Every January, I join 7 friends for an annual camping trip. This was our Men's Group 13th year. Primitive camping - meaning in relative wilderness and no campground - is our preferred venue... yet, our aging bones do like the comforts of cushy gear and good food... which most often means a paddling trip. You can carry a lot more in a kayak or canoe than on your back, and our North Florida rivers offer plenty of wilderness, often with large white-sandbars under a canopy of oaks.
The Suwannee River has been our favorite destination and this year we returned to our favorite sandbar, dubbed "The Taj", which Steve discovered in 2012 on a scouting trip. Not only the gentle giant sandbar and oaks, but a beautiful stretch of the Florida Trail running through "our backyard", plus we look out on a classic Suwannee limerock wall (bank) and spring just across the river. Seasoned firewood is delivered to a hollow in the bar during annual floods. Perfection! as campsites go.
We often conveniently start at Spirit of the Suwannee (where they have great music festivals as well as a canoe outpost). It's a safe place to leave our vehicles (and their campstore has pretty much whatever we forget to bring from home... like the campstove one year!). We are a pseudo-motley crew of professors, lawyers (even a judge), teachers, realtors, writers, and photographers with more gear than could imaginably fit in our rainbow of kayaks (and Steve's canoe that gets all the extra load). OK, I'll name names (con permiso): Geoff Brown, Bram and Mark Canter, Jacques Depart, Glen Gifford, Dave Johnson, Steve Mills, and moi. By firelight:
Over time I have customized my sweet little (12 foot) sit-in kayak by adding straps, snaps, hooks, bungees, and loops to hold a massive amount of stuff: my tent, sleeping bag, pillow, pad, hammock, water, food for a few days (though I only have to bring one meal for 8 on this trip), cook gear, chair, umbrella, anchor, paddle, life-vest, cushion, tripod, clothes, a large MacGyver bag... oh, and a large waterproof Pelican case with 35 lbs of camera gear. As you might imagine, it doesn't look streamlined - or even remotely trim - and sits a little "low in the water", but it is pretty manageable and comfy. Still a work in progress, but here's a shot from my archives (minus some of the gear).
The Suwannee is famous for good reasons. Snaking wildly from the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia to the Gulf of Mexico, its tannic waters flow past magnificent trees, dramatic rocky banks, gorgeous white beach sandbars, rapids, springs, and side creeks galore. It is a place for adventures, fossil hunting, fishing, deadhead cypress salvage, history, and just jaw-dropping beauty at near' every turn.
This year was the trip of fire. Steve and Mark hauled an old heartpine snag (the whole trunk) from across the river. Not that we didn't have plenty on our site, but that was a prize. As was the hollow oak log we cut up to make chimneys (or more like blast furnaces). January is nippy - at least that was our excuse.
Not that it was just "boys playing with fire"... we did cook too. Geoff brought apples, cinnamon, butter, and brown sugar for a gourmet baked apple dessert -- oops, not enough aluminum foil? Nothing a little MacGuyvering couldn't fix with the aid of some empty oversized Fosters cans. (A GrannySmith stuffed inside each one!)
Dave Johnson famously brings ALL the fixins for outrageous 3-egg omelettes or breakfast burritos. (Did I say we eat well?)
After dinner (Jacques' potent sausage stew), Geoff pulled out some unlikely ingredients and poured Italian Flags. Yes, we do eat well.
The first day, we heard a roar from the big oak, and looked up for the bear in its boughs - oh wait, no, that's Steve. We didn't see him climb up, but getting down was neither easy nor graceful.
Glen brought a chess set - a first, and classy move. Glen and Jacques had quite a marathon duel to the Mate.
On Day 2 we hiked the Florida Trail past our landmark oak (from last year) to Holton Spring.
Under a big sky full of stars, I was inspired to make some memorable night shots of our camp like the one at the top of this post. Here's another.
My early morning solo paddle "gently down the stream" was rich in river magic as well.
So ended another great annual weekend camping in North Florida. With bittersweetness, we packed up camp late Sunday morning and launched on the final stretch. Two stops still lay ahead before our take out -- a sandbar lunch, compliments of Bram, and Alapaha Rise - a lovely confluence of the two rivers (below). Another year, we'll be back for an encore.