Thanks to Stephen Foster, there are few streams in American folklore and culture better known than the Suwannee. The mere mention of its name stirs fanciful visions of stately moss-draped cypress and sultry Southern days. No more beautiful than several dozen other southern Georgia rivers, the Suwannee is nevertheless a living legend in the most literal sense, and therefore Suwannee River Georgia kayaking is something special. The river originates deep in the bowels of the Okefenokee Swamp and winds its way southeast, escaping into Florida and its terminus at the Gulf of Mexico.
Suwannee River Georgia Paddling from the Okefenokee Swamp to CR 6
TRIP SUMMARY: Class: Smooth water river; Length: 45.5 miles; Time: 5 days; Gauge: The Web, phone; Level: Unknown; Gradient: Less than 1 foot per mile; Scenery: A
DESCRIPTION: Only a small portion of the Suwannee flows within the state of its birth, a fact made much of by Florida tourism promoters. This section of Suwannee River Georgia kayaking, however, is unique among all stretches of the river by virtue of the almost mystical aura conferred by the Okefenokee Swamp.
Deep in the middle of the swamp, the Suwannee is born at the confluence of the East and Middle Forks of the Suwannee at the northern end of Billys Lake. Access is available at the nearby Stephen Foster (who else?) State Park. You will quickly find, however, that paddling within Okefenokee is heavily regulated (see the section on the Okefenokee Swamp). If you proceed downstream and out of the swamp, you will have to cross the sill, a manmade levee constructed to stabilize the depth of water in the swamp. The portage is short and easy, but alas, a permit is required. If this sounds like the heavy hand of bureaucracy, remember that this regulation and several dozens more like it (like carrying all human waste out of the swamp), have preserved the pristine integrity of one of America’s irreplaceable natural wonders.
Once across the sill, the Suwannee settles into shallow, white, sandy clay banks and flows southward through a watery floodplain forested with pond cypress, swamp black gum, sweet bay, swamp cyrilla, slash pine, magnolia, and palmetto. Since animals and birds do not need permits to cross the sill, the incredibly diverse fauna found in the Okefenokee can also be found along the upper Suwannee.
The water color is dark red, stained by tannic acid from decaying vegetation, and the current is slow. Below the sill to the GA 94 bridge crossing at Fargo, the river flows through several large midstream stands of cypress and gum, which at higher water require some heads-up navigation, and present a nice opportunity to get lost in the surrounding inundated lowlands. While the flow of the main current is usually easy to follow, there are times when map, compass, and a little swamp luck are helpful. Access between the state park and Fargo is almost nonexistent, except at a private campground off of GA 177 where camping and launching are available for a small fee. The state has purchased 350 acres of land on the river at Fargo; in the future, there may be more access available.
Below Fargo, Suwannee River Georgia kayaking remains isolated in pristine, exotic wilderness, and flows languidly along a shady, twisting course of moss-draped cypress. The first access point below Fargo is CR 6, just over the state line. If you continue, you will notice that the banks are higher and more well-defined and that numerous feeder streams enter the Suwannee. Farther downstream, Florida’s largest rapid, Big Shoals, and the Stephen Foster (who else?) Memorial await you. Additional information concerning the Florida sections of the Suwannee can be obtained by writing: Florida Department of Natural Resources, Crown Building, Tallahassee, FL 32304.
The Suwannee’s current is slow to moderate. Dangers to navigation are confined to the standard deadfalls in the stream’s adolescent reaches, and locals drinking at the GA 94 bridge. Since campsites are rare on the lower part of the river, paddlers should launch with sufficient daylight remaining to make Fargo before dark.
Setting Up a Shuttle for Suwannee River Georgia Paddling
Out of Fargo, take US 441 south into Florida. Turn right onto CR 6 (NW Bay Creek St.) and follow it to the river. Return to US 441 north for put-in access at its crossing in Fargo, or continue north on GA 177 to the fish camp (camping and launching are available for a fee) or to the highest access point deep in the swamp at Stephen Foster State Park. Click on this link for a Google map and follow it to the put-in and take-out locations for Suwannee River paddling.
USGS and COUNTY MAPS: Billys Island, The Pocket, Strange Island, Fargo, Needmore, Fargo Southwest (USGS); Charlton, Ware, Clinch, Echols (County)
USGS Gauge for the Suwannee River Georgia
Levels for gauges at and above Fargo are available on the USGS Web site. Runnability levels are unknown. More information can be provided by calling the local outfitters, or by calling the Waycross Fisheries Office at (912) 285-6094.
This Suwannee River Georgia kayaking guide is adapted from Canoeing and Kayaking Georgia by Suzanne Welander and Bob Sehlinger and published here in cooperation with Menasha Ridge Press. Canoeing and Kayaking Georgia covers thousands of miles of Georgia waterways from whitewater to wilderness swamps and everything in between. It’s an indispensable guide to anyone interested in paddling Georgia’s rivers and streams. Order directly from Menasha Ridge Press. See a comprehensive list of other Menasha outdoor publications indexed by title, author, category, and region.