WAY DOWN UPON THE SUWANNEE RIVER…

Post #38 – WAY DOWN UPON THE SUWANNEE RIVER – Day 195;  November 15, 2014.  On board:  Paul Coates, Jim K

Sing with me:  “Wayyy down upon the Suwan-nee River…far, far away…”.  Most everyone, I think, learned this song, or parts of it, as schoolchildren. The song was written in 1851 by Stephen Foster, a white man. But are you aware of the controversy it has caused over the years, and continues to cause? The song was written in the first person from the perspective of a black slave at a time when slavery was legal in half the country. The narrator sings “…longing for de old plantation…”, which has long drawn criticism as romanticizing slavery. Worse, the lyrics of the chorus includes “Oh, darkies, how my heart grows weary…”  – the word “darkies”, of course, has long been considered a racial slur. I was therefore amazed to learn when I arrived here that the song is the official state song of Florida. In order to make the song more palatable, when it was sung at the dedication of the new Florida capitol building in 1978, the word “brothers” was substituted for the word “darkies”. However, as the lyrics became more and more objectionable over time, an effort to change the state song gained traction. A contest to select a new state song was undertaken in 2007, and the song “”Florida (Where the Sawgrass Meets the Sky)” was selected as the winner in early 2008.  However, when faced with a decision, the politicians did what politicians do best – they tried to please everyone – so they adopted the new song as the state ANTHEM and kept “Suwannee River” as the state SONG. In doing so, they also officially changed some of the objectionable lyrics.  Predictably, the “two song solution” appears to have satisfied no one.

So as I write this, we are docked about three miles up the fabled Suwannee River in the town of Suwannee, Florida. The heart and soul of the town are focused on the river, and like many of the towns along the Big Bend, it is a fishing town – the locals grew up fishing since they were old enough to walk, and it has recently become a fishing destination for weekenders, vacationers, and others who have a condo or second home here on the river or who come here to rent a boat and fish or go out on a fishing charter. The boats are not offshore boats that are the hallmark of New England charters, but are small skiffs or 25′ center consoles with outboard motors.  The shallow water of the Gulf and the desire to poke into shallow places on the river or side creeks keep the boats and the fishing parties small. The year-round population of the town is only 350, and the summer population is only about 750, so it is not a big place. There is one restaurant that serves only breakfast and lunch and another that serves only dinner, and there is a very small general store that has some groceries. There are some condos that were built just before the Great Recession, and there are homes along a network of canals that were built in the 60’s. Most of the homes are modest – it is a fishing destination, not a resort-type place at all. Many of the homes and the few businesses that are here could benefit from some sprucing-up.

Here are some images from Suwannee:

It's always good to have a roadside sign to point you in the right direction -

It’s always good to have a roadside sign to point you in the right direction –

The bank of the Suwannee River, entering the mouth

The bank of the Suwannee River, entering the mouth

The banks of the Suwannee River are lined with cypress trees and beautiful, natural scenery

The banks of the Suwannee River are lined with cypress trees and beautiful, natural scenery

One of the many creels and side channels off the main river, which is in the background

One of the many creeks and side channels off the main Suwannee River, which is in the background

A creek-side house in Suwannee - there were at least 30 enormous turkey vultures roosting on the dock, deck, and roof

A creek-side house in Suwannee – there were at least 30 enormous turkey vultures roosting on the dock, deck, and roof of the house

A "typical" house on a canal in Suwannee

A “typical” house on a canal in Suwannee

Notice the sling for the boat lift under the house - a modest house, but a great place to store your boat under cover with instant access to it -

Notice the sling as part of the boat lift under the house – a modest house, but a great place to store your boat under cover with instant access to it!

The only breakfast restaurant in town is a gathering place in the morning, especially for people who are going fishing - the restaurant is part of a small marina.  We went by dinghy

The only breakfast restaurant in town is a gathering place in the morning, especially for those going fishing – the restaurant is part of a small marina. We went by dinghy

Florida has no car inspection requirement....they may want to re-think that...

Florida has no car inspection requirement….they may want to re-think that.   Notice the convertible top, which can be removed by simply untying a couple of knots holding the tarp in place.  Notice also the rope holding up the bumper…

Suwannee is literally the "end of the road"....

Suwannee is literally the “end of the road”….

We agonized a bit over whether to come here at all, as almost no loopers do, and the guidebooks all warn of shallow water and the need to ride the tides just so. We had visions of catastrophe – running aground in the narrow, shallow channel or inadvertently wandering off the channel into a shoal with waves crashing down upon us. However, remembering Eleanor Roosevelt’s inspirational words of encouragement: “My life was full of catastrophes, most of which never happened”, we were enticed to ignore our visions of worst-case scenarios and go forward.  We waited until nearly noon to leave Steinhatchee for the 42 mile run so we would arrive at about 4:30 PM, an hour and a half or so before high tide in the channel. Eleanor Roosevelt was right – we poked our way slowly through the 2-mile long channel then 3 miles up the river and had no trouble.

