Category Archives: Narrative

Backroads of Paradise Cathy Salustri

Backroads of Paradise in the New York Times

Backroads of Paradise by Cathy Salustri
The great Florida road trip, in book form.

Welp, they don’t seem to care much for Donald Trump, but the New York Times likes me.

A weeks ago, I’d shut down email for the day, except — fun fact — I’m almost always trying to clear out my email. Over at Creative Loafing, our food editor and one of my favorite people, Meaghan, always has about three or four emails in her inbox. She’s that good at clearing them out. Right now, I have roughly seventy-seven million emails waiting for me, so I feel compelled to check them from time to time, even when I’m theoretically done for the day.

So, the de facto in-laws are down for the holidays, and as we’re all watching football I start looking for easy emails to handle. I see one from a John Dorman, who says he’s with the Times and would like to do a Q&A with me. Now, we have a daily paper here we also refer to as “the Times“, so I thought, oh, OK, that’s weird, because they rejected me for the Festival of Reading and haven’t shown any interest in Backroads whatsoever, but cool.

Then I get to the signature line and it’s not the local Times. No, it’s the New York Times. Or, as I said about two seconds after I realized which paper had contacted me, The New York Fucking Times, but only in my head, because, well, I try not to say fuck so much around Barry’s parents, because I’m a goddamn lady and all.

So, um, hey, read this super-cool interview with this awesome Florida chick who’s in the New York FUCKING Times. Or buy the print version of the paper Sunday. Or do both.

 

The Great Couchsurfing Book Tour

Couchsurfing
That’s me, sans fur. Credit: flickr/David K

Although Backroads of Paradise doesn’t hit bookstore shelves for another two months, I’ve started getting requests from bookstores and libraries around the state for me to come speak. The great marketing team at UPF (University Press of Florida) has also convinced the Miami Book Fair and the Southern Independent Booksellers Association (apparently the cool kids call that SIBA) that I should speak at their shows.

Miami and SIBA are big deals, and I’m thrilled. Also, I have a small — quite small — travel budget from the press, so I get to go to Miami and then Savannah essentially for free. The libraries and bookstores? Not so much, and so I get creative. Look, I’m not complaining at all about people wanting me to come to their corner of Florida and talk about why I love Florida (honestly, that part’s a dream come true); I’m concerned about budget because, well, since the press hasn’t finished printing Backroads of Paradise yet, I haven’t seen a royalty check.

Because I love to travel and talk about Florida and I don’t want to tell anyone no (I mean, this is how I sell books, right?) I’ll couch surf. Last night I heard someone describe this as a “couch surfing book tour” and they’d done it themselves. And now, it seems, I will do it myself.

Which means a lot of my old friends spread out across the state may get a phone call in the coming months. Forewarned is forearmed, y’all.

Also, if you have a bookstore/work at a library/ sit on a board of a historical society, please get in touch with me to have me come speak.

I promise I won’t ask to sleep on your couch.

Probably.

Hey, buy my book now. It’s the gift that keeps giving, because you’ll get it October, so it’s like TWO Amazon purchases!

It’s Alive!

Hula Florida girl
She’s the hardest working hula girl in the business.

It feels like forever, but it’s finally here.

Almost.

My book has a title and a release date. Well, a release month: October.

And the title? Oh, yeah: Backroads of Paradise.

So far, I’ve seen two of the blurbs for it — Craig Pittman and Gary Mormino (those of you who know him will not at all be shocked when that link doesn’t take you to an author website), both accomplished authors for whom I have great respect — and they both have wonderful things to say.

And that’s all I have, which is a lot of me jumping up and down and going “At last! It’s been five years since I started planning this road trip, and now, it’s a book. With pages. And a cover. And a press to manage all the crappy details I don’t want to deal with!”

So, yeah, that’s “all I have” but it’s still pretty big in Cathy-world.

As soon as it’s available for pre-order, which should be a few months yet, I’ll post the links here. And, well, pretty much everywhere else.

Poppo’s Taqueria: Wild Pig, Fresh Tacos, Florida Vibes

Poppo's TaqueriaWhenever I take a road trip, I look for local food. This is not exactly born of some grand desire to “eat local” (although I do heartily endorse locavorism, something made easy by living in one of the best places in the world for fresh citrus, seafood, and free-range beef). No, I seek out the local food because how different regions of Florida (and the United States, and the world) eat fascinates me. Florida food historian Andy Huse told me once, “if you want to know about a culture, look at what they ate” and I’ve learned he’s quite right.

