Life Sketches by Terry Berkson: Swimming with the manatees leads to ideas

A manatee swims underwater in Homosassa Springs, in Florida. (Alice Berkson)

Life Sketches by
Terry Berkson:
Swimming with the manatees
leads to ideas

Homosassa Springs is one of the stops we always make when visiting Florida. It has great fishing, though
I only catch and release, because Alice doesn’t like to cook while on vacation. Luckily, there are some great restaurants that, especially for this year, had open, outdoor accommodations. Motorboats, paddle boards and kayaks are readily available for rent if you want to swim with the manatees, which is one of the attractions for which the place is famous.

It’s thrilling to be able to get into the water with these elephant-like gentle giants and actually be able to pet them. Alice and I rent a kayak for exercise and economy but we haven’t gotten the coordination with the paddles down pat and often wind up splashing each other — deliberately. Good thing the water in the Homosassa River is a constant 70 degrees year-round. Also, getting back into the kayak after a swim with the manatees is kind of tricky.

Unfortunately, swimming where the manatees hang out is the best place to backstroke in the area and the only “approved” access is by way of a power boat or a lengthy paddle. There’s a bridge that crosses over the river and enables us to see people swimming, with or without the waterborne mammals, but for some reason there was no easy access to the water. Always looking for a way around obstacles, I parked the car in a questionable spot just over the bridge and we walked back to see if we could enter the water from where the bridge meets the shore. Unfortunately the embankment was very steep but I observed a kid in a bathing suit agilely descending the steep drop to the water.

Terry Berkson, who has an MFA in creative writing from Brooklyn College, lives on a farm outside Richfield Springs. His articles have appeared in New York magazine, the New York Daily News Sunday Magazine, Automobile and other publications.

“I could do that,” I said to my wife. “But I don’t know about you with that rigid ski ankle.”

She had broken it on Hunter Mountain many years before and it later gave her so much trouble it had to be fused, which eliminated flexibility. “I could never climb down there,” Alice surmised.

“I don’t know about that,” I said.

“What are you talking about?”

“With the right equipment I could have you down there in a jiffy.”

“I’m not interested.”

“Don’t you like to swim?” I was excited, because if we could get down past the rocks, we’d have access to the best swimming in the area. To reinforce my plan, I observed some people swimming just under the bridge – in the 70-degree water.

A week later at Howards, a tremendous local flea market, I had a mental list of what I’d need to get Alice down to the river, water shoes for the rough concrete, a heavy rope that I’d tie around a guard rail next to the road, a small ladder to place against the rock wall at the bottom and a couple of tubes to rest in after having a good swim. As luck would have it, I found them all and we drove back to the bridge to practice the descent. The equipment worked like a charm enabling a now sure-footed Alice to get to the water. The next day we’d be “short-cut swimming” in the Homosassa River.

To get to the bridge from our motel it’s about a mile trip down a road thickly boarded by palms and other swampy tropical growth. A few hundred yards before the river, I spotted an alligator sashaying across the road. It was about three feet long. I looked over at Alice who luckily was texting on her smart phone. We parked the car, gathered the equipment and headed for the abutment.

The descent to the water went as smoothly as it did the day before but this time, wearing our bathing suits, we launched the tubes and sat in them while hand paddling up stream. Then I eased into the water and swam for about fifty yards elated by the feat of gaining access to the river. When I looked back Alice was still sitting on her tube. “What’s the matter?” I called.

“We came here to swim with the manatees,” Alice said.

“That’s right” I said looking for one of the giants.

“I saw that alligator crossing the road.”

“He was just a little alligator.” I said, surprised she had seen it.

“I think I’ll stay on my tube.”

“It’s not puncture-proof,” I warned.

“Neither am I!”

One thought on “Life Sketches by Terry Berkson: Swimming with the manatees leads to ideas

  1. RICHARD Krueger

    Manatee are protected you can swim but not touch. Unless animal touches you. You seem like nice people, avoid a big fine don’t touch our manatees

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