Suwannee, FL: the Blinking Light at the End of the Road

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The end of Country 349

A blinking red light in Suwannee, Florida warns that County Road 349 dead ends here, at the water’s edge. Surrounded on three sides by the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge, Suwannee might as well be an island. The closest town, Old Town, is almost 25 miles away down a stretch of road bordered by swamp, marsh, and water. People come for the water, the chance to live, work, and play where the fresh water of the Suwannee River mingles with the salty Gulf of Mexico. But no one forgets for long that the waters that give also take away.

Map

Photographer Anne Ledbetter and I came to Suwannee to learn about the famed Suwannee River and the people along the river. In 2016, we teamed up for the River of Dreams project, exhibited at Gainesville’s Matheson History Museum, to document lifeways, past and present, along the St. Johns River. Now, we’re focusing on the ‘river people of Florida,’ looking at people and places in Florida’s varied riverine cultures. So why not begin with the terminus of the iconic Suwannee River?

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Suwannee, FL canal

Anne and I arrived at Bill’s Fish Camp and Motel on a rainy evening. When we called to say we might arrive after 5 pm, they said not to worry, that the key would be in the room. Florida’s fish camps offer a taste of the ‘Old Florida,’ the quirky pre-Disney Florida that is slowly disappearing. We relaxed on the screen porch with a glass of wine and considered our options which were rapidly shifting.

Bills Fish Camp Marina
Bill’s Fish Camp Marina (Photo: Billsfishcamp.com)
Screen house
Cabins at Bill’s Fish Camp (Photo: Billsfishcamp.com)

Ominous clouds hinted that rain might be the dominant theme of our trip. We had hoped for sunny weather to showcase the beauty of the river and the town. The car was loaded with paddling gear so we could photograph different parts of the river. But, who wants a book full of gray rain shots? In reality, though, the rain taught us about life at the edge of the Gulf.

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Ominous clouds overhead

That first evening, Anne and I walked down the road, hoping the advertised  Salt Creek Restaurant both existed and was open on a Monday night. In the quarter-mile walk to the restaurant, only one car passed us. I commented that I could lie down and take a nap in the middle of the road and probably be safe. County Road 349 divides two bodies of water: the fresh water Suwannee on the left and Salt Creek on the right, both flowing to the Gulf. Fortunately the restaurant was open as promised, and the food was terrific. Only a handful of people were eating that night, but the large deck in the back suggested that the town’s population multiplied on holidays and weekends.

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Excellent seafood
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Salt Creek’s back deck
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Sunset view from the deck

That evening and the next morning, Anne and I walked around the town, trying to get pictures before the rain began again. The few people we saw driving around waved or stopped and said hello—it’s a friendly place.  And peaceful. I imagine that Suwannee feels much different when fishing boats line the boat ramps in high season. When we visited in the summer, the quiet felt relaxing and I could see why people move there. That and the fishing.

We saw a range of homes in town, from trailers to single family homes to large (probably weekend) homes. Many of Suwannee’s buildings were raised—even the Baptist Church. Flooding and storm surge are constant threats, and nobody in Suwannee has forgotten how Hurricane Hermine pummeled the Gulf coast two years ago.

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Clear Priorities
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Salt Creek Baptist Church
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A very tall house

Eventually the deluge began. It rained and rained. For hours, the radar was a kaleidoscope of green, orange, and yellow. Water pooled on the road, covering it entirely in some places. We were soaked. At that point, we realized that the kayak and paddleboard would remain on the car. No pretty river pictures that day.

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Road or lake?
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Rain spouts off the library

We drove to the Suwannee Library Technical Center to look at trail maps and regional information. While we spoke with the librarian, other residents dropped in. One man asked to use a copier, and someone else called asking about a notary. One woman, noticing that Anne and I were restless in the rain, invited us to an exercise class at her church. The school bus driver pointed out that the children ride the 24 miles up 349 to Old Town to go to school, a long drive for young children. Seeing how the library provided a hub for residents, I realized that the rain taught me so much about life in this river town.  And this is why I enjoy fieldwork, to step briefly into other worlds, lives, and perspectives.