Whenever I read of an eatery that catches my interest, I note in a Florida Bucket List reminder list I created on my iPhone specifically so I can see everything in Florida. It’s driving me crazy because I can’t recall how I heard about this place. All I know is that I’ve had it on my Florida Bucket List for at least a year, and I finally made it there last week.

Anna Maria Island, if you’ve never visited, is this slice of sandy paradise, although it’s losing ground to development. Beautiful beach cottages that evoke a Florida where people came for the beach, went to the beach, and stayed for the beach are giving way to slightly larger, less Florida-like homes that happen to be on the water. Like most coastal communities south of Tampa Bay, the island is given to exploding into shocks of color here and there, a rapid upshot of fuchsia here, a jolt of crimson and saffron there.

Poppo's TaqueriaThe wonderful thing about beach communities like this is the implied abundance of the sea’s bounty: mahi, grouper, shrimp, and oyster abound at local restaurants. The heartbreaking thing about these same communities is the dearth of restaurants doing anything well other than that bounty. It’s often a case of “amazing oysters” and soggy burgers, with little or no middle ground.

Poppo’s Taqueria, then, doesn’t fit at all, which makes it perfect here. It doesn’t have seafood. It’s a counter service taco place, not on the water, and not given to large groups. It’s reasonably priced. They have regular tacos here (you can get carnitas with onions, lime and cilantro for under three bucks) but I came for the Florida boar tacos (well worth the 50¢ upcharge, I might add, as was the other 50¢ upcharge, for sour cream.

Florida Boar
That’s dead pig, people. Dead, glorious Florida pig.

Two tacos (wild boar, both with sour cream) and an order of tortilla chips left me about $8 poorer, I believe. Not bad at all. And a word about those tortilla chips: while Poppo’s makes your food as you order it (think Subway with better ingredients), the chips will come out after your meal. They’re thick, salty, and unlike any other Mexican restaurant tortilla chip you will ever eat.

I fell in love with this place, which is about 15 miles from my home in Gulfport but, because of pesky things like Tampa Bay and roads that don’t get you there “as the crow flies”, it takes about an hour to get there.
Poppo's Tacqueria porch chair

It’s the sort of place that blends in to the riot of colors on the island. I know I’ve passed it before, but I’ve never noticed it, even after it fell onto my radar for Anna Maria Island. It’s a blip of a storefront, hidden in plain sight. Tropical green things surround the wood porch with its funky birdcage chairs and shabby chic cushions. Inside, it’s almost utilitarian, with a beer bar on one side (local beer, of course, plus the usual island beer – in Florida, it’s the law that if you have sand in your parking lot, you must also sell Corona Light) and a taco bar on the other.

Calypso and I ate in folding wooden chairs on the front porch and watched the storm roll in over the Gulf of Mexico. Well, from that direction, anyway. For a beach-y place, Poppo’s doesn’t really afford you a view of the beach. Or the water. But that’s OK, because they have these tacos that make it all worthwhile.

US 98: Oysters, Mullet & Margaritas

So one of the things I do – and one of the things I love to do, even though when I did my first one I kind of dreaded it – is talk to people about my travels across Florida and how the Guide to the Southernmost State is perhaps the best guidebook to Florida ever. Do NOT make the mistake of asking me a Florida-related question if you want a quick answer, and under no circumstances should you ask me a Florida question and then allow me to corner you on the street if you have somewhere you need to be. Ever. I love to talk about how I retraced the depression-era driving tours of the state.

Sour Orange Margaritas for everyone!  Teacher of the year, ladies and gentlemen.

Last night was no exception, except these weren’t hapless strangers I cornered on the street but an enthusiastic group of residents who live at Westminster Palms at the edge of Old Northeast. My topic? Eating your way across the panhandle, using the 1939 WPA Guide to the Southernmost State as, well, a guide. I called my talk Oysters, Mullet & Margaritas.

