the tuber, north florida, wells tower, rivers, nature, conservation, adventure
the tuber, north florida, wells tower, rivers, nature, conservation, adventure
There's nothing like floating down a Floridian river with your toes dangling enticingly over the water for alligators to see. (Chris Buck)
Wells Tower

Outside Classics

The Tuber

Having constructed the greatest flotation device mankind has ever known, our fearless writer embarks on an ill-conceived, possibly insane crossing of alligator-infested North Florida via a string of seriously imperiled and incredibly beautiful rivers. (Yeah, it's a tube.)

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The river is as black and flat as freshly screeded tar. Submarine visibility is at a distressing half-inch or so, max. Anything could be down there.

I’m floating the Wekiva River north of Orlando, moving at what feels to me like a pretty good clip, when a husky teenager in a decrepit red kayak slips up alongside.

“Excuse me,” I say. “Are there alligators in here?”

“Yeah, kind of,” he replies. “Just saw one back there. Not too big. Seven feet, about.”

“Back where, exactly?”

Obviously more intrigued by my vessel, he halfheartedly jerks a thumb upriver.

“Where’d you get that boat?”

“I made it,” I say.

He hoists his eyebrows in an expression of very mild impressedness.


He toodles off, leaving me to fend for myself in a craft that probably wouldn’t survive an attack by a determined koi. I’m piloting an inner tube, and I’m doing so with great pride. I’m confident that, gator vulnerabilities aside, mine is the swankiest custom-made personal flotation device ever to cruise a backwoods creek. The chassis (courtesy of Ontario, Canada’s Tube Pro) is a 44-inch tire tube sheathed in a ballistic-nylon skirt of bold electric blue. It was already a handsome little barge, but with a long trip ahead of me, I spent several days in the shop of my fabricator friend George souping it up with post-factory snazz. With calipers, compasses, and a Delta upright bandsaw, we cut a 20-inch birch-ply deck to support a seat back and armrests (butchered from a lawn chair) and an extremely bitching adjustable sun canopy. Then, with great effort and cursing, I hammered brass grommets into the nylon skirt, through which I secured the deck and lawn-chair anatomy with zip ties. Next, we stitched a CAUTION: SMALL CRAFT! pennant out of orange camo fabric and, amid a shower of sparks, chopped some threaded rod into three two-foot lengths, creating a portable flagpole I could reassemble with couplers. Plans for a sail and rudder foundered at the blueprint stage. To my greater sorrow, schemes for a wet-bar-and-cooler sidecar never made it out of the wind tunnel.

I built this glorious rig not merely to astound the locals but to keep me comfy on what was supposed to be a five-day river voyage through an intermittent fantasy river, made up of my own quixotic selection of the crystalline, spring-fed waterways of north-central Florida.

The basic concept is a loaner from John Cheever’s classic short story “The Swimmer,” from 1964: One hungover Sunday, Neddy Merrill and his wife are drinking gin and lounging poolside at the Westerhazys’ when Neddy gets the idea to swim the eight miles home, through a suburban “river” composed of the innumerable backyard pools strewn across New York’s Westchester County.

“His life was not confining,” writes Cheever, “and the delight he took in this observation could not be explained by its suggestion of escape. He seemed to see, with a cartographer’s eye, that string of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county. He had made a discovery, a contribution to modern geography; he would name the stream Lucinda after his wife. He was not a practical joker nor was he a fool but he was determinedly original and had a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure. The day was beautiful and it seemed to him that a long swim might enlarge and celebrate its beauty.”

My River of the Mind, however, is a far larger and even more harebrained waterway than Neddy’s chimerical stream. As I’ve conceived it, mine will loosely trace the artesian output of the Floridan Aquifer, a subterranean freshwater sea whose natural eruptions—primarily in the northern half of the state—pay out some of the purest water, flowing through one of the most staggeringly beautiful riparian corridors, in the world.

I’ve waited for the more congenial temperatures of September to tube an ambitious seven springs and rivers, starting here in suburban Orlando, then north toward Gainesville, and then south toward whatever river will spit me out into the Gulf of Mexico. I haven’t figured that last part out yet.

