Vacations symbolize two things to me. First, it represents a year’s worth of hard work. Much like the weekend, a vacation gives you the chance at an extended break from the normal stresses in life for a slightly longer period of time. Second, it starts a new beginning. The refreshing period before the next stint of rock pounding hard labor that is to come.
Seldom do I take a full week’s vacation in one complete day-to-day time period. Usually I will use a few days here, another there, trying to capitalize on holidays and weekends to make it seem longer and more frequent. However, a promise from my wife and I forced the full week this time.
My oldest son graduates this year. From experience and common knowledge, I realize this means one thing; this will likely be our last successful attempt at a vacation with the complete family. He will be on to other things just like any other child who flees the nest. We always told our kids we would take them to Disney, so if we were to hold our promise, this would have to be the time.
We planned to take this trip last year. But issues surfaced just like with any family. The finances were not quite right. Work required extra time and did not offer an ideal time to leave for an extended period. Of course, there were other excuses as well.
This time, we had to make it happen.
With my wife and daughter’s birthdays coming up during the school spring break, this was the time. My wife planned the trip including alternate plans in case of rain, snow, or hurricane. This was going to be a good vacation, and it was going to be memorable.
We set up a dinner date on my daughter’s birthday with the cast of Winnie the Pooh, TIgger, Piglet, and Eeyore. She always loved those characters, so we thought it would be ideal.
The next day, we planned a day away from Disney. My wife admired manatees since she was little. Never having seen one in real life, that became our destiny and goal. Yes, a bucket list item would be checked for her. We looked over several websites and decided to try several different avenues of opportunity.
Gradually, several of those avenues turned to dead ends.
We packed up our days’ worth of stuff and I drove a couple of hours towards the Atlantic coast side of Florida. There is a national refuge there, not far from Kennedy Space Center that supports a number of species of wildlife. We began by heading to the information center and took a walk around the boardwalk built and supported in the swampy lands. The kids were given a wildlife bingo game to make it more interesting.
The information center had a log book of special sightings as recorded by guests. I browsed through a couple of pages making mental notes of alligators, armadillos, and various birds. I also spotted entries for feral hogs, panthers, and even Bigfoot. This could be interesting.
Midway through the walk my youngest son heard a strange noise off the path. A few minutes later and the family witnessed their first close encounter with an armadillo. The small tank was not worried at all about our presence. He was just worried about the hole he was digging at the base of a palm tree.
Towards the end, we spotted a small alligator. I pointed out the tiger stripes that flanked his sides as he lay just a few feet from us gathering warmth in the Floridian sun.
But no manatee.
We traveled another 30 minutes to a manatee lookout point. Overlooking a river, manatees are known to travel there in order to stay in warmer water. We spotted two rolling in the water near the shore, but they were difficult to see and there were many tourists occupying the lone walkway making it hard to get in position to get a good look.
Frustration set in, and my wife was ready to leave. I drove down another unmarked path further down the river, but nothing was there either. We did see a boat ramp on the other side of the river with a retaining wall harboring a small loch of water to allow for easier boat entry and return.
We drove around to the other side and followed the obvious road towards the ramp. And she saw it. A huge rolling swell of water. A gray mass floating in the middle. Another towards the shore to the right.
In all, there were easily 20 or more manatees in the couple acres of still water. My wife and kids took off to one shore line where there were several within feet of land. Excitement filled the air. Beautiful lumps of gray flesh with large paddle like tails stretching up to eight feet in length. White scars from encounters with boat propellers donned their bodies. They were amazing. My wife had come up close to the creatures she desired to see.
On our least expensive day, we all experienced something we would all remember. We witnessed one of our great creatures. We did it together.