Recently, I loaned our eight canoes and trailer to the Camp Director of Weeki Wachee Christian Camp for his daughter’s wedding at the camp. They wanted their guests to be able to enjoy the river and they used one of the canoes for the bride and groom to paddle away after the wedding ceremony. He called to let me know they were done with them so Tyler and I headed out to pick them up. It was late afternoon when we got there, but we had plenty of daylight left. Since Tyler has never been down river to the gulf from the camp we figured we would take the opportunity to head out that way. I also wanted to try and find the boiler tubes from the 200 foot side paddle civil war blockade runner that was sunk out there. The tubes washed up on one of the islands and I think I know which island. Also if there was time, I still wanted to take a stab at finding the Bayport Cemetery.
We launched from camp and enjoyed the swift current out making for a very easy paddle. I knew the trip back would be a bit harder. Tyler leaves this weekend so I want to spend some quality time before he goes. A canoe trip is a good way to do that. This evening was hot, but not as humid as the last few weeks have been. Weeki Wachee River is always crowded, but being a week day evening it wasn’t as crowded as usual. As soon as we passed under the Shoal Line bridge at Roger’s park we had the river to ourselves. We paddled out to the estuary where I shared some of the river’s history with Tyler. In the 1970’s my old Boy Scout Troop 71 found a dug out canoe in the river. It was excavated and sent to the Gainesville Natural History Museum. I also shared with him some of the Civil War history that took place at the mouth of the river.
We paddled down the middle of the river as it opened into the bay and became Bayport. We had been watching the wildlife. The ospreys were especially active this evening. The mullet were jumping everywhere. Egrets were stalking lizards and insects. I was looking at the islands and pointing out to Tyler the one I wanted to aim for. Tyler turned around and said, “something just surfaced in front of us”. No sooner had the words left his mouth when the sea opened up underneath us. A twenty foot circle of whitewater enveloped around the canoe with us at the center. The back end of the canoe got picked up and we were almost tossed out. I know at one point we tipped greater than 45 degrees to our left and took on a significant amount of water. My first thought was a bull shark was hitting the canoe. I couldn’t find any fins surfacing, but the canoe kept getting hit and hit hard. Tyler let out a scream and he doesn’t want me telling anyone that he screamed like a little girl so I won’t go into that. I yelled to paddle to shore. I think we set an olympic record getting to the shore. Tyler didn’t stop paddling until we had beached in the mud on the side of the bay and couldn’t go any further.
After twenty something years of paddling canoes and kayaks all over the state I have been bumped by sharks in Clearwater Pass and surprised alligators in the Weeki Wachee and Withlacoochee that responded by slapping the canoe with their tails. I have paddled in a river in north Florida where a friend and I literally paddled across alligators so thick we pushed them with the paddles instead of paddling the water. I have never experienced something like this before. This one scared me worse than any other wildlife encounter I have ever had. I know it will come up so I will confess it now. Yes I screamed like a little girl with the alligator in the Withlacoochee and there were plenty of witnesses to that. This time I kept my composure and paddled for all I was worth.
Once on shore Tyler refused to move another inch. He was adamant that we call someone with a boat to come get us. We were confused by what could have possibly done what we just experienced. We never saw any fins during the experience or after, so I was pretty sure it wasn’t a shark. Besides, a shark would have swirled water on one side and would not have made the sea roil in the size or way that it did. Dolphins would have meant the same thing and they usually surface more frequently. I was beginning to think maybe it was a manta ray. They only get to about six feet wide though and would not have made that twenty foot circle.
Ten minutes or so after we beached, noses started sticking up out of the water in the distance. There were somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty to thirty manatees swimming back up the river. I have no idea what spooked them. The best guess I have is that they “stampeded”. Multiple manatees must have surfaced underneath the canoe at the same time and all around us to cause the roiling water. It looked like when a school of fish run at the surface… only magnified with the amount of water being thrown and of course the canoe being thrown up out of the water. It was reassuring that it wasn’t something intentionally trying to harm us, but things still could have turned out bad. It would have been easy to get crushed or held under by that many sea cows. As it was, we got hit so hard one of the aluminum floor ribs snapped in half. That takes an extreme amount of force to do that. I weigh upwards of 220 pounds and Tyler is at 180 plus some gear. The canoe itself is 70 pounds. In total, roughly 500 pounds got picked up out of the water and tossed like a rag doll.
Tyler has now nicknamed them Man-eata-tees. It took a while to convince him to come off the shore. Needless to say we didn’t go looking for the boiler tubes. Tyler’s sense of humor and patience was gone. It took half an hour before Tyler was finally convinced they were gone and we started moving again. Tyler wanted to stay as close to shore as possible. After a while I was able to edge the canoe into deeper water without Tyler realizing it. I took that opportunity to bounce the back of the canoe sending a good bump and loud bang to the front where Tyler promptly reacted by screaming like a little girl again. I don’t know why he kept saying he hates me all the way back home.
I have to say, I am proud of him. Even though he was afraid, he did what was necessary to keep the canoe upright and paddled hard to get us away from there. All in all it was a good experience for him. He is growing up and learning to control his fear. I have seen grown men unable to do that.
I sign out of my motorcycle ride reports with “keep the rubber side down, it works better that way”. Tonight, I am signing out, “keep the canoe upright, it works better that way and you won’t get eaten by the man-eata-tees!”