Mixsonian Morrs and Barbara Larry

Way Down the Swannee River

Original Lyrics
by Stephen Foster  

Way down de Swanee Ribber
 Far, far away,
Dere’s wha my heart is turning ebber,
Dere’s wha de old folks stay

In the summer of ’67 Dad took David and I on a three day, two night canoe camping trip down the Swannee river.  The second largest river in Florida, Swannee river is 246 miles long and is one of the longest unmodified, natural riverbeds in the United States. The river water itself is a dark brown or tea color due to the tannic acid from the swamps that drain into it.  Made famous by Stephen Foster’s song, “Old Folks At Home” which most people know by the first lines, “Way down upon the Swannee River. Far, far away.”, which became the Florida State song, although modified to be less offensive such as substituting “brothers” for the original “darkies”. 

Dad had the trip all planned out, three days, two nights, Coleman stove, camping cooking pots, ice chest, plates, food, water, tent sleeping bags and of course food for the three of us.  The day came and we loaded the canoe on the top of the station wagon and put all our camping gear in the back, with Mom in the car, Dad drove to a road crossing over the northern Swannee river above White springs.  After unloading the canoe, the camping gear, and loading it into the canoe, it was a good thing it was a 17 foot canoe for it was pretty well filled up.  We said our goodbyes, and “we will see you in three days”, to Mom and set out down river while Mom drove the car home. 

We took up our usual positions, Dad in the back, David in the middle and me at the bow and paddled out into the current of the river and turned downstream. It was a beautiful summer day, bright and sunny, and warm with an occasional puffy cotton ball cloud in the clear blue sky, with the trees on the bank across the river having mirror image reflections off the calm river water, with ripples spreading out from the bow of the canoe as we dipped our paddles into the dark tea colored water.  The Swannee River moves at a good two and half to three miles an hour so it carried the canoe along pretty well with about the only paddling we had to do was steer around the bends of the river or avoid the occasional floating log.  The river is mostly in its natural state with large cypress, oaks, magnolias, and pines along its shores.  We could go several miles down the river and not see any houses or development and the only sounds were the call of the birds or occasional grunt of an alligator.

With the current mostly carrying us along we had plenty of time to observe the wildlife along the river.  There were the usual alligators sunning on the banks of the river but we didn’t pay them any attention as we had seen many an alligator before, although these did seem to be a bit bigger.  Water birds abounded, herons, ducks, an occasional kingfisher flashing among the lower branches of trees, anhingas, coots, ibises, great white egrets, comorants which would often been seen sitting on a branch with their wings outstretched to dry after diving in the river.

We didn’t talk much, Dad never did, but we were fine with that with so much to see. Other than the occasional “look at that”, or “look over there”, or “what is that”, which Dad would always know and would tell us, we traveled in silence.

When lunch time came we pulled up on a sand bar where we got out and had sandwiches which Mom had made for us and kept in the ice chest.  After lunch we proceeded down stream until late afternoon where we again found a sandbar to spend the night.  After pulling the canoe up on the sandbar, we set up our tent and then changed into our swimming trunks and went swimming in the river.  The dark tea colored water was refreshing and clean, but you could only see the white sandy bottom up to about knee height which always bothered me for you didn’t know what was in the deep dark water.  It didn’t bother Dad and David though and they swam out into the deeper water and followed them.

Dad made hamburgers for dinner, and then David and I collected wood along the shore which Dad made a nice fire with, and we sat around well after dark.  When it was time for bed I looked up a the night sky, with the tall trees on both sides of the river, dark with the night, it was like being in a valley looking up and seeing only a narrow strip of the stars above.  Later in the middle of the night I had to get up and pee and went outside found that the moon had risen casting the sandbar in a vivid ghostly white contrasting against the blackness of the river.

The following morning, I woke early to the smell of coffee and bacon cooking. As I crawled out of the tent, I saw Dad had gotten up early and had started breakfast, bacon, and scrambled eggs. David, always the sleeper, didn’t get up until the last minute.  After cleaning our dishes in the river using the white sand to scrub the pans, we loaded up the canoe and set out downstream.

The most interesting thing for me was when we rounded a bend in the river and there at the next bend a half mile or so downstream was what appeared to be a very large white limbed tree. As we paddled closer, I could see the tree was dead and thus why its limbs were white, but the most interesting thing was there were two dozen or more vulture, or buzzards as we call them in the south, sitting on its white branches.  I had seen such a tree with vultures before out in the middle of the Grandpa and Grandma Mixson’s cow pasture was a single white limbed dead tree in which there always seemed to be three for four buzzards sitting in it, but the white tree on the river was four times as big and had four times the number of buzzards.  It was downright spooky, as we got closer the white buzzard tree reflected off the blackness of the river reminding me of some scene from Dante’s Inferno and the river Styx.  Were the vultures waiting for us to die or steal our souls as we passed under the tree?  We were silent as we paddled by and around the bend.

Later in the day we came upon some of the first civilization we seen all day as we passed White Springs where the Stephen Foster memorial and State Park is but it only was for a short distance before we were again alone on the wilderness of the river.  We ate lunch on a sandbar and pulled up on another late afternoon for the night where we again went swimming, fixed dinner and had a good night sleep in our tent.   After breakfast the next morning we again set out on the river.  We didn’t have far to go that third day and reached the takeout point where a road crossed over the river and didn’t have to wait long for Mom to arrive to pick us up. 

Note: Foster himself never saw the Suwannee River, or even visited Florida, but nevertheless Florida made "Old Folks At Home" (the Suwannee river song) its state song in 1935.

Updated: 10-07-2023

10th Grade