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Leave behind only footsteps

Published June 22. 2013 09:02AM

For my birthday, my husband took me on a kayaking-biking trip to the Withlacoochee River and Trail in central Florida.

Just the name alone would make me want to go. I love those interesting, tongue-twisting Indian names.

Withlacoochee, I'm told, means crooked river.

It's well named because the river did, indeed, twist and turn its way into several Central Florida Towns.

Our first day on the river we were disappointed. It wasn't a beautiful paddle because of too much civilization with housing complexes or cottages along the entire river.

The next day we launched at another part of the river and it was an entirely different experience. Ten minutes into the paddle it was like we were the only people in the world - an unspoiled world that looked uninhabited.

As we paddled down the river, we were rewarded with plenty of wonderful wildlife. Lots of limpkins, blue herons, night herons, anhinga, and black and red birds I couldn't identify, kept me contented while a few alligators kept me alert. There were even deer and beavers to entertain us.

Best of all, there were no houses, no other sign of civilization. Heavy foliage and Spanish moss helped the river to look like it must have looked a century ago.

But then, as we rounded a sharp turn, there on the riverbank was a pile of trash and beer cans strewed around an abandoned campsite. A still burning fire meant the campers must have just left, carelessly leaving behind a fire that could spread into the dry trees.

Once again, man left his ugly mark on a pristine environment.

Why, I asked myself, would someone seek out a remote piece of paradise, and then spoil it by leaving garbage behind?

I thought about my father and the lessons he drilled into me when I was just a kid. As the old saying goes, he was environmentally minded before it was cool.

He stressed to me that nothing should spoil the beauty of nature.

When we bobbed along for hours fishing in the bay, we always took along sandwiches and treats for lunch. After a hot day in the sun, a boiled ham sandwich tasted like a king's banquet.

When we finished eating, I knew enough to carefully bag every empty can and every piece of trash.

When we fished on the beach, we picked up what others thoughtlessly left behind.

If Dad found a fishing hook in the sand as he often did, he ranted about the fisherman who carelessly left it behind, a real hazard for anyone walking barefooted.

"He probably thinks he's a sportsman," Dad said of the offender. "But no true sportsman would leave anything behind except footsteps."

As I paddled down the river, I thought the campers should have known my father.

On the way back to our launch site, we again passed the littered camp. This time, there was a family there. The father sat in a lawn chair reading with his wife nearby while their children shrieked with glee swimming in the river.

I gave the man points for taking his children to that beautiful spot on the river. I believe exposing kids to the gifts of nature is one of the best things you can give them.

But I was sorry the guy couldn't teach his kids better than to throw trash all over a pristine environment. If they saw their father doing it, they no doubt would do it, too.

I thought about saying something to him until I counted the beer cans surrounding his chair. He and his wife must have put away plenty of beer because there were 12 cans surrounding their chairs.

I told myself he might pick their trash up before the family left for the day. But I didn't have much hope.

At least he gave his kids an outdoor experience.

Every time I come across a father in a boat or see a dad kayaking with his children, I compliment him on exposing the kids to the wonders of nature.

It doesn't happen as much today as it should. Parents don't take their kids on outdoor adventures. Instead, kids sit for hours in front of video games and computers, living in a virtual world while ignoring the wonderful world outside.

My brother and I often say we are thankful Dad took us with him as he fished or hiked through the woods. He would often stop and point out animal prints or interesting plants, always making us aware of the small wonders all around us.

My brother and I are both happiest when we are outdoors. It's one of our finest legacies from our father. He's has been gone 12 years and we will always miss him.

When I come across a breathtaking secluded spot, I often think of my dad and how much he would love seeing it. It isn't just Father's Day that I think of him.

While I can no longer make a fuss over Dad and give him gifts, I continue to honor him by doing something in his memory every Father's Day. Sometimes I sit with someone in a nursing home and listen to his stories, reminding me of how much I loved listening to my dad's stories.

This year I picked up someone else's trash, remembering the man who said, leave nothing behind except footsteps.

The footsteps he left on my heart will be there forever, along with the lessons he implanted there.

A father's influence is forever.

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