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Relaxing way to see bay

Ocean kayaking is easy, fun and allows you to get close to nature.

By CARRIE JOHNSON

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 1, 2001


CRYSTAL RIVER -- It had been one month since I uprooted my life in Virginia and moved south to Citrus County, and I was racked with stomach-churning pangs of homesickness nearly every day.

I missed so many things. In addition to my friends, I pined for the James River flowing just out side the Richmond office building where I worked, the proximity to the mountains with their miles and miles of hiking trails, and the rolling hills of the country just 10 miles away from my downtown apartment, where I could ride my bike for hours without being interrupted by a car.

Florida was flat, I pouted. Too hot. Boring.

But some friends of mine who moved from Virginia to St. Petersburg 1 1/2 years ago assured me there were benefits to living in Florida. They encouraged me to try a favorite activity of theirs: ocean kayaking.

I always wanted to try kayaking while living in Virginia, but I never did, in part because I couldn't find time to take the lessons necessary to learn how to use a whitewater kayak.

In Citrus County, where the rivers virtually are rapid-free, a whitewater kayak isn't necessary. And unlike its whitewater version, the ocean kayak has no skirt that grips the paddler around the waist. As a result, it's much easier to use. No tricky underwater rolls to master, no lessons required.

So after a few weekends of moping around Crystal River, I finally summoned my courage and called Bird's Underwater, a local dive shop that rents kayaks. It was happy to set aside a kayak for me for the afternoon. I plunked down my $20, good for half a day's paddle, and was shown to a yellow boat.

The man who had taken my money handed me a paddle and turned to walk back into the dive shop. "What?" I wanted to ask. "No instructions? What should I do? How do I work this thing?" But feeling like a rube, I decided to figure things out for myself.

I plopped into the kayak and pushed away from the dock. No instructions necessary. It was easy, remarkably easy, to use. I just pointed myself in the direction I wanted to go and started paddling.

After a few strokes I was glad I had worn my bathing suit underneath my shorts and t-shirt. While you stay on top of the water kayaking, some does manage to seep in, soaking the paddler's bottom.

The wind pressed against me as I made my way into the open bay. Fat pelicans, their beaks tucked into their bellies, watched me -- Buddha-like -- as I struggled toward Three Sisters Spring. For a while, I seemed to be moving more sideways than forward. About 15 minutes later, I turned into an inlet and the wind died. I gave my tired arms a break and glided for a few minutes.

I passed under a bridge and floated by Palm Island. The boats that had been zipping around the bay had to slow to a crawl. It was a bit of a relief for me -- no more threat of being run over by a renegade Waverunner.

There were houses built right along the shoreline, and I felt vaguely voyeuristic as I peered into people's screened-in porches and backyard pools. I saw pink plastic flamingoes, elaborate gardens filled with jasmine and hibiscus, and children's toys strewn along a red wooden dock. It was an interesting way to see my neighbors.

Still unfamiliar with the area (although the folks at Bird's Underwater had furnished me with a map of the bay -- highly recommended for newcomers), I paddled right by Three Sisters Spring without knowing it.

But I found it on a subsequent trip and was completely awed: Three large pools of the clearest blue water I had seen in my life. The opening to the spring is blocked by large wooden pillars, forming an entranceway too narrow for a regular boat but just right for a kayak.

For nearly an hour I just sat in the spring, dipping my hand into the cool water, which stays 72 degrees year-round. Snorklers flippered by, silently enjoying the hidden oasis.

On that first trip, I just enjoyed being outside. All the anxiety associated with starting a new job began to dissolve, and I felt myself start to relax. Unlike most other forms of boating, kayaking is a wonderful way to get close to nature because there's no growling motor to scare the wildlife.

In fact, I think the kayak must be the most accepted of all watercraft.

People on pontoon boats get annoyed by the folks speeding by on power boats. Power boaters dislike the Waverunners who play in their wake. And everyone is irritated by the eardrum-shattering whine of the airboats. But I was silent, offensive to no one.

As I paddled past the entrance to Three Sisters, I watched a turtle sunning itself on a rock. An egret picked its way along the side of the river right next to me a few yards downstream. Just when it seemed as though the surroundings couldn't become more idyllic, a snake slithered along the surface of the water. I got the heck out of there.

Of course, the wildlife everyone wants to see in Crystal River is the manatees. I didn't see one on my first voyage, but I was lucky enough to run into two on another trip.

I was paddling along King's Bay when I saw a brown nose sticking out of the water. Two little nostrils, breathing in, breathing out. I slowly took my paddle out of the water. I floated closer. Sure enough, it was an adult manatee and a calf. They appeared to be just inches away from where I was sitting.

The mother and her baby swam around me for a couple of minutes, then took off -- presumably in search of something edible. It doesn't get much better than that.

After poking around for about 2 1/2 hours on that first trip, my arms started to ache. I also started to get blisters on my thumb from the paddle. Reluctantly, I turned back toward Birds Underwater.

But as I paddled back, I couldn't stop grinning. My friends had been right. Ocean kayaking was the coolest thing I had done in a long time. At least for a few hours, my homesickness had completely vanished. And I had found a uniquely Florida experience I loved.

Maybe it wouldn't be so bad here after all.

KAYAKING: WHERE TO GO

Bird's Underwater, Crystal River, (352) 563-2763

Dragonfly Watersports, Dunnellon, (352) 489-3046

Homosassa Riverside Resort, Homosassa, (352) 628-2474

McFarlane's High Tech High Touch Systems, Spring Hill, (352) 666-0206

Nobleton Canoe Rental, Nobleton, (352) 796-7176

Riversport Kayaks, Homosassa, (352) 621-4972

Weeki Wachee Canoe Rental, Spring Hill, (352) 597-0360

HELPFUL HINTS

Wear a bathing suit and water-friendly clothes. Water has a tendency to slosh into the kayak, and you probably will end up sitting in a puddle.

Use plenty of sunscreen. The sun gets pretty bright, and when you factor in the reflection from the water, it could mean a nasty burn.

Bring along plenty of bottled water. You don't want to dehydrate when you're out in the middle of the bay.

Want more?

For information about kayaking, check out these Web sites:

www.flakayak.com

www.kayakonline.com

www.paddlefl.com

www.wildernesswaterway.com

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