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Suwannee Marina
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Houses along a canal
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Salt Creek dock

After the rain subsided, we drove east on CR 349 towards Fanning Springs. This part of the Suwannee watershed feels remote today, but it must have been virtually unreachable before this network of roads and bridges. Fanning Springs State Park holds the ruins of the first bridge to span the river. Once the people on either side of the Suwannee were connected, they held a square dance on the bridge to celebrate.

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We didn’t get what we came for, but we got what we needed. A reminder of the power of rain, water, and flooding and how the flows of these waters shape human lives. One library patron pointed out that recent rains had saturated the ground and made further rainfall or storm surge especially dangerous. The water has nowhere else to go but onto roads and homes, as we have seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. Florida is a state of water extremes, alternating between flooding and drought, something to remember as we march into the final lap of hurricane season. Suwannee’s blinking light and the guard rail below keep us out of the water, but it can’t keep the water off the road.

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Floridians in the Fjords

Paddleboarding through fjords surrounded by sheer cliffs. Drinking pure water from waterfalls. This is why bucket lists were invented. When I discovered SUP Norway’s five-day expedition through Naeroyfjord, or Narrow Fjord, there was no question—I was going, along with four other Floridians. This trip combined three things I love: paddleboarding, expeditions, and travel.

Fjord Map
Fjord Map

After months of planning, we flew to Norway in June and met our leader Titus Kodzoman and the rest of our team at a campground in Gudvangen. Kevin, Janice, and I arrived by boat which, Titus noted, was cheating since we previewed some of our trip’s highlights. But, I wondered, could the view from a tour boat compare with experiencing the fjord from a paddleboard?

 

That evening, our team bonded over a welcome barbeque and the ritualized branding of the cups. Titus gave each of us an individually branded cup which we promptly filled with champagne to celebrate our upcoming adventure.

 

By the following afternoon we launched our gear-laden boards from a small beach in Gudvangen. Titus issued everyone a 65-liter yellow drybag that held most of our gear, including clothing, sleeping bags, food, and tents. We strapped these bags on the front of the boards, centering them for balance. We paddled RedcoPaddle inflatable boards which we stiff enough to carry paddler and gear. To protect the boards, groups of three or four carried the loaded boards on and off the water.

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Ready to launch
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Carrying a loaded board
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Gear in front
Loading Boards
Loading the boards

Our first day was cold and rainy, a wintry day for us Floridians. We had debated for months about clothes and gear, and Titus answered a multitude of questions with unfailing good humor. He had posted pictures of smiling, happy paddlers in board shorts and bathing suits on SUP Norway’s Facebook page. They must be Norwegian, we reasoned—and packed heavier layers just in case. I wore most of them that first day, but I was never really cold.

 

Once we left Gudvangen, the stunning scenery captivated my attention, and I paddled along in awe. I kept looking upwards, craning my neck to see cliffs and the cascading waterfalls. I’m not sure how I didn’t fall backwards.

Glassy waters
Reflections on glassy water

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Over the next few days, we paddled through Naeroyfjord, one arm of the larger Sognefjord, and only 500 meters wide in some places. I see why so many tour boats and cruises ply the route between Flåm and Gudvangen. I enjoyed our boat ride but camping along the fjord was magic. 

 

On our second day, we stopped for lunch at the tiny town of Dyrdal. Arriving by boat is not unusual since the town has no road access. Ferries stop at Dyrdal and other places, bringing people and goods, but I wondered what it would be like living in a place accessible only by water.

Our breakfasts and dinners were mostly dehydrated camping meals, but Titus liked to surprise us with treats at lunch. At Dyrdal, he prepared a Norwegian lunch consisting of eggs, shrimp, salad, and salmon caviar. We squeezed the caviar out of a tube like toothpaste and were hooked after the first bite. Maybe it is the Norwegian equivalent of Cheez Whiz, but we loved it. It tasted like bacon—’liquid bacon,’ we called it. If only I could find it in the US.

