If you grow up in Tallahassee, you relationship with the Wakulla River really began in second grade with your first field trip to Wakulla Springs State Park, the home of the largest freshwater spring in the world. IN THE WORLD.
There, you and your classmates boarded the glass bottom boats that circled the never ending pit of the spring, and you strained to catch a glimpse of the mullet, river grass, and fallen trees lit up in bright blue as the sun filtered through the crystal water. Or you crowded on to the river tour boats with the benevolent park rangers who pointed out the different birds and plants, but really all you and your friends were doing were counting alligators. Sometimes the total would get up into the 20s.
After school was out for the summer, your parents would pile you and your friends into the minivan some July afternoon and make the 20 minute drive to Wakulla County to hit the swimming hole.
Instead of being confined to State Park watercraft, you and your hooligan friends would brave the icy spring water and jump off the double decker platform tower, holding your nose and hoping for a giant splash. The water was perfect, blue, and freezing.
The Wakulla River, however, is a different story. Wakulla Springs State Park boundary ends a few miles down from the spring. And though the river is obviously connected to the spring in the park, it has no grand entrance. No signs, no gift shop, no lifeguards. In fact, I never realized it was a place you could go until I was in high school, when some friends showed me the boat ramp next to the bridge on Shadeville Road. My parents are decidedly middle class indoor types, so any knowledge of canoe launches or river runs were welcome gems of discovery for both me and my sister Scottie.
So my relationship with the Wakulla River didn't really get its start until Scottie and I canoed it by ourselves for the first time-- no small feat for a pair of sisters who didn't really like each other growing up.
I was 18 and about to graduate high school, which means Scottie was 13. It was a spring day, and we had loaded up my parents' canoe (a remnant from their more adventurous youth), and after some iffy navigation excavated from memory of a previous trip with friends, we found the bridge. A gravel parking lot on the side of the road leads down to the waters' edge, and we heaved our vessel into the river to begin paddling.
The Wakulla is a special beauty. The river's edge is lined with ancient bald cypress trees, tall grey pillars with ragged bark, topped with osprey nests and dripping with curtains of spanish moss. Native eel grass ripples like mermaid hair on the river floor, its sinewy green strands waving with the current.
And the birds! We're not talking about spotting one if you've got binoculars-- flocks of white ibises probing the water for prey; moorhens and greebs bobbing along the surface; great blue herons stalking fish; anhingas perching with their wings spread in the sun to dry.
I have no idea how much Scottie was actually paying attention to this. In true little sister fashion, what she was most interested in was seeing how little paddling she could get away with before I yelled at her, and how much she could rock the canoe before it tipped. I clearly remember asking her how many gators she remembered counting on the boat tour during her school field trips. Whatever the number was, it was of no consequence because she found just the amount of force needed to capsize the canoe, dumping us and all our sundries into the cold river water.
It was at this point that I more vehemently reminded her about all those gators. Infuriatingly, she replied that if there WERE any gators, they could sense my panic, so I should probably stop yelling and splashing like a crazy person.
We righted the canoe and were drifting down stream trying to decide on a game plan. We attempted to climb back into the boat from the water, which is of course impossible. The river houses docks jut out into the water, and they would allow us to reach dry land while avoiding the marshy grasses where alligators take to sunbathing in complete camouflage. We were in the process of approaching a rickety dock when a boat appeared from around the bend. A father and his (count 'em) seven children leaned over the boat's edge, announcing that we appeared to be in a quite a pickle.
Within seconds we were pulled aboard as the riverrat family turned their boat around to retrieve our paddles and sneakers, which miraculously survived the wreckage. In fact, the only thing I recall losing was my favorite red bandana- a minor tragedy. As we got all situated and returned to our canoe, one of the many daughters pointed towards the shore and said, “Looks like there's a gator over there who wanted to invite you over to lunch.” It was true-- we had floated right past a little six-footer resting by the river's edge, eyes just barely popped out above the water, its tail easily mistaken for a log.
As soon as our rescuers were out of range I shrieked at Scottie, “I TOLD YOU THERE WERE ALLIGATORS IN THIS RIVER DON'T YOU TELL ME TO BE CALM.” To which she replied, “Well at least it will make a good story.”
To be continued...