The great folks at Westminster partner with OLLI at Eckerd College to bring speakers to the Palms. One of the Palms staff prepared pulled pork sliders and key lime pie. I brought Ted Peters fish spread. At the end, even though technically they weren’t from the panhandle, I made the “class” sour orange margaritas. Best. Teacher. Ever.

If you want my recipe for sour orange margaritas, there’s a whole post on my food blog, Aphrodite’s Hearth. I’d give it to you here, but it would consume the whole post space with interesting-to-foodies-but-maybe-not-to-you facts about sour oranges, sour mix, sugar and– well, you get the idea.

I will say this about sour oranges: One does not simply saunter into a grocery store and purchase them. I had some juice in my fridge from a December OLLI trip to Hawthorne, where Chef Omar at Southern Charm made the OLLI class sour orange pie and gave me a few of his stash.

That juice made for a good start but Ben Tillett, the owner of The Citrus Place in Terra Ceia, totally saved the day. Fresh sour oranges are not standard in any store I’ve seen, even orange juice stands – they’re beyond specialty. Mr. Tillett went into his groves yesterday morning and picked all the sour oranges he had on hand. If you’ve never been to the Citrus Place, it’s the first left after the first exit as you head south over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. They have juice they squeeze on-premises, orange ice cream, Terra Ceia clams, and oranges and grapefruit from nearby Parrish and Odessa. I wrote about them in January 2010; read that Detours & Diversions piece here.

The whole talk made me realize how little many Floridians know about Florida’s food mores. We have a rich history with aquaculture but also agriculture and ranching, and none of that is new: Dating back before the Guide made its way into Florida homes, Floridians worked the land and waters. I can’t imagine living somewhere without readily-accessible seafood or local beef, but many of the people who attend my talks (not all) tell me they had no idea Florida had as much food production as it does.

What’s so cool about food in Florida is that the things we produce locally now are the same things we produced locally 500 years ago: Oysters, mullet, redfish, fruit… it’s all the same. We brought in citrus from Spain when we decided St. Augustine should be a thing, so even that’s hung around Florida since the European beginning. But the mullet and mussels and such? As long as people called Florida home, that’s what they ate, because that’s what Florida made. Which is kind of cool, when you think about things in terms of the Columbian exchange of foods between the new world and the old. Much of what we can readily get in Florida was here before the Europeans.

Well, OK, except for the sour orange margaritas. Those are totally new. I’m pretty sure the Calusa didn’t have triple sec.

I Want Dead People: Clam Bayou

On February 21, I participated in Boyd Hill’s Writers at the Preserve, alongside USFSP writing guru Dr. Thomas Hallock, Tribune reporter Wendy Joan Biddlecombe, and Jeff Klinkenberg. We talked about finding nature in the city.

Me, being me, of course, well, I talked about finding a body in Clam Bayou. Or, rather, how very much I want to find a body in Clam Bayou. To be fair, I’ll take a body anywhere, as long as I don’t know the body and it’s in some sort of wild setting. Clam Bayou just seems like the best bet, locally. Don’t judge me. At least, don’t judge me before you read this:

Clam Bayou, a tidal estuary dividing Gulfport’s eclectic “anything goes” lifestyle and St. Petersburg’s ordered, less-affluent suburbs, lacks the forests of the swamp, but the muck and the mangroves mire me in untamed Florida all the same. When the voices in my head start to crowd out rational thought, I throw my kayak atop my car and head to our own local wetlands. On most days, I will pass at least one other kayaker, but the bayou is filled with mangrove tunnels and twists and turns and all too easily I can escape the living and pretend, just for an hour, that I am alone.

It was on one such paddle where I spied the crown of a bright yellow motorbike helmet,  trapped in a cage of stained red mangrove roots. My breath caught and my heart pounded, and I felt just a touch of breakfast roll in my stomach. I could not see the face mask, and the murky bottom fogged the water and anything else, such as, oh, an arm, that may have found its way to the swamp with the helmet. I paddled closer, then stopped, and stared at the helmet, trying to convince myself that, after all, it’s just a discarded helmet. Gingerly, I prodded it with my paddle, trying to knock it loose so it could bob harmlessly away, and prove to my fears unfounded. The helmet remained comfortably ensconced in its mangrove jail. I poked harder, and steeled myself for whatever horrors the crabs had done to the poor soul lucky enough to meet his end near the bayou.

