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A few weeks ago, Mr. B. and I hiked around Hontoon Island State Park, an outing made memorable not by the park but by a park ranger who inconsiderately sped by us in Jeep as we hiked along the road, kicking up a cloud of dust that hit us full force in the face.  After we’d taken the short ferry ride back to the parking lot, we investigated nearby Hontoon Landing Resort and Marina.  The Resort has a small motel and attractive riverfront acreage.

What really caught our eye about the Resort was a pontoon boot we saw headed off on an afternoon tour.  We missed the boat that time, so we went into the office to ask about the tours.  There, we saw a flyer advertising a nature photography cruise that would take place the day before Mr. B.’s 58th birthday.

I signed us up the next day.

The pontoon boat belongs to Blue Heron River Tours, a new company that has been in business just since September.  We took the three-hour special trip on Saturday and it was nothing short of spectacular.

Readers will recognize that I have had a bit of trepidation about kayaking or canoeing, while at the same time wanting to get away from the shoreline and out onto the water.  A pontoon boat is about my speed and the large, custom-built Blue Heron boat (seating 49) was as comfortable a craft as I could have imagined.  The ride is stable and secure, and Captain Gary Randlett put me immediately at ease with his obvious concern about his passengers’ comfort and security.  Bravo! I am, after all, the person who skipped off a glass-bottomed boat at Silver Springs six months ago.

 Capt. Gary piloted us around the nine-mile perimeter of Hontoon Island on the St. John’s and Dead Rivers, pointing out the abundant wildlife with expert knowledge and attention.  The friendly Capt. knows his stuff–his main business is eco-touring–and he knows his waterways.   We learned about the history of the area, the use of the waterways, the wildlife, and the vegetation, all while we snapped away at a variety of birds that the Capt. expertly identified.  Nature photographer Nick Saum gave each of us a folder outlining some photography basics, including the types of photos not to submit to stock photo companies.  Mr. B. and I have had issues freezing motion with flying birds, and on this trip we would have ample opportunities to rectify that.

Also along for the ride was Capt. Randlett’s wife Joan and a friend who was hoping to see a manatee.  Other than this, we had the gorgeous boat to ourselves.  That’s not a good thing; it means business is slow and that Mr. B. and I were the only paying customers on this junket.

Opportunities for photography were superb. I will let my pictures attest to that.  Both Mr. B. and I finally froze a flying bird, although the hows and whys of this feat are lost to memory.  The colors on and around the river were gloriously saturated and Capt. Randlett made sure to let us know that he would take his time and heed our preferences; if we wanted to back up to see an alligator, he’d do it.  As we slowly cruised around the island, we saw American Black Vultures, Limpkins, Red-Shouldered Hawks, Black-Crowned Night Heron, Ibis, Grebes, and the American Bald Eagle.  This last bird soared above our heads before perching atop a dead tree that rose high above the landscape.  The three hours passed in a flash, although towards the end of the tour the unseasonable chill had me wishing that I’d brought along gloves and a Thermos of hot black tea.  Both Mr. B. and I felt the trip was exceptional.  It set us back a whopping $35.00 each.  I’d easily have paid double.

Blue Heron runs a daily two-hour eco-tour at 10 and at 1, with special thematic cruises and “high season” cruises in addition.  The Randletts are committed to educating guests about the “Real Florida.”  There is no finer way to see this state than by fresh water; it is the lakes, the ponds, and the rivers that give us the true Florida profile.  I left the tour impressed and eager to share my experience; for those of us who do not take to the waterways in shallow plastic craft a tour like Blue Heron provides is a real bonanza.  I felt able to appreciate and enjoy a part of Florida that had not been accessible to me before this.  I’m pretty fussy–ask Mr. B.–and I was happy with the craft and not in the least concerned when Capt. Randlett did the usual safety rundown.  I didn’t have visions of flaming engines and scuttled craft while the passengers tried to outswim monster alligators…my imagination might work overtime but it was obvious that Blue Heron is a class act.

For the month of December, Blue Heron offers a Christmas Lights Cruise on Dec.  3, 4, 10, 11, 17, and 18 from 4:30-6:30 PM.  If you go, deck the halls in your best Gore-Tex.  With a bit of advance planning, the weather isn’t an issue. 

The boat offers ADA accessibility and a “marine head.”  Everything that can be done to ensure a comfortable and enjoyable tour has been.

Blue Heron River Tours:  ***** Recommended without reservation

Today and tomorrow:  My pictures, taken with a Nikon D5000 with a 70-300 VR telephoto lens.  In a couple of instances, I show the whole photo and then crop it.