previous time by over two hours. My training with Coach Larry Cain and Paddle Monster paid off! Still plenty of room for improvement, but the training and a reduced gear load really helped. Next up: Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail (CT) and the Everglades Challenges. See you on the beach.