The friendly guy at the Nature Coast Outpost on the Chassahowitzka River directed us first to a murky hole where manatees nosed up against our kayaks, and then to a beautiful sliver of spring-fed water called Baird Creek.
We saw tufts of hammock crowded with cedars and cabbage palms; we saw jumping mullet, great blue herons and snowy egrets. But, until we had nearly returned to the main channel, we didn't see a single other person.
"Amazing!'' said my sister, Jessie, who visited us last week from Brooklyn. "It's like Costa Rica or something.''
Yep, and all within a half-hour drive of most of Hernando County. So, everything about our trip on the Chaz, as it is affectionately known, was great.
Except the price: nearly $170 for less than two hours on the river.
And, believe it or not, we got a break. Because we didn't get started until after 3 p.m., Nature Coast charged us the normal half-day rate — $40, plus tax — for four single-seat kayaks rather than the five we actually used.
Otherwise, the bill would have come to more than $200. Talk about amazing.
I know. I have no right to complain about a price I agreed to. Also, owner Norm Busche said his rates are competitive, which is mostly true.
Liveries I checked with on the Weeki Wachee and the Withlacoochee charged about the same amount to rent kayaks as Nature Coast, though this included transport to allow for a downstream float. In all cases, kayak rentals cost far more than canoes, which partly explains my sticker shock.
Still, the more I thought about it, the more it bugged me.
Chassahowitzka River Campground, where Nature Coast leases space, belongs to us — purchased by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, run by Citrus County, and serving as the gateway to a regional recreational resource.
I think activities on public land should be affordable for the public. I don't think they should generate revenue for government, as Nature Coast does. (Citrus says it needs the lease payments to help operate the campground.)
Things usually get worse when private companies are invited in to help raise this money. They, naturally, take their own cut, a detail sometimes overlooked by those who extol the efficiencies of privatization.
Remember President Bush's doomed plan to turn Social Security over to Wall Street? Think how you'd feel now if your weekly payments had gone to subsidize bonuses for the likes of Lehman Bros. chief executive Richard Fuld.
Okay, Busche is no Fuld. So let's compare Nature Coast with an operation more its own size.
Over at Fort Cooper State Park, south of Inverness, visitors can pick up paddles, life jackets and a key from the ranger at the front gate, and help themselves to a canoe.
No, Fort Cooper doesn't offer the natural spectacle of the Chaz, especially during the current drought, but check out the price: $5 an hour. Two canoes for our party of five, multiplied by two hours, equals $20, or 12 percent of our cost at Nature Coast.
Pretty efficient, isn't it?