It makes for a good day, catching a pocket of Florida sunshine amid July's rainy schedule. That was the reward following last year's promise to make a summer kayak trip an annual family venture following a gloriously tranquil day trip down the clear, cool waters of the Weeki Wachee River.
This time we opted to take in the wonders closer to home with a paddle in the protected estuaries of Big Bayou along the New Port Richey coastline. On a midweek morning, my two daughters, a friend and I packed a cooler of sustenance, lathered ourselves with sunscreen and headed to a dock in Gulf Harbors where we rented a couple of tandem kayaks from Windsong Sailing Charters.
With nary a backward glance we pushed off. The sounds of the rushing traffic on U.S. 19 diminished as we practiced our "left-right" synchronization, paddling west past the houses and docked boats lining the Intracoastal Waterway. The tide was waning all too quickly, we discovered, and that would prevent travel along some of the smaller inlets we had hoped to explore.
Note to self: Next time check the tidal charts.
It is said that timing is everything, but there's another one about beginner's luck and how things sometimes work out in a better way.
The tide was low indeed, and more than once we had to practice our turning skills while dodging a sandbar or fragile oyster bed. But it was mostly smooth sailing as we made our way north along a path that hugged the coast. The view was more than superb when we rested our paddles across our thighs and looked out across a placid Gulf of Mexico left unmolested by the wakes of water scooters and power boats that had no option but to head to deeper waters.
"This is really beautiful," someone said, as we drifted freely. "I'm really glad we came."
It was a wonder and a bit of an effort to discern where the sky met the glassy gulf; powder blue over powder blue with white, puffy clouds reflected here and there.
We had the place to ourselves, or so it seemed — till the younger daughter caught sight of a couple of fins surfacing in front of us. Nothing to be alarmed about. No sharks tracking our bright yellow kayaks — as other paddlers have seen recently in the New England waters of Cape Cod and along the California coast. Rather it was fast-moving stingray joined by hoards of others that scattered out of our path as we pushed our kayaks though the shallow water above the grass flats.
Along the way we saw a resting osprey, spooked a wary great egret, caught sight of a few black-crowned night herons perched in the mangroves and a lone brown pelican hunting for food in the brackish water.
The estuary is a nursery of sorts, where fingerlike mangrove roots and swaying grass flats provide shelter for scores of fry — snook, redfish, trout, tarpon, shrimp and crabs that fill shorebirds' bellies and will one day feed the greater gulf and the fisherman's net.
We could have made our way a short distance to Robert K. Rees Memorial Park — commonly known as Green Key Beach — but we decided to forgo the luxury of picnic tables.
"Why bother," remarked the elder daughter. "We can get there by car."
Besides, this was about the journey, not the destination. Around the bend we found the perfect place to pull over and break for lunch. We took some time to follow the trek of a tiny horseshoe crab and a couple of slow-moving mollusks, and we used an underwater camera to film the tiny fish that bumped up against us as we stood motionless in the water, our feet sucked into the silty bottom.
We dined on sandwiches and seasonal cherries and grapes and quenched our thirst with another bottle of water. Then with an upward glance it became clear that our respite should be over. It was time to climb into our kayaks and paddle our way back; stingrays flitting here and there, an adult horseshoe crab racing across the bottom; the shorebirds taking flight as the wind picked up and afternoon storms began to build across the eastern sky.