Reverie on the river
In a rented houseboat on the Suwannee, a family rediscovers nature, peace and quiet, and themselves.
By LANE DEGREGORY
Published September 3, 2006
ON THE SUWANNEE RIVER
He steered us down the shallow creek, past the last house we would see all day.
There was the river: smooth and bottle-glass green, almost a quarter-mile wide. Pine forests and palmettos blanketed both banks. Water lilies bobbed between gnarled cypress knees.
We slipped into the slow current, heading upstream.
"You'll enjoy it out here," said Bill Miller, who was driving our rented houseboat. "It's like nothing you've ever imagined."
He told us to stay in the center of the river, to sniff for oil each time before we turned on the engine, to leave the anchor lights on at night. He told us we'd find big catfish, great swimming and a little restaurant a ways up, if we wanted to get back on land.
He didn't tell us about the darkness. Or the sturgeon.
"A few miles up from here, your cell phones won't work," he said. "If you need anything, use the radio. Of course, you can't always get a signal all the way up where you're going."
He climbed out of the captain's chair and turned the wooden wheel over to my husband, Dan.
Then he untied the little motorboat he had tethered to our floating home and said goodbye. My family was alone on the Suwannee.
* * *
Four days. That's how long we had booked the boat. Three nights of anchoring under the stars, the river rocking us to sleep.
We had never been on a houseboat. We didn't even know you could rent one, much less steer it up the Suwannee, until a friend told us about Miller's Marina.
When Bill Miller's dad retired from the Navy in 1970, he opened the little outpost in the town of Suwannee, 2 miles from where the storied river spills into the Gulf of Mexico. Bill's dad is gone now. But Bill and his wife, Gloria, with the help of Bill's mom, still run the quirky shop, selling everything from fresh bait to Bill's oil paintings of the tangled riverbanks.
The Millers rent canoes and cabins and campsites. And houseboats - the only ones available to the public on the Suwannee.
The 44-foot crafts have two double bunks, a futon and a semiprivate double bed in back. There's a full kitchen, bath with a hot shower, a living room big enough for eight people to play cards. The covered front deck includes a table, chairs and gas grill. On the back deck, there's a ladder for swimmers and a rope to trail a rental canoe. The canoe costs extra, but you need one if you want to get off the houseboat.
For about $1,200 - plus food - we figured our family of four could live on the river for four days.
* * *
Dan settled into the captain's chair that Friday, both hands clenching the wooden wheel. He eased forward on the throttle until we were at cruising speed: a full 10 mph. At that rate, we couldn't help but let ourselves slow down.
Sweetgum trees, towering cedars and scrubby spruce, magnolias bearded with Spanish moss slid past the cabin's wide windows.
Our son Ryland, who is 9, put down his Gameboy to watch a green heron dive for dinner. Tucker, 8, begged his dad to let him steer. "There's nothing to hit!" he kept pleading.
As far as we could see, on both sides, ahead and behind, there was only us, forest, wildlife and the wide, watery road.
So Tucker took over, with Dan at his elbow. And we zigzagged up the Suwannee like a drunken sailor.
* * *
The Suwannee carves a large swath through Florida's Big Bend, slicing the Panhandle from the rest of the peninsula. From its origin in Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp to its gaping mouth at the gulf, 15 miles north of Cedar Key, the river winds past the tiny towns of Live Oak, Old Town, Fanning Springs -- 265 miles twisting between woods and wetlands. Nearly 200 freshwater springs feed the Suwannee. Mother Jones magazine called it America's "least polluted, least obstructed" river.
Along the southern stretch of shoreline, 53,000 acres are protected in the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge. For 20 miles on the water, there isn't a dock or landing. You see the same unending greenery that American Indians and Colonial traders saw as they paddled up the river centuries ago.
Houseboats used to be able to ply 70 miles of the river. But since the other marina on that stretch of water closed, and Miller's is the only fuel source, rental houseboats now have to turn around at Fanning Springs, a four-hour cruise covering 40 miles.
We'd hoped to anchor there the first night. But after an hour on the water, timpani rolls of thunder started rumbling around us. Smoke-colored clouds began to sweep across the sky.
Dan started singing, "the minnow would be lost . . ." and we talked about Gilligan, the Skipper, their three-hour tour.
* * *
We anchored near Little Turkey Island to wait out the storm. Just after dark, the clouds cleared. From the houseboat's roof, we watched stars pinprick the black, black sky.
I had never seen such darkness. Miles from artificial light, quilted in thick quiet, it felt like we had escaped the rest of the world. The only sound was the lap of the river against our hull.
About 6 a.m., I woke to an enormous splash. It sounded like a bowling ball smacked into the river beside us. Dan and I ran to the back deck.