Due to a few logistical miscalculations, the plan isn’t coming together too well. First, I didn’t mean to begin my journey in this Stygian creek. I’d meant to embark upriver, at Wekiwa Springs State Park, whose pure waters resemble nothing so much as a large, handsome spill of Crest Gel.

To my dismay, when I showed up this afternoon, a park employee informed me that any “craft” not approved by the Coast Guard was forbidden. He then directed me downriver—but not before remarking that deploying a tube in the Wekiva was not really something he’d recommend.

Just minutes into the tube’s christening, I’m impressed by its hydrodynamism and zip. Spurring myself along with a kayak paddle, I can churn forth at a decent pace. There’s only one problem: Each stroke swings me around about 45 degrees—now clockwise, now counterclockwise—so I don’t so much glide as swivel like a hockey puck under heavy English. OK, two problems: When road-testing the tube on the floor of my friend’s shop, I failed to take into account that, once in the water, my butt would sink down, down, down into the giant void in the center.

Picture a toddler jackknifed rearward into a toilet.

But, this design flaw and the water’s grottiness notwithstanding, the Wekiva redeems itself. Water lily gardens nod in the current, trumpet-trunked cypress trees lines the channel, and a great rumpled monument of cloud lies twinned upon the river’s surface. As I pass, turtles with striped faces shoot me looks from half-sunken logs before plopping grumpily into the water. My contentment is high when I round a bend to find an elderly man in a silver canoe, eyeing something in the shallows.

“Alligator here!” he calls out. I look over and catch a glimpse of its steel-belted-radial hide.

“Seen any others?” I ask in a panicked whinny.

“Just the two right behind you!” he cries.

“Ha-ha!” I say, frantically swiveling away.

Bringing up the rear, I should mention, is my support vessel, a canoe piloted by a slender, fine-boned blonde, my friend and assistant Suzanne Bennett—or “Miss Bennett,” as we’ve agreed I’ll call her for the trip’s duration, in order to maintain a Cheever-appropriate air of postwar propriety. (In fact, I’ve assented to give Miss Bennett one cold beer each time I fail to address her so.)

the tuber, north florida, wells tower, rivers, nature, conservation, adventure
Turns out, a well-rigged tube can also attract attention (and free drinks) from the locals. (Chris Buck)

With a gator in our midst, now would be a good time for Miss Bennett to offer me the aluminum sanctuary of the canoe, but in a potentially homicidal dereliction of her duties, she ignores me and goes over to have a look-see. My bare feet dangle temptingly overboard. Every bubble floating past looks like a surveillant eye.

“Miss Bennett!”

She finally paddles back over, unhurried by my plight and grinning in zoological rapture. “You should’ve seen that fucker! Man, it was scary! The second I saw him—dude, I just went cold. That was some old, hardwired, predator-prey shit right there.”

“Could we discuss this later, please?” I ask, drawing in the puckered morsels of my toes.

“That was so cool! But, damn, I was terrified.”

“Could we not—”

“I’ll tell you one thing: You wouldn’t catch me out here in a tube.”

“Please, Miss Bennett.”

“What, you scared?”

I paddle on, but, before long, what gets to me is not so much the prospect of getting munched but a presentiment of the posthumous jeering I’ll surely suffer in the local media.

Newscaster: “Jerry’s coming to us live from the banks of the Wekiva River, where some guy tubing through alligator-infested waters met with, well, what he pretty much had coming. So what’s the deal, Jer? He didn’t know there were gators in there?”

Correspondent: “Oh, sure, he knew, Linda. I guess he thought they were vegetarians. Har-har.”

At this point, it seems wise to pronounce the Wekiva officially tubed. I tie my craft to Miss Bennett’s stern and clamber aboard.

Later, back at the “marina”, which consists of a fleet of leprous canoes capsized in front of a beer-and-bait shanty, a clutch of large men linger by the plywood bar and regard me as though they can’t quite figure out whether my tube is really cool or something I ought to be assaulted for. Finally, one of the heavyset bald ones calls out, “Hey, man, how was that floatin’ tube?”

