Mike Machado didn't plan on showing off for a bunch of kids. It just happened that 17 young kayakers were paddling by him in St. Joseph's Sound when a catfish chomped down on his fishing line. "Hey, that guy caught a catfish!'' yelled Connor Smith, 13. A few oohs and ahhs rippled across the water. "Didn't mean to show off,'' Machado, a Clearwater resident, told his observers. "I'm just out fishing with my son today.''
That's how things go, said Dennis Peters, who owns Simply Kayaking with his wife, Diane. "When you get out on the water, every day brings another surprise.''
This summer marks the sixth year that Simply Kayaking is teaming up with Palm Harbor Parks and Recreation to offer Kayaking Adventure, a camp for youths from ages 9 to 14. The kayaks are launched at Pop Stansell Park. The first session was held last week, on Thursday and Friday. The next session will be held July 21 and 22.
Dennis, a retired Columbia County sheriff's deputy, and Diane, a retired Largo homicide investigator, started the business that specializes in guided kayaking tours in 2006. Their children, Meagan Martin, a junior at Tarpon Springs High, and Corey Martin, who graduated from Tarpon High earlier this month and has enlisted in the U.S. Army, take turns serving as camp counselors.
The family aims to not only introduce kids to kayaking, but also to "expose some kids to local waters when otherwise they might not be familiar,'' said Dennis, 43.
"For the most part, I'd say the kids who join us are either more familiar with sports like baseball and soccer, or have a mom and dad who have said it's time they get away from the computer and get outdoors,'' he said.
Before any paddle hit the water, the couple, who met while they were both working for the state Department of Environmental Protection, gave the group an overview on kayaking, including safety rules.
"Even though the motorboats are required to give kayaks the right-of-way since they don't have engines, there's an expression, 'You don't want to be dead right,' '' said Dennis. "What this means is be smart and just stay out of the way of bigger boats.''
The kids also got briefed on important gear. This includes a whistle attached to your life preserver, sunscreen and a computer-generated map of the body of water you're kayaking in — in this case, Sutherland Bayou.
"You should also bring some plastic Ziploc bags to cover your cell phone in case you find yourself in the splash zone,'' said Dennis.
At that introductory gathering, Randi Tripka, 10, was a little concerned about that so-called splash zone.
She raised her hand shyly.
"What if a person doesn't want to get splashed?'' she asked.
"You can move off to the side when people are splashing, but it's going to get so hot that I bet you probably will start hoping to get splashed,'' joked Diane, 46.
On the first day of the camp Thursday, the couple led a simple, 1-mile paddle through the open estuary in the bayou. The campers were instructed to keep their eyes out for marine life — nurse sharks, horseshoe crabs, dolphins and manatees.
"We don't expect to have any problems,'' said Dennis. "That's because of our instruction as well as the way kayaks work. In the last six years, I've worked with thousands of kayakers, and I've had less than 10 who have tipped over.''
After her first time out, Randi, who took the camp with her sister Abby, 13, said the camp was definitely "awesome and fantastic.''
"But it is very hot, so yes, even before we were done with the first trip I wanted to get splashed,'' she said.
For the second day Friday, the now-experienced kayakers wasted no time. A little after 8:30 a.m., the group headed out on a three-hour, 3.5-mile excursion.
Heading to a narrow mangrove canopy, the kids spotted an osprey and her babies, a roseate spoonbill hidden among red mangrove branches, and a cormorant drying its wings.
On a spoil island out in the middle of the sound, the campers stopped for a snack. They watched mullet jump and chased hermit crabs while doing the stingray shuffle in the shallow water.
Meagan, 16, kept an eye on the beached kayaks while the children goofed around.
"One thing I know we are doing is helping more kids get into nature,'' Meagan said. "When it comes to going to the beach, it seems kids my age automatically think of Clearwater Beach — which is fine, but it's busy. These kids are learning there is more than that when it comes to having fun in nature.''
Bob Tripka, Randi and Abby's father, agrees. Although he describes Palm Harbor, the community in which he has raised his daughters, as "all about the water," he adds that "outsiders might not realize this.''
However, the girls, who he describes as "part outdoor adventurers and part video game connoisseurs,'' still have more to learn about navigating the local waters, he said.
"They took this camp because I want my girls to learn to kayak. I want them to always enjoy the water, and I want us to go out on it together.''