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[ft-l] Trip Report: Backpacking the Suwannee

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Trip Report: Backpacking the Suwannee
Sandra Friend

Last weekend was the culmination of several months planning a backpacking
trip along the Suwannee River. We started out with nearly a dozen people
intending to attend, and as the date drew nearer, the group trimmed back to
six, a mix of hikers of different speeds and styles-- and members of five
different chapters!

To simplify the logistics, we dropped off 4 hikers at 10 AM near Spirit of
the Suwannee, moved two cars to the end of the hike at Suwannee River State
Park, and shuttled back to the starting point. Since Bob and I were the
fastest hikers, we took on the task. Heading west from US 129, the trail
swings out along the river with incredible views of the horseshoe bends,
white sand beaches, and limestone bluffs. A surprising number of chunks of
private property through which the trail crosses. Recent trail maintenance
made putting on speed a breeze, although the undulating terrain -- especially
all the drops down and back through deep ravines -- were rugged. After 15
minutes or so, we caught up to a lengthy line of Boy Scouts stretching
through the forest. Hearts sank. "Where you headed?" I yelled, as their
leaders asked them to step aside and they half-heartedly complied. "Mitchell
Creek," they answered. After we were out of earshot, I turned to Bob. "What a
relief!" We'd be camping 6 miles further down the trail.

A marvelous parade of natural wonders spiced up our route, from the giant
bluff oak ("that's Mr. Oak to you") standing tall over the trail, to the
whirlpool in a bend of the river, to the incredible tall and wide waterfall
dropping at least 15 feet down into the river. Sinkholes yawned, showing deep
rocky throats leading to caves. We caught up to a couple of our gang taking a
break, and soon reached Mitchell Creek. What a relief to see the new bridge,
especially after taking a look at the mossy log that once served as the
bridge!  Surprisingly, the creek was dry, so it fouled up some plans to
filter water. We pressed on. The forest, the river: just magical. The most
beautiful and mysterious terrain I'd yet seen in Florida.

I'd set an ambitous plan: 12 miles each of the first two days, and an easy
couple miles the last day. When we finally reached the broad flat spot along
Holton Creek that formed a great campsite for our six tents (and could have
fit six more), folks were dragging; the sun sinking low. Gathering water by
the last of the light, I gazed up at the mother of all cypresses, a grand
giant surrounded by the swirl of Holton Creek. The GPS said we'd hiked less
than 11 miles; the map claimed a little more than 12. After setting up tents
(Paul had a cool hammock tent swaying in the breeze), we gathered around a
communal kitchen area to cook dinner and chat as night set in. Comfortable
temps and a lack of bugs made it a wonderful evening, as did the moonlight
seeping through the trees. "Why don't we go for a hike?" asked Bob, and I
couldn't resist. Headlamps at the ready, we used moonlight to trace the
trail's path up towards the head of Holton Creek, pausing after hearing
something large jump into the water. I almost stepped into a sinkhole in the
middle of the trail in the dark. We went looking for what the map described
as the "official" campsite near the creek's head, but didn't find it. After
returning to camp, we saw a light way out in the bushes and heard a lot of
crashing about. "Wonder if it's a poacher?" Then the light went out. I got a
little nervous and asked Bob to keep his light on, just in case. Thank
goodness we didn't go out in the woods to find out who it was, because a few
minutes later one of our own sheepishly emerged after trying to find a little
privacy for the privy...so much for the poacher theory!

Clouds moved in quick, the storm front approaching 12 hours earlier than
expected, and the patter of rain fell on and off during the night. In the
morning, gray skies greeted us. Two of the group weren't feeling too well,
perhaps pushing too hard the day before. Another was a little shaky. We broke
camp and straggled out, intending to make the 2.5 miles to the county park
before breakfast. Well, the 2.5 miles turned out to be 4.5 miles, and on the
way, the heavens opened. Torrential rains. By the time we reached the
roadwalk, the roads were a muddy mess. Rain gear out and on. At the park we
gathered in a picnic shelter, wind and rain blowing, and ate breakfast. Two
hikers didn't want to go any further: they weren't feeling well and weren't
having fun. The question was, since this was meant to be a 3 day trip, what
to do? We consulted the map. It looked like 10.5 more miles to where the cars
were parked. Bob and I felt we could do it, even with the rain, and Sally was
game to go too. We lightened our backpacks, took only what we considered
necessities in case we had to stop and set up camp along the way. And then,
out into the rain!

Splash splash splash plop was the order of the day. I pushed a hard pace,
close to 3 MPH much of the way, feeling a certain urgency as activity leader
for having left three people behind. The section of trail along the Alapaha
River was lovely, although wet, and then it was roadwalk. Mud ankle-deep in
places, particularly through an area dubbed "Mortgage Acres" that was all
ripped up by a developer. Roads through farms were nice, but it was a relief
to reach the sign that said "Suwannee River State Park" and be on trail
again. Little did I know how BIG that state park is! Wish we'd had the time
to stop and marvel at more of the incredible views through this section, but
the rain kept on incessantly. We found an ideal campsite around the 10-mile
mark for the day, but kept going, no breaks. My oversized pack cover
collected a puddle in the bottom; my pack soaked out, adding even more
weight. Shoes soggy from the massive puddles in the trail. And the rain rain
rain came down down down...I had that song from "Winnie the Pooh" running
through my head for hours.

I was shocked when we reached the Big Oak Trail junction sign, realizing we'd
already hiked 12 miles (according to GPS) and I knew, having measured it from
here, we had 4 miles to go. Yikes! Sally kept up with us and never made a
peep, but when we finally made it to a place we could duck out of the rain --
the bridge over the Withlacoochee, which underneath was a nasty little
junkyard but dry -- she opted to stay so Bob and I could push harder back to
the cars. And we did. Almost running. Nervous at leaving our friends along
the trail. It rained so hard that my Marmot jacket finally didn't keep it out
anymore. We passed what I'd planned to use for the campsite that night, it
would have been 14 miles rather than 12...yikes again!

After 16 miles, feet aching, we reached the cars. Dry clothes! Warmth! A
quick duck into the restrooms to change and then it was hit the road, pick up
our fellow hikers. Alas, I'd forgotten dry socks. My feet froze by the time
we got back to Ocala. But dinner out at Chilis with steak and margaritas
helped ease the chill. Thanks to all who helped plan and share the adventure.