Thank goodness Florida is flat, but so is a frying pan. Bicycling around these island places means most days we have sandy tires, hot seats, and sweat dripping down like we’re melting crayons. Feeling saddle sore and pedaling like crazy to get over an occasional bridge hump, makes me recall the bike ride I did in college that left me riding in the sag wagon and never finishing the miles I had pledged to cycle for multiple sclerosis. That time it was heat stroke. The high temperatures radiating off the blacktop in the late summer in Kansas left me too spent to pedal on. And I was only in my early 20s. Now I think I’m too old to be that hot. Also, we have ocean breezes that ruffle through our sweaty shirts and cool us down a little as we adventure on two wheels here. And we have the adrenaline of exploration. In Kansas I may have glimpsed a few cows chewing their cud in a field beside the road. Here, there are manatees!
The cruisers we rented in Ft. Myers Beach took us along the main road, past friendly construction flaggers, onto bike lanes that came and went like the sun behind a cloud and then out again, onto pedestrian walkways, and then back into traffic, pickup trucks speeding around us, cars blasting music. A few times we rode along the beach. When we could find the right consistency of sand for our tires, beach rides were perfect. The cool sea air blasted us the whole way and we avoided traffic altogether, only having to lookout for bucket-toting tots digging holes, beached humans wearing earbuds, or the odd fishing pole line.
One sunny day we rode south from our condo to a park on Lover’s Key where we could ride all over trails that held a multitude of birds and plants that were new to us. Then we rented a kayak and paddled our way through the estuaries of mangrove forests searching for manatees. We had been assured by the woman at the rental place that we would see these fantastical creatures. So when we paddled the two miles up to the end of the snaking watery trail and still hadn’t spotted the hulking mermaids I began to lose hope. My knees were turning bright red from sitting in the hot sun and if it hadn’t been for the dripping water off the oar that cooled my legs with each stroke and the broad-rimmed sun hat that kept more freckles from popping up on my face, it would have been too hot to go on. But once we turned back to retrace our way we didn’t have to go too far before the manatees appeared!
First, one bobbed his head up out of the water, snout first, a few yards ahead of our boat. We paddled like crazy toward it and then glided silently to where we thought it might pop up again. We saw it closer then, and could make out it’s rotund brown and speckled body beneath the water. We could see the dark shadows of his nostrils and eyes.
We paddled on and then spotted another manatee and sat silently waiting, hoping to see it closer. It did not disappoint. This time the sea cow swam right over to our plastic yellow craft and tipped her body around as though saying hello. She swam right next to us, close enough to see the texture of her scarred hide and the algae growing on her belly. She swam around the bow and along the other side of the boat and beneath it showing us her amazing hulking size. Sea cow is an apt term for landlubbers like me to understand the heft of these beasts.
We exchanged open-mouth gapes with the young couple in the kayak across the way from us who also saw this manatee so close. After what seemed to be enough time in reverent pause we paddled on. We saw a small manatee munching on plants that hung over the water, and another amazing more people in kayaks.
Eventually we pulled our watercraft back up the bank and walked our soggy bottoms and squeaking shoes to the beach, where we welcomed a cool dive into the Gulf water. We ate sandwiches and listened to the surf. We let our shorts flap in the breeze and dry out a little before riding back. We saw the fins of a dolphin several yards out in the waves, and the usual sea birds: egrets, herons, sand pipers, and gulls. But none of them were as close, or impressively large and docile as that manatee. We’ll be thinking about her for a long time.