February 19-27, 2011

kayaking the Withlacoochee River
Kayaking the Withlachoochee River

Following is a very brief account and some photos of Chris and my quick vacation to Florida preceding a work-related training I had in Orlando.

Day 1: Kayaking in Kings Bay
It was noon.  We'd arrived in Florida five hours earlier after taking the red eye from Seattle, drove to Crystal River by ten, and rested for a bit before heading to the Crystal River Kayak Company (http://www.rainbowrivercanoeandkayak.com/index.html) down the road from our hotel.  Frazzled and tired, we made our way through the rental process, generally unimpressed by the service and the poor instructions we received from the clerk.  After long, unnecessary waits and frustrating misunderstandings, we finally found our way to the dock behind the shop and boarded our sit-on-top kayaks, wholly unprepared and without the promised Chris kayakingmap of the area.  Thankfully, I'd studied maps of the waterways before we left, so I was reasonably confident that I could get us where we were going.  That didn't turn out to be a problem, but the visiting manatees by kayak didn't work out the way I'd hoped.  The beginning of the kayak was nice enough as we made our way down the narrow slough overhung with shrubs and trees alive with scarlet tanagers, common yellowthroats, and many other birds I couldn't identify.  I was surprised that the main road through Crystal River was just a stone's throw from the edge of our wild-looking channel (though it didn't stay wild for long).  There were fish in the shallow water and we passed through an enormous culvert hung with vines.  Before long we entered the main channel, of which ours was the most inland off-shoot, and came upon the Three Sisters Spring, where my hopes of sliding into the water and tickling a friendly manatee were quickly shattered.  Simply put, it was a zoo there (and not because of manatees).  There must have been a hundred people in that tiny area, dozens of kayaks vying with dozens of noisy, splashing snorkelers, all concentrated outside the line of cork buoys that marked the edge of the manatee sanctuary.  There were about a dozen dark shapes within its borders, all motionless and out of reach of the chaos.  We paddled into the narrow pass nearby that leads to the springs themselves, tying our kayaks to an underwater root and making a quick snorkel around the springs inside.  Although there were no manatees there, it was full of splashing people and the visibility was disappointingly poor.  We swam back out and briefly joined the throngs of people outside the sanctuary so we could at least glimpse the manatees inside (one was just a few feet within the boundary, sleeping).  We only stayed a few minutes within the noisy chaos, but chose our moment well.  We were about to leave when someone nearby yelled, "He's coming out!"  That could have meant a lot of things, but we were in luck--sure enough, there was a manatee heading straight for us.  We parted to give it room and it swam right next to us; we both reached out and gently touched its side and tail as it left the commotion.

From there we boarded our kayaks and headed out into the much larger Kings Bay, kayaking straight across to a large island in the middle surrounded by a manatee sanctuary.  I was pleased to find a manatee there all by myself (I think I heard it before I saw it) and we watched its footprints rise as it swam underwater.  We followed its path along the outside of the sanctuary barrier and that took us to the end of the island, so we kayaked around the other side and to the back corner of the bay.  On the way back we paddled up some narrow, gorgeous little sloughs with neat looking houses and screened in patios on one side and jungle on the other.  It was a beautiful day with just a light breeze, and a very pleasant kayak, if somewhat lacking in marine mammals (though we did see ospreys and a variety of other birds).  By the time we made our way back to the Three Sisters Spring we'd nearly spent our four hour limit and quickly headed past the ongoing chaos and back to the shop.  Just a few dozen feet from the dock I spotted a large turtle in the water, which promptly disappeared--thankfully Chris discovered its bizarre head sticking out from under a bundle of sticks underwater nearby.  It had two little tubular nostrils--a Florida softshell turtle!  That night, we ordered pizza in the room, watched a movie, and crashed.

Day 2: Kayaking down the Withlacoochee River
treeThe next day we got up earlier than we wanted and followed the GPS to the Rainbow River Kayak Company cryptically hidden down a one-lane road (http://www.rainbowrivercanoeandkayak.com/).  I immediately appreciated the laid back attitude of the business with its open-air, screened-in office.  The proprietor showed us a map of the route we were to follow, but not before again trying to talk us out of our choice of rivers.  These folks drop off kayakers or canoers in one of two rivers, after which folks paddle back down to their shop, which is just below the confluence of the Rainbow and Withlacoochee Rivers.  It was an internet search on the Rainbow River that led me to their web site, but as soon as I read about the Withlacoochee, I knew that was the trip for me.  I think it was this line that drew me in: "Rainbow River is Crystal Clear, one of the largest springs in the world, but not a very remote trip, unlike the Withlacoochee."  That was all I needed to read!  But, when I called to make the reservation, the guy I talked to kept trying to convince me to do the Rainbow; although a few doubts crept in, this actually encouraged me somewhat.  If he pressed everyone as strongly to do the Rainbow, we'd be less likely to encounter crowds on the Withlacoochee.  Plus, he mentioned that, although the clear water of the Rainbow is good for seeing aquatic wildlife, we'd be more likely to see bobcats, armadillos, deer, and turkeys on the Withlacoochee.  Those all sounded good to me!

