By Chelle Koster Walton
We anchored our rental houseboat outside the entrance to Manatee Springs and heaved the canoe into the warm summer waters to paddle into the cove. It felt like a cathedral, entering the springs, shaded by Spanish moss-shrouded oaks.
And then suddenly, our bare feet against the bottom of the canoe turned icy. The subsequent plunge into the deep, 72-degree, fountain-clear waters felt baptismal, cleansing, spiritual.
“You get to go to all these springs, you can get out and swim,” said AuthenticFlorida.com blogger Robin Draper, who recently paddled a four-hour stretch of the Suwannee River. “I didn’t realize there was going to be such a bonus to doing that.”
The last of the Suwannee River’s journey through Alabama and Florida takes it through the town of Suwannee, home to Suwannee Houseboats at Miller’s Marina. We did a two-day excursion – two moms, four kids – that took us into the heart and soul of Florida.
Prehistoric gulf sturgeon leaped from the waters, alligators snoozed on the banks, and we chugged slowly along the wide Suwannee, past slumping river homes and stretches of wilderness.
The Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge protects much of this countryside from development and is one of dozens of recreational areas along the river’s 206-mile course through Florida.
Manatee Springs State Park in Chiefland is another, where visitors can do everything from kayaking and biking to camping and scuba diving. The nearby 32-mile Nature Coast State Trail and Fanning Springs State Park enhance outdoor opportunities on this part of the river. Near Old Town, underwater sightseers look for the remains of the circa 1896 City of Hawkinsville steamboat.
The list of springs and parks continues up through North Florida, where the Sante Fe River branches off. River fans tube in tributary Ichetucknee Springs State Park, swim and snorkel in Ginnie Springs, camp in tents or cabins at Suwannee River State Park, rope-swing into the water at a local secret known as Bob’s River Place, and paddle a bit of white water at Big Shoals State Park near White Springs.
“You don’t paddle, you glide with the river,” Draper said of her upper Suwannee kayaking. “You don’t have to work at all. And there is wildlife everywhere!”
The main attraction around White Springs honors the man who put the Suwannee River on the map – although he never laid eyes on the river. The Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park features a museum about Foster’s music and a carillon tower that chimes his most famous songs, including “Old Folks at Home,” Florida’s state song, which begins famously with the lyrics “Way down upon the Swanee [sic] River….”
The folk song, inaccuracies aside, accurately captures the strong emotional ties folks young and old develop for the Suwannee. Many come to camp at the state parks or at Spirit of Suwannee Music Park, which also rents cabins and hosts live musical events throughout the year in its music hall and natural amphitheater.
Near the Lower Suwannee NWR in Fowler’s Bluff, take the backroads to stay at Treasure Camp on the Suwannee. Unfussy, cottages cater mostly to fishermen, who stop in at the convenience store-slash-restaurant for breakfast, lunch, and dinner with only a screen between them and river views.
Perhaps the most fitting accommodation for the Suwannee River, however, is a houseboat, a home that lets you live the river – from the soles of your feet to a piece of your heart that the river feeds.
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