Posted by: floridanature | November 26, 2008

Lobster on the Suwannee: a Mythic Feast

On an early Saturday morning, the air is crisp and the river black at our roadside put-in on the Suwannee River. But if all else seems natural, the ramp here is not. It’s hyper with movement, crammed with the camping gear of what must be a dozen Boy Scouts and their adult leaders.

So we make an extra effort to get our own stuff in our kayaks, and to launch as fast as we can, leaving all the chatter behind. I was a Boy Scout when I was a kid, and while the scouting fellowship was neat, I most remember that I was usually a lot happier just being outdoors in the quiet woods with my dad.


The plan is to paddle from here downstream through White Springs, Florida, beyond its sad old springhouse, under a bridge or two, and through a terrain as wonderfully peculiar as any I have ever seen. The water is Georgia river cold, arising out of the Okeefeenokee Swamp, where my favorite childhood cartoon possum, Pogo, once lived. Even though it’s in Florida now, it’s not cutting us any slack. I’m guessing the water temps are in the fifties.

And off we go, paddle blades rising and falling from the blackwater, dripping sepia. It’s late November and mid morning, so most critters—including gators—are hunkered down somewhere. Our paddle over the next two days won’t be a wildlife encounter. Instead, it will turn into a wondrous float through time, following the slight current of a river that has taken a million years to carve its way down through the earth and limerock of northern Florida.


The banks of the river bulge up around me, making this more of a true valley than most other rivers are allowed in Florida. Limestone boulders begin to appear on one side and snow-white sandy shoals on the other. My friend Michelle paddles in front of me and rounds a sharp turn, under a low hanging river tree. It looks for all the world like a William Morris Hunt landscape painting from the 19th century, except with a kayaker airbrushed in.

We’re aiming to camp on the banks of the river this evening, and since I’ve been on the Suwannee before, I’m relatively sure we can find a place to lay our heads—especially when the river is low like this. A higher river would simply fill up its valley, inundating the walls and springs. The soft sandy shoals are true paleo-dunes, and it will be like camping on a beach. We are outfitted like most other paddling campers, except for one large difference: Michelle has packed along two immense lobster tails, and I will cook them over our campfire tonight. And so smack in the middle of some of Florida’s last truly wild landscape, we’ll be having a gourmet dinner on the banks of this historic river. It all reminds me of the steamboats that once traveled upstream, fine linen and silverware and food as fine as that in any good restaurant of the time. These floating boxes were insular, separate from the raw Cracker landscape in so many ways.


We pass a few other kayakers, and then, all is quiet. We’ve just had a cold snap, so the temps will dip down into the 30’s tonight; for now, the daytime warmth of the sun is welcome. Florida is so gloriously different from other places—indeed, it is so often different from itself. I wrote a book once about the St. Johns, and Michelle has paddled the entire length of that eastern Florida river alone. But that experience is no template for this one. Even though good old naturalist Billy Bartram once visited here in the 1760’s and referred to this river as the “Little San Juan”, there’s little in common between the two waterways.

To begin with, there’s the limestone, which not only rises from boulders into small cliffs, but also lurks just under the surface, creating riffles and sometimes tiny standing waves. Upstream of our launch was Big Shoals, the single largest water-churning site in all of Florida, where the river actually drops from an ancient scarp and maytags itself up into a sort of frenzy. At just the right water level, the shoals will hit a “three” in whitewater standards; but, in very low waters like this much of the sharp limestone underbelly would be exposed, and we’d be forced to walk our kayaks around it. Unlike older, consolidated northern rock, the younger karst limestone is a wonderful compression of sea memories—sand, coral, bone, shell. (On our second day, we’ll even find tiny sea biscuit fossils in the rock.)


For now, we stroke onward, reveling in the way the sunlight hits the water and strobes up on the rock. Just ahead, the old spring house at White Springs rises up from the tea-colored river, a tall, Victorian era building surrounding a natural spring, a place yankees came to be cured of everything from insomnia to tuberculosis. We pull our ‘yaks ashore here, walk up to the top vernanda- like porch and look down. When I first paddled this river, I actually snorkeled the little spring, finning down in ten or fifteen feet of transparent water to its vent. It was still flowing good then, cresting out and over a stone rill and into the water. Today, the vision from the top is grim. There’s a large puddle of stagnant water inside, the spring having lost the hydrostatic pressure it needs to stay alive. Perhaps we’ve taken too much from the vein of the Aquifer that feeds it; or maybe the upland rain fall recharge for it has been simply covered. The loss of little treasures like this are reminders of how little we know about the labyrinthic flow systems down in the rock below. We take great pride in our human dominance over nature, but clearly, haven’t yet acquired the wisdom to “manage” ecology as well as Mother Nature herself.


