Wild River

September 23, 2007
Filed under Travel

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Portrait Bruce Leonard Jr with salmonThe scream I’d been anticipating for two days finally pierced the
silence. And because I’d had nightmares about being the screamer, about
being latched onto by a resilient dinosaur, then splashed about like a
rag doll in what the nature channels call a “death roll,” I felt that
piercing shriek in my gut. And I hesitated for a couple seconds before
turning my kayak upriver, then paddling like crazy toward the woman who
was surely expelling her last breaths.

When the invitation to paddle the Suwannee River arrived, my first
thought was Sure, that sounds like fun. My second thought was gators.
Negotiating a river in Florida has to involve gators, right? I’d been to
nature parks and seen these beady-eyed beasts consume raw chickens by
the bucketful, and the odds dictate that I, too, taste kind of like
chicken. But despite a dream about being spun endlessly in a washing
machine and another that dispensed with the metaphor and delivered
plenty of toothy chomping, I reasoned that I was being a coward. I
probably had a greater danger of needing the jaws of life on Los
Angeles’ freeways than of becoming gator bait. Probably.

The Suwannee River Wilderness Trail, a collaboration among various
state agencies and private enterprises that promotes 170 miles of the
waterway to canoers and kayakers, was our destination. Many years ago I
had truly enjoyed my one visit to the Sunshine State (when I had swum
giddily with manatees), so I convinced myself to repress my reptilian
fears and indulge in Florida’s outdoor bounties, this time in a kayak.
Since I’d been informed that the sections of river we’d be skimming
across contained only one section of Class II water, with the remainder
delivering nothing more than riffles or slow-moving flatness, I signed
on, then was soon on my way, down upon the Suwannee River (couldn’t help
myself).

Composer Stephen Foster brought the Suwannee River international
acclaim when he used its name for rhythmic purposes in the song, Old
Folks at Home. For the purpose of marketing to tourists, no one seems to
care that Foster had not seen the river, nor that he changed its
spelling for the song. Travelers can visit the Stephen Foster Folk
Culture Center State Park, in fact, on the river’s banks, in the
picturesque town of White Springs, in the northeast part of the state.
Dioramas of Foster’s most famous songs depicted in the park’s museum
grant visitors insights into his music, his life and his tragic death.
The 97-bell carillon that presides over the park’s acres of greenery
plays Foster’s music daily. The Craft Square area allows visitors to see
artisans such as blacksmiths, potters and woodcarvers perfect their
wares. Memorial Day weekend brings the Florida Folk Festival to the
park, and RVers who stay in the well-appointed, tree-lined campground
will appreciate the easy hiking and biking the area allows.

The Cultural Center is worth visiting, as is nearby Olustee
Battlefield State Historic State Park. I was in Florida for the
Suwannee, however, and couldn’t wait to dip a paddle. Georgia’s
Okefenokee Swamp feeds the Suwannee, and thousands of underground
springs contribute to the river’s flow as it snakes its way through
laurel oaks and magnolia forests, bisects rocky banks and rearranges
sandbars and beaches with each rise and fall. Along its meandering
course to the Gulf of Mexico, the Suwannee passes through small towns
filled with rustic charm and hides, yes, plenty of gators. At least
that’s what I expected.

What I didn’t expect was for the water to be brown. Not dirty
brown, not muddy or unclean, but the color of tea. We slipped into our
life jackets while standing next to our canoes and kayaks at Big Shoals
State Park, then I carefully stepped down the bank and settled into the
kayak, a traditional sit-inside, 13-foot 9-inch Adventure XL by Old
Town. Then I began to paddle through the oolong. As a coffee drinker, I
found this tea infusion a little disconcerting. I soon learned, however,
that the steeped-for-five-minutes color of the water results from the
tannins that leach out of plants that fall into or drop their leaves in
the Okefenokee Swamp and the Suwannee. I was assured, in fact, that the
Suwannee is one of the cleanest rivers anywhere.

What I learned as I set out downstream, paddling slowly in the
gentle current, passing banks overhung by tupelo, was that the Suwannee
is also the most peaceful water I’ve ever paddled. Peaceful as in quiet,
calm and practically people-free. In the 20 miles we covered over two
days, I saw only three anglers fishing for catfish. The gentle current
and general lack of whitewater create a wonderful experience for
beginning paddlers. We carefully negotiated a few riffles the first day,
without mishap, despite the novice nature of most of the paddlers. Then
we portaged around Big Shoals, a rocky descent beyond our abilities,
before putting our boats back in the water. We repeatedly broke the
mirrored surface with our paddles, stopping on fine, white-sand beaches,
watching birds wing their way above the forest canopy. And, of course,
watching for gators.

Not so much as a snout came into view. No suspicious ripples, no
sudden, unexplained splashes. No blood-curdling screams. Well, one.

After nearly four hours on the river the first day, we took out at
Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park, having traveled about 10
river miles, the span the developers of the Suwannee River Wilderness
Trail determined to be a reasonable distance for average paddlers to
cover daily. Approximately every 10 miles, the trail offers hubs —
where paddlers can camp, stay in a hotel or spend a night in a bed and
breakfast in town — or comes across river camps offering primitive
camping in simple, raised, screened, shelters built specifically for
paddlers on the trail with restrooms providing hot showers.

On the second day, not far from our take-out spot, Woods Ferry,
the scream pierced the sky and roiled my gut. As I approached the
screaming woman, I realized she was not in pain — just surprised, cold,
afraid and perhaps embarrassed.

Gators, it turns out, are almost never spotted in this stretch of the Suwannee in winter.

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