Rivers of my Youth, Part 3: The Suwannee

Rivers of my youth, pt. 3, the Suwannee

Chances are, you know something of this, the third “river of my youth”. I mean, how many other rivers can you immediately name after hearing the first few notes of a song? Try it: Day Da-da Dum-dee-Dum Dee da-da!

These notes are so iconic that even the sign where I-75 crosses the “Historic Suwannee River”, which you’ve presumably zipped over many times on your way to Disney World, includes these first few notes.

But you probably actually know as much of the Suwannee as did the composer of “Old Folks at Home”, Stephen Foster. Having never even seen the Suwannee, he appropriated the name for his song only after seeing it on a map (and after summarily rejecting “Yazoo” and “PeeDee”).

Of the rivers of my youth, the Suwannee is by far the most like the Sangamon. Stretching 246 miles, it’s almost exactly the same length and has (somewhat) the same number of syllables, so it could even replace “Suwanee” in the song.

Over the course of several overnight trips during my early twenties, my buddies and I canoed 119 miles on the Suwannee River from County Road 6 just inside the Florida line down to Branford, where it gets too wide and overly populated by speedboats.

Consuming untold numbers of lukewarm cheap beers (since we had little money and ice was a distant memory by mid-morning on Day 2), we canoed past towns with names like Mayo, White Springs and Luraville. We capsized (with fully loaded canoes) over “Big Shoals”, the only Class III rapids in Florida (having minimal experience with such things).

We guys were far too macho for sunscreen, so sunburns were a frequent occurrence, including once when – after far too many lukewarm Old Milwaukee “tall boys” – I fell asleep face-up on my canoe’s rear deck, severely sunburning my eyelids.

We camped on the river’s sandbars or in upland pine forests along its banks in beautiful weather and in pouring rain. Once, unable to sleep in our large, leaky old canvas tent during an incessant overnight rain, my buddy Steve nearly choked us out by wildly attempting to waterproof the canvas by coating the entire interior with his spray-on Right Guard. It had no noticeable effect.

Passing under bridges marks progress on a canoe trip, but the Suwannee also passes right through the heart of Florida’s spring country, so we’d also mark progress with every stop for a cooling swim at one of its crystal clear, (seemingly) ice-water cold and beautiful blue springs with names like Royal, Troy, Madison Blue, Charles, Lafayette Blue, Cow and Running.

Later, we skipped canoeing altogether and just camped at the springs. In those days, the springs were mostly undeveloped “local watering holes” at the end of long dirt roads carved through the pines. It was in the springs of the Suwannee that scuba diving hooked me.

On one of these early trips, my buddy Mike brought his scuba gear to Troy springs, which flows 68 million gallons of crystal clear, cool fresh water from the deep Florida aquifer into the Suwanee River every day.

Troy has a vertical shaft about 20 or 30 feet wide dropping straight down over 70 feet into the limestone with unlimited visibility. I had snorkeled over this seemingly bottomless shaft many times, even free-diving down 10 or 15 feet or so while holding my breath. But now, “buddy breathing” with my buddy Mike’s ‘backup’ regulator, he and I dropped down to 20 feet, with me breathing away at the nice fresh air while looking up at the surface with disdain, thinking, “hey there, surface, who needs you!”

Mike gave me a thumbs up, I gave the OK, and he released more air from his “bc” (buoyancy compensator) and we dropped down further. Popping my ears, we continued our descent ever deeper down this limestone shaft into the north Florida earth.

Before I knew it, Mike pointed me at his depth gauge registering 72 feet! There’s no good way to describe the exhilaration of looking up that shaft at the distant trees and sky 72 feet above. We quickly ascended (being careful not to get ‘the bends’) and I was hooked on diving.

Florida’s springs also provide the entrance to Florida’s aquifer and a vast underwater cave system. A cave system where inexperienced divers routinely enter caves poorly prepared only to become disoriented and lost, running out of air and pulled out dead with knuckles bared where they had apparently tried to claw their way out through the solid rock overhead.

Once, diving with my buddy Steve in the relatively shallow (25 feet) Madison Blue springs on the Withlacoochee River (a Suwannee tributary we also visited often), we descended and, with my encouragement, swam back into the “cavern” area (defined by having solid rock directly overhead, but always remaining in plain view of the “cavern’s” brightly sunlit entrance).

We continued our exploration back into the cavern area as far as we dare, then turned back toward the entrance and saw nothing but solid rock. A classic diving error: we had unknowingly rounded a corner and could no longer see our way out.

It’s in times like these that one stares death square in the face. And in this case, it looked like Steve, so I was none too thrilled about the prospect. We headed back in the direction I thought (guessed) we came in, and luckily for me, I guessed right.

Had I been wrong, Steve would have killed me! I remember this so well because to this day, Steve never lets me forget about the time I practically killed him underground and underwater at Madison Blue springs.

Yes, my days and nights on the Suwannee fill me with such pleasant memories. And later on a canoe trip on the Withlacoochee River while in graduate school, I was to meet my wife Carol, and we’d eventually move to the Sangamon. But that’s another story.

Nowadays, it’s nice to look at a Florida map and see much of the Suwannee River corridor in conservation areas or state parks with an official designated Suwannee “River Trail” and an extensive hiking trail following its banks. Nearly all of its springs are now state or county parks that you can easily access and visit.

The Suwannee shows us that rivers merit protecting and preserving and visiting, making memories for future generations of explorers young and old.

Next time you’re zipping by on your way to see The Mouse, stop and off and pay the Suwanee a visit. You’re sure to hum a few bars of “Old Folks at Home” and be glad you were able to accomplish something Stephen Foster never did.

Next up: the Itchetucknee, Florida’s spring-river!

Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, December 3, 2015, by Scott Hays


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