Make us your home page

Get the quickest, smartest news, analysis and photos from the Bucs game emailed to you shortly after the final whistle.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Lessons still flow on the Suwannee River

SUWANNEE RIVER — Cruising down this iconic waterway on a cool November morning, I couldn't help but feel sorry for millions of my fellow Floridians.

You won't find a better river to canoe or kayak in the Southeastern United States, but I'd guess that only a small percentage of this great state's residents have had the opportunity to see the Suwannee in its entirety.

Over the past 25 years, I've paddled and camped along the Suwannee's banks too many times to count. Each trip has been different. Some were leisurely; others true battles of endurance.

Each time I come away feeling fortunate and thankful for the experience and amazed that such a magnificent resource is there for everybody to enjoy, free of charge.

The Suwannee, well-known to most Floridians thanks to the song by the composer Stephen Foster, starts in Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp and twists and turns for more than 200 miles, emptying into the Gulf of Mexico north of Cedar Key.

But Foster, like most people, never saw, let alone paddled, what has become the state's most famous waterway. In fact, the composer picked the Suwannee not because of its raw, natural beauty, but because he just needed a river with two syllables in the name.

Unfortunately, the name Su-wan-nee has three. That didn't bother Foster. In 1851, there were fewer than 100,000 white people living here, so who would complain if he dropped a letter and changed the name to "Swannee."

In 1935 the Florida Legislature, tickled that somebody would write about one of the state's rivers, adopted Foster's Old Folks at Home as the state song and sentenced generations of the state's school children to misspell and mispronounce what many consider Florida's finest river.

This not-necessarily-insignificant trivia, however, seemed lost on the 21 college students accompanying me on my latest three-day sojourn down this "blackwater" creek.

My paddling companions were part of a new class that I was teaching called "Leadership in the Great Outdoors" which was offered through the University of South Florida St. Petersburg's Bishop Center for Ethical Leadership and Civic Engagement.

When I pitched the idea for the course to Dr. Harold William Heller, dean of the College of Education, I told him that there is no better way for students to get to know their strengths and weaknesses than to spend a few days in the wilderness.

The course attracted an odd mix: camp counselors and Eagle Scouts, student politicians and entrepreneur majors.

The class represented a broad spectrum of today's diverse student population: from a decorated U.S. Marine wounded during fighting in Fallujah, Iraq, to a freshman who packed enough clothes and cosmetics for a week-long Caribbean cruise. They all had one thing in common: the courage to venture outside their comfort zones.

Most met each other for the first time in class, but after a few days of paddling, cooking and sleeping in open-air huts, they became the best of friends.

There were a few tense moments, harsh words and sour looks. But fortunately, we had prepared ourselves mentally by studying the exploits of Sir Ernest Shackleton, a man once called "the greatest leader that ever came on God's earth, bar none."

A failed Antarctic explorer who missed his chance to be the first to the South Pole, Shackleton is beloved and admired by outdoor enthusiasts not for what he did, but for what he didn't do, which was lose a single man during his two years trapped on the ice.

Fortunately, the Suwannee has dozens of access points, which allow for a variety of day or overnight trips. It's also Florida's best camping river. You can take your pick of numerous spots to pitch a tent in the wilderness, stay in a state park or use one of the state's new "river camps."

The Suwannee River Wilderness Trail, with its cabins and camps strategically placed roughly a half-day's paddle apart, makes this ideal for those embarking on their first multiday paddling adventure.

The five-year, $10 million joint effort by the state Department of Environmental Protection, the Suwannee River Water Management District, various local and county governments as well as private businesses, was truly visionary in its scope.

For first-time paddlers and campers, stopping at a designated campsite, complete with fresh water, bathrooms and showers, fire pits, and elevated, screened-in sleeping enclosures, helps soften the hardship of an inaugural experience.

My recent trip couldn't have gone better and I have 21 witnesses to prove it. I'm sure that, like me, they are thankful to live in a place blessed with resources such as the Suwannee, which we are all bound to protect.

.If you go

Suwannee River

The upper Suwannee, the stretch north of Live Oak, is the most scenic part of the river. If you're planning a two- or three-day trip, put in at Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park in White Springs, paddle 40 miles downstream and take out at Suwannee River State Park near Live Oak. River camps are available at Woods Ferry, Holton Creek, Dowling Park, Peacock Slough and Adams Tract. Call toll-free 1-800-868-9914 for reservations. The Suwannee River Wilderness Trail has an office at 10499 Spring St., White Springs. Call (386) 397-1919 or go to florida

Lessons still flow on the Suwannee River 11/28/13 [Last modified: Thursday, December 5, 2013 3:46pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Rays series preview: Who are the Mariners?


    The Rays are back home again, duking it out with another club in the American League Wild Card chase — the Mariners, who have a slight advantage over Tampa Bay. Here's the information you need to know about Seattle before the action kicks off.

    Record: 61-61, third in AL West

    Starter Erasmo Ramirez will face the Rays after they traded him to the Mariners in July.
  2. Florida Gators' Malik Zaire: 'This is everything to me'


    GAINESVILLE — We're two weeks and one day away from the Florida Gators' Sept. 2 season opener against Michigan, and the quarterback position remains unresolved.

    "This is everything to me..." said Malik Zaire, the grad transfer from Notre Dame. "I have everything to prove, everything to lose."
  3. 1997 USF Bulls: Jay Mize, a 'relentless, fearless' safety and entrepreneur


    USF football alumnus Jay Mize, 39, poses for a portrait at Irish 31 Pub House & Eatery located at 1611 W Swann Avenue in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday, August 8, 2017. Mize, a member of the first USF football team, has evolved into an immensely successful businessman and entrepreneur and he owns the Irish 31 pubs.
  4. Revisiting the inaugural 1997 USF Bulls football roster


    The 1997 USF football team. (University of South Florida, USF Bulls)
  5. 1997 USF Bulls: Charlie Jackson navigates life's speed bumps


    USF wide receiver Charlie Jackson (1) strives for extra yardage as he is brought down from behind by the Citadel's Rob Nichols (29) in the first quarter on Sept. 14, 1997. (Times 1997)