I Break for Spelunkers

On Florida's Suwannee River, giving new meaning to the phrase "way down"

Jun 1, 1999
Outside Magazine
Access and Resources

The drive from Perry to Branford via Florida 27 is 45 miles. Make it 50 to launch your canoe at Peacock Springs State Recreation Area and paddle through the clear blue springs and along the white sand bars of the Suwannee River.

DON'T MISS: Gospel music at the Suwannee River Jubilee in Live Oak, June 17–20.
BEST EATS: Catch your own widemouth bass, redbelly, or catfish with crickets from M.R.M. Outdoor Sports Supply ($4 per bucket; 904-935-4867) in Branford.
TOP DIGS: Mayo's Le Château de Lafayette (doubles, $55–$75; 904-294-2332), an elegantly transformed former county courthouse with wraparound verandas.
INFORMATION: Suwannee Chamber of Commerce, 904-362-3071.

THOUGH THE OLD SONGWRITER NEVER saw it for himself, somehow Stephen Foster guessed right about the Suwannee River. It's a bathetic heartbreaker, the Blanche Du Bois of waterways. Sometimes when I drive across and glance down at the tannin-dark river, I think of an old maiden aunt who lives in genteel squalor with her bourbon and bonbons and a dozen obese dachshunds. Or I remember my Intro to Cave Diving course, which took me a thousand yards under the limestone bed of the Suwannee; it was like getting mugged in a coffin. And sometimes I'll think of both—the Old South expiring in an alcoholic haze and that cave dive—and I scare myself.

Truth be told, though, I can't stay away. I remember those gothic banks, the gnarled, mossy oaks bending solicitously over the river like a chorus of Elephant Man gentlemen callers, and know I must see her, privately, in the back room. At every turn—and she's all curves—the Suwannee seduces with the promise of intimacy and silence, of shade and sloth and cool compliance. A cane pole, a catfish, a hibachi; a jug of wine and that girl of mine—now that's easy recreation!

Just the other day, in fact, I drove down. As usual, the Suwannee country was utterly undefended by traffic. I made the one red light in Perry, and then I was looking at 60 miles of blacktop and trees, a straightaway so vast I might have been in Brazil. I passed only one theme park where, through a ten-foot wire fence in the jungle, I glimpsed a pair of overheated "Trophy Wild Boar" up to their beards in a wallow. Locals, I suppose, drive by this hunting camp with their rifle racks loaded and dream of being able to afford to shoot what's inside.

Down narrow leafy canyons shrieking with bugs I chased a puddle on the blacktop that I could never catch, and then slowed at last behind a battered pickup truck that I couldn't pass. A good old boy waggled his toes out the passenger window while a woman drove; in back was the towheaded brood, unwrapping candy and making themselves comfy on top of inner tubes. In downtown Mayo, under the staid old stone courthouse, they turned north, bound for the Suwannee at Peacock Springs, while I crept east down Main Street and then goosed the gas and raced back into the trees.
At Branford I crossed the iron-girdered bridge, passed the sign that read historic suwannee river and another that bore the lyrics of the first verse of Foster's song, and I thought, I'll show you "way down!" Just beyond the river, at the Steamboat Dive Inn, I parked and went inside to price some cave-diving gear.

I stood gaping at a rig of twin steel Scubapro 95s yoked with polished chrome dual-manifold valves, not cheap. Then Dustin Clesi, proprietor, came out from the back of the shop. We talked, and after a few minutes he pulled a roll of bills from his jeans pocket and tossed it onto the concrete floor. "A cave is a deep dark hole you throw money into," he warned. "Think about it."

All the lonely green way back to Mayo, I did think about it. I brooded on Suwannee River fun—the cheap fun that is floating on rafts and fishing with cane poles, and the costly fun that is shooting boar and cave diving. Then I took that northbound turn at the courthouse and headed for Peacock Springs. I heard the screams and splashes of children, the scrunch of hot rubber rafts. I saw the beat-up truck and the family picnicking in the shade near the water and, coming out of the water, elaborately laden cavers, a community of the downward-drawn elect. I plunged into the spring in my shorts and hovered in the cold azure, which deepened to black at the cave's entrance. Sink or swim? I could feel it in my genes, the Suwannee's call to come on down. I was thinking sink.

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