Back on the river, we pass the carillon bells of the Stephen Foster park (which sounds out “Old Folks at Home” every half hour), just in case you forget what river you’re on. This is Florida’s state song, has been since Foster wrote it in 1851. “Way Down Upon the Suwannee River” gave the river a sort of celebrity, even a mystique, and surely helped with early promotional efforts to lure proto-tourists to Florida and its springs—most of which guaranteed “medicinal values”. Imagination is a big part of what Florida has been about for so long, and if it sometimes stretches the truth, well then, that’s simply a part of its tradition of make-believe.

Despite all the natural places that Florida has lost, the state had the foresight to buy as much land as it could along the shores of the Suwannee. So this “Wilderness Trail” we are following has little in the way of modern exploitations. A few houses here and there, but that’s about it.

The topography of the river and its limestone have also done a lot to keep it so: We see few small kicker-powered boats tied up along the shore, but until you get to Branford on the middle Suwannee, there’s always a danger of losing a prop to a stealthful bottom rock. And when I look more closely at the tall bald cypress rimming the banks, I see distinct watermarks 20 feet and more above my head. Powerful rains can seasonally raise the water at least that much, pouring in from deep, V-shaped furrows in the banks. With only the great upstream Georgia swamp to function as a giant organic sponge, this river rises and falls as it has for thousands of years from local rains. On particularly dry years, the river runs almost clear, fed mostly by the 200-plus springs along its run.


If this Suwannee mystique holds secrets, it still promises just enough menace to keep the unwary at bay. One guidebook warns: “Please note, as with any wild area, you might encounter dangerous animals and plants.” I wonder about the “dangerous plants”, which might be a bit of an over-reach, left from the baroque of early Florida hype. Then, playing along, I imagine a Ogeechee Tupelo coming alive by night, using its medusa-like roots to create all sorts of vegetative havoc.

It is later in the day now, the sun dipping just atop the cypress and live oak and maples at the edge of this steep river valley, bringing shadows down to us. The shadows are a good 20 degrees cooler than the light, and it reminds me of the need to find a camp site soon. Ahead, we have one major bridge to paddle under, I-75, and as we head for it, Michelle points to a clear sluice of water cascading through a rocky crevice to the river. I look at her map and see it charted as “Swift Creek”, and figure it is fueled by a strong spring somewhere to the north.


Well beyond the bridge, we find a long strand of white shoaly sand, and pull ashore. Tents go up quickly, and a fire is built from dead limbs and dry twigs. Soon the fire is blazing, just in time for the full dark. I begin to cook our meal over it, carefully rearranging the food atop the ever-shifting heat so it doesn’t burn the lobster. I have squeezed lime atop it with some good soy sauce and a bottle of dry seasonings I earlier mixed—basin, oregano, even a touch of curry. It sizzles in its little vat of butter and freshly chopped garlic, until soon it is ready. We sip wine and sit back, the deep cold of the river valley pushing us closer to the fire, and there, crosslegged in the sand of a million-year old dune, we enjoy our mythic feast, our lobster on the Suwannee.

The stars push out above into the pitch-black quilt that is the Suwannee River night, and soon, the horizon is jammed with them from end to end, stars and constellations of the sort I have only seen in far, remote places undiluted by urban light: the upper Amazon; northeastern Australia; the Everglades: the isolated landscape I once knew as an eight-year-old on the lower Eastern Shore of Maryland. There is something about this all that is redemptive, that offers hope, even in the midst of great loss. Being deep inside of it makes me feel somehow reassured, awe-struck by the magnitude and the glory of it all.

The “medicinal cures” of another century still do work here, and that makes me glad in my heart. Thanksgiving will be upon us soon, and I celebrate it now, offering gratitude for the true friendship and deep magnanimity of earnest and caring souls—and for a real river that carves its way out of mythology, seeping into a singularly rich and true moment from a make-believe past.



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