Like the Jack Daniels’ in my guide’s hip flask, the Suwannee River colours my dangling feet in a warm amber wash. We are somewhere in Georgia, above the Florida state line when we paddle our Crayola-coloured kayaks around another serpentine bend. Six good ol’ boys are standing crotch-deep in the whiskey waters, the golden hue no doubt being further enhanced by the beer flowing down their throats.
I snap a quick photo, labeling it in my mind…Wildlife in their Natural Habitat. I spot John Vassar, my overweight, diabetic, quadruple-bypassed river pilot, gesturing and talking from his kayak. In his khaki duds and his larger-than-life moustache he looks like the Quaker Oats man dressed for a jungle tour. As Pamela Bethany, a health company IT worker from Atlanta, and I paddle closer, someone yells in a thick Southern slur, "Which one of you-all is the foreigner?" Foreigner sounds like furr-ner and I silently curse Vassar for paddling ahead. He must have told them there was a Canadian coming down their river. Another man points at me and yells, "It must be that one with the camera!" I freeze a smile onto my face, pull my legs in, drop my Sony in my lap and paddle harder, wishing desperately that the river was wider.
I skirt around them as far as possible, hoping I don’t give off the scent of panic. "Hey!" drawls the first one, "make sure you-all send us the picture!" My grin starts in my belly and spreads to my face.
"Send it to www.redneckpepper.com!"
It’s my third day way down upon the Suwannee River…and I’m lovin’ it.
The Suwannee River Wilderness Trail is a 207-mile watery path that rises from the Okefenokee Swamp in southeastern Georgia, wending a south-western snaky path through eight counties in Florida to the Gulf of Mexico.
Along the way it is fed by mysterious springs that bubble up between the cypress, oak and tupelo trees and the tributaries of the Alapaha, Withlacoochee and Santa Fe rivers. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the Suwannee River Water Management District and all the cities, businesses and citizens of these counties have banded together to manage this newly protected system. There are already screened sleeping platforms and covered-shelter cooking sites at some of the campgrounds. The completed project will include some form of accommodations every ten miles so that even a novice paddler can complete an easy day-trip before pulling in for the night. The work is ongoing and not quite on target as plans get modified and set back from hurricanes and floods.
But already the range of accommodation is impressive. The night I arrived I was booked into the Stephen Foster Park cabins. Naively, I envisioned, well…a cabin. I did not expect to find myself in a deluxe two-bedroom house with a wrap-around screened porch, rocking chairs, full kitchen, fabulous couches and deluxe stereo system. I wished I’d booked it for a week and had flown down a few friends to enjoy it with me. Instead, I rambled about, finally tucking in under a patchwork quilt with a jetlagged sigh.
The next morning, I am writing in my new favourite screened porch when Vassar arrives, right on schedule at 8:00 a.m. His arrival temporarily stops the chattering squirrels and crickets outside the porch. My guide is wearing a Columbia shirt, shorts, a felt hat, a lethal-looking knife tucked into his back belt and a grin that would put even a skittery cat at ease. Seems we need to have eggs, grits and watery coffee at the Suwannee Diner before starting our voyage. Bethany, someone Vassar knows from his regular day-job of managing health claims, will be joining us tomorrow for her own little escape from her regular life of husband, child and work.
But first, Vassar and I will be traveling on our own. His truck is stuffed with packages of food, bottles of water and gear, mixed in a jumble-sale mess. He drives us to the ramp. It’s October and it’s hot. I feel my shirt sticking and despair at ever getting all this crap stuffed in the kayaks. It’s sweaty work, and as usual, I’m having my silent first-day-of-the-trip regrets. Vassar reviews safety, handing me my life vest that "will not be removed" and finally allows me to wiggle into my boat. Pushing off, my Inner-Whinge is silenced. I am instantly transformed. No longer am I a sweaty awkward land mammal. No, I have become a gliding sleek amphibious creature, at one with the river breeze. I feel the current hold and carry me. I’m happy.
The paddling is easy. The impossibly wide trunks of the cypresses narrow as they rise to the blue skies. I drift with the steady stream, watching the brown clear water run over my toes as I hang my legs over the bow of my boat. The oaks spread their fingers up, and out, reaching for the impossible. I realize I am staring, mindless, yet mindful, the way one stares at aquariums or camp fires. The way one stares when thoughts have finally abated and nature has taken her Zen hold of calm.
There is silence, save for the rolling sound of desire from the cicadas hidden among the cypresses that drape their shadowy mossed arms overhead. When we drift into sync together, Vassar keeps up the patter of a man interested in his world. The landscape is surreal to me. He explains how the river is steeped in tannins from the trees, a colour so rich and yet the water so very clear in its orangeness. It is the type of swampy world where a dinosaur chewing in a giraffe-lipped mimic at the tree tops would not be out of place. I find myself looking up – a lot.