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The Suwannee and the Upper Withlacoochee, Beautiful and Troubled

Along the Banks of the Upper Withlacoochee

Along the Banks of the Upper Withlacoochee

After my disappointment at Ponce de Leon Springs, I decided to kayak from the Suwannee River State Park.  Just down from the boat ramp, the Suwannee meets the Upper Withlacoochee.  It was July 4th weekend and tons of people were partying on a sandbar at the confluence of the two rivers.  The boat traffic on the Suwanneee was crazy, and I was afraid I was going to get mowed over in my kayak, so I opted for a paddle on the Withlacoochee.  What a beautiful section of river it turned out to be.  Florida's karst foundation was visible everywhere.  Roots sprawled in every direction trying to take purchase.  Caves abounded at the waters edge.  The colors were rich.  I thought it was some primeval paradise.  It should be, but it is threatened as are all waterways in Florida.

Suwanacoochee Spring

Suwanacoochee Spring

There is even a single vent second magnitude spring on the Withlacoochee, that gushes forth through an old ruin. This structure may have been a bathhouse of a century-old spa or a saw mill that was once powered by the spring.  The Suwanacooochee and Ellaville springs are connected under the Suwanee River, according to cave divers.  There are so many underground interconnected caves in north Florida, which suggests that our waterways are intricately connected and that the health of one is dependent on others.  Water is not easily contained. 

Alien Floating Substance, Withlacoochee River

Alien Floating Substance, Withlacoochee River

With all that fresh water gushing out, I would have expected totally clear water everywhere. However, that is not what I found.  Every 5-10 minutes, something like this floated by.

Shapes, Upper Withlacoochee

Shapes, Upper Withlacoochee

I tried not to focus on the unsightly floes of pollution and instead focused my attention on the interesting shapes of the riparian landscape.  It truly was magical and every few feet I stopped, my attention caught by some new formation or juxtaposition.

Layers of Caves in the Karst, Upper Withlacoochee

Layers of Caves in the Karst, Upper Withlacoochee

When I got to this section, I was mesmerized.  There were so many miniatures caves in the karst. It reminded me of cave dwellings in the southwest on a miniature scale and of course much damper.  Vegetation snaked its way in wherever it could.  It was hard to believe that this is the geological foundation of this part of the state.  It seemed far too delicate and fragile to support the trees above.  Though incredibly beautiful and interesting, it is clearly susceptible to erosion and not an area where drilling of any sort is advisable or where it is safe to run pipelines.   

Bank of Cypress, Upper Withlacoochee

Bank of Cypress, Upper Withlacoochee

This bank of cypress knees was very impressive and interesting to see how the trees went from standing, to gracefully arching, to literally tumbling into the water.  Climate change, something we are not allowed to mention in Florida, has caused stronger storms that have been flooding rivers and sweeping trees into the water.  

Fallen Tree, Upper Withlacoochee River

Fallen Tree, Upper Withlacoochee River

This was a particularly large toppled tree.  As I was photographing it, I heard a very load sound approaching and quickly made my way to shore.  An airboat was screeching by to head to the sandbar party no doubt.  It laid a wake of spray and likely disturbed every creature in its path.  What they needed an airboat for up here, I have no idea.  The river is deep enough for quieter boats.

Airboat Speeding on the Withlacoochee

Airboat Speeding on the Withlacoochee

After the boat past, I decided to wade into the water a little because I was hot.  I was stopped in my tracks when I almost stepped on a dead turtle.  That made me really wonder about the cleanliness of the water.

Dead Turtle, Upper Withlacoochee

Dead Turtle, Upper Withlacoochee

Just beyond the dead turtle was another fallen tree covered in algae and scum.  It was eery seeing it enshrouded this way.

Tree Being Reclaimed by the Wrong Elements

Tree Being Reclaimed by the Wrong Elements

Banks Cloaked in Algae, Upper Withlacoochee

Banks Cloaked in Algae, Upper Withlacoochee

As I headed back towards the Suwannee on this side of the river where there weren't as many rocks and trees, I saw lots of algae both in the water and covering the sand and stone.  It was pretty depressing.  I don't like taking photographs like this.  Sometimes pollution is oddly beautiful and though I don't like it, I can get interested in making the image.  This just depressed me.

Miniature Cave in the Karst, Suwannee River

Miniature Cave in the Karst, Suwannee River

I decided to kayak up the Suwannee a little way and see if things looked better there.  The banks were much rockier and covered with lichen.  The riverbed was not pristine, but on the surface things looked better, probably due to more flow which stops things from stagnating so much. The Suwannee is a spectacular river and one we all think of fondly, from old songs and lore.  It has been a river beloved by people for generations and deserves our protection.

Sculpted Karst with Arrowhead Formation

Sculpted Karst with Arrowhead Formation

Each formation was unique, because the erosion is so extreme it turns the riverbanks into sculptures. The one on the right in this image reminded me of an arrowhead.

Feeling Squeezed the Suwannee River

Feeling Squeezed the Suwannee River

Besides the acidification from rain, the roots of trees break through the soft rock.  It was really fascinating to see which was stronger.  In this case, the tree, though its roots successfully penetrated through the limestone, looked as if it was being squeezed in a vice grip.  The whole scene looked oddly desperate.  Nature does its best to survive in even the most hostile circumstances.  Yet as more and more healthy nutrients are removed and replaced by harmful ones, can nature continue to heal herself.  Have we disturbed the balance too much that we are beyond the tipping point.  I hope not.  Yet, every day I have to weigh which water I will go near, which I will still swim in, which I will still kayak in, which I am afraid to touch, and which I can no longer breathe near.  When I think of the past five years I have spent on rivers, I have to say I go out with a heavier heart and more apprehension these days, though I still look for beauty, for that spark that tries to flourish in an increasingly hostile terrain.

Growing through the Karst, the Suwannee River

Growing through the Karst, the Suwannee River

The Suwannee River, which flows from the Okefenokee Swamp in Southern Georgia to the Gulf of Mexico in Florida, is federally designated as a wild river.  Of all the waterways in the southeastern United States, it is the only one that is still unspoiled.  The river has 55 springs and Florida's only white water rapids.  It also has many underground caves including the Falmouth Cave System and the Sabal Trail pipeline has been proposed to go beneath it. Many, including the WWALS Coalition that works to protect several rivers in Georgia and north Florida, feel this the pipeline poses a great threat to the region and I agree.  Here is a link to a page where you can read more about the controversy: http://www.wwals.net/. 

Find out about your local waterways.  Work to help preserve them, before they are so impaired that you become afraid of them.  There may still be time.