 

The weather cleared up after the first day, but we experienced some unusual winds. Late in the day on our second day of paddling, our tailwind became a headwind, and we couldn’t make that night’s planned campsite around a headland in the wider part of the fjord.  It isn’t an expedition if everything goes as planned, so we discussed our options and decided to head back towards Dyrdal that night.  It was a good decision—we had a long day but we avoided paddling in the open, choppy waters of the larger Sognefjord when we were tired. Instead we enjoyed a lovely campsite with a wonderful view.

Taking a break
Breaktime
Tents
Home for the night

The next morning we woke refreshed and ready to tackle the long paddle to Undredal, our one “town” night in an established campground. Several people elected to take the ferry from Dyrdal instead of paddling, an adventure unto itself. The rest of us aimed for Undredal, around a headland and en route to Flåm.  Just before we turned into the main fjord, we battled an intense headwind for about 20 minutes. The wind stirred up the water, and passing tour boats created large wakes as motored by.  Around the corner, we received our reward: a downwind paddle to Undredal. Wind at our backs, we surfed down the small wind waves. A very happy group of paddlers arrived in Undredal that afternoon.

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Our Undredal campsite
Undredal Church
Undredal Church
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Taking a break

The sun shone brightly on our Undredal campground. We laid out our gear to dry while we showered in anticipation of dinner. Titus was taking us to a restaurant for a local meal. A meal that was not dehydrated! The town is known for goats and goat cheese, so it was not surprising that goat stew was the restaurant’s specialty.

Titus initially planned to paddle back towards Gudvangen on our final day, but the winds made that difficult. Instead we opted for a downwinder to Flåm, the larger of the two fjord towns. This was one of my favorite days—the weather had warmed up considerably, and I was ready for a swim. We jumped off our boards and swam in the cold water which, by then, felt great. Swimming underneath a waterfall, feeling the water pour over my head, was a peak experience for me..

Sweet water
Titus collecting pure water
Relaxing
Relaxing in the sunshine

None us had thought about what swam below us until Scott founds the ugliest fish ever.

Ugly fish
Who wants sushi?

Too soon we arrived at Flåm, along with several enormous cruise ships. What a difference in scale. Our days of isolation in the fjord were over. We piled our boards and gear on the beach, and Titus prepared a final treat: a barbeque lunchwith pølse, a sort of hot dog served with salad and onion bits. I rarely eat hot dogs, but in a Norwegian fjord, why not?

I was sorry our trip had ended but I learned that Norway and the fjords have so many more possibilities for adventure—paddleboarding, kayaking, and trekkinging. I look forward to seeing what new trips Titus develops. We also visited an outdoor store in Voss and learned about the DNT, Norway’s Trekking Association. I’m already plotting my return to Norway, and I know my fellow Floridians are doing the same.

Paddling into Flam
Paddling into Flåm
Pile of SUPs
SUP pile in Flåm
Our gear at the takeout
Gear at our Flåm takeout

 

 

 

 

 

 

Old Florida and New Plastics in Cortez, FL and Anna Maria Island

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A  mermaid’s welcome to Starfish Dockside Restaurant

Visiting Anna Maria Island and Cortez, Florida reminded me just how much Florida’s histories, cultures, and ecologies are bound to the sea. Heavy winds and water torpedoed our original plan of sailing and anchoring near Tarpon springs. So, on Spring Break Eve, Kevin and I changed course to small boat sailing and onshore exploration of southwest Florida. The white sands and clear water of Anna Maria Island had enticed us for years, and the promise of renting sunfish and lasers at Bimini Bay Sailing sealed the deal. We loaded our car with gear to cover almost any imaginable water activity and headed to our last-minute booking at Silver Surf Resort in Bradenton Beach.

