Our first trip to the Suwanee started like many others – it was suggested that we go and, naturally, we did. After all, it’s always awesome to be on the water and you never know what you’re going to see. Life being hurried as it sometimes is, we didn’t have much time to research the destination. We had no idea how amazing it would be.
We launched from Fanning Springs on a chilly morning and headed across the river to the east bank. The inky ‘black water’ was familiar to those who go boating in the Southeastern US. Practically across the river from the ramp, we stopped at our first spring of the day. We had proceeded no more than a few minutes from the boat ramp. The crystal clear waters from Fanning Springs joined the Suwanee River and created a nearly solid line. It was almost as if the clear water was hesitant to mix with the coffee-colored black water in the main river. No matter how many springs we encounter, they are always beautiful and captivating.
After a short distance and no channel markers, this ride began to feel different. Shortly thereafter we found one spring, then another and another… in the end we found 9 springs in all on only 50 miles of river! (Or 10 springs if you were one of the intrepid adventurers who split from the group on the ride back). It became apparent that more research on the Suwanee was needed and that another trip would be in order. Thus began the planning for the Central Florida Jet Riders Suwanee River Camping trip.
Back home, the research began. On the 50-mile stretch of river a total of 26 springs were mapped. The Suwanee’s famous Gulf Sturgeon warranted further research, as well as they are known to be large and like to jump. Perhaps you have heard about the occasional boater hitting an airborne sturgeon? This being November, we found that sturgeon generally aren’t a large concern. Adult Sturgeon move into to the open water of the Gulf of Mexico by end of October. Since our camping trip was in November, we would be fairly safe from running into 100lb (or larger) airborne fish at high speed. The springs were mapped and added to our GPS, lodging at Hart Springs was secured and a final plan for a “camping trip” came into being. We would arrive Friday, ski in the afternoon, ride all day Saturday and return to Orlando on Sunday.
Many of the group set out for Hart Springs from Central Florida on Friday morning. Several of us carpooled, myself included. Four of us were lucky enough to secure a spot on the Central Florida Jet Rider’s 4-place trailer, named Quadzilla (Note: reserve early if you want to ride on Quadzilla). After a nearly 3-hour drive, a good portion of our group had arrived in the campground. We met the Hart Springs park ranger who showed us around the place a bit and told us about the night attendant.
She mentioned that if you see a homeless-looking man skulking about that it was probably just Mike, the night-shift ranger, and that there was no need to worry about him. Though I was already aware that our ‘campsite’ was actually a house, I had no idea how large and comfortable it would be. Perhaps most surprising was that the house, even though there was no water in sight, is built on wooden poles about 10’ high. The high water marks on the trees nearby told a story of some rather large floods… The Suwanee is an untamed river indeed.
It was around 3pm when we were unpacked and settled in a bit. With two-and-a half hours of daylight left we decided to head to the water. The ramp was a full 2-minute drive from the campsite. When arriving at the ramp, everyone launched and we were off… this time armed with more information about our primary quarry: fresh water springs.
It didn’t take long to find the first spring. Some springs are only several hundred yards apart but many of the springs were quite well hidden. There are springs that are right on the riverbanks but several springs are further up tributaries. After riding a little ways, we took a detour up a small tributary to a Sun Springs. The small stream leading to Sun Springs was almost completely invisible while riding along the main channel of the Suwanee. Only with the aid of the GPS data provided by the Suwanee River Water Management District were we able to locate many springs, Sun Springs included.
The ride up the stream to Sun Springs was a bit surreal. The water was so clear that it was difficult to discern the depth. Homes were situated on several sides of the riverbanks with homeowners out and about. We proceeded ahead at idle speed to be as respectful and as safe as possible. Essentially we were riding through someone’s backyard and we definitely did get some interested looks, though none seemed particularly cross. Eventually we arrived at Sun Springs, which, though roped off from boat traffic, was very secluded but also quite inviting. At this time it was getting a bit late so we had to head back to the ramp. What a beautiful place to visit during the summer time, I’m sure we’ll be going back.
