Bzzz… something flew past my head. “What was that?” I said, instinctively ducking.
There was a second ‘whoosh’. I ducked again and looked up in time to see two fuzzy black bee-looking insects dive-bomb my son, who hiked ahead of me.
“Just bees,” he muttered. He neither ducked nor dived. “Ignore them and they’ll go away.” He was always the more practical one.
The buzzing sound in the air rose in a crescendo as we reached the pond. Hundreds of fuzzy black bees hovered, dived and danced over the water, circling the wooden overlook.
What the heck? “It’s a swarm!”
My son gave me that teenager eye-roll. “Mom, you’re just freaking out over nothing.”
The bees circled around us and the overlook. The picturesque pond lost its appeal.
“Yeah- I am- but this place isn’t for people- I’m going back to the car.”
I started on the path back and got dive-bombed again- three persistent bees, intent on escorting me away from their little haven. I picked up my pace, noting my son and husband had absconded the little adventure too. Our daughter already waited at the car, whacking her arms as the local mosquito population descended on the afternoon to forcibly accept blood donations.
We were deep in the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge on the Nature Coast. What started as a family beach outing, took a turn into Florida’s wilder side. And it all began because of pirate gold.
Accidental Adventures On the Lower Suwannee Wildlife Refuge Driving Trail
Accidental adventures are the best. What started out as a family beach day took a turn deep into Florida’s wilder side, and our family of four found ourselves in the heart of the Nature Coast in the Lower Suwannee Wildlife Refuge.
About the Lower Suwannee Wildlife Refuge
Many people think of Florida as sugar-sand beaches, sparking clear water and swaying palm trees. While the sunshine state does offer all three, it has a lot more. Many visitors won’t experience the wilder side like the Lower Suwannee Wildlife Refuge. With 53,000 acres of wetlands and wild landscapes, it provides a haven for the area wildlife, protects the lower Suwannee River environment and acts as a natural buffer zone against gulf hurricanes.
Early that morning, with a packed picnic of Publix subs, we loaded the kids in the car and headed out on Highway 19 to a little-known beach for some much-needed relaxation and fishing. US-19 is known as the straightest road in Florida. It runs through farmlands and rural communities.
Somewhere between Bronson and Chiefland, we flew by a sign marked ‘Fowler’s Bluff’.
“Isn’t that the pirate place you were talking about?” My husband asked.
A couple of weeks earlier, while researching the How to Host a Pirate Week for Kids article, I accidentally stumbled across a news story about pirate gold near Chiefland at Fowler’s Bluff. Who knew that sleepy Chiefland, Florida had once been a hot-bed for pirate-activity!
“Yeah, that’s the place.”
He literally did a U-turn on the empty highway and shot down to road for Fowler’s Bluff. Our beach expedition took an unexpected detour. One long straight road cut through rolling farm pastures and past a dusty gas station.
Florida’s Pirate Pit-Stop Near Chiefland
The thought of ruffian pirates roaming the pastures seemed incongruous, but the likes of notorious buccaneers Jean Lafitte, Billy Bowlegs Rogers and Black Cesar arrived by sea- sailing their ships up the Suwannee River to Fowler’s Bluff.
The curve in the river at Fowler’s Bluff was the perfect place to careen- or heave down their ships so they could tilt them to one side to clean the barnacles off the hull. A barnacle-free ship meant a faster run and allowed them to escape the British and US naval ships hunting them down.
Essentially, Fowler’s Bluff was a boat maintenance pirate pit-stop. And in time legends accompanied the pirate visits.
Pirate Treasure at Fowler’s Bluff
One such tale wormed its way into the public’s attention in a 1940’s Saturday Evening Post article. It told of an old sailor who on his death bed passed on a treasure map and the location of three chests of pirate treasure. Gold, silver, and jewels, hidden at Fowler’s Bluff by Captain Jean Lafitte.