“Rode like a dream,” I yell.

Early on in the Cheever story, Neddy’s neighbors supply him with booze as he makes his way across the county, so I of course jog over expectantly. I’ll surely be handed multiple chilled Budweisers as I astonish one and all with talk of my grand expedition. But once I get there, I can’t even attract the attention of the bartender, a shirtless man with pectoral muscles like horseshoe crabs. He’s too busy chatting up a tan, bikini-clad woman who stands in contrapposto, coyly fingering a long, pale scar on her abdomen.

“Can I give you some beer, get you drunk, take advantage of you?” he asks.

“You don’t need to get me drunk to take advantage of me,” the woman says.

“My virgin ears!” the bald man cries.

I drag the tube back to our rented Jeep.

In search of purer waters than these, Miss Bennett and I ride north to Blue Spring State Park, just outside the town of Orange City. But the springs are mostly off-limits, to keep snorkelers from hassling the manatees. Undaunted, I tube zestfully up and down the little abridgement of the springs but receive suspicious looks from a family of swimmers clearly discomfited by the presence of a grown man haunting a state park at dusk in a pool toy.

I built this glorious rig not merely to astound the locals but to keep me comfy on a five-day river voyage.

In the morning, I attempt to tube the St. Johns River, one of the world’s laziest, thus an appropriate waterway to cruise via the world’s laziest means of transportation. But due to recent hurricane activity, the put-ins are closed.

I lapse into a funk, both because the mission has so far failed to achieve epic scope and also because the rental car has no roof rack. Miss Bennett’s canoe (a $100 junker purchased off Craigslist Orlando) is lashed improperly, its gunwales cushioned by three washcloths (stolen from a hotel), four pairs of socks (clean), and one pair of underwear (dirty). The tie-down straps vibrate with a loud and terrible sound, as though the Jeep is being strafed by giant, farting hornets.

I suppose a little adversity’s appropriate. As Neddy Merrill continues on his quest, his river takes a stagnant turn. He finds one pool empty, another strangely cold. The day’s clemency gives way to a thunderstorm. His neighbors, unamused by his quest, are suddenly not so friendly.

Miss Bennett is saying all kinds of things about the noise. I try to distract her by pointing out some pleasant roadside landscaping.

“Look at those pretty flowers, Miss Bennett. Don’t they buck you up?”

“Let me remind you that you’re in punching distance.”

“And remind me to get you a pad and paper, Miss Bennett, so you can write down all your bonnest mots.”

“Isn’t that supposed to be your job?” She has a point.

“Maybe I’ve screwed this whole thing up,” I say. “Maybe I should’ve come alone. I mean, this is supposed to be, like, a man’s solitary journey through, you know, the jungle of adult self-delusion and disappointment.”

“Screw that,” says Miss Bennett. “I can’t believe you’re trying to reduce one of the most beautiful short stories ever written to some sort of adolescent dude odyssey.”

In an attempt to stoke her zeal for the project, I suggest to Miss Bennett that I might name my fanciful stream after her, just as Neddy names his after his wife.

“Would you like that?” I ask cheerily.

“I don’t think I want any tubers on my river,” says Miss Bennett.

More than 700 springs burble up out of the Florida soil. According to the state’s department of environmental protection, this is the greatest concentration of freshwater springs on the planet, fed by the largest (more than 100,000 square miles), oldest (more than 20 million years), and deepest (more than 2,000 feet) artesian aquifer in the southeastern U.S. The most ballyhooed of these is Silver Springs, on the western edge of Ocala National Forest. Silver Springs disgorges a remarkable 550 million gallons per day and is such a beloved attraction that the theme park incarcerating the source somehow gets away with charging $35 a head to gawk at the splendor. I, however, intend to avail myself of a little-known loophole in the easement provisions. By canoeing five miles up the Silver River, one can stiff the ticket agents, drop one’s tube on the limpid tide, and float blissfully back down.

