Houseboating on the Suwannee River

By: Thomas Becnel

Houseboating on the Suwannee River is sometimes funny, usually peaceful and always memorable.

With apologies to Stephen Foster, here's a lyrical turn at his famous river, written from the deck of a rented houseboat by a weary captain who'd just savored the very freshest of fried catfish and the prettiest of pink sunsets.

"Way down upon the Suwannee River, far, far away. That's where our boat is keeling over. That's where the whole family sways.

"All up and down the winding river, badly we sail. Still steering like a drunken sailor. And the whole family on board."

OK, I'm no songwriter, but at least I cruised the Suwannee for a weekend with my wife, two daughters and one able-bodied photographer. Stephen Foster never even laid eyes on the north Florida river he immortalized. In the original draft of "Old Folks At Home," written in 1851, he used South Carolina's Pee Dee River. Foster changed the name because "Swannee" sounded better.

Good for him.

I'd change this story, portray myself as a stalwart captain, but truth is funnier than fiction. I mean, you should have seen me out there, over-steering madly, spinning the wheel one way and then the other. Our wake looked like a snake, weaving back and forth across the broad, tree-lined river.

By the third day, I had the hang of the wheel, more or less - but then my wife, Naomi, nearly grounded us on a sandbar.

Yet we managed, somehow, slowly cruising about 15 miles a day without sinking the houseboat, injuring anyone or losing our deposit. My daughter Rookie caught her first fish. My wife caught her first fish in years. My daughter Shanti caught some Zs on deck. I caught my first glimpse of a river otter, and Bert the photographer caught some fine vacation pictures of the family.

Of course, Bert almost got cut in half by an anchor line (more on that in a minute) so he was happy just to survive the trip.

No-frills Houseboating

We set out for the Suwannee on a Friday, and it took longer than we expected. The Big Bend of Florida, from Tampa to Tallahassee, is a good drive from just about anywhere, and the mouth of the river opens along one of the loneliest stretches of the Gulf Coast.

This is precisely why big-city visitors flee to Steinhatchee, a fishing village about 30 miles to the north, and Cedar Key, a more well-known weekend getaway about 20 miles to the south.

In between is Suwannee - the river and the town - which is remote enough to escape the cookie-cutter feel of Florida development. No fast food chains here. Just a diner or two, bait shop and fish market, along with a lot of old concrete-block cottages and a few new weekend homes. Other than fishing, it's hard to imagine how folks make a living here.

Finally, there's Miller's Marina of Suwannee Inc., which has been in business for more than 40 years, where we rented a 44-foot houseboat.

Our home for the weekend had no name and no pretensions. Lots of room, though, and lots of wood paneling. One bathroom (it's called the head) and one shower. Heater and air conditioner. Refrigerator, sink, stove and gas grill. Beds and linen for six people.

At the helm was the Holy Bible, a map of the river and a cruising manual that included this attention-getter:

"CAUTION: You, the CAPTAIN, are responsible for any damage to the boat. You must be alert to floating logs and debris, overhead tree limbs, rocks, shallow links, rocks, shallow areas, proper anchoring and docking techniques."

Our boat had a foot-long dent in the front railing where some rental captain hadn't been so alert. Gulp.

After we packed aboard all of our food and gear, owner Billy Miller gave us a brief tour, along with instructions on operating the generator, engine and radio. Then he demonstrated some common sense of his own. Instead of having us pull away from the dock - always the trickiest and scariest part of a rental trip - Miller piloted the boat out into the Suwannee and then took a skiff back in to the marina.

His final words: "Stay in the middle of the river, keep the shiny side down, and everybody's happy."

Anchors Away

We didn't cruise long before we stopped for that first night. Bert and I dropped the dual anchors, just as we'd been taught, and they held us in place along a 100-yard-wide bend in the river.

During the day, the Suwannee seems broad and flat, especially when you're in motion. In the evening, once you've stopped, light and shadow bring out the detail of moss hanging from the oaks and birds nesting in the cypress and cedar. The Suwannee becomes a different, more peaceful place.

At our first stop, Naomi and the girls fished from the front deck. Bert paddled his kayak. I jumped off the houseboat's roof deck into the river, creating a resounding splash, which might be why we didn't catch any fish that night.

We settled for steak, corn and potatoes grilled right on deck. It was a brisk September evening - the first cool spell of the year - and we sat listening to the waves slapping against the bow. Even the girls fell into a quiet mood, snuggled up against the breeze in a blanket.

Everything was perfect, except the boat kept swinging back and forth, like a pendulum, with the current pushing the stern toward one bank and then the other. We tried resetting the anchors, but that didn't help, so we gave up and went with the flow, literally.

Saturday, we continued winding up river, followed by a pair of matching houseboats filled with Florida teenagers on a church retreat. That made me concentrate harder and steer better, for fear of looking bad in front of my fellow rental captains. The girls took turns, um, helping me.

Soon we dropped out of the houseboat race for a bit of fishing. I borrowed Bert's kayak for a trip along a riverbank dotted with cypress knees and covered with fiddler crabs. I was sloshing around, worried about water moccasins, when I heard the high-pitched keening from across the river.

"Mommy caught dinner!" the girls chanted. "Mommy caught dinner!"

When I got back the girls were still jumping around, thrilled by mom's two-pound catfish. Then Bert caught a few fat cats, and Rookie got one, too.

We were all smiles as we headed upriver to Manatee Springs State Park, a popular stop on the Suwannee. The perfectly clear, cold water offers a sharp contrast with the warmer, murkier river. Besides the springs, there's a state park playground with picnic facilities. We didn't want to spend the night surrounded by other boaters, so we decided to head a mile or so upstream. That's when I almost cut Bert in half.

We couldn't pull in the anchors by hand, because the current was too strong, so I had to give the boat a little throttle to create some slack. We got one anchor on board, but somehow Bert got turned around with the other anchor line pulling tight behind him. He looked at me, and I looked at him, and I don't know whose eyes were bigger. I hit the throttle, the line eased up, and we both took a deep breath. When we anchored for good that night, Bert and I were more than happy with our first attempt.

We feasted on pan-fried catfish. The girls beat me in a card game called Speed. We fell asleep to the now-familiar sound of the river slapping on the boat.

Not So Far Away

On Sunday, we were content to take a leisurely return cruise downstream to Suwannee and Miller's Marina. No hurry and no worries, until Naomi got distracted by some birds and almost stuck us on a sandbar. Even that didn't faze us for long.

After a few days on board, everyone felt more comfortable, and relaxed. We were just getting into our houseboat groove, and it was time to leave. I started thinking how it'd be nice to make another trip with family and friends.

Again, with apologies to Mr. Foster:

"Way down upon the Suwannee River, not so far away. That's where a boat is waiting for us. That's where the whole family plays.

"All up and down the winding river, gladly we sail. Still longing for the old flotation. And the whole family on board."

Hey - I told you I wasn't a songwriter.

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