The awardee of the map, Emmett Baird, spent his life looking for the lost pirate treasure. It’s said he may have even discovered one of the chests of gold, as he vanished and reappeared, albeit wealthier, a successful businessman in Gainesville. But murmurs of the legendary gold continued and this pirate treasure was hunted by many a man, and said to bring a curse as well. Every so many years the story of Lafitte’s hidden treasure chests reappears in the news when another soul tries his luck seeking the gold hidden at Fowler’s Bluff.
Fowler’s Bluff is a tiny community along the Suwannee River. Even though it’s 15 miles from Chiefland, its still considered ‘Chiefland’. There’s a fire station. A public boat ramp and a single restaurant, the rustic-looking ‘Treasure Camp on the Suwannee’, with a deck view of the river.
Florida was isolating the day we arrived in Fowler’s Bluff, and the place was closed, so we couldn’t ask about the local treasure legends.
The boat ramp is a steep run into the Suwannee, and so far away from the rest of the world, it remained open. We drove through the small town. Houses lined the river, tall cypresses and swamp stretched out along the opposite side of the road. Where would a pirate bury his loot and why?
We had been watching Outer Banks on Netflix earlier that week- it was a good old-fashioned teenage treasure hunt, a nod to the iconic Goonies movie from the 1980’s, so we had treasure hunting on the mind, however a quick perusal of the landscape was more than what Fowler’s Bluff required. People had been hunting for this pirate gold near Chiefland since the late 1800’s. At one time even the US War Department was involved in the search, as was a professional treasure hunter with modern sonar equipment. Perhaps this was one legend that would remain a history.
We vowed to return- even if just to grab a bite at the Treasure Camp with a scenic view of the bluff. And maybe with a shovel 😉
A Suwannee River Hike and Cottonmouth Snake
No one can come upon the Suwanee River without thinking of Stephen Foster’s song, and our drive took us ‘way down upon the Suwannee River’ and onto the Lower Suwanee National Wildlife Refuge. The ‘River Walk’ sign was a beckoning beacon and a much-needed break to stretch our legs.
Would there a place to toss a line and catch a fish? And maybe reconsider where a pirate would actually bury three chests of treasure. In various stories, I had seen different locations mentioned- under ancient oak trees and also stuck in quick sand.
Seriously, have you ever tried to dig a hole by an oak? Too many root issues. And quick sand? Does Florida even have quick sand? Perhaps they were talking spring boils? But that would be under water and impossible to dig out. My husband suggested that marsh muck could be misconstrued as quicksand- the kind of embankment that looks solid, but when you step on it you sink into it. Our daughter had her brand-new sneaker sucked straight off her foot a few years back by salt-marsh muck. It looked like a beautiful strip of sandy beach but- whoa—she donated that shoe to the earth that claimed it and I managed to pull her out.
With those thoughts bouncing in my brain, we parked up and headed down a wooded path with swamp on either side. We passed a swarm of yellow bees rising out of a hole in a tree. Even though it was a sunny day, the earth smelled dank and damp, as if it had just rained. Rays of sunlight filtered through the bright green canopy around us. We were surrounded by nature with not another soul in sight.
A boardwalk stretched over a swampy area to the river. It wound around the cypress trees and zig-zagged through the landscape. The kids had rushed ahead. My husband and I followed more slowly. Stopping to read the information plaques on the boardwalk. We paused beside one. On it was a picture of a Cottonmouth Snake- aka water moccasin. As if in unison, we both looked down into the marsh, as if expecting to see this venomous snake by its sign, and then laughed at the randomness.
An observation tower overlooking the Suwanee awaited at the end of the boardwalk. The crisp blue river stretched out before us, with not a boat to be seen. A fishing lure dangled in the breeze, snagged in a tree over the river. Just as I was wondering how to retrieve it, my husband pointed down. Near it, in a bed of dead brush, a thick brown and black mottled snake stretched out enjoying the sun.
Water moccasin! It just wasn’t near the sign. Its body was as thick as a man’s arm, but the head hidden from view by the dead twigs in the cozy sun-bed nest. Respect the snake- especially a ginormous venomous one. I took photos and we hung out at the river for a while longer before heading back.