Along Florida’s rivers and creeks, some paddlers see gators in every felled log and snakes on every twig, but me? I see dead people. In all honesty, I would love to find a body in Clam Bayou.

If Florida novelist Carl Hiaasen (or myriad others, really) is to be believed, every patch of swamp in the Sunshine State harbors at least one decaying body awaiting discovery. That makes sense; if I were to kill someone – or, more probably, if someone were to kill me – the Everglades is the place to head with the still-warm body. Florida’s palustrine wilderness is perfect for body stashing: weigh it down enough, find a patch of land not often visited, and the muck, wildlife, and humidity will cover your tracks in short order. That’s part of Florida’s dark magic: it is at the very core of the “man against nature” battle we see in some of literature’s most well-read works. Except it is not the literature we recall from our high school English classes, the kind of “literature” that, in your head, you always hear with a posh British accent. This is the prose of Florida’s outback and, in the case of pockets of wilderness like Clam Bayou, Florida’s “near back.” The swamp is a pulsing, breathing, squiggling entity of life and, just as often, death, and while some come to Florida with hopes of finding paradise, I always keep an eye out for dead people.

Let me explain. I am no murderer, and I probably wouldn’t handle finding a dead body very well at all. But I do believe much of the mythology pulp fiction about Florida: we have lots of people in the Sunshine State, many from somewhere else, and some of those people didn’t come here for the white sand beaches and excellent sport fishing. Running away to paradise, apparently, isn’t just for people who are escaping a boring career; some are escaping far more sinister things. I believe, just as much as I believe in the moon’s effect on the tides or the first law of thermodynamics, that if you poke at the state’s dark, wild edges long enough, you will, one day, find a clump of hair attached to a corpse, quite possibly floating amongst the nearest mangroves)

Stick with me. I do not pretend my desires aren’t macabre. What proper lady wishes to find a dead body, much less one almost literally in her backyard? I am a kind of Pantheist. I find divinity when surrounded by the wildness. And for someone to regard this estuary, Clam Bayou – though it contains neither clams, nor is it by definition, a bayou – worthy of swallowing a person would mean that it had, perhaps, earned a place of respect, a place of gothic mystery, alongside the rest of wild Florida.  A body in Clam Bayou is an acknowledgment that Florida’s dark heart beats closer than we admit.

We crave wilderness and expect it as we chase the braids of water slipping into the Everglades, or gazing into in the unplumbed blue of a spring. But there is true wilderness – the wilderness we can all touch – much closer to home. These feral pockets of Florida, the Salt Creeks and the Clam Bayous, are not the untamed expanse of the Ten Thousand Islands or our national forests. They are under-valued, overtaxed, and fettered with signs of humanity’s inhumanity to nature. Florida’s forgotten, or perhaps, simply too familiar, wilderness abuts town homes, billboards, and pavement. We discount and devalue it with sneers, talking of a “bay beach” or an “impaired waterway.” We do not count them as gems, but as failures.To quote Rodney Dangerfield, they get no respect.

This particular politically-charged mosaic of flotsam, jetsam, herons, and crabs has seen better days. It has also seen worse ones. You will not find the elusive ghost orchid here, but step deep enough and you will find a perfectly preserved record of snack food wrappers from 1998 through the present day.

Forget the Cheetos wrappers and plastic bottles in the settling pond, and Clam Bayou is a twist of mangroves, muck, and magic. The pull of my paddle as it makes tiny eddies in the water, the slurp of the muck as it swallows my feet at the put in, the scrape of the oysters scrape along my kayak’s lime-tinted hull: all these things spin the spell of the swamp. Man exists with wilderness, and wilderness exists in spite of man.

This wilderness has, to put it delicately, issues. Part Gulfport, part St. Petersburg, part State, and many parts private property, equal the makings of an environmental and political disaster. The world put a lot of pressure on Clam Bayou to filter contaminants like car oil, fertilizer, and pesticides out of the water before it meandered out to Boca Ciega Bay.

Those things remain unseen, and had it been only for those additions to the herons, mullet, and crabs, Clam Bayou might still appear untouched. But add to that shopping carts, potato chip bags, and an almost-archival collection of fast-food cola cups, and the neighbors start to get vocal at city council meetings. At these reality-TV shows in the making that pass for local government, these people do not call Clam Bayou wilderness. It is damaged, impaired, ruined. No one calls it “savage” or “primitive” or “untamed.”