Since we needed fuel and supplies, we went out to dinner together. It was a jovial affair, to be sure. After dark the campfire was lit and we spent the evening enjoying many interesting tales & lots of great conversation. After a while most of us retired to our “campsite.” Several more members arrived either that evening or the next morning.
Breakfast Saturday was an excellent affair, as always. Many members pitched in to help with the cooking, cleaning and serving. Especially generous were Steve and Michelle Chown who organized the meals and who were also the ones responsible for the on-site meat-smoking equipment.
Saturday morning was an excellent morning for a ride. The clear, crisp air and black-water of the Suwanee were calling us back to see more. Since more members had arrived since Friday we had a much larger group than before. Numbering about two-dozen skis we set out. We headed north on the Suwanee about 50 miles, finding spring after spring. The total number of freshwater springs was 26 in just that short stretch of river. To find some springs, it was necessary to land the ski and trek through the woods. From the many footprints it was clearly evident that the Suwanee is indeed wild and untamed.
Though there are many houses on the river, the Suwanee is nonetheless wild and with almost no man-made flood control structures. Quite a few of the houses are built on stilts even though they are situated on the top of clay cliffs. A marker at Hart Springs indicates that the Suwanee is prone to occasional massive flooding. The Suwanee has, in the past, flooded as much as much as 40 feet above its’ normal levels! Typically this flooding happens in the springtime. As you head further north on the Suwanee, the geology changes. The river narrows, limestone embankments jut out from the shore and the clay cliffs are taller and more dominant along the riverbanks.
Arriving at Little River Springs we encountered the now familiar but still amazing demarcation line between the Suwanee’s black-water and crystal clear spring water. This is where we stopped for lunch. The park around the springs was virtually deserted save for a few visitors, some cave divers and our group of 30-plus PWC enthusiasts. The beauty of the springs is difficult to put into writing. The waters are so clear that you can easily see 20 or more feet into the caves. The divers were clearly visible. We mostly brought packed lunches for Saturday and shared a meal with friends. Several members swam in the springs for a bit.
After lunch, we headed a little further north to see Troy Springs and to refuel on the banks of the Suwanee. Since we had a large group, we opted to head back in smaller groups at whatever pace was comfortable. Some stopped to find more fresh water springs and others decided to head back and enjoy the thrill one can only get by going fast on the water.
Though many of the springs were deserted, the river was not. We did not know it at the time but there was a gathering of speedboats. We encountered dozens upon dozens of speedboats along the ride Saturday. Low-slung, shallow draft boats with large, overpowered engine(s) that made lots of noise. They seemed, perhaps, to be a menace with their loud, smoky, engines, excessive speed and producing wakes, which seem uncharacteristically large for a boat of that size. Perhaps that’s exactly how many people see us and our fellow PWC riders?
As the Sun began moving toward the horizon, we arrived at the ramp. It’s difficult to leave the beauty of the Suwanee River, so we didn’t! With a little bit of fuel left and a few hours of daylight, we headed for a short trip south. We stopped at Copper Springs, which is aptly named – the shores along the spring run are intensely copper colored! Several of the group headed back and a few stayed to explore Copper Springs for a bit.
All of a sudden it seemed as if little items began hopping off of our skis. Pete lost the latch of his GoPro camera case while changing the battery, Darrell’s ‘floating’ glasses fell into the water – never to be seen again (at least not by us) and John’s headphones decided to go for a swim. Luckily, these minor items were the only casualties of the trip. It was remarkable but nobody had a broken down ski or an errant stick jam his or her impeller.
Back at the campsite, the smoker was finished cooking its’ meaty goodness and food was being prepared. We all enjoyed another evening by the campfire with good food and great friends. We didn’t spot the homeless-looking park ranger until early the next morning upon checkout. He looked friendly enough, though perhaps a bit disinterested and certainly had the appearance of a man of the wilderness. The ride home felt longer than the ride to the river. It seems as if the river calls you back, even now it still does. We will definitely be back.