As you paddle into the Silver River from the Worcestershire-hued canal running by the boat launch, the water turns so suddenly clear that one experiences an onrush of vertigo, as though, like Wile E. Coyote, you’ve suddenly paddled off a cliff. The water is so startlingly transparent that it hardly seems to be water at all but some species of coagulated air. It’s bizarre to see this familiar element assume such a radically different character, sort of like finding out that, under certain circumstances, gravel is good to eat.

“Holy shit, man! Have you ever seen anything so gorgeous?” asks Miss Bennett as we paddle upriver.

We hold a brief roundtable on other beautiful destinations visited: New Zealand’s black-sand beaches, the waters off the Galápagos, the Swiss Alps, the Maine coast. The Silver River, we decide, takes the cake, due not only to its stupefying loveliness but also to its being so unspoiled despite proximity to a busy highway, condos, and subdivisions—and to the complete absence of any other humanity on this lovely autumn afternoon.

“I can’t believe there’s no one else out here,” Miss Bennett says. “We live in a nation of lazy bastards.”

the tuber, north florida, wells tower, rivers, nature, conservation, adventure
Using a kayak paddle to steer an inner tube results in unwelcome swiveling, though it gets the job done. (Chris Buck)

It is, in fact, sort of mind-blowing that the Silver isn’t mobbed with vacationers, considering that people have been freaking out about the river’s outlandish clarity, in print, for about two centuries now. (Indians first settled here roughly 10,000 years ago, but later European arrivals found the springs too pretty to share.) In 1826, an Army captain claimed he could see the holes on a button resting 40 feet down. “This will no doubt appear to you incredible but it is nevertheless a downright fact,” he wrote in a letter. The glass-bottom boat was invented here in 1878. Silver Springs’ clear waters also launched the boom in early underwater filmmaking. Many of Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan movies were filmed here, as was Creature from the Black Lagoon.

The water owes its lucidity to the mortal sacrifices of hundreds of millions of tiny marine organisms that lived and died in the seas that covered central Florida 30 million or so years ago. Their corpses sank to the bottom and very slowly compacted into a blanket of limestone more than 1,000 feet thick. This substrate essentially acts as the world’s largest Brita filter, emitting, through its artesian fissures, water that is 99.8 percent pure, consistently temperate (72 degrees no matter the season), and, according to one naturalist, even clearer than water purified by artificial means.

But neither here nor anywhere else in the state is the water as clear as it once was. Not only was the great strip-mall-and-ranch-home Tartarus of Orlando recently angling to tap the river system to the tune of 100 million gallons a day, but, due to agricultural and other nitrate runoff (as well as a dash of septic-tank leakage), algae plagues the waters. Most of the eelgrass growing in the shadows is pretty well bearded with the stuff. You can’t look at the water for long without a trembling green curd of it floating past.

What’s really upsetting, though, is the fact that it can take half a century for a drop of rainwater to percolate through the topsoil, into the aquifer, and then out in the springs, which means that the algae you see today could be the effect of nitrates introduced into the water table before Hawaii was a state—and when the population of northern Florida was about a quarter of what it is now. Every day, as ever-larger helpings of slow-journeying nitrates spill out of the water table, the spring river grows warmer and murkier. Even if everyone in north Florida could somehow be persuaded to abandon their homes and take their septic tanks and fertilized lawns with them, the river wouldn’t run as clear as it does today for a long, long time.

After a three-hour upriver struggle, Miss Bennett and I have at last commandoed our way to the grand artesian fissure. Glass-bottom boats prowl water of such blue-green intensity as to make a Caribbean inlet cloud over with shame.

“Well,” says my assistant, “what are you waiting for?”

A little ways back, we passed a sign forbidding swimming. And up on shore, two security gentlemen are giving me the hairy eyeball.

“I don’t know,” I say. “I’m sure tubing’s against the rules here. There’s a chance I could be arrested.”

She groans in exasperation and cries, for all to hear, “God, you’re a pussy! Weren’t you just saying you wanted to get arrested? That it’d be an adventure? Jeez!”

