Fireflies danced between long tendrils of Spanish moss hanging from the towering oaks, and moon flowers opened their soft white petals, breaking up the darkness of the palmetto brush and mangroves that lined the banks of the Little Manatee River as the canoes passed by.
About 15 people turned up for the moonlight paddle on International Observe the Moon Night, Sept. 6.
An observance of the event was held at NASA and at universities and organizations worldwide, including Camp Bayou Outdoor Learning Center in Ruskin.
“Usually, guided canoe trips are given during the day,” explained Dolly Cummings, who has been Camp Bayou’s director since it opened in 1999. “But everything looks completely different in the dark. The full moon night makes a wonderful time to enjoy the natural setting.”
Cummings had the help of a dedicated volunteer, Daniel Allen, who assisted paddlers into their canoes on the launching ramp and gave each canoe a shove into the water.
“We’ve only done the moonlight paddle once before this year, in April,” Cummings said.
Because it never got completely dark this time, the beauty of the night was evident through the entire paddle.
Depending upon which way the river wound, the large full moon would appear to disappear and then suddenly reappear on another side of the canoe, often very high up over the trees.
Often only the sound of paddles stroking the water was heard, and then suddenly hundreds of tree frogs began to sing. No gators or Florida panthers took notice, and there were no close calls of any kind.
Besides life vests, other precautions were taken because many of the paddlers were inexperienced. Paddlers were required to wear neon bracelets so they could be seen in the dark, and all stayed between Daniel, who led in front, and Dolly, who stayed behind all the others to be sure they all stayed together and took the correct turns, especially at forks that led into tributaries.
Daniel said he is a “professional volunteer.” He just plain loves doing outdoor things.
“I’ve volunteered since I was a kid,” he said while preparing the items needed for the hour-and-a-half trip. “I was with the Florida Trail Association for a while, and I did a lot of cleanup. My son is still a little too young to volunteer, but my daughter Kaitlyn, who is 12 and in middle school, also volunteers here [at Camp Bayou].”
He says his children are especially interested in the wildlife in the area and keep a good eye on the gopher tortoises.
The people who took the tour varied in skill and experience, with some paddling smoothly through the rough spots where the path narrowed so that they had to go in single file and avoid low-hanging brambles, and others having some trouble getting through vegetation or out of the tangled net of reeds that surround the banks.
All agreed the main reason they were there was to experience the real feeling of the wilderness, which is so much stronger at night.
Tanner and Vonda Blevins recently moved from Indiana and have been fascinated by the hawks and owls they’ve seen.
Allen and Elena Jones from St. Petersburg are currently living in Sun City Center and have been in and out of the area more than once, courtesy of Allen’s job in the Army.
When guided canoe tours are given on the river, Camp Bayou rents canoes that seat three for $25 and also allows people to bring their own and participate for $5.
Camp Bayou is located three miles south of S.R. 674 at the end of 24th Street SE in Ruskin.
It is part of the county’s ELAPP, or Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program. The acquired lands are all kept in as pristine and natural condition as possible, with the help of volunteers, donations and grants.
Camp Bayou is open Thursday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. for nature walking and wildlife study. There is no hunting, fishing or touching of wildlife.
General admission is free.
To find out more, or to see when special events are scheduled, visit http://www.campbayou.org or call 813-641-8545 during the open hours mentioned above.