The idea was a natural in every sense of the word: My family, eager to reconnect and recharge, was turning to Mother Nature.
We were planning a get-away-from-it-all escape. When jobs and school and meetings and clubs and little league all add up, it gets overwhelming. So my wife and kids carved out a couple of weekends to reach for the rare goal of leaving everything behind, going out to find nature, and spending time together. Our choice for the trips: houseboats on the Suwannee and St. Johns Rivers.
Never an avid outdoorsman, I had my apprehensions. But it made too much sense to pass up. On opposite sides of the north Florida peninsula, the Suwannee and St. Johns share ideal traits. They're remote, yet reachable. A brief jaunt along either and your mind quickly pushes away images of red traffic lights or interstate tie-ups.
And a houseboat seemed perfectly suited for our purpose. It would put us on the water, but also would allow for comforts such as air conditioning and beds, cookware and a bathroom. A bit like a floating hotel room, someone said, as we boarded for our first outing.
A hotel room with a door that opens onto nature.
A Whole New World
The plan was to commune with "Real Florida," the rivers and springs and woods that were here before theme parks staged rides and exhibits to look like rivers and springs and woods. My wife, Mary, said she was looking forward to the solitude. The kids, Sam and Julia, were eager to be wildlife scouts. A genuine adventure was in front of us.
That much became plain even as we approached Miller's Marine & Houseboat Rentals on Highway 349. The city of Suwannee is along Florida's west coast, in the area known as the "Big Bend," where the Suwannee River empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Alongside 349 on the drive into "town," houses and driveways gave way to woods, marshes and wetlands, letting us know we were putting a more hurried existence behind us for a while.
A quick stop for directions made it clear that nearly everyone in Suwannee knows the Millers as gatekeepers of the river. Gloria Miller welcomed us, and seemed genuinely excited about our trip. We were about to discover a little-known precious resource that she and her family and staff protect and take pride in. The Miller family is Suwannee, as we'd soon find out.
Jay is an easy-going Texan whose job was to prepare us for the trip, and he helped me put on my captain's hat with an orientation that was both informative and reassuring. Keep it simple, he said, and stay in the middle of the river. Sounded good to me.
The boat is the shape of a large rectangle. Ours was 44 feet from bow to stern (front to back), and about 14 feet from port to starboard (left to right). The cabin takes up most of the deck area, leaving a comfortable gathering area in front to watch where you're headed, with room for a table and four chairs, and a gas grill. And there's a small patio out back, with space for three or four people to stand along a rail and see where you've been.
Inside, a wonderful economy of space means there's room for plenty: one full-size "master" bed and two full-size bunk beds; a fully equipped (if slightly downsized) kitchen; a dining table and chairs; an adjoining living room area with a couch that folds out for even more sleeping room; a complete bathroom, with shower; closets and drawers.
And, of course, there's the captain's console, where the steering wheel and all the controls of the boat are housed. It was slightly intimidating at first. But I'd get my "sea legs" under me soon enough.
One allure of houseboating is that no special license is necessary; present your driver's license as well as a credit card (you must be over 25) and prepare for the open water. Orientation sessions before departing the marina equip "captains" with all the knowledge and expertise they need to navigate a successful trip. It's not exactly like driving a car, but you don't need to have served in the navy, either.
Onto the Water
We were briefed on the engine and the generator, the running lights and the radio. Soon, Jay was motoring us out to the river. There was a much smaller boat tied on the back, and he'd use that to head back to the marina. We were about to be under my command.
It was a heady, if somewhat nerve-wracking experience. The cormorant that flew over our heads must have gotten quite a laugh at first. I kept us in the middle of the river as we cruised northeast, but it was along a zigging and zagging path. Gradually, though, I developed a steadier hand. Soon enough, I could make the boat go where I wanted, when I wanted.
The lower portion of the Suwannee is a nature preserve, so we saw very little development or housing. Just our drifting boat along the winding river, and not a billboard or electrical wire for miles. This first trip was primarily a sightseeing mission, and the sights were spectacular.
The Suwannee winds this way and that, and green is the dominant color. The waterway is entwined with lush trees that either stand tall alongside, or sway with a relaxed droop over the water. Moss hangs leisurely from tree limbs, and lily pads creep in from the shore, making it hard to see where land ends and the water begins.
Young Sam and Julia had come ready to spot some alligators, and they were not disappointed. The big fellas just seemed to go about their business, mostly taking in the sun along the banks, or moving stealthily through the water with only their eyes emerging from the water to give their location away. The kids' eyes widened with every spotting. As we told them, this was no zoo. We were in the "gators" house now.
A small challenge came a little more than halfway through our journey. We were advised by Jay (and by the 12-page river map on the boat that I'm told was scouted and drawn by Bill Miller, Sr.) that Jack's Sandbar awaited. It was an area of extremely shallow passage, and we needed to stay to the port side. By now, however, I'd purged the zig-zags from my system. Good advice plus good instruction added up to no problem.
It was about five hours upriver to Manatee Spring State Park, and just north of there we made our turnaround. Along the way, the river provided a bird show like no other. Long-legged egrets and herons stalking and sailing. Moorhens loitering along the shore and water surface, and vultures lurking. We even tracked one cardinal for awhile, his red feathers providing easy reference along the green-hued brush.
Along the way we encountered a local fisherman, Larry Keene, traveling with a pug-nosed dog as a companion in his rod 'n' reel-laden boat. Larry was friendly and willing to chat, so we swapped stories. It didn't take long for the Millers to come up in the conversation. Larry eventually moved on, sending his best wishes to the family that he and his wife used to go on double dates with.