It’s true. I was just saying that. Grudgingly, I untether the tube. Performing a heretofore unattempted “navy mount,” I cantilever my butt over the side of Miss Bennett’s canoe in a latrinely pantomime and then hover there. I look over at the skipper of a passing glass-bottom boat. In the midst of a droning public-address recital of springs-related miscellany, he glares at me, clearly wishing he had six kinds of torpedoes.

At one point in “The Swimmer,” Neddy is surprised to find himself unwelcome at a party he’s come upon in his quest. Undeterred, he hits the bar, downs a whiskey, dives into the pool, and swims its length.

I tump into the tube with a splash and am whacked on the nose by my articulating canopy. No one tries to arrest me. The sun is sinking fast, so I start swiveling downriver. A middle-aged couple cruises past in a canoe. The man lowers his glasses.

“Buddy, you are rockin’ and rollin’, ” he says. “Rockin’ and rowin’!”

“Yes, sir!” I soon lose sight of them.

The theme park gradually recedes. Pushed by an insistent current, I make good time to the mouth of the Silver, past worlds of native fauna: a nation of lazy, log-hunkered turtles, limbs outstretched in funny supplicating poses so that the sun makes little brown radiances of their interdigital membranes; long nerdy gars, the Ichabod Cranes of the fish world; lank anhingas hanging their wings out to dry; big blue channel catfish; long-billed ibises; dark-footed cormorants; regal great blue herons, their daggerlike beaks parted, striding minnow shoals with a canny, high-legged gait in perfect embodiment of the verb stalk; a fume-spewing powerboat laden with large men having drinks and blaring Van Halen’s “Panama” in perfect embodiment of the plural noun assholes.

My enjoyment of all this majesty, however, is cut short by the wailing of Miss Bennett, who’s encountered a headwind. Her canoe is revolving in the stream like the needle of a spastic compass.

“You just need to rudder a little bit,” I offer. “Do you know the J-stroke?”

“This is not a technique issue!” she yells.

“Do you want me to tow you?”

“Are you fucking kidding me?”

We drift on in this manner until we spot an eight-foot alligator sunning itself.

“I think I’d like to get back in the canoe now,” I say.

The tube is flaccid by day three, and I’m suffering from a darting lower-lumbar neuralgia. Today, I plan to tube a portion of the Ichetucknee River, a cherished aorta of north Florida’s freshwater vasculature. It’s far and away the most vaunted tubing destination in the state, and I feel considerable pressure to get the tube into maximum spruceness and tumescence before my voyage.

In the town of Fort White, 35 miles northwest of Gainesville at the edge of Ichetucknee Springs State Park, we pull over at a tube-rental place to attend to maintenance and then install the Tube Pro booster saddle I’d thought unnecessary but, luckily, brought along anyway. My craft’s improved ergonomics should help undo the damage to my back.

The proprietress of the Ichetucknee Tube Center is a pretty woman named Linda Soride, and we chat for a moment before a purple, circa-1987 Camaro, pulsing with megabass, pulls up. As she turns away to diagnose the occupants’ needs, I fall a little bit in love with Linda. My mind drifts and I see myself, having patented the tube design, return to the ITC to license it exclusively to her. Revenues soar, and we soon depart the run-down filling station for a grand neon showroom. I’m the muscle of the operation—keeping the compressors shipshape, manning the patch kit—while Linda remains its comely public face. At the close of business each day, we head to the Ichetucknee and go floating off together, accompanied only by cool waters, cheering egrets, and some Riunite on ice.

“I can’t believe you’re trying to reduce one of the most beautiful stories ever written to some sort of adolescent dude odyssey,” says Miss Bennett.

“I can’t believe you’re trying to reduce one of the most beautiful stories ever written to some sort of adolescent dude odyssey,” says Miss Bennett.

Minutes later, I trot my tube—freshly inflated, booster seat in place—over to Linda. “This is just the prototype,” I rave proudly. “Once I get the kinks out, maybe you and me could do some business together.”

She shies away, cooing, “Maybe so, maybe so,” in a quiet, suspicious voice imparting the suggestion that I might be a little bit insane. (As Cheever’s story progresses, Neddy shows signs that he is not in command of his senses. The echo is unsettling.)