A minute later, we saw it: A shark-shaped fish, bigger than Dan, shot out of the river, arching 4 feet into the air. Like a reverse springboard diver, it did a half-gainer on the way up. Then it turned and fell hard, thwacking its armored side against the water. "What was that?" I cried.
Dan started laughing. "Sturgeon," he said. "I didn't know they came this far up the river."
The boys woke to our voices. For the next hour, we watched prehistoric fish perform all around us, dozens of them doing backflips, pikes and fast spirals. Who needs TV when Animal Planet is erupting all around you?
* * *
On Sunday, we motored past Manatee Springs, where every day 117-million gallons of crystal water bubble into the Suwannee.
The houses were thicker along this stretch. Custom log cabins with wall-sized windows stood between dilapidated homemade boathouses. One dock bore a sign, "No skinny dipping alone."
Just after noon, we saw a metal bridge straddling the Suwannee, the southernmost span on the river. This was Fanning Springs, where U.S. 19 crosses the water. We had come almost 40 miles, as far as we could. Any further, and we'd run out of gas.
Dan dropped anchor near a concrete dock at the state park. A steep flight of railroad ties led to the springs. We told the boys we'd take them to lunch at that little restaurant we'd heard about, then go swimming.
But by the time we'd changed into our bathing suits, black clouds had swallowed the sky. We didn't want to risk canoeing to shore in a storm, so we sat at the wooden picnic table in the houseboat's large living room, eating cheese and crackers, playing Yahtzee. All around us, lightning speared the dark water.
* * *
The rain lasted three hours. When the clouds blew off, we paddled the canoe to the dock, tied up and climbed the stairs. About a block away, on the other side of U.S. 19, we saw the sign, "Lighthouse Restaurant." It's about the only place along that section of the river where you can be waited on, which was nice after cooking and washing dishes onboard. The homespun seafood joint had a salad bar and full liquor bar and served fat stuffed shrimp, fresh grouper sandwiches and extra-tart key lime pie. The family ate big for less than $50.
Then we hiked across the highway and found a back entrance to Fanning Springs. A ranger asked for $1 from each of us, and we headed down a winding walkway, past a small kiosk offering pedal boats, corn dogs and ice cream.
A lifeguard was perched above the swimming hole. In the water, there must have been 100 people - more than we'd seen in days. Kids were diving off a tree house platform two stories high. In some spots, the springs were 28 feet deep here. All year, the water stays 72 degrees.
It felt freezing that summer Sunday, when the air was in the high 80s. Our boys didn't care. They raced each other to the tree house and shrieked every time they jumped in.
Below them, the water was so clear they could see forever.
* * *
No one wanted to go home. On Monday, when we had to head back to the marina, everyone whined. Dan and I plotted how we might come up with $80,000 to buy our own used floating getaway.
We watched a manatee nurse her calf in a creek. A turkey vulture took off from the shore. An alligator bigger than Ry slid past us.
"We have to come back and do this again. For longer," Dan said. This had been his idea of a vacation: four days with family on a spacious houseboat, floating on a river miles from anyone else, surrounded by little but wilderness, water and quiet. I hadn't seen my husband so relaxed in years.
"This has been the best trip ever," said Tucker, who was back at the wheel.
"Really?" I asked. "Better than Disney World?"
"Much!" Tucker said.
"Of course," said Ry, like that was a stupid question. Real sturgeon beat a fake mouse any day!
On the last leg of our journey, I started dreading writing about it. How could words convey utter darkness, pure silence, infinite wilderness? How could I describe the quiet time my family found together, escaping TV and PlayStation and cell phones, floating down Florida's most famous river?
They say Stephen Foster, who wrote Florida's state song, never actually saw the Suwannee. His loss.
Lane DeGregory can be reached at (727) 893-8825 or firstname.lastname@example.org
IF YOU GO
Miller's Marina is the only place along the Suwannee River where you can rent a houseboat. The marina is in the town of Suwannee, a couple of miles from the Gulf of Mexico, about a three-hour drive from Tampa Bay. From the marina, you can motor 40 miles up the wide river.
Seven houseboats that sleep up to eight adults are available for rent year-round. They include a full kitchen, hot shower, air conditioning and linens.
Prices vary, depending on the season and days of the week. On weekends March through November, the boats rent for $635 for two days; $916 for four days. Midweek, they go for $495 for two days, $835 for four days. Rental prices from December through February are lower.
Canoe rental, food and fuel are extra. The boat holds 150 gallons of gas. You don't have to pay docking fees; just drop anchor in the middle of the river and float to sleep.
No experience is needed to pilot the houseboats, but renters must be 21 and have a credit card. It helps to have two adults onboard to check the engine and haul anchors. Anyone older than 16 needs a state license to fish from the boat. Entrance fees at the state park are extra: $1 per person if you walk or boat in.
For more information, go to www. suwanneehouseboats.com or call Miller's Marina at 352 542-7349 or toll-free 1-800-458-2628.