“You want us to do WHAT?!”
From the incredulous tone of their voices and the horrified looks on their faces, you would’ve thought that I asked my two teenage children to use a spoon to remove a vital organ and place it in the Ziploc bag I was holding out. In reality, all they had to do was put their cell phones in the bag until the end of the day. My 10-year-old, not yet allowed to have a cell phone, just smirked as she listened to them spout off all of the reasons they NEEDED their cell phones. She knew as well as they did that this was one argument they weren’t going to win.
We were vacationing in Gainesville, Florida, and on that particular day, we planned to canoe on the scenic Santa Fe River. Since my oldest was leaving for college in the fall, it was likely our last family vacation with all three kids. My husband and I decided before we even chose a destination that it was important for our family to disconnect from the distractions of everyday life to really connect as a family; hence, the no cell phone rule. The only “tweets” we wanted our kids to pay attention to that day were those of the Northern Bobwhite, migrant songbirds, or any of the other 350 species of birds that nest in Gainesville.
Fun From the Start
We rented our canoes from Santa Fe Canoe Outpost, where we also received a crash course in canoeing and learned a little more about the area—including an animated story about a nudist who has taken up residence along the river! We were hoping to see some wildlife, but we weren’t so sure if we wanted to see this wild man of Lilly Spring. Still, the humor and excitement of the staff here were contagious; and with that, the gloomy attitude of our teens became just a bit sunnier. We loaded our gear and launched the slender, aluminum boat in the river.
The current was calm, exactly what we needed for our first venture in the water. As avid outdoorsmen, we’d done plenty of hiking and biking before, but canoeing was a new adventure. There was definitely a bit of a learning curve as my husband and I started paddling the route from Poe Springs to Rum Island. Our kids united over a common cause: mocking our technique. It didn’t take long before we got the hang of things, though, steering from the stern. Tomorrow we would be proficient enough paddlers to canoe on any of the other amazing bodies of water in Gainesville—lake, river, or maybe even the ocean.
A Beautiful JourneyAdventure at Every Stop
We immediately saw some turtles swimming in the water, and started counting every shell we saw. The water was warm and inviting, almost like a bathtub at 72 degrees.
During parts of our journey, the river was wide and clear, with the sun spotlighting the mirrored images on the water of the huge cypress trees that lined the bank. Other parts were a bit narrower and darker, but none the less spectacular. Long strands of moss hung from the canopy of trees and low-growing broad-leafed trees—hardwood hammocks—blanketed the banks. There wasn’t another canoe or kayak in sight. It looked like a scene straight out of a movie.
As we approached some of the more popular destinations on the river, it became peppered with people floating on inner tubes; countless kayaks and canoes were docked on the banks. We too, stopped and marveled at some of the impressive rock formations along the way, explored the sinkholes, and scouted the swamps hoping to spot a gator or two.
We almost missed the impressive 7-foot alligator sunning himself on the shore across the swamp because he was camouflaged behind the razor-sharp cogon grass. Our 10-year-old, who always has her nose in a book, was the one who spotted it. She was amazed to see a creature in real life that, until that moment, she had only read about. A fish splashed in the water, piquing the gator’s interest. He crept to the water’s edge and got in to investigate. We all watched in silence as he stealthily glided through the water with his wide-set eyes and the tip of his rounded snout barely showing.
Back on the river again, we stopped counting turtles because we had seen so many. There were plenty of other animals to keep us entertained, however. It was so much fun to watch the otters move about in their natural environment. You definitely don’t see animals in action like this at the zoo. We basked in the beauty of the snowy egrets on the bank and even spotted a few deer drinking from the river. High above us, we could hear a chorus of birds chirping in harmony.
An Unforgettable Experience
We found a quiet place for lunch, docked our canoe, and grabbed some food from our cooler. As we were sitting there, my son (always the practical joker!) decided to have a little fun. He stealthily grabbed a slimy, wet branch from the water and softly rubbed it on my leg as he shouted, “SNAKE!” I jumped and screamed with a pitch so high that I’m surprised humans could hear it. My husband, who knew exactly what my son was up to, had slyly pulled his cell phone (which I let him keep in case of emergency) out of his pocket and recorded the whole prank. Everyone roared with laughter. This video will undoubtedly get a lot of play in the coming days, months, and even years.
That night, when we got back to our vacation rental, the kids got their cell phones again. My husband posted a candid photo he took of the kids and me smiling and laughing during our journey on the Santa Fe. From their separate rooms, both my son and daughter immediately shared the photo with their followers and friends. That small gesture was a major victory for a mom who wanted nothing more than her family to connect on a canoe trip.