The sign says “Redneck Yacht Club,” so I know we aren’t in exactly the right place, but I can’t resist going inside to check out the scene. Three sun-weathered men are gathered around a table, drinking coffee and admiring a glossy 8 ½ by 11 photo of a boat filled with redfish, drum, and trout.
“I think you could adjust the color in Photoshop, so your shirt doesn’t look so red,” says one, “Otherwise, that sure is a nice photo.”
“Excuse me,” I interrupt, “could you tell me where Kayak Carla is?”
“She’s over there, along the fence,” they point over my shoulder, through a maze of ramshackle buildings, boats, and trucks. Black vultures hang around the parking lot and boat ramp like gulls, waiting for an errant pile of fish guts. Spanish moss and live oak trees soften the cluttered scene, and provide shade from the Florida sun. Surprisingly, I feel very much at home in this alien setting. Boats and birds, fish and fishermen…. No matter the latitude, it feels familiar.
How did I end up here? Ten days ago, I was chatting with my mom and asked her what she wanted for her birthday. “Oh, I don’t know,” she said, “I don’t really need anything.” “Well, is there anything you want?” She didn’t hesitate: “I just want to see my kids.” We proceeded to have the usual conversation about how it’d be nice to be rich and have lots of money for travel, and too bad we weren’t, and what a bummer that is. As soon as I got off the phone, I searched for plane tickets and found one that wasn’t too outrageous. Two days later I flew from my home in Alaska to my parents’ winter digs in Florida.
And now here we are, Mom, Dad, and I wearing bathing suits and sun hats, about to embark for an all-day paddling trip on the Chassahowitzka River. Pronounced something like “Chaz-a-wit-ska,” the name comes from the Seminole Indians and means “place of hanging pumpkins.” I imagine a lush natural garden, with food-bearing vines climbing the bald cypress trees. Paradise. The locals nowadays call it The Chaz-a-Whisky, or simply, The Chaz.
We do an about-face from the Redneck Yacht Club and walk across the yard toward a big pile of kayaks. Kayak Carla sees us coming, and climbs out of her Mazda Miata as we approach. I like her immediately, and figure she’s a kindred soul. This appears to be a one-woman outfit. She sets us up with boats and life jackets. Mom and Dad share a tandem kayak, while I have my own sit-on-top single. Carla gives us a photocopied map of the river and tells us where we might find the resident manatee, Rachel. The names on the map make me want to explore for more than just one day: Salt Creek, Blue Spring, and The Crack. We slap at no-see-ums, stow our picnic lunches, and launch our boats from the strip of artificial turf on the boat ramp next to the Yacht Club.
Our first stop, only a few minutes from the launch site, is the Seven Sisters Spring. Pure water flows up through limestone, glowing pale turquoise blue in the morning sunlight. Seven holes connect through a network of underwater tunnels, beckoning to free-divers who hold their breath and try to swim from one to another. A warning sign, nailed high up to the trunk of a palm tree, tells the tale of a beloved family member who was lost in the tunnels and didn’t make it out in time. None of us feels any desire to try swimming in the underworld; in fact, I get spooked just looking at the openings, beautiful as they are. We paddle on downstream.
The main Chassahowitzka Spring, not far from Seven Sisters, is about 15 feet deep, has a sandy bottom, and is the perfect swimming hole. The Chaz is a first magnitude karst spring. This means that fresh water flows out of it at a rate of over 100 cubic feet per second, through limestone formed of ancient fossilized sea creatures. Florida has over seven hundred springs, but just thirty-three of them qualify as first magnitude. The water is a steady 72 degrees year-round and bubbles up like a cauldron. I can’t resist taking a dip, and have my folks hold my boat while I slide into the water. The spring water feels soft and clean on my skin. It’s like bathing in the clear life-blood, the birth-waters, of the earth.
We check out the Snapper Hole, looking for Rachel the manatee, but she isn’t there. The tide is going out and will be low at about 2 pm. Although the difference between high and low tides is only about six inches, low water could affect our ability to visit some islands and coves. The water may be too shallow on our way back this afternoon, so we skip The Crack and Blue Spring, and paddle toward the Gulf of Mexico.
Among the islands, we paddle quietly and slowly. A bevy of young river otters frolics in the water, until the mama otter chirps to call the pups back to the safety of their holt. Two yellow-crowned night-herons stalk along the shore; I watch while one of them does a slow-motion butt-waggle before plunging its bill into the water for a fish. Belted kingfishers chatter and chase each other. A wake of vultures is gathered on a bank, eating something dead. (We don’t take a closer look to see what it is). Butter-colored butterflies float on the light breeze. Wildflowers, white and yellow, bloom among the palm trees.
Rejoining the main stem of the river, we reach a waterside village of sorts: about twenty houses on stilts are perched along the edge where the river transitions from forest to salt marsh. If I had to live in Florida, it would probably be in a place like this. Accessible only by boat, vulnerable to hurricanes and no-name storms, where I could fish from my front porch and throw out a blue crab trap or two. I’d watch from my hammock while manatees and gators swim by, osprey plunge-dive for fish, and common yellowthroats sing in the bush.
We are paddling along when an exhalation of breath draws our attention. One manatee, then another, and another, rise to the surface all around us. We sit in our boats, and in awe, watch as half a dozen of these calm creatures swim under us. The water is turbid where they stir up the bottom while feeding. I watch while a smaller-sized manatee puts its face to another’s “armpit” behind the flipper, and realize I’m watching while a calf nurses. Almost all of the manatees have scars on their backs, where power boats have hit them, cutting the sensitive skin with their props.
One manatee surfaces next to my parents’ tandem kayak. It raises its face toward my mother. Then it moves over and looks at my dad. They make eye contact. The manatee submerges again, and disappears. My parents and I look at each other with wonder, and smile.
Latitude: 28°42’ N
The pH of the Chaz’s spring water is 7.57, just a tiny bit more alkaline than the liquid that pumps through the human heart.
High tide was at 6 am and measured 0.5 feet; low tide was at 2 pm and measured 0.0 feet.