We had planned to stay in Suwannee an extra day or so, but the weather gods decided we should stay longer – the winds on the Gulf have kicked up seas that we don’t like, so we’re waiting for more benign weather. We therefore decided to go fishing:   When in Rome….  We found a guide that was willing to take us out for half a day.  Here are some images:

Captain Jackie, our guide, who has forgotten more about fishing than I'll ever know

Captain Jackie, our guide, who has forgotten more about fishing than I’ll ever know

A "keeper" redfish that Paul caught - Captain Jackie cleaned the fish for us, and we took them to the local restaurant where they cooked them for us for dinner-

A “keeper” redfish that Paul caught – Captain Jackie cleaned the fish for us, and we took them to the local restaurant where they cooked them for us for dinner-talk about fresh fish!

One of the Sheep's head that I caught -

This fish is called a “sheep’s head” – I don’t know why.  In addition to the two “keeper” redfish, we caught about half a dozen “keeper” sheep’s head.

A respectable catch for a day of fishing -

A respectable catch for a half a day of fishing –

Look closely and you'll see a wild boar that we saw along the shore.  There is a baby boar there as well, but it is behind the mother in this picture.  While out fishing, we also saw three large alligators, several large turtles, and a bald eagle

Look closely and you’ll see a wild boar that we saw along the shore of the Suwannee River. There is a baby boar there as well, but it is behind the mother in this picture. While out fishing, we also saw three large alligators, several large turtles, and a bald eagle which circled directly overhead.

Our fresh redfish dinner, cooked for us by the local restaurant -

Our fresh redfish dinner, cooked for us by the local restaurant –

No, we really did catch these fish!  However, my friend Doug has been known to stop at a fish market on the way home from a fishing trip when he got skunked and insist on buying the whole fish to bring home....

No, we really did catch these fish! However, my friend Doug has been known to stop at a fish market on the way home from a fishing trip when he got skunked and insist on buying the whole fish to bring home….

So I jumped ahead to Suwannee after describing our stay at Apalachicola in the last post – please allow me to back up and fill in the gap between those two places. Our first day on the Big Bend last Sunday from Apalachicola to Carrabelle was pleasantly uneventful. Carrabelle has a beautiful, well-protected harbor with plenty of space for boats.  However, the town is too small to have a real “downtown”, but instead has a few pockets of commercial establishments along a mile-long stretch of road. The town appears to have overreached in the mid 2000’s, and has several vacant, dilapidated buildings.  In addition, there are countless vacant docks, many of which appear abandoned, and a large waterfront “bank owned” housing development in which infrastructure was installed but only a few buildings built. It seems like the natural environment is attractive enough to make this a destination, but it has not happened yet. Here are a few images:

Carrabelle has a large, deep natural harbor

Carrabelle has a large, deep, very beautiful natural harbor

Entering Carrabelle Harbor at low tide -

Entering Carrabelle Harbor at low tide –

A salt water marsh adjacent to Carrabelle Harbor

A salt water marsh adjacent to Carrabelle Harbor

There were about 15 – 18  loopers at the marina in Carabelle last Sunday, so an impromptu “Happy Hour” was convened in the lounge at the marina. We learned that, of the group, we were the ONLY boat that would be taking the “hopscotch” route across the Big Bend. A favorable weather window for an overnight crossing was being forecast for Monday and Tuesday nights, so most of the other loopers were preparing to leave the following afternoon for an overnight passage, with one or two fast boats planning to leave early in the morning for a daylight passage.  However, we pressed on, planning to make four stops and run five separate days on our way to Tarpon Springs, where the Intracoastal Waterway resumes. Our first “hopscotch stop” was a small, out of the way place that almost no cruisers visit called St. Marks – it is off-route by about 40 miles, meaning you travel about 55 miles but end up only 15 miles further along the Great Loop route.  However, though no one could understand why we were going here, we LOVE out of the way places where no one goes, and St. Marks did not let us down.  The town lays 10 miles north up the winding St. Marks River, with gorgeous views of salt water marshes along the way. It is primarily a fishing town, boasting one of the oldest fishing camps in Florida.  It is another town that is literally located at “the end of the road”. Here are some images:

A salt water marsh lined the riverbank for much of the ride up the St. Marks River

A salt water marsh lined the riverbank for much of the ride up the St. Marks River

We thought that finding dockage for the Joint Adventure might be a problem on this trip due to her wide 17' beam, but it has not been a problem at all.  However, in St. Marks, we had to put her into a slip with steel posts on both sides that was om;y inches wider than her beam. Fortunately, there was no wind and a light current as the tide was changing.

We thought that finding dockage for the Joint Adventure might be a problem on this trip due to her wide 17′ beam, but it has not been a problem at all. However, in St. Marks, we had to put her into a slip with steel posts on both sides that were only inches wider than her beam. Fortunately, there was no wind and a light current as the tide was changing, so we wedged her in tight..

This is the remnant of an old bridge abutment of a railroad bridge that went to a ghost town that has disappeared called Port Leon.  The bridge was built in 1838 to extend the railroad 2 miles south of St. Marks so cotton could be transported directly to ships waiting offshore. An entire town called Port Leon was built at the terminus, including a saw mill, a grist mill, a hotel, two taverns, a post office, and a newspaper. However, just 5 years later, in 1843, a hurricane destroyed both the town and the bridge, both of which were abandoned and have since disappeared.

