Way down upon the Suwannee River
by Penelope Silvers
“Way down upon the Suwannee River…..”
Those lyrics are from the Florida state song, “Old Folks at Home” written by Stephen Foster in 1851. You can listen to the song performed by Pete Seeger as part of his historical “American Favorite Ballads”. Close your eyes, listen, and ease into the laid back mood of an earlier time in Florida history:
The Suwannee River, rising from the Okeefenokee Swamp in southeastern Georgia, curls through north Florida woodlands, spilling its spring-cooled waters into the Gulf of Mexico in Florida. It topographically slices the Florida panhandle from the rest of the state.
My husband and I had an opportunity to take off for a couple of very restful days. Our getaway consisted of a room at the “Suwannee River Rendezvous”, with a balcony directly on the Suwannee River. Disneyworld, Florida this is not.
This remotely tucked away resort is located in Mayo, Florida, in “dry” Lafayette County. Even the GPS could not find it. If you want a getaway to rest and relax and just listen to millions of croaking green frogs, this is the place for you.
The river is also famous for its “jumping” Gulf Sturgeon. These prehistoric, steel-plated fish can reach six feet in length!
I was a bit nervous thinking about these jumping armored tanks as we had a canoe rental for a day, and I wasn’t crazy about getting whacked by a fish. We spotted a few off and on while standing on our balcony, but they always seemed to hurl themselves into the air once we walked back into the room, and then all we heard was a giant “kerplunk”!
Our canoe trip adventure was set for the next day, and the 4G service on the Android was not allowing us to access the internet from the room, so the only thing left to do was eat the last of our shredded chicken salsa wraps, munch on a blueberry muffin, and watch one of the few cable channels on TV. Then it was time to hit the sack in the loft room, which was accessible only by a ladder with “rungs” about 2” wide.
Now if you are a four year old, this would be such fun! But at our ages (let’s just say 40 something), not so much. All I could think about was having to go to the bathroom, and climbing up and down the ladder in the middle of the night. Let’s just say I curtailed my water drinking.
With visions of Grandma Susie’s cooking shack and homemade biscuits and gravy dancing in our heads, we drifted off to sleep. Knowing we were safely tucked away in our river room—only a few feet away from all the cottonmouth snakes, alligators, and other wild creatures roaming, slithering or swimming outside–gave me a strange sense of calm.
The morning dawned steel gray and rainy, so we treaded lightly on the rocks behind our room and through the muddy little gully to head on over to breakfast. The weathered lodge houses the office, as well as a little den to one side with a worn leather couch, big screen TV, and bookshelves stocked with puzzles and books. The other side houses a small dining area with a few booths and tables overlooking “Convict Springs”.
Charlie, the resident Labrador retriever, wandered among the breakfast tables hoping to pick up a scrap or two, and then ambled back to his usual position on the sofa.
The attractive moniker of “Convict Springs” sprung from being used as a remote camp by the Lafayette County jail system in the 1900’s. Prisoners who were a part of the chain gang working on the roads at the time would stay overnight at these camps. Today, all the prisoners have disappeared into the recesses of history.
The 21th century Convict Springs sits pretty and serene outside of our dining room window, without so much as a hint as to its lurid history. It is fed from an underground cave system that is also fed from the Florida aquifer. The Convict Spring cave has very narrow passages and is only accessible using a side mount dive method. Only very skilled and experienced divers are able to gain access to the cave system.
Convict Springs has beautiful clear water that makes for great swimming, but I really did not relish dipping my toes in. It was clear and pristine until a couple of rowdy boys performed their cannonballs, stirring up mud and sticks and leaving it murky. The spring water flows at a constant 70.5 degrees all year long.
We hungrily ingested a hearty breakfast consisting of several cups of steaming creamed coffee, over easy eggs, toast, grits and some very crisp bacon. Then it was time for some rest and relaxation time on the computer, checking out some ebay auctions, answering e-mails, and watching the weather reports. We didn’t want to be caught out in the middle of the mighty Suwannee in a ferocious Florida summer thunderstorm—complete with Florida lightning to go with it.
Suwannee River Adventure
Once we were satisfied that we were seeing a break in severe weather action, we set out for our canoe trip upstream. We knew we were going to feel extremely tired and sore after paddling for several hours, so we planned for a downstream return trip, so the current could just carry us along.
We were ready for our adventure. It was now just us and a small boat, two paddles, two life vests, a plastic grocery bag with some bottled water, and some blueberry muffins. We put the camera inside of a sealed plastic bag—just in case it fell into the water.
The slow trip and the hazy weather started out smoothly enough. We enjoyed the calmness and peacefulness of the large river, the scenery of centuries old cypress trees and their protruding knuckles poking up from under the water.
Turtles lazed quietly on stumps or on little islands of grass emerging from the water.
We had no trouble paddling—me the steerer, and hubby the propeller, except when we arrived at some small rapids that the owner had neglected to warn us about. The current kept directing us toward the shore. We paddled furiously until our arms felt numb, and we eventually made headway out of the current.
Grandma Susie told us about a couple different natural springs that we could access right from the river, although we never did find them. We were to look for a blue sign, and then a small hill, which we could walk up and over to our own private spring. Somehow, we missed all of the landmarks.
Instead, we set our sights on making it to the old Drew Bridge.The bridge was purchased in Brazil for $15,000 in 1899 and was floated on a barge to its present location. It was manually operated by two men turning a crank in the middle of the bridge to allow the Florida Railroad to cross the river. It was deactivated in 1920, and still stands in its present location to this day.
Once we steered and floated up to the bridge, it was interesting to see that the base, which had rusted out somewhat, was filled with rocks. The river was so peaceful and quiet, except for the occasional squawking bird or the jumping sturgeon, that I could almost hear the chug chug chug of the train and the mournful old whistle announcing the train’s arrival.
Then the rains came. A little sprinkle at first–then a deluge. We were directly in the middle of the river, far from shore, when the downpour began. Being pelted with freezing rain with no cover over my head was not my idea of a great time outdoors. All we could do was head for shore as quickly as our arms would take us. The canoe was in sore need of a dump out, since it was fast filling up with water.
Needless to say, I’m not much of an outdoorswoman. I was scared. The rain felt cold on our face and arms, and that sometimes signals tornados. I was also fearful that we were going to tip over right there in the middle of this huge, murky, swampy river and be lost forever amongst the gators, snakes, and jumping sturgeon. No one would know we were there.
My fears were beginning to get the best of me, and I was starting to write my obituary, when we finally reached the shore. The rain abated slightly, we dumped the canoe, and then headed back downstream—waterlogged and exhausted–for the refuge of our dry room and hot shower. Needless to say, we both slept like babies that night. Grateful for a room up a ladder, in a loft, in the midst of the deep Suwannee wilderness.