Popular state park is highlight of visit to Sarasota
by Karen Rubin and Neil Leiberman
You don’t have to travel far on Route 72 from the busy north-south roads near Florida’s Gulf Coast before you are in a comparative wilderness. Just north is Sarasota, best known for its connection to John Ringling and for being the “capital” of the American circus. To the south is Ft. Myers, best known as the summer residence of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. But here, on both sides of the two-lane road are mainly fields and forest – terrain popularly referred to as “Old Florida” or “Real Florida.” What that means is that you get to the true character of this place.
There is no better place to experience “Real Florida” than the Myakka River State Park, which turns out to not only be the state’s most popular in terms of number of visits, but also one of its largest in sheer expanse (36,000 acres), and one of the most diverse in wildlife.
The ecosystem here is set up by the “Florida Wild and Scenic” Myakka River, which flows through 58 square miles of wetlands, prairies, hammocks and pinelands, feeding two shallow lakes that attract a myriad of wetland creatures, making birding, canoeing, fishing, hiking and wildlife observation popular activities.
A 7-mile scenic drive winds through shady oak-palm hammocks and along the shore of the Upper Myakka Lake. There are over 39 miles of hiking trails and many miles of dirt roads provide access to the remote interior. You can bike the road, or bike off road on 20 miles of paths; there are 12 miles of horseback riding. And there are camping areas, as well.
One of Florida’s oldest state parks, Myakka River was developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1934 and many of the original, historic buildings are still in use today, including five log cabins that are available for rent.
On this particular morning, when we arrive, there is a heavy fog that adds to the atmosphere of the Spanish moss dripping from the trees that form a canopy over the road.
We immediately get a sense of how vast the park is: we drive about four miles before we get to our first stop, the Birdwalk, a 300-foot long boardwalk that puts you out above the marsh, where a volunteer bird interpreter is available (9 am-1 pm) to literally open your eyes to the skill and “sport” of birdwatching.
We are so fortunate that Owen Comora is here today. He started the program 12 years ago, as well as its series of Nature Adventures. In his professional life, Comora worked for the television division of the massive advertising company, Y&R. He was there at the start of NASA’s first televised space launch and handled publicity for Ken Burns “Civil War” documentary series.
This area is rich for birdwatching. Even though the morning is overcast, in just the hour he was there before we arrive, he had already recorded sightings of 42 species – including wild turkeys, wood stork, a great egret.
He teaches us how to properly focus binoculars and had already set up a spotting scope.
It is amazing how fast he can hone in on a bird – either snatching a glimpse, or hearing its call, like that of the sandhill crane, which he says roost here at night by the dozens.
He spots a cattle egret which he says is not native American species; tells us how to distinguish between a bald eagle and vulture (the vulture’s wings form a “v”, while the eagle in flight has its wings “e”ven).
He adds something about the birds which make you appreciate all the more the diversity of life, but also what is involved for a serious birdwatcher. It doesn’t take long before you are impressed with the knowledge that bird watchers possess.
Owen makes a “pishing” noise to draw in the Savannah sparrow which winter here, and sure enough, one soon appears and comes closer.
“Pish-pish-pish.” The bird comes closer. I am surprised to learn, that’s not the sound of its own bird call, at all. “They come because they are curious,” he explains. It has dull brown colors, but when it breeds, has a crown and bright yellow stripes.
He identifies a greater yellowlegs by it sound, “toot, toot, toot.”
He can create or recognize bird call sounds, but shows us an I-phone application that actually makes the sound of a particular bird song – a practice which we learn is controversial among some diehard birders, especially in breeding season.
We spot white tailed deer along the shore on one side, and across from us, a black feral pig (which we learn is a real problem here). Soon after, we see an alligator near the same spot. One day, he says, he saw an alligator leap and snatch a pelican. “It’s a battle for life and death every day.”
Owen became interested in birdwatching when he was 13 years old. He was fishing in North New Jersey, and a birdwatcher was there. He was hooked.
When I ask whether he has a “life list” – that tally of birds that birdwatchers keep, he says, “Only North America birds.” I sense that is because bird-watching can be obsessive since birdwatchers often travel the far reaches of the world to complete their list. He says he has reached 645 out of a possible 800 on his life list.