Maop of Southwest Florida
Courtesy of Google Maps

The next morning, we drove to Bimini Bay on the north end of Anna Maria Island where we met Brian and his fleet of small boats. Anna Maria Island is small-scale and relaxed, especially compared to neighboring Longboat Key. Bimini Bay Sailing, however, carried relaxed tropical paradise to a new level, and the ducks and cat that adopted Brian seemed to agree. We discovered a slice of heaven on this mangrove-ringed tip of land, and a small water-based business living light on the land and sea.

Bimini Bay Sailing sign
Bimini Bay Sailing
Roosting birds
Roosting birds
Bimini Bay Trimarans
Trimarans in Bimini Bay
Sail and sup
Beach launching

On our first day, the winds were too big for small boats. Our friends Jill and Scott joined us with their sailing kayak rigs, so we kayak-sailed and paddled boarded in the bay. The wind subsided on the following days, and we sailed the trimaran, sunfish, and lasers.

Scott in the bay
In the bay
Kevin in laser
Laser
Setting sail
Launching the sailing kayak

By midweek, the wind drove us onshore, and we headed to the fishing village of Cortez and Mote Aquarium. My research on the St Johns River taught me a great deal about people and their ties to their river economies and ecologies. Now I hoped to learn more about these relationships in a coastal environment.

“The grill opens at 11:30, but the bar’s open now.” The self-appointed welcoming committee cheerfully called out as Kevin and I walked into the Starfish Dockside Restaurant. The Starfish Company and Dockside Restaurant lies in the heart of Cortez, Florida, described as a “real Florida fishing village.” We heard about Cortez several years ago from a sailing friend and were curious to visit this piece of old Florida existing as a counterweight to Tampa’s urban sprawl. Cortez sits just across the bridge from Bradenton Beach on Anna Maria Island, but it felt another world and perhaps another era.

Despite its location in the middle of vacationland, Florida, Cortez remains a working fishing village and reminds visitors that many Floridians have—and still do—live intimately with the sea. A statue of a fisherman and a sign describing the history of Cortez mark the center of the two-block historic area.

Waterman statue
Statue of Florida waterman
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Heritage sign in the center of Cortez

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In the post Civil War 1800s, commercial fisherman of English heritage relocated from the coastal Carolinas, drawn by the “wealth of fish, scallops, and other seafood.”  They named the area the “Kitchen” and developed a a thriving fishing and processing industry, shipping fish to Tampa and Cedar key by rail. A sign outside the Starfish Company showcases the harvest from the sea.

Harvest sign

“The place names on the map are a symbol of the proud tradition of commercial fishing in Cortez. They constitute a form of local knowledge that is derived from years of fishing the inland waters. Some of the names have been passed from generation to generation. Although the origins of such names have faded from memory, their daily use by Cortezians reminds us of the fishing folklore heard time and again on the docks of Cortez.”

As we ate our grouper sandwiches, the fishing boats made clear that this was indeed a working harbor. The Starfish Company is fairly small, but the larger Bell Fish Company and Cortez Bait and Seafood are nearby.

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The regulars know the drill at the Starfish
Starfish
Pelicans hoping for a handout
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Fishing boat

That Cortez remains viable is a testament to their tenacity. Over twenty years ago, Florida instituted a gill net ban, which pitted commercial fishers against sportsmen, a move that devastated many small coastal fishing villages. Cortez adapted and survived, but I wonder how fishers and others will adapt to the growing threat of marine plastics.

After lunch, we visited the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium on Longboat Key, one island south of Anna Maria Island. Driving past the sterile gated communities that lined Longboat Key heightened our appreciation for the friendliness and lack of pretention of Cortez and Anna Maria Island. Even so, our presence as tourists reminds me that our hotel and others have pushed fishers and other workers inland off the coast.

At Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, Kevin and I joined the others who opted for an onshore day. We saw seahorses, sharks, otters, and turtles. But, most striking and stunning, we saw sculptures composed of marine plastics as part of the “Sea Debris: Awareness through Art.” When I walked inside the whale rib cage, I didn’t realize at first what I was seeing. Then, I realized what I was seeing: the ribs were constructed of detergent bottles.

Plastic whale
Plastics!
Plastic turtle
Plastic turtle
Plastic jellyfish
Plastic jellyfish

 

I heard people muttering how sad it was, and I hope projects like this help us recognize the linkages between our use of plastics and the about the state of our oceans. Several years ago, I had my ‘year of plastics,’ where I learned about microplastics in the Caribbean seas and I hauled larger plastics off the Alaskan coastline.

Traveling around Florida constantly demonstrates me how our lives are intimately tied to our waters, rivers, and seas. Yet some now that warn that our “Coastal Environments are Collapsing“. Exhibits such as “Sea Debris” reminds me of their fragility, that so many lives and livelihoods, whether Brian’s sailboat rentals or a fishing village, depend on their health. What are we willing to do to insure the well-being of our waters and those that live in them and work on them?

Kevin
Sailing Kevin

 

 

Water Water Everywhere: Hurricane Irma

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Birds loved our post-Irma yard

I love water. Paddling, swimming, sailing, and surfing——bring it on! But after Irma, was it too much of a good thing? We’ve had droughts in Florida in recent years, and now, for the first time, we flooded. We were fine, but what about next time?

Over a week before Irma hit Florida, weather stations trumpeted dire warnings about a storm that would be wider than almost all of Florida. Kevin and I rarely watch TV, but the approaching storm kept us glued to the TV weather reports. And we prepped and prepped. We bought gas, grilling supplies, and brought critical gear into the house.

Fixings for Dark and Stormies
Every hurricane needs dark and stormy fixings
Wave riding kitty
Catching a ride

We went to One Love Cafe to hear the Shambles on Friday night. Then we waited.

The storm was supposed to hit sometime late Sunday night into Monday morning. Tropical storm winds were predicted for Gainesville. We tracked the storm as hit devastated the islands and moved towards south Florida, messaging with friends throughout the state.

By late Sunday night, we knew the storm’s track had shifted, but neither of us got much sleep anyway.

Bathroom command post
Bathroom command post
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Early rain bands
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The deluge

By midday Monday, most of the rain had stopped, and we went outside to inspect the damage. We were lucky — other than a small flicker, we never lost power.

Flooded lake and dock
Our new infinity pool!
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Backyard lake
Flooded street
Who needs streets when you’ve got canals

Flooded in! But we were still really lucky. No major damage. As the winds calmed, we took a water tour of our neighborhood. We paddled across our neighbors yard, out to 16th Avenue, and around the lake behind our house.  After being stuck inside for so long, we were all a bit stir-crazy.

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Paddling up our front walk
Katie paddles over our deck.
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Visiting our neighbors Marihelen and Paul across the lake

And then it was time for Dark and Stormies. After all the hurricane hysteria, we hadn’t touched our supply. We could start our clean-up the next day.

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Flooded garage
Vacuuming a flooded garage
Kevin cleaning the garage with a shop-vac
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Fish swim across our sidewalk

The next day Kevin and I emptied the garage of water, with a Shop-Vac and endless buckets of water.The streets stayed flooded for almost another week, thanks to a disagreement between city and county over drainage. Finally, a truck pumped the water into a sewer several blocks away. And we had our street back.

We got off easy, compared to others. But what about next time? Will rising sea temperatures lead to monster storms? As the map below demonstrates, Florida is a low state and especially vulnerable to sea level rise, whether or not our elected officials “believe” in climate change.

Florida sea level rise
(Map courtesy of Nasa)

We’re mostly back to normal, and a front of cold, dry air will wrap up the 2017 hurricane season. Now, as we look ahead, do we go back to “business as usual” or think seriously about climate change and how it affects our watery state.