When we assured him again that the Withlacoochee was the trip for us (and let him know that as seasoned Alaskan adventurers, he needn't be worried about us), we took off in a bus loaded with kayaks for the put-in nine miles upriver.  The river was narrow there, flat calm, the sky was cloudless, and the air a perfect temperature.  As we got ourselves situated and pulled out, all was quiet and still except for the ringing chorus in the trees from the morning bird songs.   The left bank had interesting houses and cottages built along it at, most with wooden docks or stairs to the water; the left bank was wild cypress forest and remained so the rest of the trip.  This being the dry season, the water level was low, so the forest floor appeared dry, though we could see the high water marks on the trunks of the cypresses.  Also their knuckles!  I'd read about cypress knuckles (the strange knobs of root that spring several feet straight up from the ground), so was tickled to see them there, and the saw palmettos growing beneath the larger trees.  That was about as far as I could take the tree identification.  Most of them lacked leaves at this time of year (though they wore abundant garlands of Spanish moss), but there were other unknown trees of varying abundance that were fully leaved and remain a mystery.  About a third of the nine miles we paddled had houses along the left bank--most of them not posh houses, but older places with character tucked among the trees; they had in common big screened porches and docks of all shapes and sizes.  The riprap, bricks, and sand bags used to stabilize the banks would have made for good bank restoration projects if this was a salmon stream in Alaska.  I was glad when after a few miles the houses petered out and it was all wilderness on both sides for several miles.  We never saw another kayaker and had only about six boats pass us going in each direction; I think we saw one house with people on the shore, so it was a very quiet, wildernessy trip.  The first half of the day was probably the overall trip highlight for me; I was relaxed, the setting was perfect, there was great wildlife, and the temperature was ideal (I wore a tank top all day and never felt too warm or too cold).

RudySoon after departing we saw our first turtle sunning itself on a rock--we were very excited (turtles are neat, and nonexistent in Alaska); we maintained our excitement for turtles throughout the trip, but stopped counting after about eight of them (we must have passed hundreds).  They sunned themselves on nearly every available rock, stump, and log, sometimes three or more together, and we often heard them plop as we inadvertently startled them into the water.  The songbirds died down quickly, but the larger birds were an endless source of interest for me, and I would hardly get into a paddling groove when we'd turn a corner and another bird would appear to distract me.  I kept my camera and new binoculars around my neck at all times.  The birds were never in dense concentrations--each of the waders seemed to inhabit its own mat of bright green aquatic vegetation hugging the shoreline (not sure of the species).  I saw great blue herons, great egrets, little blue herons, anhingas, white ibises, a limpkin (my favorite bird of the trip), an American bittern, and quite a few very noisy hawks (one is pictured below).  There were others that I couldn't identify or don't remember.  In terms of land wildlife, though, there was one clear highlight.  It was still early in the trip and we were paddling along the edge of a steep bank of cypress trees.  Chris was about 20 feet behind me when he saw a strange, scaly creature among the knobby knuckles of a cypress and called out that he'd seen an armadillo!  Sure that it would flee, I turned around and began frantically scanning the bank.  After a few anxious seconds he appeared, shuffling his way between the roots and grubbing in the leaf litter.  I was overjoyed--I'd never seen an armadillo!  This little fellow, whom we named Rudy, couldn't have been more accommodating.  We watched him for about 20 minutes while he rummaged around in the open right down to the edge of the water.  He appeared totally oblivious to our presence and we approached quite close.  Consequently, we had amazing looks.  Striking features include his adorable, large oval ears and tufts of course yellow hair sticking out from under the plates over his shoulders and over his back feet. 

We left Rudy and continued on our way, validated in our choice of the Withlacoochee in every way.  Not long after, I came across another exciting creature--an alligator resting against a row of roots close to the water.  Worried that it would submerge, I waved to Chris while making a chomping motion with my hand and hurried him down to see.  We didn't get too close to this fellow, not wanting to flush him into the water out of courtesy, but he too seemed fairly accommodating.  By that time the morning was getting on and we had yet to encounter the "Danger Rocks" sign that indicated the half way mark.  We increased our speed until we found the sign and decided to stop for lunch on the shore nearby.  We ate delicious bakery bread, havarti cheese, warmish PBRs, and fruit for lunch at the edge of the river.

