Our second paddle of the Suwannee Quest II was on Saturday, January 20, 2017 from Cone Bridge Rd boat ramp to Suwannee Wayside Park boat ramp on US 41 in White Springs. A distance of about 15.5 paddling miles.
This stretch of the Suwannee is rather problematic. In fact, on our Suwannee Quest I we had to postpone this section until almost the end due to the water levels. Since we have neither the equipment nor the experience for whitewater paddling we always portage around Big Shoals. Little Shoals is about 3/4 mile in length and there is no portage route around it, so you need enough water covering Little Shoals to get through them. The water level today was at 51.88 FASL (Feet Above Sea Level) at the White Springs gauge and all three ledges at Little Shoals were covered. On each of the three ledges we were able to find a route that enabled us to get through without running aground or scraping our boats all up, but I wouldn’t want to try it at 51.0 feet.
With the water so low there was a nice sandy beach at the bottom of the Cone Bridge Rd boat ramp, so we had a nice place to unload, prep and launch all the boats. After a long shuttle drive from Cone Bridge Rd down to US 41 and back we were on the water about 10:15.
I had warned the participants that I was rating this stretch of the river as “Difficult” because of the portage around Big Shoals. (Most of my paddles I rate either “Easy” or “Moderate”. Despite that fact, eighteen folks showed up and everyone worked together so well that in spite of the more strenuous nature of this paddle, everyone had a great time. (Or at least said they did 🙂 ) Many of these folks have been paddling with me for some time and one of the great things about the group is how well they all help each other.
On this cold winter day (it was 30 degrees when I arrived at the boat ramp although it warmed up into the 60s as the day progressed) no one wanted to get their feet wet at the start. That takes a lot of extra maneuvering and I have still to convince a few of them to push their boats out into the water before entering. It’s much easier to enter the boat and much easier on the boat as well if the boat is actually floating IN the water instead of still half on dry land.
The first 10 miles we made good time, stopping for a break on a sand bar near Brown’s Landing after about 5 miles. This stretch of the river looks a lot like the stretch from Roline to Cone Bridge with lovely, gnarled old Tupelo, Cypress and a few Water Oak trees and (at low water) tall sandy banks.
Another feature along this stretch are the many creeks and seepage streams that enter the Suwannee.
We explored both Little Creek and Deep Creek along the way. At Little Creek we were able to paddle upstream about 1000 feet before finding the way blocked by fallen trees. Deep Creek was too shallow to explore for more than a couple of minutes.
Around 2 pm we passed the much improved, but still problematic at low water, “launch” at Big Shoals State Park. The steps down to the water are much better than the old “ladder’ they used to have, but with the increasingly common low water levels on the Suwannee the “dock” would be extremely difficult to use since it is about 4 feet above the water surface. However, I understand the whitewater paddlers, who flock here just to run Big Shoals over and over, enjoy it.
And then we reached the portage trail around Big Shoals. It’s just a little below the State Park dock but on the opposite side of the river (river left). The old stop sign is gone as well as the newer warning sign. Nothing is left to mark the take-out except an old brown post, so watch for it carefully.
The take-out at the portage is pretty easy. There is a shallow sandy bank that makes it easy to get out of the boats. Then there is a ledge of sandy dirt held in place by tree roots about 5 feet up. From the ledge there is a sloping bank to the top. This means that 2-3 people can grab the boats from the water and sling them up onto the ledge where 2 people waiting above can grab and carry them the 10 or so steps the rest of the way up to the top.
About 150 feet down the portage trail it widens out into a campfire circle indicating the campsite for this section of the Florida National Scenic Trail. The local FTA volunteers at one time built benches surrounding the campfire circle, but they were vandalized for firewood a few years ago and never replaced. This area is accessible to 4WD vehicles from adjacent private land, so while there are great tenting areas under the oaks on public land just back from the river, I do not suggest leaving your boats unattended here.
Getting back into the water from the portage trail can be an adventure, depending on the water level. Just another 100 feet or so on the trail is the first place. It does however have a steep and slippery bank with deep water under your boat and perhaps some rough water from Big Shoals, but no rocks in the water at 51.88 feet. About 1/2 of our group put back in here. The other half continued carrying their boats down the trail further to where there are several more spots to access the water. They were still slippery, but the water was smoother. There is a lot of clay along the bank on this section, so all the reentry points and stream crossings are slippery. Be careful.
The next 3.5 miles are mild paddling until you come around Scarborough Bend and the start of Little Shoals. Little Shoals are not high, we were able to run them easily at 51.88 feet, but they stretch about a 3/4 mile along the river. The shoals are full of limestone solution holes and the edges can be sharp enough to cut legs and arms. You don’t really want to walk your boat through this stretch of the river, so I recommend if the water is 51 feet or lower than you pick another piece of the river to paddle. At almost 52 feet we were able to find a route through all three drops of Little Shoals with no rocks – just pillows and holes that give it a big Wheeee! factor and make things fun.
Little Shoals ends almost within sight of the railroad and highway bridge at US 41. Again the participants showed great team work getting all the boats up the ramp and onto their cars before dark at the Suwannee Wayside Park.