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Christmas gift comes in handy kayaking in dark

When the flashlight went out, everything changed.

In the resulting darkness, the river, shoreline and trees seemed to burst with wildness. My sense of sight dulled, I began to notice the cold grinding the exposed skin on my neck, hands and toes. I grabbed my hooded sweatshirt from under my seat. It was soaked.

I floated at night in my canoe on a snarling river unfamiliar to me. The paddle back to Rays Canoe Hideaway, through the Upper Manatee River’s gnarled obstacles, would be 5 1/2 miles. The only light, from the moon and stars, was faint.

Thankfully, I had an outgoing tide. And clear skies allowed light from the stars and moon to cut through the outline of trees, leaving a resulting patch of light that shimmied on the water.

This was my new flashlight.

The area of light started at the tip of my canoe. When it extended far ahead, narrowing to a line in the distance, I had increased visibility. I followed this light, which would illuminate a log or branch just before me, giving me a couple seconds to plunge my paddle into the water and pull it backward.

I paid most attention to three variables: The shorelines, to ensure I was in the middle of the river; the outline of the treetops, the formation of which showed me the curves of the river ahead; and this ever-changing patch of light.

When this light was minimal, as it was for much of the first mile back, my peripheral vision was gone. So like a blind man might sense a thief, I changed directions based on what I can only describe as feel or intuition. The paddle was slow, the muscles at the base of my neck were in a constant cramp, and my toes were numb.

During the madness, I recalled something Rays owner Mark Stukey told me two years ago before my first paddle to the dam. “Once your past Rye Bridge,” he said, “now you’re in the jungle.”

Problem was, I couldn’t see the jungle. I certainly felt it. The obstacles that missed my patch of light sometimes clunked my canoe. Once I bumped a stump, shaking my vessel and nearly tipping it. Twice the edge of fallen trees approached, but I managed to scoot around. Small branches and twigs to the face was the norm.

The sounds consisted of hogs rummaging in the bushes, a mullet that almost flopped into the canoe, and the crash of what only could have been a gator, just to my right, from shoreline to water.

Planning ahead helped. In the first two miles as I began my voyage to the dam, knowing the return paddle would be in the dark, I jotted mental notes of the river’s layout. They went something like this: “Stay on the right — overhanging tree; stay on the left — overhanging tree; I-75 bridge, stay on the right (overhanging tree); Manatee sign, beach area, sharp right turn.”

After my newfound light, my best friend throughout this nighttime adventure, had saved me numerous times from crashing into trees and logs, I followed my mental notes to Rays.

And the flashlight? Former co-worker and longtime photographer Paul Bartley gave it to me more than a year ago as part of a “Secret Santa” gift exchange. Bartley died last year at 84, a gentleman in every sense of the word.

Turned out, he’d given me the most valuable piece of equipment I’d need during a dark night on the river.

Or would that have been extra batteries?