Sunday, May 20, 2018

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.


Captainís Corner: Catching a giant cobia

Cobia is the topic this week. Capt. Tom Markham, aboard the Simply Hooked, was beginning his daily bait routine. It turned out that one of the markers located near Clearwater Pass, surprisingly, had a giant fish waiting for him. The captain slid up t...
Published: 05/16/18

Captainís Corner: Tarpon showing up on beaches, bridges

This week shouldnít be a total wash out. While there is a chance of rain every day, it should only be sporadic. Hopefully it wonít dirty up the water too much. If you are a tarpon fisherman and look forward to their arrival like I do, then you are in...
Published: 05/14/18
Updated: 05/15/18

Captainís Corner: This is best time of year for bay area fishing

Itís the best time of year for fishing in the area. Tarpon can be targeted off of any of the bridges. The Gandy, Howard Frankland and Skyway are my top choices. While awaiting a tarpon strike, I kill time by dropping smaller baits for Spanish mackere...
Published: 05/13/18

Captainís Corner: Change tactics for fly fishing success

Most fly fishers would prefer minimum wind and cloudless skies to increase chances for a banner day. This has been a problem lately. The wind makes casting more difficult, unless very experienced, and clouds interfere with sight casting opportunities...
Published: 05/11/18
Updated: 05/14/18

Captainís Corner: Tips on handling burgeoning baitfish

Schools of baitfish have arrived and taken up residence in all depths. Birds are diving on them close to the beach, all the way out to the midwater artificial reefs. Farther offshore, bait schools might not be visible on the surface but can be detect...
Published: 05/11/18
Updated: 05/12/18

Captainís Corner: Buckle up, the tarpon are here

Tarpon season is here, and the fish are showing up in numbers along the beaches. While there have been tarpon in the bays and backwaters for awhile, there were very few schools cruising the coast until a few days ago. Then, seemingly overnight, big p...
Published: 05/11/18

Captainís Corner: Here come the tarpon

Itís hot, the water temperatureís right and itís May. That means itís Tarpon Time! Aprilís full moon seemed to have opened the flood gates for tarpon arriving in our area. Weíve observed some at the Sunshine Skyway bridge for a couple weeks. On a few...
Published: 05/07/18

Captainís Corner: Swash channel is full of life

Offshore winds the past week cleaned beach waters to that pretty shade of blue we often have this time of year. The swash channel is full of life as schools of finger mullet, whiting and threadfin herring go in and out with the tide, and schools of p...
Published: 05/05/18
Updated: 05/06/18
Captainís Corner: Fish return to normal migration pattern in North Pinellas

Captainís Corner: Fish return to normal migration pattern in North Pinellas

Warm weather has stabilized water temperatures, sending many fish into their normal pattern of migration in North Pinellas. Every year, large female snook start to trickle out to the west along the beaches, a few yards from unsuspecting sunbathers. S...
Updated one month ago

Captainís Corner: Bait moving onto the flats

Hopefully the strong east winds we had most of the week will settle down for the weekend. The water temperature is starting to climb, and bait is starting to move onto the flats. This makes fish more active and aggressive. When youíre planning your n...
Updated one month ago