After I recover from this minor slight, Miss Bennett, who has to skip this portion of the journey to drive the car down, drops me at a designated embarkation point on the Ichetucknee. This river would inspire ecstasies in anyone with a pulse, but my ardor for spectacular scenery has reached a point of diminishing returns. I feel like a competitive eater tucking in to his 47th foie gras tart. The Ichetucknee offers more of the pellucid water and old-growth forests slung with buntings of Spanish moss. But while I’m relieved to discover, as advertised, no gators in sight, there’s also a disappointing shortage of amazing birdlife. Just the odd egret and heron, skulking on the bank like underpaid park employees. Plenty of people, though.

While my own capacity for amazement is waning, my superb invention, I would like to inform the proprietress of the ITC, is so enthusiastically admired by my fellow tubers that I’m to have no peace for the entire four-mile float. Seconds into the ride, two young women from St. Augustine beckon me into their flotilla. We enjoy a cozy interlude until a thickly built friend of theirs comes by and says “I want that tube” in a manner that is not unmenacing. I break away and into the path of a kayaking lady who pronounces mine “the Cadillac of tubes.” (A bespectacled professor following behind her describes it, a touch sneeringly, as “an interesting contraption.”) Even a fearsome river stud in a straw cowboy hat—reclining on a little inflatable yacht, trailing a miasma of marijuana fumes, a zaftig beauty on his arm—pauses to tell me that he deems the tube “a pretty badass setup.”

At last, I am among my people.

In this newfound fame and bliss, I drift on for hours. Toward the end, as I glide to the pullout, having made it halfway across Florida, the sky darkens. I struggle up the dock, where Miss Bennett waits for me in a shower of pelting rain.

Next up: The Rainbow River, which runs through the town of Dunnellon, 25 miles west of Ocala. After overnighting near the Ichetucknee, we proceed to what I’ve been assured by my fellow enthusiasts is a tubing destination not to be missed. Around 9 A.M., we arrive at Rainbow Springs State Park, which has a shuttle, meaning Miss Bennett gets to tube along with me. After filling out a stack of paperwork befitting a Soviet border crossing and shelling out the extraordinary sum of $18, we’re driven by a cranky employee to the launch.

In parting, the driver gets in a few cheap japes about both the tube and the irrefutably natty fedora I’m affecting. He then offers a warning: “If you hear banjo music, keep movin’!” Har-har. There’s nothing at all Deliverance about the Rainbow River, which carries us past a dispiriting parade of suburban bungalows. The vibe is decidedly more Cocoon, the backyards peopled with retirees downing mimosas at riverside patio sets.

“Silver Springs just ruined this for us,” says my assistant. “I wanna see some fucking flamingos.”

For the float’s duration, a contest for thickest and most acrid emissions is vigorously waged by a fleet of squat pontoon boats. What’s more, proceeding at roughly one mile per hour, the Rainbow’s current is too sluggish for me to outstrip the local population of lovebugs, an exhibitionist variety of fly whose chief pleasure is to swarm around committing coitus on the wing. They bed down all over my sun canopy, hang flagrante delicto from my hat brim, and get all tangled up in the tall grass of my arm hair. When at last we debark, I feel vaguely taken advantage of.

The journey’s end in sight, all that remains is to find a proper route to the Gulf of Mexico, which lies just 15 miles to the west. Miss Bennett and I spend the morning querying park officials and thumbing the tourist literature for the right watercourse to the Gulf. We get recommendations of several rivers by which I might conclude my voyage (the Chassahowitzka, the Crystal, etc.). All sound splendid—and therefore inappropriate to the spirit of bleakness haunting Cheever’s tale.

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Unsatisfied, we stop at an RV park outside Weeki Wachee—famed home of kitsch royalty the Weeki Wachee “mermaids” and site of the deepest natural springs in the U.S.—to see if the locals might know of a grittier path to the sea. Out on the office’s patio, a twenty-something man and a seventy-something woman avidly toke on Old Gold cigarettes. They are credibly tan, that rare Floridian shade you might achieve by crouching in a hickory smoker for a couple of weeks. I explain my plight, and the man contemplatively runs a thumbnail through his stubble.

