The city was closing in on me and, like a caged animal, I was feeling tormented and restless. Not too long ago, the predictability of my schedule brought comfort. Now, each day piled upon the last in a heavy, undifferentiated blob that lay upon my soul like a blanket of adipose. As you may imagine, my wellbeing was in serious jeopardy.

Fate smiled upon me, however, and either by divine providence or subconscious compulsion, I mistakenly believed that some friends were coming into town towards the end of the week. As a result, I switched shifts with a co-worker and secured a day completely free of any professional obligations. Recognizing the necessity of getting out of my routine, I urgently bequeathed my wife to come on an outing with me. She obliged and we planned on a trip to Wekiwa State Park just next door to Altamonte Springs and only a short drive from our home in Winter Park.

My day off arrived and we set off on a leisurely tack; stopping for breakfast and a few quick errands before reaching our destination. We pulled off the main road and onto the gravel and dirt paved park access. In what seemed to be a staged event, a charismatic young buck stood at the road’s shoulder. He regarded us dismissively and, after we passed, he took his time traipsing across the road and into the brush.

The park’s website advertised scenic self-guided canoe/kayak tours, but as we cruised towards the end of the vast, empty parking lot, we were unable discern where watercraft of any kind might be had. We exited the car and headed towards a cluster of buildings that seemed promising. As it turns out, they were unmanned pavilions that did not offer us the option of doing anything other than picnicking, an activity that we were unprepared and ill-humored for.

Past the pavilions was a sandy path and, although I walked as gingerly as I could, a layer of sediment was soon deposited between my foot and the sole of my sandals. The path soon veered towards a deep and foreboding stand of trees, so we decided it would be best to hit the “reset” button and head back to the parking lot. We returned to the car and drove around a bit more until we found some more signs of civilization and, hopefully, canoes.

We hit our target on the second go as we successfully located the park’s small concession stand. We were soon faced with an assortment of random but appropriate sundries: ice cream bars, nature paraphernalia, and protective creams. The boy at the counter processed our transaction and we came into the possession of a small ticket stub that, he assured us, would be traded down at the launch for a “double canoe.”

Two bare-footed and boisterous attendants manned a shack near the springhead which served as their office. We handed over the ticket stub which was quickly torn half-way through and promptly handed back to me. Inexplicably, our canoe was already in the water and ready to be boarded so we clumsily took our seats and, with a kick from one of the attendant’s grimy feet, we were off.

Our vessel glided soundlessly into the cold, clear water and I was struck by the primal beauty of the surroundings. Chased by some unseen predator, glittering fish broke the surface of the water with a chorus of “blips” and “bloops” while water birds prowled the thick clusters of lily pads. Cyprus trees reached their fern-infested limbs across the water and turtles, rear legs improbably extended, basked in the sun.

Navigating the canoe initially proved to be a challenge and, seated in the back, physics dictated that I was in charge of steering. After some overzealous turns that sent us careening around the river bends like a bat out of hell, my wife informed me that perhaps I should “chill out”. After following her advice, we fell into an unspoken dialogue that allowed us to navigate the waterway with relative ease.

An impressive variety of wildlife called the river home. Amongst the submerged tree stumps, juvenile snapping turtles nimbly zipped to and fro, engaged some sort of reptilian territorial dispute and, along the sandy bottom, motionless gar fish hovered eerily. Unidentifiable at first, we soon realized that the mysterious creature slipping through the water like a seal was a river otter. The otter’s oily coat shined in the sun and, as it passed close to our canoe, we could clearly make out its long whiskers and webbed feet. Around another turn was a huge water bird that looked like he’d seen better days. Approximately four feet tall, the bird’s feathers were slightly askew and his mind seemed to be somewhere else as our passing did not garner even a nod.

Aside from a few exceptions, most notably a man and a woman who insisted upon “fishing” with what looked like a child’s tackle kit, the water was ours. Enveloped in the sights and sounds of nature we cruised at a leisurely clip. The bottom of the waterway oscillated between sand and carpets of sea grass. The day was becoming hot, but many sections of the river were cool and shaded by a dense canopy of trees; their leaves grasping greedily at the sunlight.

Our revere was finally disturbed when we crossed underneath a bridge that marked the end of government protection and the beginning of private ownership. Banners advertising Bud Light (with Lime!) heralded us as we passed by a riverside bar. Tiki huts, outfitted with identical sets of lounge chairs, fire extinguishers, and coolers followed the deserted bar. Water quality apparently suffered as a result of man’s incursion, when we looked down we could only see a murky brown punctuated occasionally by the glint of a discarded beer can. A flotilla of loud, mulleted women burst onto the waterway in neon green kayaks and their appearance, as well as the defiled state of our surroundings, initiated our decision to turn around.

Working against the current, we paddled back towards the springhead. Distracted by effort and my dully aching back, I was less able to appreciate the waterway’s beauty. We also found that the river’s population of humans had boomed. A series of near-collisions and shouted apologies soon followed. Fortunately there were several European tourists amongst the throng and they, unlike the dour locals, offered chipper greetings and genuine smiles.

After passing the fishing couple (at this point their lines had become hopelessly and hilariously tangled) we saw a sign for a “Rock Spring” and decided to divert off of the main waterway to investigate. Why it was called “Rock Spring” would forever remain a mystery, however, as the shallow water threatened to run our craft aground. Wading, pushing, and cursing were not on our agenda for the day, so we beat a hasty retreat back to the main waterway.

Heading back to the launch point, we passed a baby alligator that was perched cat-like and contented on the jutting limb of a felled tree as well the large tattered bird from before. The water once again ran clear and the fish schooled in the depths. With a burst of speed from our paddles, we ran our canoe up the sandy beach of the launch point and exited the craft. We left our canoe in the capable hands and bare feet of the park stewards.

Before we left Wekiwa Springs we visited the small nature center near the concession. A stuffed black bear cub, a victim of an apparent hit-and-run, greeted us as we walked in. The smell inside was a mix of ammonia and mildew and we were informed that it was due to a spilled turtle tank. We spent a few moments perusing the native snakes on exhibit, but were soon drawn to a gopher tortoise named “Lucky”. She was wandering about under the supervision of a park ranger and seemed to be plotting a daring slow-motion escape.

Although we somehow missed it when we first entered the park, we saw that there was a large swimming hole nearby. Concrete steps led down to an expansive body of spring water and several groups of people happily splashed in the cold water. From my vantage point, I could see shelves of rock near the bottom that provided shelter to a handful of large fish. The swimming hole warranted a return visit unto itself, so we decided to call it a day.

On the way home I noticed that the frantic stirrings of my mind had been eased. Having supped deeply from the tumescent bosom of Mother Nature I felt renewed and content to return to the rhythms of my daily life. My hunger for the peace and beauty of this world had, for the time being, been sated.

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About Unknown

Tony is the host of the Paleo Magazine Radio podcast, author of "Paleo Grilling: A Modern Caveman's Guide to Cooking with Fire", and Cofounder of Powerful PT, an innovative information resource for Fitness Professionals. He has appeared on numerous local and national television and radio broadcasts and regularly hosts healthy cooking workshops and informational lectures. He is also a full-time Personal Trainer and Wellness Consultant who lives in Jacksonville Florida with his wife Jamie.
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