On Saturday morning, April 2, 90+ kayakers and one paddle boarder (me) launched from Spirit of the Suwannee to paddle 20 miles downstream back to our campsite at the Suwannee River State Park. We were all part of Paddle Florida’s annual Suwannee River Paddling Festival, scheduled each year for the first weekend in April. Paddle Florida‘s motto is “Inspiring. Meaningful. Adventure.”And while our performers and the river itself fulfilled the first two promises, Mother Nature served us a full plate of adventure with Friday night’s storms and flooded rivers.
Participants arrived Friday afternoon, under foreboding skies, and we all knew that storms would roll through Live Oak at some point that night. We set up our tents on the bluff overlooking the river, staking out lines with care to make them as rain-proof as possible.
The rain held off for our evening entertainment– Thomas Hawkins from Florida Defenders of the Environment, told about work to restore the Ocklawaha River, and Matt Keene’s River Be Damned documentary narrated the Ocklawaha’s contested history and portrayed river’s beauty in its free-flowing state. Many in the group had paddled on the Ocklawaha River during the recent drawdown and seen springs like Cannon that are visible only when the Rodman Reservoir is lowered. Currently, there is much dialogue and debate among those who wish to restore the Ocklawaha River to its natural flow and those who have grown attached to the lake-like ecosystem of the Rodman Reservoir. I recently wrote “Requiem for a River” about those of us grieving the loss of these springs. Thomas Hawkins brought up the point that many supporters of the Rodman Reservoir have already mourned the loss of the free-flowing Ocklawaha and cannot bear the loss of this new ecosystem they have come to love. Most everyone agrees that we never should have damned the river in the first place, but now, whatever we do will make someone unhappy.
We stayed dry for another hour while Scott Jantz led his ghost tour around the ruins of Drew Mansion and Ellaville across the river. By the time the group returned from their ghostly walk, around 10 pm, the raindrops started, and thunder grew louder. Time to hunker down in our tents. Over the next eight hours, storms rolled through the Panhandle, along the I-10 corridor, pelting us with rain and lighting up the sky. When we emerged from our tents for breakfast, the rain had slowed to a drizzle. Some tents had fared better than others, and few campers had slept well. My tent and tarp combo–described as looking like a child’s sheet fort–kept me dry, but others spent a very wet night. Everyone, it seemed, was grateful for coffee that morning.
2015-16 is an El Niño year, and Paddle Florida trips has felt the impact of that this season, from the Nor’easter on the Bartram trip in December to another overnight soaker on the Great Calusa Blueway trip in February. Someone commented that “extreme weather conditions transform a vacation into an adventure,” and rising to meet these challenges is satisfying and also gives us much better stories. I wonder how our weather apps change our experience? I camped for years without access to weather warnings, but now my iPhone alerts me when I am in the red tornado watch zone. Do I really want that information when there is little I can do about it?
The skies were gray but clear when we launched at the Spirit of the Suwannee beach Saturday morning. We floated past the limestone bluffs that line the river until we reached our lunch spot at 12 miles, Gibson Park boat ramp. The paddling was difficult- we paddled against a headwind, and while we assumed that the rains would make the flow faster, we were wrong. Many people were grateful for Paddle Florida’s signature PBJ lunch spread and perhaps even more grateful for the opportunity to take the shuttle back to the campsite. The paddle both before and after lunch was beautiful and serene, especially as the skies cleared just as most of us arrived in camp. The sunny afternoon skies allowed tired paddlers to nap, dry their tents, and, for the slightly more energetic, place bids at the silent auction. The auction which raised money for the Florida Defenders of the Environment was followed by a sunset serenade by singers Frank Lindamood and Lon and Lis Williamson.
Saturday night’s clear skies and cool temperatures let us all get a good night’s sleep for Sunday’s paddle down the Withlacoochee River. The rains in western Florida had been filling the Withlacoochee over the past week, and we heard that the river would be fast. Madison Blue Spring, our launch point, was totally flooded out, and the river moved swiftly past the spring. One by one, we walked our boats down the flooded wooden ramp, launched, and quickly entered the river’s flow. Unlike last year, we did not stop and swim in springs in either the Suwannee or the Withlacoochee. As predicted, the day’s 12 mile paddle was fast as we floated down the river, steering through the swirls and boils caused by the high water levels. In only a couple hours, we reached the confluence with the Suwannee, just downstream of our campsite. After a short paddle upstream, we were home again.
The scent of our BBQ lunch wafted over the campsite as we took down our tents and packed up. It was time to say goodbye to new and old friends. Laughing around the campfire. Scott’s ghost tour. Desperately waiting for early morning coffee. Floating down two beautiful rivers. And not to forget the crazy weather. These things bring us together and make us eager to get back on the water.