Essay and photos by P.C. Zick
The winter of 2019/2020 may have been foreshadowing of what happened in the early spring of 2020. From the death of my brother to my husband’s myriad of physical ailments to surgery for my daughter, I’d had it by February and looked forward to a fresh start for a new year.
Once my husband recovered, we decided to get away, so we rented a cabin on the Withlacoochee River in central Florida for four nights. Rumblings about COVID gave us concern about attending a Detroit Tiger spring training game in Lakeland on March 10 with my in-laws. When the first Florida cases were detected March 1, we became concerned. Within a week, the first death in Florida had been confirmed, and we made the decision not to go to the game, but we’d thought staying in a cabin on a river would be safe enough.
And I’m forever grateful we made the decision to go. The trip marked the last of many things we’d be able to do for the next year.
The Airbnb we rented was a disjointed little place on a gorgeous piece of property. The large screened porch had a river front view. But we were in rural Florida, and life as we know it living in a liberal college town disappeared. I had to retrieve the keys from a neighbor whose display of a Confederate flag gave me a shudder when I had to go underneath it to knock on his door where I was greeted by a “harmless” barking pit bull.
We mostly stayed clear of the neighbor for the duration of our stay. We kayaked the Withlacoochee near Nobleton and paddled south, which is upriver for this Florida river—like the St. Johns on the east coast, it flows south to north. We paddled for an hour then allowed the current to float us back to the boat ramp. Such a beautiful and undisturbed part of Florida soothed us with its wildlife, old cypress trees and lush overhanging oaks.
Our Airbnb advertised a dock for launching kayaks, but either the owner hadn’t inspected the area in some time, or he had no idea about what is needed for a successful launch. Muddy quicksand-style mucky banks are not it. There was a floating dock we were told we could use by the Confederate flag-flying guy. His definition of “dock” differs from ours. Splintered boards and shaky engineering made getting into the kayaks tough. I scraped my back on the edge of the dock but thankfully didn’t break skin.
We managed to float off on the tributary that led to the river. Still tired from the upriver paddle earlier, we only took a quick tour of the river in front of our rental, but it was well worth it because we discovered an ibis sanctuary with lots of duck weed and an abundance of bald cypress trees.
When we emerged to the main river, Robert noticed a long canoe on the banks. A tent had been pitched nearby.
“Look at the size of that canoe,” Robert yelled out to me as I headed back to our little tributary’s entrance.
A man emerged from the tent, looking as if he’d just woken up.
“Sorry to wake you, man,” Robert offered.
“Do you have a gun?” the man answered.
“No, no, we don’t have anything like that.” Robert quickly paddled away leaving the man to his ramblings and leaving us puzzled and slightly unnerved.
Alligators woken from slumber seemed a safer bet, which we managed to encounter on our next trip.
The next day we took the kayaks to Hog Island—a park a short drive from the cabin. We paddled upriver for one hour and forty-five minutes. At one point we came around a bend and there was a large alligator on the banks. Robert urged me closer with the camera, but I had only moved a few inches when the darn thing jumped off the bank into the water in front of my kayak. Fortunately, the big guy didn’t go underneath me, or I might have been lunch.
We paddled to Iron Bridge, an old railroad bridge over the river. We floated back the same route, which took us about a half an hour less as the current carried us effortlessly through the shaded river.
The Withlacoochee trip was much needed and long anticipated. I think we were reluctant to have it end, so we booked a boat tour/fishing charter on the Homosassa River on the way home. Captain John Dixon, a one-man operation, took us out for a private tour of the river and provided fishing gear. We each caught a red drum, but Robert’s was much larger by far.
Prior to the excursion, we had our last indoor restaurant meal at the Sugarmill Restaurant in Homosassa—a full-blown breakfast, which we enjoyed but sat away from others. At some point during our time away, they had finally started calling the COVID crisis a pandemic, and we were beginning to examine our behaviors, although masks were something to be used only by medical personnel.
As we finished up our business with Captain John, I shook his hand, and I remember almost recoiling when I realized what I had done. They were just starting to caution about social distancing and elbow bumping. A whole new world had begun while we vacationed.
More than a year later, we are both fully vaccinated, but we’re still wearing masks and have not eaten inside a restaurant since our diner breakfast fourteen months ago. I’m not complaining. It’s been a good year in so many ways. Next week I’ll explore some of the positive things that have happened since the Withlacoochee trip.