“Well, there’s the Mud,” he finally says.

“The what?”

“Mud River. It ain’t pretty, but it’ll get you to the Gulf.”

The mud slinks by a multilevel saloon before winding under an overpass. It is not without remorse that I launch myself and the tube on our final flight. The patrons gathered out on the bar’s deck applaud.

“Oh, that is too damn much!” yells a well-nourished woman. “Where’s your beer?”

“I don’t have one,” I say, sticking my lip out, my voice quavering a little. She makes a queenly gesture to a man in a baseball cap, and he jogs inside for my first free beer. He’s soon making his way down the bank, so I merrily start swiveling over. We both have to reach and strain, and the folks on the deck watch with great interest.

Gilt by the afternoon light, the Miller Lite handoff is a scene of great charity and neighborly grace, a sort of Florida-style Sistine Chapel ceiling tableau.

Cold beer safely crotched, I yaw out into the onion-consommé tide once more, Miss Bennett following in silence. I ease into a narrow canal coursing through a cheery Floridian Venice where manses shoulder in among rusting modulars. At a Y in the stream, I pause to get instructions from a trio of seniors out for a swim.

“Hello,” I say, “which way to the Gulf?”

“You’re going to the Gulf?” asks a man somehow able to tread water and maintain a healthy ember on a cigar.

“Trying to,” I say.

He indicates the right fork. “Shit,” he says. “Good luck.”

I paddle on, past knots of teens petting one another in the waves, past docks equipped with complex nautical machinery, 2-D wooden manatees, decorative swaths of fishing net, signs painted with jolly sloganry: FISH STORIES TOLD HERE, NO SKINNYDIPPIN’, and NO FARTIN’. A boat bearing three generations of bikini’d ladies blats past. They dance wildly to deafening country music.

“We’re not drunk!” one of them shrieks. “We’re just havin’ fun!”

Around a curve, the houses peter out into an empty plain of marsh grass and salt-ravaged palms. The estuarine water is far from the reviving 72 degrees of the inland springs, offering the disagreeable lukewarmth of old dishwater. Miss Bennett peels off for shore. In the broads, fishing boats with insectile outriggers tear past, smacking me with high white wakes. The tide, I’m sorry to note, has turned against me. Paddling the tube becomes ludicrous. The sensation is of trying to crawl up a down escalator. It takes about two minutes to go ten feet, and I experience the breathless panic of a child striving through the waves toward his parents’ maddeningly receding beach blanket. Few boaters can resist commenting on the futility of my project.

“Where in the world you goin’—Cuba?” asks one.

On and on I grind, toward a spit of land where an American flag corrugating in the wind marks the end of Florida and the beginning of the Gulf. Some elderly folks on a pier gaze down. Their expressions are not admiring. Churning forth with what feels like the last of my strength, I’m joined, impossibly, by a kindred seagull flying into the wind and towing three lead weights, which hang on a length of monofilament tied to a hook in his beak. He keeps pace, evidently recognizing me as a colleague in poor judgment.

In the final paragraphs of “The Swimmer”—after we’ve begun to glean that our protagonist, though in nothing but trunks, has borne many heavy burdens on his journey—Neddy Merrill fetches up home at last, weary, cold, and waterlogged. But instead of feeling the elation that comes with a feat accomplished, he finds himself the victim of an existential switcheroo: The house is locked, empty of furniture, bereft of life; his wife and children are gone; and Neddy—has he lost his mind?—is left shivering and bewildered on his own doorstep.

But mine is a different story. Florida is behind me now, yet I’m seized by the perverse compulsion to go on fighting the tide. Sweat brines my eyes. My arms are gone to noodles, but I crank on, shoulders creaking. A speedboat pulls abreast and slows. The captain looks at me and then at the blue-brown emptiness ahead. His cheek skews with a disgusted concern.

“Buddy,” he says, “what in the hell are you doin’?”

It’s a fair question.

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