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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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.

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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
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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