Making a splash at Manatee Springs

A weekend camping trip has a less-than-graceful ending.

click to enlarge Large manatee - Ahodges7 via Wikimedia Commons/ CC
Ahodges7 via Wikimedia Commons/ CC
Large manatee

When I was a little girl, I loved pretending to be a mermaid. I spent countless hours in the water, feet smushed tightly together and toes pointed out like fins as I perfected my technique. I dreamt about being able to breathe underwater and I spoke to manatees any time I saw them.

Some things never change.

Today I am just as excited to speak to the manatees, though I have let go of any hopes of being able to breathe underwater. My wife Steph and I, along with our Labrador retriever Tucker, are at Manatee Springs with hopes of gazing at the dozens of sea cows who have come to soak in the year-round 72 degree water. We have a campsite for the weekend and are ready to relax. On day two, we rent a canoe and prepare for the perfect day.

click to enlarge Tucker in his natural element. - Resie Waechter
Resie Waechter
Tucker in his natural element.

It’s almost too easy to get Tucker into the canoe. Weighing close to 100 pounds, he is no petite pup. I am grateful it doesn’t take much coaxing before he joins me and actually sits down. Steph pushes our canoe into the water and hops in.

The day is absolutely divine. I close my eyes, open my arms and bask in the sunshine. The water laps gently against the canoe as I give silent gratitude for this life, this place, this moment. I glance back at Steph and Tucker, both of whose faces wear lazy smiles as they soak in the scenery. My heart is happy.

click to enlarge Manatee Springs water and trees - Ebyabe via Wikimedia Commons/ CC
Ebyabe via Wikimedia Commons/ CC
Manatee Springs water and trees

15 or so minutes in, though, the waters start to shift. Literally. I hear the loud motor of a boat zipping by and as my eyes shoot open my stomach churns with dread. The wake from the boat approaches us rapidly.

Steph and I brace ourselves as we prepare to get jostled, but we forget to steady one important thing: Tucker.

click to enlarge Who, me? - Resie Waechter
Resie Waechter
Who, me?

Tucker is 80 pounds of awesome. He is a Labrador retriever mixed with two or three other breeds. We picked him up from a shelter nearly nine years ago, grateful to have found him before he was sent to a third facility and shocked nobody snagged him before us. Tucker can be a bit clumsy at times; he never did seem to grow into those large paws. We lovingly refer to him as our Gentle Giant.

Tucker is always happy just to be part of the group. He loves water and is thrilled to be with us in the canoe here at the springs. When the canoe begins to sway, though, he stands up and begins pacing the small space between Steph and I. This, of course, does nothing to help our situation. Already on rocky waters, our vessel refuses to steady (as does our dog).

Everything moves in slow motion. It is only a few more seconds before we capsize and the three of us are thrown into the water.

So much for a relaxing day at the springs.

I curse big boats with loud motors; I curse irresponsible captains with a lack of regard for those of us who just want to paddle around for a few hours. I curse myself for thinking it was a good idea to bring a big dog in a small boat.

Steph and I manage to flip our vessel back over and I steady it as she somehow manages to lift Tucker back in (she’s magic, I swear). After some difficulty, she pulls herself back in. I swim out, grab our stuff and pass each item back to Steph before attempting to pull myself back into our canoe. Each time I try, though, Tucker panics and we nearly capsize again.

After several unsuccessful attempts, I realize it’s futile. I will have to swim back alongside the canoe. I am a pretty strong swimmer, but I prefer my laps to take place under calmer circumstances.

The swim back alongside our canoe proves to be an even bigger challenge than I expect. Tucker is still freaking out, Steph is getting tired from being the lone paddler in a heavy canoe and I can only swim so far before I realize it’s faster and easier just to hang on and be pulled. With Steph in the back seat and Tucker in the middle, I wrap my arms around the front of the canoe in attempt to distribute the weight more evenly.

This gets very old very fast. And yes, it looks just as ridiculous as it sounds.

Eventually we make it back to shore, soggy and exhausted. I nearly kiss the ground. I let go of any remaining aspirations my inner nine year-old may have had about being a mermaid. I have a bruised body and an ego to match.

We do not see any manatees that weekend.