The Gentle Giants

Trip Start Aug 09, 2009
Trip End Oct 23, 2009

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Flag of United States  , Florida
Friday, January 29, 2010

Sometimes you just look at your friends and think to yourself, wtf??!! What were you thinking??!! It was so bad today that I feel compelled to change the names to protect them from future embarrassment.  We'll call them Becky and Sean.  They know who they are if they are reading this!!  I returned to Atlanta by car last night and agreed to head back to Florida with my friends since they were inspired by what I had seen the past few days.

Becky and I agreed to meet at the Atlanta Airport and Sean would meet us in Tampa  since he was flying in from another city.  Already against my better judgment I was going on this daytrip since Atlanta was forecasting a chance of snow later in the evening, right about the time we were planning to return.  Let’s put it this way…if one snowflake drops the entire city and airport grind to a sudden halt and days can pass before things sort themselves out.  Last night while the locals were raiding the grocery stores for toilet paper, milk, and bread to carry them through one day of being homebound from the snow, I was busy planning our day of kayaking with the manatees.

Knowing that the possibility of getting stuck in Tampa was real and that kayaking is wet, I brought along a few changes of clothes.  When I approached Becky, all she had was her purse so I asked, "Where is your stuff for kayaking?"  To which she responded by fishing a pair of yellow panties out of her purse and dangling them on her pinky for me to inspect.  She said, “This is all I packed.  We’re just kayaking for the day, right?” 

I looked at her from head to toe and saw that she was wearing nice jeans, a nice blousy top and some nice shoes.  I blinked my eyes and looked again thinking maybe the low light was  playing with my eyes.  Nope, she was dressed for a night out on the town, not a day of getting wet in the sun.  What part of kayaking did she not understand?  Was Sean going to show up much the same?   I reminded her we were paddling with the manatees and she just said, “Uh huh.  You mean we are going to go in a boat and look at them, right?”  No sweetheart, this isn’t some booze cruise down a canal.  We are going to have to paddle that kayak out to where they swim.  I told her, “I guess we'll see when your jeans are soaked up to your knees and your shirt is full of seaweed.  I don’t think those yellow panties are going to cut it.”

I could see the wheels turning in her head and we sat there in silence looking at each other for a few minutes.  I told her she would have to wade in up to her knees to situate the kayak and that this would require some muscle power to paddle.  She finally volunteered, “Well, we can just stop off at a WalMart and I will buy stuff.”  We were already on a tight schedule to catch that plane back to ATL and I reminded her she would have to just be quick and I once again explained to her what kayaking is.  I thought she had gotten an accurate picture last night when we planned all this.

All of a sudden Becky got a weird look on her face, so against my better judgment I asked, “Now what?”  She meekly said, “Nothing.  I did my toenails last night and now all that swampwater is going to ruin them.”  With that we silently made our way to the plane and I wondered what kind of drama Sean would land with.

When we landed in Tampa, Sean was waiting for us and thankfully he knew what to bring since we had gone kayaking in Suriname.  He had even tipped over into the murky water there and was ready for any such contingencies today in Crystal River.  So off we went , me, Sean, Becky and her yellow panties, to collect our $12 a day rental car.   As we walked outside Becky made the brilliant observation that, “It’s 70 degrees here.  See, it won’t snow and we will get home just fine.”  Yes, baby, yes,  It is hot here but Atlanta is hundreds of miles north in a completely different climactic zone.

Somewhere outside of Crystal River, we ended up inside an old WalMart for Becky to buy some kayak suitable attire and this wasn't even a Supercenter version of the store.  I mean this one was one of the originals...just old, small, and beat up...kinda like the stereotype of a backwoods WalMart.  I went to pay for some snacks with a $20 bill, and the 70 year old cashier just took her sweet old time ringing up two items.  To make change she first carefully dipped her fingertips into a small white container filled with the remnants of some pink waxy crap and then slooooowly counted out four singles and a ten.  

Better safe than sorry I suppose and with great concentration she rubbed each bill in between her nicotine stained fingers and counted them out twice before finally handing them over to me.  Plucking a nickel and three pennies out of their respective change compartments was an even more laborious task for this highly trained cash register technician.  She even went so far as to remind me not to forget the items I had bought which were waiting patiently in that light blue WalMart bag on top the wrap stand.  Now how am I going to forget my bag?

Actually, as we walked out, I got to thinking about that stern admonishment not to forget those two items I had waited so patiently for.  People probably do forget their crap because they were so distracted for five minutes trying to get their change.  I don't know...maybe you get so excited to finally have your cash money in hand that you bolt for the door without scooping up the merchandise.  All I can say is this...debit card, debit card, debit card.  No more cash when great grandma is in command of the register.

