Mark Stukey came to work in his usual attire: bare feet, shorts, a well-worn Harley-Davidson T-shirt, a baseball cap, and a thick pony tail running down his back.
You notice that first, and then you see the big smile and the way he exudes friendliness for everyone he meets.
Mark’s “office” is Ray’s Canoe Hideway, 1289 Hagle Park Road, off Upper Manatee River Road. He and his wife, Laura, bought the place a few years ago.
The bare feet and the come-as-you-are outfit make perfect sense for someone who is wading in and out of the water all day, helping launch canoes.
It was drizzling and gray Saturday morning, but his parking lot was nearly full as anglers, and folks who just wanted to get out on the river came to use his ramp or rent a canoe.
A couple of anglers put their bass boat in at Ray’s, all the while pumping Stukey for the best place to catch a bass.
A bystander asked the anglers, wouldn’t you rather be getting your Christmas shopping done today? They gave a big belly laugh in response.
Stukey gave them a couple of suggestions, and allowed that he had once caught a 10-pound bass, while laying on his back on the river bank --probably daydreaming -- right there at Ray’s.
“I was using a purple worm,” Stukey said.
He thought the anglers might do OK. “This a good day for bassing,” he said of the overcast.
A few minutes later, a young couple from Ruskin stopped by to rent a canoe.
Chris Dillard and Elizabeth Rivera said they plan to get married in March, and they share a love of quiet, peaceful places like the Upper Manatee River.
“We aren’t into material things,” said Dillard, 23. “We are trying to experience life through the eyes of the Lord. We try to take life the spiritual way.”
He credited Rivera for sparking his interest in nature.
“Nature, it’s priceless,” she said. “You go out here 100 times, and 100 times it’s different.”
Then Dillard picked up the thread of conversation again.
“There are so many people in a hurry. Out here, you can hear the clicking of the paddle against the canoe, you can hear the fish swimming in the water,” he said.
The young couple had never met Stukey before, but they might have been taking a page right out of his book.
Stukey, 57, learned to fish from his father, a career Air Force officer, and he admits he’s living his dream at Ray’s.
When the canoe rental business is a little slow, he falls back on his mechanical skills and repairs cars.
Good times or bad, the sign outside the shop at Ray’s Canoe Hideaway, seems to capture Mark’s philosophy: “have a peaceful day.”
He knows the importance of having a good attitude, thinking positive thoughts, counting his blessings.
“Things seem to be getting better for everyone. It’s not all doom and gloom like in past years. Just give it a chance,” he said.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee Editor, can be contacted at 745-7021.