Bob Kerckel led a small group of Sierrans on a great paddle down the upper Suwannee River, near Fargo, Georgia, on November 17 and 18. We launched Saturday morning at Stephen Foster State Park in the Okefenokee Swamp after camping Friday night at the Griffis Fish Camp, located just outside the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge boundary.
From the launch, a short canal lets out into the linear Billy’s Lake, the largest expanse of open water in the swamp. At the bottom of the lake we entered a stretch known as “The Narrows”. Although the entire Okefenokee is considered headwaters of the Suwannee River, this is where we really felt like we had left the swamp and were on the river. True to its name, this stretch is narrow, twisting, and very intimate, alternating between dense swamp forests and open grassy marshes. The flow here is surprisingly strong. This, and the twisting channels, tested everyone’s canoeing skills.
Soon, the river was flanked by very low sandy banks and we encountered the first Ogeechee tupelo (Nyssa ogeche) trees, the icon of the upper Suwannee. The most upstream trees were stunted and unremarkable. But, as we canoed farther downstream the trees grew larger and ever more fantastic. Multiple twisting trunks rise from hugely swollen bases, creating an Alice in Wonderland effect.
Ogeechee tupelos are incredibly aquatic, and almost always grow within about a foot or so above the normal low water line. Consequently their bases are often underwater, and during floods much of their canopies may also be underwater. After lining the banks for many miles, the Ogeechees disappear just above White Springs. Flooding is intense there; the river rose an incredible thirty-three feet in forty hours after Tropical Storm Debbie dumped up to twenty inches of rain on the region in late June, 2012. Is this just too much for even these most aquatic of water-loving trees? Or are the trees intolerant of the limestone bedrock which is increasingly exposed along the banks below Big Shoals?
In the spring flowering season every honey bee for a thousand miles homes-in on these trees, earning them the local name of Bee-tupelo. Every Florida and Georgia cracker knows that, at that time, the bees are putting up the worlds finest honey. The trees also have another local name – Ogeechee lime – referring to the tart fruit which is used as a lime substitute.
After about five hours we pulled the canoes ashore at the Griffis Fish Camp, where we spent our second night. This funky place is operated by 87 year old (and very sharp) Al Griffis. In his youth Al was principal of the local elementary school. He may be a cracker, but Al has traveled extensively and, in fact, had just returned from a trip to Alaska. A renaissance man, Al could speak on many topics, and we had a long conversation about Mark Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi”. Al’s grandfather, Lem Griffis, was one of the great story-tellers of the Okefenokee. Here’s one example of Lem’s backwoods wit; “See that honey a-sittin’ up there on the shelf? Well, I crossed my bees with lightnin’ bugs so they could see how t’ work at night, an’ they make a double crop o’ honey every year.” Al was a gracious host, who made sure we had plenty of firewood. (http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=37058754).
Sunday morning we headed downstream again and paddled to a landing near Fargo, where we got off the river. In two days of canoeing we saw only two fishermen. What? There are seven billion people on this little planet? Could have fooled us. Ah, blessed solitude. What a great trip! Thanks Bob.
Post by Tom Morris
Photos by Dave Wilson and Tom Morris