BY SUSAN COCKING
MIAMI — The Suwannee River Wilderness Trail might be a bit of a misnomer.
This 170-mile paddling route that winds from White Springs to the Gulf of Mexico satisfies the urban escapee’s need for solitude; you can go days without seeing another living soul. But those who would like to exit the wil-derness for a few creature comforts also can have it their way.
You can climb out of kayak or canoe, fold up the tent and attend a music festival; visit a turn-of-the-century-style craft shop; and sleep in a comfortable cabin with modern plumbing only steps from the river.
Maybe the route ought to be renamed the Suwannee River Multipurpose Trail which — however bureaucratic-sounding — is quite accurate: from here, you can hike 100 miles of the Florida Trail or explore your surroundings by bicycle or on horseback. You can swim in a mirror-clear spring, fish for Suwannee bass and — closer to the Gulf — catch spotted sea trout and redfish. In the summer, you might have to dodge huge, leaping sturgeon.
The Suwannee, which flows for about 235 miles from its headwaters in South Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp to empty into the Gulf of Mexico, always has drawn adventurous paddlers. But the creation of the Wilderness Trail in the past few years has made the Florida section more accessible.
A public-private partnership of state and county agencies and cities and towns in the Suwannee Basin desig-nated a network of canoe/kayak launches, small lodgings, river camps, parks and town centers as hubs for visit-ing paddlers.
But the main reasons to visit this region are the wildlife viewing opportunities over the spectacular, changing scenery.
According to Wilderness Trail ranger Emery Maxwell of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, there are three sections of the Suwannee. The northern from the state line to the town of Live Oak is mostly nar-row, with steep banks, rocky bluffs and a shady tree canopy. The water is tea-stained from the tannin runoff of the surrounding forest. One of Florida’s few whitewater rapids — Big Shoals — is in this section.
Between Live Oak and Branford, the river’s midsection is dotted with clear springs, such as Peacock and Lafayette Blue. Below Branford, paddlers in the lower section start to feel the influence of the Gulf as the river banks become lower and marshier and the water changes from fresh to brackish.
I recently joined a group of kayakers for a five-mile trip along the river’s upper section between Swift Creek and Woods Ferry boat launch — about halfway between White Springs and Live Oak. River levels were very low — 49 feet above mean sea level, which is about five feet lower than optimum for paddling. I had to scout my route carefully to avoid running aground on numerous sandbars and rocky shoals.
Still, the river was beautiful — clear, obsidian-black and lined with miniature Mount Rushmore-like limestone boulders sculpted by water and chemical erosion and shaded by maple, pine, cypress, oak and Ogeechee tupelo.
The Suwannee is among a few rivers in Florida where you might actually spot beavers building lodges out of twigs or slapping the water with their tails in warning, but there were none about on this sunny, warm after-noon. However, our group passed numerous yellow-bellied slider turtles and Suwannee cooters sunning them-selves on fallen logs. I also spied a fox squirrel disappearing into it s hideout in a hollow oak.
Further downriver, we came upon a woman squealing and pointing at something on the bank. Several of us paddled closer to see what the excitement was about. I had to look closely to discern the shape of a small grayish-brown snake with faint bands coiled around a deadfall. Wilderness Trail manager Bobby Toothaker calmly iden-tified it as a banded water snake. We kept going.
Near our planned takeout at Woods Ferry, we came to one of five river camps built at 10-mile intervals along the Wilderness Trail. Another six are planned in the near future. This one — like the others — features screened, covered platforms with ceiling fans and electricity; restrooms with hot showers; and a site for tent camping. Right now, they are free to use, but you have to make reservations.
About a half-hour after departing the river camp, we arrived at Woods Ferry for our van trip back to White Springs. Fittingly, we spotted a couple of wild turkey as we bumped along the dirt road from the landing.
If our group had continued about another 10 miles downstream, we would have come to Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park, where visitors can watch live performances by the likes of the Allman Brothers and Mel Tillis. The park offers primitive campsites for passing paddlers, along with cabins and even a tree house. You can buy jars of tupelo honey and hand-hewn Adirondack chairs (shipped).
Toothaker assured me that the whole paddling trail is like this: rife with natural wonders and cultural diver-sions that you can sample or not.
A second and even third exploration definitely are in order.
(c) 2010, The Miami Herald.
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