The afternoon wasn't quite as idyllic as the morning, mostly because a brisk breeze picked up that shattered the stillness and made paddling more arduous; plus our rear ends were sore, despite the pads we sat on (I found myself shifting positions every few minutes to ease the aching).  But, the river was mostly wild and the scenery gorgeous.  We continued to encounter birds, including flocks of white ibises in the trees, and multitudes of turtles.  Eventually the river began to widen where abandoned phosphate mines became side lakes, then houses began to show up again, fancier and less interesting than the ones farther up the river, and perched atop steep, high banks.  We got lost once and wound up in a little cove where Chris accidentally startled three alligators into the water--he saw two of them on the bank before they submerged, and I heard the commotion and saw one in the water.  Soon thereafter we found our way to the confluence of the rivers; although the clear water up the Rainbow looked tantalizing, we were both too exhausted to explore and headed straight for the shop.  We'd turned what is on average a five hour paddle into a seven hour trip, mostly due to my frequent stops for wildlife.

As we were packing up the car to go, our driver from the morning came up and suggested that we should pick some of their oranges to squeeze into our beers for a treat that evening.  He said their two orange trees were native oranges, not sweet like store-bought oranges (I think he meant they were the sour oranges that are often used for the roots of sweet orange trees).  We picked several and headed on our way.  That night we shared a bottle of wine, but when we arrived at Naples the next day we discovered the delicious combination of ice cold PBR in a bottle and half a sour orange.

Debbie at the launch

Chris kayaking

Chris and cypress trees

Debbie birdwatching
Cypress trunks and saw palmettos (and an unknown tree with leaves)
Chris and an armadillo
Withlacoochie River (photo by Chris)
Chris n gator
Chris and the gator
Limpkin--with a snail?
Kayaking the withlacoochi
Lunch on shore
Debbie kayaking
Little blue heron (photo by Chris)
American bittern
White ibises

Day 3: Manatees in Kings Bay
On the drive back to our hotel from the Withlacoochee River we'd decided to try our hand at kayaking/snorkeling with manatees again--this time on a week day and first thing in the morning.  We called and made reservations for 9:00 am with the same kayak rental company and stopped by the dive shop to rent Chris's snorkel for another day.  I asked the clerks for advice about finding manatees and described the scene we'd encountered two days before--they confirmed that weekends were the worst, and pointed out that we'd shown up in the middle of a holiday weekend to boot.  They showed me a map with other areas to find manatees away from the crowds (Kings Spring and some areas in the next channel over from the Three Sisters area).  The next morning we arrived at the kayak shop before it opened along with half a dozen other eager tourists; knowing the routine, we signed waivers and were ready to go before anyone else; the clerk recognized us, gave us a repeat-customer discount, and sent us back to the slough.  I suspect we were underway before the others finished watching the manatee video. 

manateeWe passed over the top of one manatee on the way to the spring, but decided to keep paddling.  There were a few folks there, but nothing compared to our first visit; I asked a park ranger on shore where to tie up at Kings Spring, but he didn't know.  He did tell us that there were three or four manatees in the spring there, so we tied up our kayaks in the same spot in the narrow passage that connects the springs to the channel and decided to give it a go.  The water was considerably more clear and inhabited by only a dozen or so people.  We found two manatees sleeping on the sand inside, one of them the subject of an underwater videographer who got closer and closer with his lens, never letting the manatee alone until it finally swam back out the channel.  I was beginning to realize that part of the trick to interacting with manatees was finding one who wasn't sleeping!  Most of them lay face down in the sand, seemingly oblivious to their onlookers.  By and large I was impressed by the courtesy of the other snorkelers, the videographer notwithstanding.

So we climbed back aboard our kayaks and leisurely made our way out of the springs and down the channel into Kings Bay.  Just as we passed under the bridge where the bay opens up we spotted a mother and calf manatee swimming along the shore.  We caught up in time to watch the baby roll on the surface briefly before a tour boat ran over the top of them; they resurfaced in the middle of the channel heading across the bay; it was delightful to see the baby's tiny nostrils coming up behind its mother.  From there we took a left and fought against a brisk, unpleasant breeze coming across the bay, strong enough that we labored and got edgy despite the blue sky and sunshine.  Passing between two islands we met calm water briefly, but were disappointed to find that King's Spring had no shelter from this wind and the water there was choppy.  A tour boat was anchored outside the spring and people splashed between the sanctuary barriers; we found no obvious place to tie our kayaks while snorkeling other than a ranger pontoon boat anchored nearby, but the snorkelers said there were no manatees in the spring and I was just as glad not to jump into the choppy, murky water.