Suwanee River Walk Trail
The River Walk is a 2/3-mile loop trail from the visitors parking lot and out to the Suwanee River. It is located near the north entrance and headquarters of the Suwanee River National Wildlife Refuge. There are other hiking trails accessible from the trail head. It is a fee-free area.
The Lower Suwanee National Wildlife Refuge Nature Drive
½ a mile south of our River Walk trail adventure, we turned onto a lime rock road, the North Entrance of the 9-mile nature drive through the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge. My son had taken me on another social-distancing adventure through Goethe State Forest a week earlier, and I fully expected this nice hard road to turn into a 4WD adventure, but this road was well maintained, so there were no deep ruts or difficult maneuvering required on the main road.
Blood Donations, Gators and Bee Swarms
Why does an alligator cross the road?
Back on the road, we passed a wooden sign marked ‘Pond #4‘. It wasn’t actually a pond- more of a barrow pit filled with water. There were other places to pull over. Spots to fish and fish. Ponds that seemed mis-numbered until we found side roads and tracks leading to the missing fishing-holes.
We passed a mom in a pickup parked on the side of the road. Two boys sat in the back of the truck; their lines cast into the ditches that ran on either side of the road. I’d assumed they were rain run-offs, but there were fish swimming in them. A white heron picked its way through one ditch and nabbed his fish dinner.
Aside from a couple of teens, we saw no one else along our drive, but had to stop once and wait as a juvenile alligator took his time to cross the lime rock, his head held high. He was in no hurry to cross the road.
We stopped at pond #8 to cast a line and swat at a descending hoard of mosquitoes. Surrounded by thousands of acres of swamp, we were obvious targets to these tiny beasts with ferocious blood-lusting appetites. So, without a catch, we continued on to our next stop- the wooden boardwalk over picturesque pond.
Whether our friendly swarm were carpenter bees making their home in the boardwalk or blue orchard bees, known to nest in reeds, we may never know, but either way, there was a convention being held and we weren’t invited- or welcome, for that matter. We left our pond hike immediately, squashed half-a-dozen mosquitoes and killed 2-horseflies and piled back into the car.
Back to Civilization
We passed the turn-off sign for McCormick Creek Boat Ramp- literally in the middle of nowhere, or so it seemed, and then we were out of the woods and back on the tarmac, on the road to Cedar Key. We stopped at Shell Mound to check out the fishing on the pier- a point near the open Gulf waters, it always seems to be very windy there.
Fishing abandoned, beach day gone, we drove to Cedar Key to pick up some clams. There were no restaurants open at this time, but Cedar Key are the largest clam producers-farmers in Florida and essential stop on Florida’s Big Bend Shellfish Trail. Besides, it’s important to support our local farmers when possible 😉
With the promise of fresh steamed clams for dinner and the final episode of Outer Banks on Netflix, we headed back to our humble homestead, our day of accidental adventure complete.
And it all began because of pirate gold 😊
Places Mentioned in This Story
- Treasure Camp on the Suwanee is located at 15249 NW 46th Ln, Chiefland, FL 32626.
- North Entrance of the Lower Suwanee National Wildlife Refuge Nature Drive – To reach the North entrance of the Lower Suwanee National Wildlife Refuge Nature Drive in Levy County (there’s one in Dixie County too!), from Highway 19, take County Road 345- enjoy the countryside and turn left on County Road 347. You’ll see the National Wildlife Refuge signs posted.
- The River Walk Trail is by the headquarters on the right and the Nature Trail Entrance is ½ mile after that, also on the right. This is the middle of nowhere- make sure you are gassed up and bring your own food/water.
- Swamp means lots of bugs- mosquitoes, horseflies, bees, no-see-ums (we didn’t see any), gnats, deer ticks and more. Dress for the weather and bring bug spray. Then do a tick check after your hike (as per season).
- Hunting and fishing are allowed in the LSNWR, as per Florida and federal regulations. Licenses are required.
- Cell phone service can be spotty- so enjoy a digital detox day 😉
Author’s note: **Have yet to find the original Saturday Post article about the Fowler’s Bluff Hidden Treasure, even in digital archives and libraries, but once Gainesville reopens, perhaps it will still be in the Matheson Museum?
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