Thursday, February 22, 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.


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