The Miller family had set us out on our trip, equipping us with the boat, the know-how and even admiration for the Suwannee. Now it even seemed they had a guardian on the water for us.
Into the Water
Our visit to the St. Johns River brought wider, straighter, more open traveling, and slightly more boat traffic, but basically the same hushed peacefulness on the water. The weather was warmer and we had brought more family aboard (sister-in-law Anne, brother-in-law George and niece Emily). The seven of us set out from Holly Bluff Marina, near DeLand, and headed just a short stretch south, toward Blue Spring State Park.
This time we weren't going to cover as much mileage, but we were going to get our feet (and bodies) wet. A digital TV and a DVD player were part of the equipment on board, but they didn't get turned on, or even talked about. Instead, once at the springs, we nudged the nose of the boat aground (on purpose), anchored, and jumped off to touch nature more directly.
Blue Spring is the largest spring on the St. Johns River. Its 73-degree waters run cool and crystal clear, and the kids had quite a splash once they adjusted for temperature. The kayaks we brought along let us explore, and at one point brought 5-year-old Julia and me right in the middle of a school of gar, many three and four feet long. Julia was amazed at their size (as big as her) and thrilled to see so clearly their long powerful bodies moving through the water so effortlessly.
After the spring, it was another ride downriver to find our anchor spot for sunset and dinner. The first try didn't go so well. We drifted to the starboard side, and soon found ourselves in a large patch of lily pads. But thanks to great effort by my crew (Mary, Anne and George) we motored ourselves out of entanglement and up the waterway to a more appropriate resting place. Anchoring went off without a hitch.
With the boat at rest for the night, the team shifted into dinner mode. I stood at the grill, watching sunset with the kids giggling and playing and the adults in kick-back mode. The river's evening scene played out, bringing true contentment.
As the sun nudged behind the treeline on the western bank of the St. Johns, a bullfrog symphony was in full rumble. Deep, echoing "voices" called and answered from invisible locations at every angle around us. We had settled around a bend to try to maximize the water in our sunset view. Tiny arrows of hazy yellow light found their way between the leaves to flicker on the gently rolling surface of the darkening river.
George spotted a great blue heron, and Anne saw a red-winged blackbird. We all made a couple of steaks disappear. When darkness came, we ducked inside the cabin to enjoy board game and, eventually, well-earned sleep.
Morning arrived with an alligator swim-by that thrilled Emily, Sam and Julia. We'd seen plenty of 'gators already, but most rested stationary along the shore. As the kids emerged onto the deck, they rubbed the sleep out of their eyes to glimpse a seven- or eight-footer out for its morning rounds.
Fishing was on tap now. As the rest of the adults languished over breakfast, George happily schooled the kids on the art of the cast. They caught nothing, mind you, but everybody came away convinced that they improved their ability to toss the line in the direction they wanted.
The kids each took turns helping me steer up the river. Long-necked birds called anhingas, gathered on hollowed logs in groups of two and three along the shore, spread their wings wide to dry them in the warm morning light. Turtles sunned themselves in a row of 10 on a felled tree limb. And a single bald eagle - spotted first by Mary - stood sentry high in a pine, seeming every bit the master of all it surveyed.
As I brought the boat back to the marina with a slight thump against the wooden dock, I was thrilled to be told by Thomas, the man who came out to help us tie down, that he'd seen worse efforts. As far as I was concerned that was a gold medal for boat docking.
Afterward, we drove around the bend to pick up the ferry to Hontoon Island State Park. Lunch there, with a kids' session on the playground, proved an excellent wind-down for our trip.
There's a peacefulness in puttering along in such scenery that's hard to quantify. You're at the wheel of a very large machine, so it's not all natural. Still you feel a part of a world that's larger than your job, your mortgage payment and your golf handicap.
Just enough of home for comfort. Just enough nature for adventure.
One delicious way to make a trip along Florida waters even more enjoyable is to combine it with a top-rate meal. Whether it's combined with sightseeing, fireworks, a sunset or cocktail hour (or all of the above), the dinner cruise is a standard at several classic outings around the state.
Based out of the Baytowne Marina at the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, the SOLARIS is available for dinner cruises, as well as dinner dances. A 30-year fixture on St. Andrews Bay near Panama City Beach, the Lady Anderson Dining Yacht presents a three-hour excursion that includes an all-you-can-eat dinner buffet and dancing. The Jungle Queen Riverboat Cruise offers a trip up the New River for an all-you-care-to-eat dinner and sightseeing cruise in Fort Lauderdale. The barbecue and shrimp fare has been a staple in the area for more than 75 years.
Pick Up the Pace
While houseboats are ideal for a sedate journey on a Florida waterway, a different signature Florida image comes to mind when it's time turn up the RPMs. Airboat tours combine the ability to witness nature with a jolt of raw speed.
At Billie Swamp Safari (between Ft. Lauderdale and Naples in the Big Cypress Reservation), the Seminole Tribe invites visitors to check out the Everglades, and airboats and swamp buggies are a couple options. At Grasshopper Airboat Eco-Tours in Cocoa, Captain Rick puts together a personalized, 90-minute outing in his custom-made rig. Visitors can look for alligators, native and migratory birds and other Florida wildlife. Boggy Creek Airboat Rides in Kissimmee feature outstanding views of bald eagles, herons and osprey among the cypress trees of central Florida.
No airboat rider should be surprised if they glimpse a gator in its natural habitat. At speeds of up to 45 MPH, these are true Florida thrill rides.
The idea was a natural in every sense of the word: My family, eager to reconnect and recharge, was turning to Mother Nature.