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Ways of Seeing by Alice Leeds: The coast of Florida has hidden gems

After decades of vacations determined by the school calendar, my husband and I take a month-long drive to Florida and back. It feels luxurious. We set out in early January, dodging snow and ice storms along the way.
Our destination is the central west coast of Florida. While driving there, we envision beach combing and river walks, exotic birds and trees, perpetual warmth. After arriving, we set out on a new adventure each day.
But there is a price to pay: each expedition involves endless miles of stop-and-go strip driving, roads teeming with traffic and a repeating array of urgent care centers, discount stores and billboards advertising divorce lawyers and vasectomy centers. Occasionally a costumed Statue of Liberty or chicken waves to us, advertising the latest bargain. I wave back.
One day we head to a newly discovered local waterway. After a mind-numbing series of lights and visual assaults we take a quick left turn, thrusting us into Old Florida with its cypress, live oaks and Spanish moss. Suddenly, we’re surrounded by primeval foliage.
We enter the park, rent a double kayak and push off, heading down a narrow winding creek along with ibis and egrets, dodging the entangled roots of extensive cypress tree communities, floating with the current through a winding tunnel of life.
What appears to be an upright black snake undulates across the slow-moving water. Emerging on the bank, it morphs into a long-necked bird struggling chaotically for a low branch, where it spreads its ancient black-and-white wings. Scientists theorize the anhinga poses like this both to gather heat and dry its feathers. As we approach for a closer look at its patterned plumage, it responds with a vibrating sound sometimes described as a frog with a sore throat. We back away.
The water gleams like honey, brightly colored fish darting alongside us, sometimes leaping from the water. Mesmerized by the heat and the dancing light, we float along.
After a long stretch, a kayaker ahead of us points to a small wharf and mouths the word “manatee.” A large form surfaces just beside us in the dark water, its nostrils reaching up for a quick breath. We hear it inhale before slowly re-submerging out of sight.
As we paddle, a young raccoon follows us along the water’s edge. We pull closer. When it’s clear he’s ready to hop aboard to share our lunch, we push off and continue downstream, avoiding this hungry bandit.
The river opens to a large pool fed by warm underground springs. Half a dozen manatees glide slowly through clear water, feeding on algae, curiously approaching an equal number of humans floating on the surface. Their oblong gray-brown bodies resemble an overgrown walrus with a bulbous whiskered mouth that grabs food much like an elephant’s trunk. In fact, manatees and elephants are closely related.
As these huge creatures swim gently about, one young kayaker can’t stop herself from joining them. She resists reaching out to touch one, yet when its rough flesh brushes her feet, she squeals with delight.
A mother and her calf swim alongside our boat, close enough to see crisscrossing motorboat scars on the adult. As the calf dips beneath us, the mother turns her head, and our eyes meet for just a moment. Her universal message is clear: don’t hurt my baby. My eyes return reassurance: we will do no harm.
Each bend in the river offers a new gift: sunlight playing on water, a pattern of overlapping foliage, a great blue heron skimming silently by. We paddle on.
At the appointed pullout, we climb out of our kayak, our bottoms dripping, and head for the shuttle back to our car. Leaving the park and Old Florida, we re-enter the strip of stores and traffic lights, eventually turning into a spotless community with manicured lawns framing perfect-looking homes.
Western Florida is filled with gems, waiting to be found. To uncover these wild, hidden treasures, the parallel universes of Florida must be navigated. It is worth the effort.
Alice Leeds, of Bristol, was a public school teacher for 25 years and is currently a writing instructor at the Community College of Vermont in Winooski.

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