It may not have the sawgrass prairie of the Everglades or Manatee Springs’ emerald-tinged cobalt depths, but the crabs and the muck and the fish in Clam Bayou will reclaim a body just as quickly. It is in the heart of Florida, in her swamps and muck ponds, no matter how close they lie to a fairway or shopping mall, where the real energy of life returns to the world.

That’s what I feel, what I know about Clam Bayou. That’s what I hope for, what I wanted to see, that day, when the bright yellow crown of the motorcycle helmet peeked from the muddy depths. And I admit, I was afraid. Finally, with a great, giant sucking noise, it broke free from the trees and the bog. I admit, I was relieved when it revealed no head with no body or body parts attached. After all, I’m not a monster. Still, I sighed and pull it onto my kayak to throw out when I returned to shore.

Finding Florida at Heritage Village

Today I spoke to a packed house at Heritage Village for the Speaking of History series. I talked mostly about US 98 and how much fun it is to eat your way through Florida’s panhandle. If you missed the talk, trust me on this: it’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on (although clothing is by no means necessary). I mean, if you like seafood. If you don’t care for seafood, well, you’re kind of up a creek there, but then, you do have some of the best beaches in the world to occupy you while everyone else starts shoveling in the oysters like the world’s about to end.

I won’t rehash the entire tour, but I have to say I was thrilled the St. Petersburg Tribune sent out a reporter to cover my talk. You can read the article here. Note to my Gulfport peeps: I really did tell the audience “Gulfport is it for me” so, yeah, you’re stuck with me.

After I spoke, someone asked me if I had a web site and I directed them here. However, since I went under contract with the University Press of Florida for a book about my travels, I haven’t posted here – largely because the bulk of what I have to say, I’m saying in print, and they asked that I not, in essence, compete with myself. Since I blog for free and, ostensibly, I will one day make money from writing the book, it seemed like a fair enough request.

However, if you’re here because I directed you here at my talk, don’t go away. You can do two things: one, follow me on Twitter @CathySalustri, because every time I post to my other blog (the non-exclusive-to-Florida blog), it automatically pushes a Tweet. Don’t ask me how; I call it Inter-magic; two, you can keep this site bookmarked, because while I cannot keep including material that may appear in the as-of-yet-untitled book, I will be including new material, not the least of which is my slow-but-steady Detours & Diversions travel column that appears in print and online in everyone’s favorite weekly paper, the Gabber Newspaper.

If you missed it, you can watch my presentation online, thanks to the magic of the Internet and the awesome peeps at Pinellas 18.. And I’ll get my latest travels, to one of the state’s only (legal) whiskey distilleries, online this week. So, you know, come back. I’m nowhere near as witty as the Bloggess, and certainly not as popular, but I like to think that “whiskey distillery” and “clothing is by no means necessary” will at least pique the interest of the search engines. But, again, I don’t know. It’s all Inter-Magic.

US 19: The Stilt Houses

This is the sixth leg of this tour. To read the first leg, click here. If you’re new here, you may wish to start with this post.
I only knew about the stilt houses because I wanted to impress a man. This particular man flew small planes, and although the very idea of taking to the skies in even a 747, much less a tiny single engine plane, made my stomach seize up like a engine with no oil, I agreed to take to the skies. To my delight, the thrill of flying stayed with me long after the man fell away. 
Among the best things I saw from the right, then the left, seat of a small plane, the day I discovered the stilt homes, prodding the pilot to swoop lower so I could get a better look, will stay with me until I die. I knew, of course, of Stiltsville in Biscayne Bay, but I didn’t realize that stilt homes stood so close to my own beach home just south of Green Key.
You can’t see the stilt homes off the coast of Green Key from the road. If you’re not a boater, a general aviation pilot, or a local with a kayak or paddleboard, odds are you’ll never know they exist. 
 
