Last month Ed and I drove down to the Gulf Coast of Florida to escape Michigan's winter gloom. Once there, we won the weather lottery: five straight days of sunshine and 80 degrees. It was glorious!
We went kayaking with friends on the Crystal River, gliding alongside the manatee that congregate in the warm water of Three Sisters Spring. A mama and baby swam right next to our kayak, the four-foot-long kiddo tucked against the mother's bulky body. Then, when we were out in King's Bay, a dolphin surfaced ten feet off our bow.
A few days later we booked a rental canoe at Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park, a 4,000-acre preserve that includes four miles of pristine, mangrove-lined coast on the Gulf. The park features tidal marshes, freshwater creeks, pine flatwoods, oak hammocks and many small artesian springs. Ed hoped to see manatee and dolphin again on the waters of the estuary leading into the Gulf. I was eager to paddle the narrow creeks back to the freshwater springs we'd glimpsed from hiking trails the day before.
What would it be like, I wondered, to sit quietly in our canoe above the rippling green water of Salt Spring that plunged to a depth of 320 feet? The park brochure said there was a large cavern at the bottom of the spring, 50 feet high and 200 feet wide. I wondered if I'd be able to sense the depths even though I could not see them. I'd experienced that feeling once while paddling a deep lake in the Boundary Waters, a prickling of the arms when we passed over the deepest spot.
And what would it be like to nose our canoe right up to Cauldron Spring that bubbled up in several places and sluiced through a cement culvert underneath the hiking trail? I wanted to dip my fingers in the clear water that welled up from the ground. I wanted to put a drop on my tongue to see if it tasted salty or fresh.
We loaded our gear into the canoe and headed out toward the Gulf, trying to read Google maps on my phone in the bright sunlight. The outfitter had instructed us to look for the roofline of the Energy and Marine Center, an environmental education facility for Pasco County Schools, so we did not get lost on our way back from the Gulf. Ed was better at orienteering than I was, but he'd left his glasses in the car. He literally could not read the map on my phone.
Where exactly were we? Were we headed west toward the Energy and Marine Center, or were we going south toward a small island? The outfitter had also suggested that we hug the shoreline to be protected from the 15 m.p.h. winds. Did that channel up ahead open to the Gulf or were we still in the more protected waters of the estuary?
We kept paddling tight to the shore and heard the shouts of schoolchildren. Aha! That boardwalk on the shore surrounded by palm trees must be part of the Energy and Marine Center. We could now navigate with some confidence. But any time we headed away from the shore, the wind hit us. We also had to push against the force of the incoming tide.
Between the wind and the tide, it didn't take long for me to tire. My back and arms ached. Taking shelter in the lee of a long, narrow island, we joined a flock of white ibis draped over the mangroves like tatters of white cotton. A little blue heron tucked its head into its copper-colored neck. Mullet jumped a foot out of the water and smacked back down.
The outfitter had told us that paddlers the previous day had seen a whole pod of dolphins chasing fish brought in by the tide—but I wasn't eager to go out any further into the Gulf. Tides aren't something you have to think about on the Great Lakes. Here, every day, the tide goes out and comes back in, rushing into the estuary, stirring the overhanging branches of the mangroves, filling up the creeks with a force I did not expect.
When we finally paddled up to Cauldron Spring at 2:40 p.m., the incoming tide had completely covered the cement culvert that had been visible at noon. A slight troubling of the surface of the water was the only sign of the spring. In the same way, the water of the much larger Salt Spring seemed surprisingly calm. How would you even know there was a spring below? I guess you just have to trust the upwelling even when you cannot see it.
In my last blog, I mentioned my lifelong struggle with dark moods that move through me with unwelcome regularity. Like the tides, those dark moods exert a force against which I must push if I want to get anywhere. Sometimes, daunted by their power, I stay too close to shore. It's a fact of life for me, implacable as the pull of the moon.
However, if the tide comes in, it also goes out. The dark moods pass. And, like those hidden springs, even when I cannot see it, I know that the grace of God is always flowing, flowing, replacing salty water with clear, the freshness felt far out into the sea.
Scripture: [Jesus said], "The water that I give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life." John 4:14 (NRSV)
Playlist: "Cry Me a River," Barbra Streisand, The Essential Barbra Streisand, 2002.