Friday, August 4, 2023

Bar-Hopping the Suwannee River (sand bars, that is ;o) -- this Monday, Aug 7

This paddle usually has us on the water for about 3.5 - 4 hours, including a lunch stop. 

Time: 9:00 AM. at the Suwannee (about 1.5 hours NW of Gainesville)

Cost is $50 for "wanna go" members ($65 for non-members). With your own boat it's $40 for members ($50 for non-members). * NOTE - There is also an additional $5 park entry fee to Suwannee River State Park.  
Upper Suwannee offers vistas unlike any other river in North Florida


The sand bars that line much of this stretch are not only attractive; they make excellent pit-stops for a quick jump in the river and for our lunch break. The biggest are "point bars," formed on sharp bends in the river where sand is deposited by the water as it slows going around the inside of the bend. Growing conditions for plants are harsh on point bars. When plants do take hold, a predictable succession forms, starting with tough, low herbs and grasses, followed by shrubs and finally trees. Black willows commonly top the bar.

Behind the sand bars, there’s limestone. Few places in North Florida showcase limestone more beautifully than the section we’ll paddle on this trip. Whether it’s individual stone outcroppings along the lower river, or massive, 40-foot stone walls, there are few places along this stretch without limestone.

Bluffs of 40 million yr old limestone flank the river

This cream to grey colored sedimentary rock was formed during times when the world’s water levels were much higher than today and Florida lay at the bottom of a shallow sea.

Shells and cartilage of sea creatures settled on the sea floor and accumulated in layers ranging from several feet to nearly half a mile thick. Most of what we’ll see on this trip is Suwannee limestone, formed on the floor of a sea that stood here nearly 35 million years ago.

Among the more interesting fossils found here are those of ancient dugongs, ancestors of today’s manatees. In 1982, college students from UF found the skull and partial skeleton of an extinct manatee on the riverbank near White Springs. These creatures lived in the shallow sea that covered this area 20 million years ago, during the Miocene era. Paleontologists soon uncovered three more specimens. Of the four, one belonged to a previously unknown genus, one was the first skull of its genus, and one was the best-preserved specimen of its species ever found. Two of the animals were from a subfamily of sea cows previously unknown in the New World. Interestingly, all appear to have co-existed. Imagine the manatee tours!


The plant communities we pass on this tour reflect the higher, drier terrain flanking this section of the Suwannee. The combination of high, sandy banks and dark, tannin-stained water, makes aquatic vegetation relatively scarce. This, in turn, means fewer fish species and a less complex web of life than we see along spring runs, for instance.

On shore, there's no shortage of greenery. Lanky, coastal plain willows, river birch, and Ogechee tupelos along with a number of sedge and grass species cling to the higher, firmer sand banks. Atop the bluffs, an unbroken forest of oaks and pines rule. Away from the river, the local terrain is relatively dry, so animals such as deer, bobcats, hogs, turkey and an occasional bear come to the water’s edge for a drink, though sightings are relatively scarce. Also residing in this stretch of the river is a fair number of beavers. You don't have to look hard to see their sign, including long slides which they use to skid limbs, branches and other woody snacks down to the river. Keep an eye out for otters, as well.

Birds are scarcer here than other sections. But we do see above-average numbers of Mississippi and swallow-tailed kites in the spring and summer months. Eagles, osprey and vultures are commonly seen soaring.


Local lore long held that the name, "Suwannee" came from the Creek Indian word "Suwani," meaning echo. When I first learned this, I was still a young wanderling who had not yet seen the echoic canyons of the upper Suwannee, so didn't buy the story. Today, being more familiar with this river, I have to admit that any homesick Alpen-folk who want to yodel, will find the acoustics of some of Suwannee's deeper gorges (not seen on this trip) well-suited to their art. But, I'm still not convinced that this is the names origin. . . . origin. . . origin . . .

A more likely source of the name was the Spanish mission, San Juan de Guacara, which was located alongside the Suwannee, west of today's Live Oak. For most of the 1600's, a network of Christian missions dominated life in north Florida. Today', many north Florida place-names trace their roots to that important era. San Felasco Hammock (from Mission San Francisco), San Pedro Bay and a number of rivers--St. Johns, Santa Fe and St Mary's, to name a few--preserve the names of Spanish missions that sat along their banks. San Juan de Guacara was located near Charles Spring, where it served as a rest stop and ferry landing for the travelers on the Mission Trail, the main artery of transportation across North Florida at the time, which crossed the Suwannee here.

 Following the demise of the mission system in the early 1700's, the river was called San Juanee, or "little San Juan" to distinguish it from the other, larger San Juan River to the east, today's St. Johns River. From there, it's not hard to imagine the name slowly evolving to 'Suwannee.'

The confluence of the Withlacoochee River and the Suwannee, a beautiful area now protected by Suwannee River S.P., (and the place where our trip will end) was once the site of the thriving, 19th century riverboat community of Columbus. At normal water levels, this confluence was considered the head of navigation for the river's steamboats. Today, all that remains of the town is its cemetery, which you can visit along one of Suwannee River S.P.'s. excellent hiking trails (some of my favorite trails in the State). Earthworks built by confederate soldiers to protect the bridge across the river during the Civil War can also be seen. We'll take a short stroll to look at these remains before our paddle.

swallow-tailed kites are common in summer


This is an easy paddle, going downstream all the way. But even though we go with the current, it's fairly slow, so you'll have to paddle a bit. Those who've paddled with me before, know I prefer moving slowly and taking in the sights and sounds. You're welcome to go at your own pace - speed's not an issue.


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