Just past Green Key’s shimmering sands, a cluster of stilt houses rises from Pasco County’s clear waters. These fish camps, perched high above the Gulf of Mexico on wooden legs, stand in silent tribute to Florida’s yesteryear. The water surrounding these camps is calm and shallow. Stand-up paddleboards dot the placid waters surrounding Green Key. Skinny strips of white, blue and pink boards let paddlers dance across key lime water, away from buff-colored shores and out toward a slice of Florida history.
The view from Durney Key
As you slip into the Gulf, the world beneath your feet comes alive. Cownose rays – tiny, timid stingrays, no bigger than a dinner plate – flutter over sea grass. Mullet twist and toss themselves into the air. As your paddle pushes you through saltwater, redfish zig, then zag, just beneath the surface of this oversized aquarium.
Celebrities from Johnny Cash to Billy Graham have sought respite in these weathered bits of old Florida. The shallow, sapphire-studded waters reflect the sun-bleached wood on these houses, private residences used as fish camps in the Gulf. The stilt houses remain as long as the weather permits: State law says those destroyed in a storm cannot be rebuilt. The fish camps stand in mere feet of water, so paddleboards are one of the few ways to get close.
 
Tucked amidst the watery stilt city, Durney Key attracts paddleboarders, kitesurfers, kayakers and boaters. Driftwood and bits of sea glass adorn its shore and fiddler crabs scurry over packed brown sand. A cluster of trees in the key’s center offers shelter. Day-trippers and campers alike search for shells and watch the sun set over the fish camps. 

On the paddle back toward Green Key, fish scurry from your path as the ni
ghtly seabreeze pushes you home. From the sand, you can see the stilt houses in the distance, waiting for your return.⁠
The most logical launch for the four-mile round trip paddle is on Green Key at Robert K. Rees Memorial Park. Parts of this entry appeared initially as work for Visit Florida.

US 19: When Dinosaurs Roamed US 19

This is the fifth leg of this tour. To read the first leg, click here. If you’re new here, you may wish to start with this post.
South on US 19 a giant dinosaur waits. I first found it as a kid, when my dad had a construction job at nearby Timber Pines. He worked for Scarborough Construction, the company that installed most of the water and sewer lines in central west Florida. The parent company, Weyerhauser, sent me through college on a scholarship, and I try not to focus too much on the fact that the company that had an active part in resurfacing much of Florida’s landscape paid for the bulk of the studies that led me to fall in love with the parts of the state they were actively destroying.
Nevertheless, I was going into sixth grade and Scarborough paid for the guys on the construction crew to stay the week in Weeki Wachee, so my mom and I spent a few days hanging out on the the-then deserted stretch of US 19. We visited the brand-new Kmart, went to the pool, and visited the mermaids.  She also took me into a taxidermists’ – I guess you’d call it a shop, right? – and I stood, transfixed by all the animals rooted forever in death.
My favorite thing (after the mermaids, of course) was the great brown and green, plaster dinosaur. The hulking giant used to signal a Sinclair gas station but those, too, died out. Today an auto service station, Harold’s, changes water pumps and rotates tires beneath the belly of the beast. It’s not a traditional tourist attraction, but that doesn’t mean people don’t stop and take pictures. I have a painting of Dino in my study, and if the brute ever topples, to storm or sprawl, US 19’s metamorphosis from sleepy two-lane road to clotted arterial highway will be sadly complete.

US 19: Manatee Hunting

This is the third leg of this tour. To read the first leg, click here. If you’re new here, you may wish to start with this post.
 In Crystal River, scallops and manatee beckon. Tours offer scallop trips for the uninitiated, but during scallop season (July through September, although the actual dates vary) anyone who wishes may snorkel for scallops. Scallops live in the green grass, have 32 glittering blue eyes, and slam their shells shut (escalop means “shell” in French) to swoosh out of harm’s way.
 
Bay scallops, once bountiful in the Gulf coastal waters, have declined in numbers. Speculation puts the blame on water quality, as scallops (like clams and oysters) filter their food from the water. Shellfish populations cannot thrive in contaminated water.
 
So instead of scallops, I’m hunting manatee. Well, not hunting, exactly, but looking for them awful hard. In Citrus County, boat captains can take passengers out to swim with the marine mammals under the guise of education. Our boat captain does give us manatee facts and talks about preserving the species, but we’re not fooling anyone: we all boarded this boat with plans to pet a giant grey water beast.
 
