The sun has only just advanced in the sky, but already we are gliding through the water. The air is thick and heavy, as evidenced by the sheen of sweat we all wear with our swimsuits and straw hats and sunscreen. We couldn't care less.
Sloppp, sloppp, sloppp. Our paddles gently displace the water, propelling us forward through the Fort De Soto backwaters. Gracefully, we make our way along the edge of the closest mangrove island, Sawyer Key. A great blue heron peeks out from behind the tangle of leaves and branches, pausing in its search for breakfast. They are skittish creatures, usually taking flight as soon as we get near. This one is braver, waiting, while we pass.
Sloppp. Sloppp, sloppp. There! An osprey flies overhead with its catch. A small trout wriggles in strong talons, gasping for the safety of the water. We marvel among ourselves at the beauty of these birds of prey. Majestic and lethal, they dazzle us each time we see them. Then we are quiet again except for the sound of our paddles through the briny shallows.
It has been decided that we will head to the rookery first today. It is simply another mangrove island, though farther out than this. Several species of birds roost there, and it is always a surprise which will be there when we visit. Some, like the herons, are timid around explorers, allowing us only a glimpse. Others, like the brown pelicans, sit high in the trees, looking at us with as much interest as we look at them. Common birds are here, but we still don't take them for granted. We examine the details of their markings, the rubbery textures of their feeding pouches, the breadth of webbed feet.
Sloppp, sloppp, sloppp. The rookery is a short paddle away. We've agreed to set a reasonable pace, to enjoy the journey as much as the destination. The sun is warm and bright, but there is a slight breeze from the west. The tide is high, and we move smoothly through the channel. There is no conversation as we each get into our own individual paddling zones. The rhythm is invigorating. The arms rise, the torso turns slightly, the paddle slices into the water. First left, then right. Left, then right.
Sloppp, sloppp, sloppp. The rookery looms and we cut in, staying close to shore where the water is most clear. We have learned to paddle with a shallow stroke here, so as not to stir up the silt. Excitedly we watch the mullet and trout race by as we disturb them. We make a game of counting. "Look!" One of us has spooked a stingray. It shoots from beneath its sandy blanket, velvety wing tips just breaking the surface of the water, and swims out of sight. Someone sighs in delight. A horseshoe crab is spotted, moving slowly. Whelks dot the sandy floor in a vast carpet of shells. Not far off, a flock of gulls is feeding on bait fish, nosily calling and diving.
Our leader gives the signal for quiet as we round one end of the island and approach the stretch of the rookery that holds our favorite surprise. The spot is secluded from our view by tree branches, so we must glide soundlessly, using our paddles only for steering. Not too close, now. Give them room.
There is a low murmur of wonder and appreciation as the group makes it around the turn and feasts on the sight before us. The roost is nearly covered in shades of pink and magenta. Roseate spoonbills sit on every available branch. They are at ease with us as long as we don't make a ruckus or move too quickly. We drift, devouring the sight of them gathered like this, like balls of cotton candy, accented with a dollop of raspberry jam. Their large, bowl-shaped bills shine pearly gray in the sun. I spot a treasure floating by and scoop it up, a pink feather to add to my collection.
We have drifted past the roost and now all talk excitedly, remarking on the birds. It is not always the spoonbills we find. Sometimes there are snowy egrets, or gulls, or night herons standing straight and still like soldiers. Sometimes it is only the pelicans.
It's time to move on.
We will picnic on Shell Key, taking the opportunity to rest and eat and get out of the sun for a while. Later we'll swim and walk the shore looking for special mementos, a sand dollar, a sea urchin, the carcass of a horseshoe crab. Perhaps just a perfect shell. We have been there many times, throughout each season over years of time. It is still new and awe-inspiring and humbling. We are careful to leave only footprints and take only that which the sea has left behind.
Tomorrow we will return to our workaday worlds. We'll enter the morning rush hour of belching exhaust and manic drivers to arrive at offices filled to capacity with stress and fear and boredom. Some of us will thrive, and some will despair.
But that is tomorrow.
Today, we paddle in paradise.
Sloppp, sloppp, sloppp.
- Suzanne Palmer works in the Reader Services department of the Times and enjoys exploring Florida by kayak.