P addling a kayak is a balancing act. Dip left to go right. Paddle right to go left. You'll stay dry as long as you don't lean too far in either direction.
It's kind of like life. You had better look for balance. I like to head for the woods or water when I feel overwhelmed by current events and things outside my control.
The ailing stock market. Another presidential smear campaign aimed at convincing the ignorant and frightened to vote for the right guy. Give me a hammock where I might hear an owl. Let me paddle among ancient reptiles and look for balance.
In our tandem kayak we slip past a great blue heron in a cypress. We meander around a sunken log. We paddle under the low branches of an ancient oak.
As we pass below, I automatically check for moccasins above my head, just in case. Years ago, when I was younger and more impressionable, an old-timer known for hyperbole told me breathlessly about the time a moccasin fell from a branch into his canoe. First he battled the venomous snake with his paddle. It kept coming, its cotton-colored mouth opened wide. Finally he shot it with his pistol, killing the snake but piercing the bottom of his own canoe. He had to swim through alligators to reach the shore.
Anyway, that was his story, doubtless exaggerated. Even so, watching for moccasins in branches has become a lifelong habit. One day I hope to see a moccasin in a tree because I like the idea that anything can happen on a Florida waterway.
Paddling a kayak requires, in addition to balance, paying attention.
You don't want to dawdle under the wrong tree.
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Spruce Creek, which snakes 12 miles east through Volusia County before flowing into Strickland Bay and the Atlantic beyond, is one of those half-wild, half-civilized places where you will encounter alligators sleeping on logs if you are lucky and teenagers on Jet Skis if you aren't. You may even run into the ghost of Ponce de Leon.
The first European to visit the continent, Senor Ponce named La Florida in 1513. According to some accounts, he sailed a skiff through an ocean inlet into a bay and headed west into a creek, most likely Spruce Creek. What did he make of our dragons, the alligators? Surely they focused his attention.
They always do for me. Yes, we have museums and restaurants and fine universities. But the presence of dinosaurs is what makes Florida "Florida.'' I assume that Ponce de Leon declined to take a dip in Spruce Creek. You couldn't pay me to swim in it on purpose either.
The water is dark, stained like tea from decaying leaves and mostly shallow. If you startle a gator off the bank into the creek, don't be alarmed if its back brushes your kayak. Or be very alarmed. I have been bumped by an alligator once or twice, but I'm still here. A manatee, sleeping just under the water's surface, is much more likely to knock you into the drink if you startle it by accident. Kayaking among manatees requires balance too.
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I have never seen a deer or bobcat sipping from the creek, but other people have. I mostly see softshell turtles sunning themselves. I see laurel and live oaks and pignut hickories, sweetgums, cypress and cabbage palms.
On the wild side of the river, back in the trees, lie the hidden mounds constructed for burial and ceremonial sites more than five centuries ago by the Timucuan people, the natives who greeted Ponce when he came ashore. The wily Spaniard hoped for gold or, if nothing else, a sip from a magic fountain that would restore his fading youth.
He got neither. In fact, 15 years later, during his travels to Florida's west coast, he encountered the far fiercer Calusas, who deposited an arrow into his hip. He died from the infection.
Belted kingfishers. Green herons. Anhingas. Ponce saw them; a 21st century kayaker sees them too.
Turn around in modern Florida, just before you reach the Interstate 95 bridge, and head back into old Florida, where an alligator snoozes on a log. My wife wonders if it might upset our kayak. I doubt it, but wouldn't it be cool? We'd have such a story to tell.
Instead, here's my story. A little past the alligator I hear the roar of a jet. Looking south, through the trees, I see an enormous house, a mansion really, on the bluff, and next to the mansion is a two-story airplane hangar.
The Spruce Creek Fly-in, advertised as the "world's finest residential airpark,'' can accomodate small jets I find out later.
Then it's quiet again on the river of the extinct Timucuans.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8727.