Not easy to find a multi-day paddling destination near Montana in mid-winter. I knew I’d have to be creative in the winter months, so I thought about places I’d long wanted to explore by boat, and places where I might know someone who could lend some advice. I thought of Florida. Almost immediately, I also thought of my brother, Craig, who is an inveterate birder who might be seduced by Florida’s feathered potential. I also have a friend, Joe Hutto, who lives in Tallahassee and who would be a really valuable asset when it came to cool places to check out.
I was stunned by how easy it was to convince Craig to join up, just as it had been easy to talk Grant into joining me in November. Craig had lots of vacation time accrued at work. We juggled dates around, talked about river candidates, and within days we had a rough plan. Joe said he’d love to escort us around to some of his favorite winter haunts full of wildlife. We settled on the Suwannee River in northern Florida, flowing out of the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia and winding south and west over 200 miles into the Gulf. The water was low, so we couldn’t start high up, but we identified a likely, mid-river stretch with riverside camps, some freshwater springs, or rises, and potential for solitude.
I flew into Tallahassee near midnight on Dec. 10. Craig met me at the baggage terminal and helped schlep the oversized food barrel and dry bags out to the rental car. We would have a week together, our first one-on-one trip of any consequence in decades. I think the last time we spent concentrated time together without the distraction of other family was back in the 1970s when we drove cross-country in my old Chevy pickup truck and spent some weeks knocking around Utah in the summer.
The 5 river days on the Suwannee would be bracketed on either end by days spent in Joe’s company. That first day Joe took us to Wakulla Springs, the largest freshwater spring in a state full of springs, a huge upwelling of clear water fueling a wild river that has been preserved intact for the better part of a century – alligators, ibis, egrets, anhingas . . . I don’t think Craig took his hands off the binos once!
The 5 days of river time felt exotic, coming as we had from Maine and Montana in mid-winter conditions. Spanish moss hanging in lacy beards from cypress and live oak trees, pocked limestone cliffs lining the banks, pure white beaches of flour-fine sand, dark tannic water through which sandbars appear like amber beds on the river bottom. More to the point, from Craig’s perspective, a landscape full of exotic birds – pileated woodpeckers, red-shouldered hawks, barred owls, eastern phoebe, kingfishers, red-headed woodpeckers, various warblers – you get the picture.
We had the river to ourselves, and the campsites were quiet this time of year. Miles of steady paddling down the dark waters with warm sun pouring down, stops on beaches to boil up hot drinks or have lunch, side excursions into the larger ‘rises’ of water. We had layovers with hikes along the Florida Trail (a 1,400 mile trail system that runs from the Everglades in southern Florida to the Alabama border – who knew!). The woods were full of birds, limestone depressions, cypress giants with ‘knees’ poking up all around them, and views over the quiet, sedate riverscape.
More important, for me, it was time together with a brother. Nothing earthshaking happened. And yet, something profound did take place. We shared time for a week. We talked about some difficult things in our pasts. We made food together, played cribbage at night, paddled in synch for hours at a time, shared silence, made jokes, studied maps. Just time, nothing more or less, and the gifts that bloom from it.
On the other end, another day of birding with Joe Hutto, and time at his home with partner Rita Coolidge (yes, that Rita Coolidge). Vermillion flycatcher, sora, ruddy turnstones, avocet – need I say more?
Very early on the morning of the 18th, we checked in again at the Tallahassee airport and made our way home via Charlotte and Philadelphia and Bangor and Dallas. December is checked off – another unfurling piece of water full of mystery and surprise, full of potential for more, and a reunion with a person I have known all my life, another unfurling pathway full of mystery and surprise and potential for more.