And so we turned around and beat our way laboriously back across the bay to our channel.  Although we were both exhausted, we decided we may as well try the neighboring channel, so we fought our way over there, around the big marina, and into a cozy, calm nook where we would have had a great time swimming with manatees had there been any.  We headed back and finally made our way into the warm shelter of the Three Sisters channel where the glowing sunshine didn't compete with the wind.  Some folks on the bridge at the entrance alerted us to a manatee not far away and we floated a few feet behind it for some time as it slowly swam into the first sanctuary we passed.  A little manateefarther on where the channel widened, several boats were anchored up and we overheard tour guides giving their passenger instructions about snorkeling while in the water just outside another manatee sanctuary; we lingered until we were sure they weren't actually seeing any manatees, then headed to the narrower channel above.  In doing so we passed over the top of two or three sleeping manatees under the shelter of a large overhanging bush.  We pushed our kayaks on shore around the corner and went in the water, but others had preceded us and the water was not only murky, but the manatees were long gone.  We swam around in the larger bay a little, disappointed, then heard some excited shouts about 100 feet away in the middle of the area.  A tour guide was in the water with about four snorkelers, clearly giving them real-time instructions on how to interact with a manatee.  We headed in that direction, but the frenzy of activity quickly ended with a "Good job, everyone!" from the guide as the snorkelers broke away from their quarry after only a few minutes of interaction at most.  With nothing to help us find the manatee and low visibility in the water (~4-5') we were just giving up and heading back when Chris spotted a manatee nose just behind me and pointed excitedly.  Not exactly certain what he'd seen, I started swimming in that direction with him and, amazingly, a big blob of brownish gray suddenly materialized out of the murk; there was our manatee, motionless in the water.  We took turns gazing at him, eye to eye, and slowly swimming around him while he hovered.  Once while he was watching Chris I reached out a finger and gently touched the slime growing on his side (I doubt he even felt it).  After a couple of minutes, other snorkelers showed up and we backed away, watching his tail disappear as he swam off.  We shook each other's hands excitedly, elated, and swam back to our kayaks.  There, as we were standing in waste deep water, I had the same experience Chris did, seeing a manatee nose about five feet behind him.  This manatee was sleeping, so we watched her a little on the bottom and waited for her to breathe again, but we eventually gave up and got back aboard the kayaks. 

The day was perfect--the sun warmed us in the narrow channel, the water was crystal clear now that we were closer to the spring, and manatees were everywhere.  Kayaking seemed to me the ideal mode of manatee watching--fast enough to keep up, silent, and about as unobtrusive as you can get.  We saw a mother and calf (unfortunately pursued by a relentless Japanese underwater videographer who broke many rules of manatee observation), as well as many other individuals, sleeping and swimming.  It was fun to stay in one area with a manatee while watching the other human traffic come and go--boats that motored right over the top of them, eager kayakers heading out to the bay (often oblivious to the manatees beneath them), snorkelers trailing diver-down flags.  As the rush of people diminished, we'd search for the manatees, finding them sometimes by their bubbles.  I assumed these bubbles were air released prior to their taking a new breath (common among cetaceans), but one time I sought out the source of a very large bundle of bubble and discovered that they came from a sleeping manatee, but the opposite end from the mouth!  It turns out that manatees have gas and I giggled helplessly despite myself.  All in all, Chris and I had a very leisurely, manatee-rich kayak back to the dock and I felt somewhat reconciled to the human-manatee scene in Kings Bay.  I do like to picture what those sloughs must have looked like a few hundred years ago, though--running crystal clear, overhung by birdy shrubs and vines, full of turtles and fish, and alive with docile manatees.  The photos below were taken with my old, 35mm underwater camera, which is not meant for topside pictures, so their quality is poor.

Manatee sanctuary at Three Sisters Spring
Chris and manatee
Manatee surfacing on the other side of Chris
manatee lane
Manatee in the channel (typical waterfront home behind)
Our kayaks pulled up on shore to snorkel
Our manatee friend
manatee and kayak
Manatee surfacing in the channel

Days 4, 5, and 7: Beach time!  Below are some shots of our posh hotel on the beach in Naples.
The beach (in a cloudy moment)
Our balcony (note the oranges and beer)
The Gulf of Mexico
White ibis flock
Samson the snowy egret
Our spot on the beach

Day 6: Shark Valley, Everglades
We heard from two independent sources that the thing to do in the Everglades (with limited time) was the bike ride at Shark Valley.  In the interior of the Everglades, the Shark Valley area is flat and grassy (and seasonally quite wet) with patches of shrubs and low islands here and there.  The Park Service built a bike path loop straight out into the Everglades there, seven miles one way and eight miles back.  It's wide enough for a "tram" (which turned out to be an open-air van for tourists), but thankfully we only saw a couple of these on our ride.  A tower at the turnaround point gives visitors a bird’s eye view of whole area.

