In the early 1990’s, a large live oak fell into Santa Fe River about a mile below the Rise. Its massive trunk and tangle of branches spanned the channel. The only way past was through a ten-foot gap along the south bank. It was just wide enough to make the tree more of a “feature” than an obstacle.
Years passed and the tree decayed. Small branches broke away and the sharp edges were worn smooth by decay and flowing water. Eventually, all that remained were the trunk and a couple of dozen thick, curving limbs. What had begun as a chaotic tangle of twigs and branches had been crafted by the flow of time and water into a beautiful natural sculpture.
Viewed from downstream, the snag was unremarkable—attractive in the way of driftwood, but not unlike the dozens of other snags on the river. As you got closer, however, the angles shifted and all those random features—the twisted limbs, the knots, the cracks and highlighted grains and stains—fell into perfect alignment to create the image of a singing lady; not a prim choir-girl with good posture, but an impassioned singer with a towering beehive hairdo that would have made the Bride of Frankenstein envious. Her head, tipped back dramatically and facing the sky and her long, slender arms, held high in front of her as though reaching for heaven, gave the singer the appearance of rapture incarnate.
We called her the Opera Singer; a name made more fitting by the fact that she made music. As the river water swirled around her thigh (or waist, when water was higher), it gurgled and bubbled in a way that created a lively percussion melody. With time, I came to appreciate her music as much as the singer. I often caught myself listening for it long before I could reasonably expect to hear it.
The Opera Singer became well-known to the local paddling community. Nobody made a big deal about her. She was a just beloved landmark that added color to paddler’s conversations. What could make an otter sighting more interesting than to say it was “a hundred yards upstream from the Opera Singer?”
Features like the Opera Singer remind me to listen to water. Snags, sweeps, boulders, shoals and the countless other objects that adorn all streams are often more than just visual features, they are musical interludes. Sometimes I schedule paddle trips on the middle Suwannee when I know the river will be singing.
Unlike most Florida rivers, the middle Suwannee is lined by massive limestone walls that extend below the water line. Over millennia, the flowing water eroded the rock at the water line. The resulting cavities range from small pockets to cave openings. Some are grottos lined with their own collections of smaller pockets at the waterline within their dark recesses, which adds a beautiful echoic quality. These features pop and sing and play delicate percussion when the wavelets generated by passing boats, splashing animals or even a stiff breeze enter and plop against their inner walls. Each pocket has a different note and volume, depending on its size and depth. The size and force of the wave also makes a difference.