I am not even at the WalMart anymore and the old lady still has me sidetracked.  I are hear to learn about manatees, not some crusty old nicotine perfumed lady at a backwoods WalMart.  But this polyester queen just made such an indelible mark in my head.   We finally made it to the launch point at Hunter Spring City Park in Crystal River where the awesome folks at Manatee Tour and Dive got us set up.  Finally after a long journey here we were about to set out via kayak to explore the manatee habitats but not without some initial drama. 

Who would have thought that sitting down in a kayak was a difficult task but Becky couldn't seem to get settled.  Sean and I held her kayak on one side while she attempted to enter from the other.  Right next to us a 70 year old woman hopped right into a tandem kayak with her son and off they went.  Feeling the shame, Becky let out a few cursewords and waived us off and we were finally situated for an afternoon of sun and fun.  The tide was coming in so a lot of energy was needed to paddle against the current about two miles to a small wildlife refuge called the Three Sisters Springs.  

Becky crapped out about ten minutes into the ride from the exertion so we stopped right in the middle of the intracoastal waters to rest.  Of course the currents were drifting us backwards to where we had just paddled from and I made the observation that a minute's rest would require two more to gain back the distance lost.  Two Coast Guard guys in a motorboat came up and actually asked if we needed assistance.  Obviously yes, but Becky's pride wasn't going to allow her to admit it.  They again asked if we needed a tow back to where we started or anything else but we assured them we knew what we were doing.  So once again we began the laborious for Becky process of paddling past nice homes as we negotatiated the inland waterways supposedly teeming with manatees.

A large amount of pontoon type tour boats along with large groups of kayakers and snorkelers indicated that we had finally arrived after what seemed like an hour.  And there they were...dozens of the gentle giants as these 1000 pound beasts are called.  They mostly glide slowly along underwater only surfacing every so often for a drink of air.  Unlike the alligators from the Okefenokee still causing me to thank God I made it out alive, these manatees are not aggresive.  We even floated over many of them all the while trying not to disturb them with our paddles.  Every time one of the gentle giants would glide under Becky's kayak, she would tense up and scream like a little girl.  Of course this commotion caught the eye of some Japanese tourists on a pontoon boat and they recorded the drama digitally for posterity. 

Watching these grey giants is mesmerizing and a half hour passed before we even realized that we hadn't even yet  paddled up the very narrow channel leading to a water hole called the Three Sisters Springs.  I know you are just wondering what is so special about this lagoon besides being the headwaters for the Crystal River that leads to the Gulf.  Well, for starters manatees seek out water that is around 72 degrees or otherwise they succumb to hypothermia when the water dips below 68 degrees.  The recent cold snap has actually killed quite a few of these endangered animals over on the Atlantic Coast.  A freshwater underground spring feeds this Three Sisters lagoon and the water stays year round right at a perfect manatee tested and approved 72 degrees

Colder winter Gulf waters cause the manatees to stick closer to these inland waterways and canals, and as luck would have it, we arrived unkowingly during prime manatee viewing season.  They do travel out to the Gulf of Mexico to feed and obviously in summer when the ocean is warmer, they are more apt to stay out there longer.  Evidently seeing several dozen today is a real treat that cannot be duplicated in the warmer months.  So if you want to see these giants, the deep winter months are when the getting is good.

The waters leading up the narrow tree lined channel to the Three Sisters Springs are only a few feet deep at the most and we waited our turn behind five huge manatees as they swam into the lagoon.  Words cannot even describe what we found once we paddled a few hundred feet up the channel into the Three Sisters Springs.  Awaiting us was bluish water as crystal clear as anything we would drink and the entire area is filled with crystal white sand.  The set up was like some remote Polynesian lagoon yet this was here in Florida only miles from that dumpy WalMart.  The entire watering hole is rimmed by spanish moss draped trees and the scenery really is other worldly.  I am thinking to myself, this is really Florida??  Well, the houses surrounding the canals and waterways quickly reminded me that yes, this is unfortunately a very developed area of Florida.

Once again, I have discovered a place off the beaten path that is right in my own backyard. Manatees, freshwater springs and a backdrop that make you go wow.  All this just hours away from home.  Wow!!  And best of all, Becky and Sean had the time of their lives and they can't stop talking about how awesome the combination of kayaking, pretty scenery and wildlife was today.  They are chomping at the bit to do something like today again in the near future.  So mission accomplished for us all.

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