We'd intended to get there as soon as they opened at 8:30 to beat the crowds.  Unfortunately, the Park Service's web site did an abysmal job of providing directions; having no actual address, the directions simply said to head east from Naples on Highway 41.  Well, we'd encountered a local road that turned into Highway 41 while driving to dinners; however, this road ran north-south, not east-west.  Shark Valley was the only location we planned to visit for which I had no specific directions or a location to plug into the GPS (though in retrospect, we probably could have typed in "Shark Valley Visitor's Center" and been successful).  Instead we headed north, knowing that the road turned Debbie photographing a gatorinto Highway 41 in that direction and thinking it would turn east out of town.  After about half an hour I started to worry, and we finally turned around after 45 minutes of driving in the wrong direction.  It was already after 9:00 by the time we passed our hotel again heading in the right direction, and nearly noon by the time we arrived at the visitor’s center, changed into shorts, and rented bikes.

Despite the poor start, we soon forgot the inauspicious morning.  The Park Ranger's only words of caution as we started down the bike path was to stop and pull off the pavement when the tram came by.  No mention was made of safety around the alligators, which I thought was very telling.  The alligators, it turns out, are everywhere.  We saw about four the moment we set out, and nearly always had at least one in sight the rest of the trip if we just looked around.  On the way out, a permanent slough averaging about ten feet wide ran between the path and a row of dense shrubs on the right, which was home to countless alligators along with frogs, turtles, anhingas, and other birds; to the left the path was bordered by a dense shrub thicket which over time petered out to reveal a savanna-like dry season Everglades.  Numerous culverts ran beneath the road and water seeping through them from the right into pools on the left were also alive with wading birds and alligators.  We didn't bother to count gators--they were everywhere!  We conservatively saw over a hundred (admittedly including at least 50 babies).  Most were motionless, basking in the grass at the edge of the water or lying partially submerged; a few were swimming around.  I suspect that the deep water slough available during the dry season draws them there.  They were magnificent, completely habituated, and ubiquitous. 

I admit I was also enamored of the birds.  On top of the abundant great egrets, snowy egrets, great blue herons, tricolored herons, white ibises, grebes, and anhingas, I saw the following much more exciting (i.e., less abundant) birds: common moor hen, purple gallinule, yellow-crowned night heron, black ibis, unidentified hawk, and, my most exciting sighting, a wood stork.  Add this to my first non-flying sandhill cranes (seen while driving) and I was a pretty happy bird watcher (but, I'm easy to please).  To keep things interesting, we also saw frogs and turtles, including another Florida softshell.  The ride back from the tower was through savanna-style Everglades with only sporadic pools of water remaining between the parched mud and grass (most with a single resident gator).  The heat was scorching, the sun glaring overhead, and all cloud cover and breezes gratefully accepted.  To complete the inauspicious morning, I'd forgotten the sunscreen and we were both badly burnt at the end of the 3.5 hour ride.  Once again, my interest in birds and everything else caused us to exceed the average tour time by an hour; in the end, we both secretly hoped not to see anything too interesting, so as to more quickly reach the parking lot and rest our weary rear ends (already well-worn by three consecutive days of kayaking earlier in the week).  Thankfully, despite our late start, we quickly left any semblance of crowd behind in the first few miles of the trail, passing the occasional bike rider and bird watcher here and there, but otherwise alone on the trail.  On the ride back we only saw about four other people the whole time.  The photos below are mostly in chronological order (the black ibis was from the very end).

Debbie gator
Debbie and a gator
egret gator
Alligator and great egret
Common moorhen

Yellow-crowned night heron

funny alligator
Lounging gator

weed gator
Weedy gator
Florida softshell turtle
Wood stork and great egret
gator stork
Wood stork and company
Chris heron
Chris and great blue heron
road heron
Great blue heron on the trail

Tri-colored heron
Purple gallinule
Enormous alligator
Baby alligators
black ibis
Black ibis
Debbie gator
Debbie and gator
Chris gator
Chris and gator
Road gator
Basking alligator
The Everglades from the observation tower
fish gator
Alligator herding fish
Giant catterpillar?
ibis family
White ibis family