It’s a gorgeous summer day, and I’m delighted to be out on the water, but I didn’t think this through. You see, all the photos advertising the tour showed manatee frolicking with humans in the opaline spring head. These gentle, awkward creatures do lumber towards the spring when the water temperature outside the spring dips below 70º, but that is not the case on a hot summer day. 
 
Now is a good time to mention that three types of rivers flow through Florida: alluvial, blackwater, and spring-fed. Alluvial rivers, often carved out by years of floods, carry loads of sediment along with them. Their levels and flow are usually tied to rainfall. Blackwater rivers rise out of swamps and generally have a dark tea color from the decaying plant matter in the water. Clear springs gush out into spring-fed rivers. One such river, the Crystal River, starts at a spring head, but do not assume that means the length of the river shares that transparency: the river grows deeper in color the further we motor from the springs. We do this, the boat captain explains, because the tiny-headed sea cows only hang out in springs in the winter.
This is how you hunt manatee.
I refrain from smacking my palm against my forehead. Of course these creatures won’t linger in the spring today. Of course they will hang out in the I-can’t-see-my-hand-or-that-alligator-in-front-of-my-face portion of the river. I enjoy paddling Florida’s rivers, but few exist in which I wish to get out and try to touch living creatures. Petting a manatee makes for a fine experience – in clear water. What if the one I pet hangs out by a gator grotto? Anyone who has seen even a picture of these unusually built water waddling animals knows those disturbingly tiny flippers will not help protect me.
 
The boat captain assures me I need not worry about gators and snakes. This strategy would have worked better had I considered the possibility of snakes before he brought them up. I do not know if I believe him, but I accept my swim noodle (we may not use our arms to swim lest we hit a manatee or, I imagine, anger a gator), slip my mask and snorkel over face, and slide into the water. The manatee wait a few yards away, the guide tells us, but the murk makes it hard to see anything. Something wraps around my leg. I scream. 
 
River grass. Not a snake. I feel like an idiot, but take solace in knowing that when I put my head back under the water, it’s too stained with tannic acid for the others to see me blush. 
This is my “What the hell am I petting?” face.
I see a great hulking shape before me. A manatee. My heart accelerates. This is actually kind of exciting. I reach my hand out to pet it tentatively, and the beast doesn’t seem to care. They’re bumpier than I would have thought, and about as motivated as one would expect. She just floats in front of us – manatees are excellent floaters, what with all their fat – and even lets us pet her calf. I can only tell she’s there by feel; I cannot see her other than to make out a massive darker blob against the ochre water. I have no visual clues what I’m touching. My only reassurance is that gators have very little body fat, ergo, this must be a manatee.
You don’t realize it, but this is what the abyss looks like.  It’s scarier in the movies…
After we’ve more than worn out our welcome, our boat captain takes us for a swim in Three Sisters, a nearby cluster of springs, vents, and boils. Our captain ties his small launch to a river tree. Here, clear water reveals tiny springs, their exit from the earth announced with a rushing gurgle I can almost hear with my eyes. I step off the boat into water far colder than 72º, the inexact standard for Florida rivers and springs. We walk towards the larger spring, through a group of wood posts set in water, designed to keep watercraft out of the spring head. The dizzying force of the water pushes against us as we move toward the springs, but as the narrow channel opens into a spring head, it gets easier. I can see the edge of the abyss; I peer over it, the clear blue sky reflected in chalky white limestone. Deeper down the color turns from an easy blue-green to a persistent and ancient blue. Cypress and oak ring the spring but do not cover it, letting the sun and sky dance rainbows across and through the spring water. We find no manatee here, but that’s just fine by me. The springs, uncluttered with kayaks and canoes and too many people, offer a rarer and more full experience.
Hudson Hole has nothing on Three Sisters.
If you don’t feel brave enough to take your chances in a Florida river, you can watch these giant freaky water cows through glass that lets you view them at their beady eye level –  Homosassa Springs State Park, just down the road, also boasts an elevated boardwalk that lets you stroll past cougar, Florida panther, deer, and the ever-present alligator, but the underwater observatory offers a less intrusive way to see manatee. It’s worth it see their fat schmoo-like bodies in all their blubbery glory, if only just to marvel that Florida folk wisdom holds that sailors used to mistake these creatures for mermaids.