Stories from the river

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By Mark Scohier

As a scientist, Dr. Ken Sulak is trained to make observations.

He makes his living studying the ways of the natural world, with an emphasis, in recent years, on the lives of sturgeon swimming the lengths of the Suwannee River.

But his professional work over time has bled into his personal interests: observations on the lives of humans and their place in the world.

"In the course of being on the river, you run into a lot of people, a lot of old timers," Sulak said from his office at the U.S. Geological Survey last week.

For the last few years, Sulak has been engaging in a side project to document through photos and recordings the lives of older generations living on and around the Suwannee River.

In the last 20 years, there's been a big demographic shift in the area, he said, explaining that the descendants of people who came down from Georgia and the Carolinas in the thousands in the 1830s and 40s are all dying out.

"The people that live there now have money," he said, which is a big departure from the culture that once eked out a living from whatever resources were available.

"That culture is disappearing," and, surprisingly, not much has been done to preserve those stories, he said.

On Saturday, as part of his ongoing research and documentation, Sulak, along with the help of the Dixie County Historical Society, has organized an oral history storytelling event called "Lore, Lies and Legends of the Suwannee."

The event, which includes a cookout and live bluegrass music, begins at 4:30 p.m. at the Dixie County Cultural Center (the former Old Town School).

Sulak, who is also working with the University of Florida's Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, the Florida Memory project and the Smithsonian, said it's important to make the information accessible.

"I'd like to educate younger people," he said. "I don't know if it will work."

But, he said, he's hoping Saturday's event will give him some idea of public interest. And if all goes well, Sulak said in the future he'd like to break the project on the river into different regions: Lower, Middle and Upper Suwannee River. The people of each region varied slightly in how they made use of the river, he said.

"There's a lot to learn." The "scene is very different than what it was a generation or two earlier." And it's important to show people how things used to be, he said.

"People talk about conservation ... well, what are you getting back to?"

Sulak said his focus is on how the use of resources has changed over the years.

The Suwannee, with all of its ancient cypress trees, was "like a redwood forest" at one time, he said. And a couple of men armed with cane poles on the Gulf could fill a boat in a couple of hours with sea trout. "Now, you could go out all day and not catch five."

The system has changed dramatically, he said.

"You talk to these people and you realize, wow, this was really different back then."