Nestled beside Sybil Cribbs' business and home of more than 30 years, the river quietly flows by while stacks of aluminum canoes fill the yard.
There were days at Alafia River Canoe Rentals when the boats hardly stayed dry. After opening in 1976, it became a popular destination in southeastern Hillsborough County. But as the century turned, business declined.
"The busiest years for us were in the '80s and early '90s," Cribbs said.
During the boom years, Cribbs said, the company often had a constant work flow. Several men loaded canoes and drove customers to the launch at Aldermans Ford Park, and two or three women ran the office.
A busy day meant 160 to 180 rentals. Those numbers have dwindled. So has the staff.
Now, the company's busiest days net about 50 rentals, but Cribbs said that happens only eight to 10 times a year. On weekdays, she runs the business alone. Longtime employee Marlan Morgan, 43, helps out on the weekends.
Morgan remembers one Memorial Day when they ran out of canoes.
"They'd come in, and we'd put them right back out again," he said.
Although Cribbs' business has declined over the years, it's not a reflection of the industry in the area. Just 23 miles down the road, business at the Little Manatee Canoe Outpost continues to increase.
At age 69, Cribbs isn't in competitive mode. Her business has been on the market for a few years, though Cribbs said she isn't aggressively trying to sell. With retirement in sight, she's fine with the slower pace.
"I don't know that I'd want to see it as busy as it was in the '80s because it was hard," she said. "We had more help. We were younger."
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In the dead heat of summer with the calm Little Manatee River in the background, a small school bus rolls into the parking lot. The bus, loaded with dozens of people, pulls behind it a trailer full of canoes and kayaks.
The passengers spent several hours Saturday paddling the river. After renting from the Canoe Outpost in Wimauma, the group swam, climbed a rope swing and picnicked alongside the water.
Brian Ruddeforth, 50, bought the Canoe Outpost six years ago. The third owner since it opened in 1978, he said business has increased 20 percent annually on his watch. The company used to only have canoes, but Ruddeforth added kayaks, along with a camping area and a rental cabin.
"We like to think that we've increased the service level and give people a good product for the money they spend with us," he said.
With three others on his staff, Ruddeforth's primary role is in the office. His employees handle the hard labor.
"That's the first thing that tends to go (with growth)," Ruddeforth said. "You allocate yourself and your skills to the office, and let the young kids pump the boats."
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Alafia Canoe Rentals and the Canoe Outpost offer similar services and rates. Renters on the Alafia get dropped off at Aldermans Ford Park in Lithia. It takes about four hours to paddle the 12 or so miles back to the dock, Cribbs said.
Customers also can leave from Cribbs' back yard and return at their leisure. On Saturday, Bill Dibble of Sebring and his 7-year-old son rented a canoe and guided it to Lithia Springs.
"For a day, it's pretty reasonable," said Dibble, a customer since the 1980s. "It's a good family day out."
At the Canoe Outpost, the most popular routes start on site and finish 2.5 to 5 miles downstream at Little Manatee River State Park, where buses make pickups throughout the day.
"It's awesome," said the Rev. Gary Gray, after his group of 40 from the Venice Assembly of God returned from a day out. "We go to the halfway point and have a big barbecue."
Some weekends in the spring are so busy that all 45 canoes and 20 kayaks get rented, Ruddeforth said. Business slows a little in the summer, but on Saturday the Canoe Outpost had 70 to 80 customers, or about 35 boat rentals. On the same day, Alafia Canoe Rentals did about 30 rentals. But Cribbs said some weekend days she rents out as few as 15 of her 100 canoes and five single-person kayaks.
Ruddeforth gives some credit of his company's growth to his Web site, which he added in 2004. "The Web is the No. 1 marketing tool that small business people have," he said.
Although Cribbs blames the slowdown she faced in the mid 1990s on the Internet and people's desire to stay indoors, she never developed her own Web site, mainly because she considers herself "untechnical."
Cribbs still relies on Yellow Page ads and word of mouth. She doesn't accept credit or debit cards, and at this stage in her career she doesn't plan on changing the low-key nature of her business.
"We just operate the way we always have," she said. "If I sold it and someone started working at it, they could probably build it back up."
Kevin Smetana can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2439.