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PADDLING ALONG WITH A SNAKE AND A SONG // SUWANNNEE SOJOURN

The Sherman boys wanted action.

"You know, whitewater," Tate said. "Rapids. Faaaaaaast water."

The Suwannee River has its share of rocks and shoals, especially when the water is low. But it's nothing like the wild rivers these boys from New York had seen in the movies.

"This is Florida," I explained. "In case you haven't noticed, it's flat."

Despite its slow, seemingly nonexistent current, the Suwannee will carry a canoe south at a rather melodic pace.

A romantic might even think it was a trip like this that inspired Stephen Foster to write our state song 150 years or so ago.

"Way down upon the Swanee River, Far, far away. There's where the old folks stay."

Fat chance. The truth is, Foster never saw, let alone paddled, this stretch of water. In fact, the composer just wanted the name of a river with two syllables. He looked at a map of Florida, saw "Suwannee" and figured that nothing but alligators and Indians lived there, so who would care if he dropped a few letters in the name of art.

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, misspelling and all.

It's a good story, and telling it helps pass the time on a morning so cool even the gators won't be caught hanging around.

"If you want something to do, look for old folks," I told the boys. "According to the song, this is where they roam."

The boys looked around, then pointed at their father, in the stern of the canoe. "We'll have none of that," he said.

Bob Sherman is no kid (he played baseball for Florida State when Eisenhower was president) but it wouldn't be fair to classify him as one of the "old folks."

To children, however, anybody out of high school is ancient. And once his sons discovered that he knew all the words to the song, they were certain he must have been around when it was written.

By noon the lads had had their fill of Foster's lyrics and their father's golden voice. Their cries for action gave into demands for relaxation.

A cluster of flattened rocks sticking into the water provided the perfect place to stop. I spied a clean, sunny spot, checked my environs for reptiles and went to sleep. My brother-in-law followed suit. Fifteen minutes later, my dreams were interrupted.

"Hey, what's that thing curled up next to Dad's head?" a voice asked. "I don't know," said another. "Looks like a snake."

Now the natural reaction for a human awakened from a deep sleep by a one-syllable word such as "fire" or "bomb" is panic. But spending time in the wild has a way of settling nerves. You become calloused to danger and discomfort.

Besides, they said the snake was next to Dad's head, not Uncle Terry's. "That's a snake all right," I said, gazing at the reptile huddled in the rocks. "Cottonmouth. Good thing you didn't roll over."

That kept the boys laughing for an hour or two, but by 3 p.m., they were ready for camp. It seemed like every turn in the river presented a promising site, but, upon closer scrutiny, each proved unsuitable. "Not enough wind _ buggy," I'd say. "Too open _ bad in a storm."

Finally, after four or five stops, the younger boy could take no more.

"Please, Uncle Terry," he pleaded on his knees. "I'm tired. Don't make me paddle anymore."

Even his father, who had seen the show before, was moved. "Look at that face," he said. "How can you refuse?"

I thought about it for a second, a very brief second.

"In the canoe," I said, turning my back on the prostrate youth. "We've still got an hour of daylight. Start paddling."

They wanted action. Action they would get.

Upon Suwannee River

Stretching from the Okefenokee Swamp to Branford, the Suwannee River offers more than 200 miles of wilderness canoeing.

The Canoe Outpost in Live Oak offers day and overnight trips from 6 to 234 miles.

Bring your camping gear. Canoes are available for $17 a day, and transportation is additional.

For information, write the Canoe Outpost, Suwannee, Route 1, Box 98A, Live Oak, FL 32060, or call (800) 428-4147.

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