Paddling the Upper Manatee River on Sunday, I was almost one mile from the Lake Manatee dam, gliding on a canoe with an incoming tide. The day was sun-scorched and full of promise from the recent opening of Lake Manatee that sent clusters of freshwater fish such as bluegill and catfish cascading down the dam and into the river 40 feet below.
The fall into rocks often scars many of the fish. But I wouldn’t even make it to the dam.
The whole fishing trip was cancelled when I passed three women on a canoe.
I heard shouts down the river from one woman asking if I wouldn’t mind pulling them back to their launch point, almost four miles back up the river. They were exhausted and going the wrong way. The tide had carried them far, but it was the same tide they could no longer fight against. The sun was almost down.
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Two of the women had never paddled before. One had paddled once. It would be a long journey back, one canoe tied to another, a two-canoe train.
But this train wasn’t tame. One woman often hollered rap lyrics; some were on the phone, exhausted, sending text messages and placing panicky phone calls. That, coupled with the extra weight and a head-on incoming tide, made it a paddle that made me want to relax on a rock.
It was the first time I’d ever towed another canoe, and after maybe 50 yards of slow-paddling, it never ceased that the mechanics of this clunking contraption, bobbling down the river and whipping circles like a lost manatee, caused the whole train to dip toward the shoreline. My arms probably hadn’t felt this tired since extensive tarpon fishing two days earlier. Before that, it would have to be my first junior high school wrestling practice. But I kept calm.
The sun was crawling ever closer to the horizon, draining daylight. Darkness would have made us almost blind to stumps and overhanging trees that on a low tide were exposed to their fullest.
Two women said they would never paddle again. I told them that’s not a bad idea, and that we’d get to the ramp eventually.
Before I knew it, one of the women recognized the turn closest to home base. We were almost there. The women celebrated. After about three more figure-eights in the water, two canoes, now side-by-side, angled into the ramp.
A boater never knows when they’ll be the one being asked for help. That’s why it’s good to bring extra water, even food, for yourself and others if such a situation arises. Always attempt to notice the condition of any passers by.
And, of course, behind this little tale of two canoes are inexperienced paddlers who should have been more wary of trekking deep into this drop of pure Manatee County jungle.