This is the remnant of an abutment from an old railroad bridge that went to a ghost town that disappeared long ago called Port Leon. The bridge was built in 1838 to extend the railroad 2 miles south of St. Marks so cotton could be transported directly to ships waiting offshore. An entire town called Port Leon was quickly built at the terminus, including a saw mill, a grist mill, a hotel, two taverns, a post office, and a newspaper. However, just 5 years later, in 1843, a hurricane destroyed the town and the bridge, both of which were abandoned and have since disappeared.

There is now a 16 mile long bike path where the railroad used to run in 1843

There is now a 16 mile long bike path where the railroad used to run in 1843

City Hal in St. Marks - not exactly an urban setting....

City Hall in St. Marks – not exactly an urban setting….

The one and only grocery store in town

The one and only grocery store in town

Yes, it is a fishing town...

Yes, it is a fishing town…

There is no car wash in town - but wait, this is a fishing town, and they have their priorities straight...

There is no car wash in town – but wait, this is a fishing town, and they have their priorities straight…

You may recall from the last post the "rustic" restaurant with great, fresh seafood in Panama City called Bayou Joe's.  We found another one in St. Marks - overlooking the water, just as rustic, catering to the local fisherman - and fresh fish caught earlier that day - red fish, mullet, grouper - but don't expect a white tablecloth -

You may recall from the last post the “rustic” restaurant with great, fresh seafood in Panama City called Bayou Joe’s. We found another one in St. Marks – overlooking the water, just as rustic, catering to the local fisherman, with fresh fish caught earlier that day – red fish, mullet, grouper – just don’t expect a white tablecloth –

One more story from St. Marks. In 1850, a wood-fired, sidewheeler steamship named Spray started picking up passengers, mail, and cargo in St. Marks and bringing them downriver to ships anchored in deeper water offshore, then returning to St. Marks with arriving passengers, mail, and cargo. However, in 1864, the ship was commandeered by the Confederate Navy and outfitted with two guns – its mission was to guard the mouth of the river, which was seen as an entry point for Union forces to attack Tallahassee.  The Spray was involved in several skirmishes, and is credited with a critical role in preventing Tallahassee from ever falling to the Union forces – the only Confederate capital not to fall. Near the end of the war, the Spray was eventually surrendered to the Union and taken to Key West.  After the war, the Union Navy returner her to her owner, who then resumed service ferrying passengers, mail, and cargo to and from St. Marks. After he died about a decade later, the Spray was left idle and eventually sank. She has recently been found, and possible salvage plans are now being discussed.

With a long way to go to our next stop, a small town called Steinhatchee, we left as the sun was rising:

It was cold!  Forty degrees, and there was fog on the river.  I thought this was Florida?

It was cold! Forty degrees, and there was fog on the river. I thought this was Florida!

The early morning sun on the grasses of the salt water marsh was spectacular -

The early morning sun on the grasses of the salt water marsh was spectacular –

The 65 mile run in the open Gulf was more eventful that we like. A short ways out of St. Marks, we started to encounter crab pots, marked by floats on the surface of the water. Unfortunately, we were headed directly into the rising sun, so it was very difficult to see the floats with the sun’s reflection on the water in our eyes.  Sure enough, despite both Paul and I watching for floats, we snagged one that we never saw on the rudder/propeller.  We couldn’t get it free, so we had no choice but to cut the line (it was part of a string, so the trap could still be retrieved).  Fortunately, it did not get wrapped around the prop or do any damage, so we were able to continue. The rest of the day required focus and concentration to avoid getting snagged again.

Steinhatchee is little more than a wide spot in the road, but like many of these coastal/river towns that cater to fishing, it had a local restaurant where all of the seafood was caught fresh that day. It was time for an oil change for the Joint Adventure, so part of the afternoon was spent working with the mechanic from the marina changing the oil and doing some other minor maintenance chores.

So tomorrow (Sunday) we expect to get a one day weather window, in which we plan to head to our fourth stop on the Big Bend, called Crystal River. Shallow water and timing the tides at both ends of the run continue to be a challenge, so we plan to cast off at first light so we leave Suwannee on an incoming tide and reach the mouth of Crystal River before the tide is too low.  We then have an 8 mile run up the river as the tide continues to drop. We always try to obtain some local knowledge when conditions are uncertain, so we’ve been calling the local Sea Tow or Boat US/Tow Boat operator and getting information about shoaling, shallow spots, missing markers, etc.  They have been very helpful and always willing to share what they know.

Stay tuned!

 

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One thought on “WAY DOWN UPON THE SUWANNEE RIVER…

  1. Moss Hanrahan says:

    Jim & assorted crew members:
    Have been following this adventure from day 1 with much fascination and more than a little envy. An amazing glimpse into an America I haven’t though much about since reading Mark Twain. Thanks for sharing not only the adventure, but also your amusing and insightful musings. (must say Jim K, you are beginning to resemble a frightening river troll, but that may only be the resolution on my Iphone screen!)
    Keep ’em coming! MOSS

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