By now, a gaggle of people have gathered – apparently a group has come by bike from the nearby camping area.
This is Old Florida at its best.
Airboat on the Lake
We are off for an airboat ride, one of the most popular activities in the park, and I soon discover why.
We drive to the Outpost, where you can rent canoes, kayaks or bikes, go to a small convenience store, or the cafe and gift shop.
Now normally, you think of airboats nimbly speeding over the surface of the Everglades, giving a thrilling ride. That’s not this.
In fact, the “Myakka Maiden” and the “GatorGal” are the largest airboats in North America – 70-passenger boats with an enclosed cabin powered by an airboat engine. They are made to glide quietly – and slowly – in order to bring us across this vast lake that can be very shallow, without disturbing the wildlife.
Most of the seating is on benches inside the cabin, but there are three seats outside, in front of the cabin and the captain, that you should grab if you want to get the best photos (use an SLR if you want to capture birds in flight).
As we are about to pull out from the small channel, we see Big Fred, a 13-foot alligator, who chases off another alligator that has tried to invade his territory. We are soon behind him as he makes his getaway (I am practically on top of the alligator, where I sit).
This is a narrated tour and it is really well done – with humor, but also interesting anecdotes, especially about the alligators which everyone seems most curious about. Overall, you get a better appreciation for the interconnections that make for an “ecosystem.”
So as we head out, we learn that the Upper Myakka Lake is one mile by 2 1/2 miles – all natural, filled from rainwater which feeds underground streams.
After one particularly dry summer, the depth went down to just 18 inches, it nearly dried up and the airboat operation had to shut down for two weeks; the year before, it was shut down 2 months.
But 8 years ago, a10-foot flood filled the Lake to a depth of 15 feet. “You could see alligators on top of picnic tables.”
We pull out of lily pads, which he said are new, but getting smaller – an indication of how changeable and fragile the ecosystem is.
This year and last, the area has had to contend with uncharacteristic cold snap, which killed many of the fish, particularly the tilapia, drawing some 3000 vultures, twice the normal number. At one point, he says, “The vultures stopped moving. You could pick them up. They were so stuffed from 10 days straight of eating, they couldn’t fly, couldn’t even walk. But they sure cleaned up the shore line!”
We pass the weir – a small dam. “It was a mistake to build because it changed the ecosystem by changing the water table.” Once the impact was recognized, they cut holes into the dam and allowed it to deteriorate.
We glide by a pair of sandhill cranes, which he says are not typically so far into the lake.
Where we are headed, across the lake, is where alligators are out in fantastic numbers. As we glide over, we see some of them in the water – we are on their tail, and because the water is so shallow, we can see them very clearly.
An alligator can hold its breath underwater for 2-3 hours; it has a third eyelid that acts like goggles so it can see underwater; it takes its tongue to the back of its throat to stop water from going into its lungs. This is how it has adapted so well to its environment.
We see a 15-foot, 500-pound alligator lounging on the bank. Alligators are cold blooded, he tells us. They need to get their body heat to 80-85 degrees in order to eat, so they come out of the water and lay in sun. Even on a cold day, an alligator can draw in the sun’s heat through the scales on its back.
We see birds – egret, heron – practically on top of the alligators, unconcerned. He tells us, “That’s because alligators only eat at night, and have to get their temp up to 85 to eat.” That’s also why locals are completely unconcerned about kayaking or canoeing or even flipping over in the water. (You can’t convince me, though, because I’ve seen alligators eating during the day, chomping on a turtle).
The alligators move quietly – they can go as fast as 10-15 mph in water and 18 mph for 30-40 feet on land.
He describes an “alligator nursery” – the alligator builds a nest 4 feet high, and between May and June may lay 40-50 eggs. Temperature determines if the egg turns out male or female. At some point, the mother knocks down the nest – if the egg doesn’t hatch, she will eat it, after all, it is an excellent source of protein. But other creatures – birds, turtles and large pigs – appreciate that as well. Typically, 18 alligators make it, but by the second or third year, only 3% survive.
The first three years are difficult, because the alligators are small enough to be prey; they grow one foot a year for the first six years, but by the age of three, are already 3 1/2 feet, big enough to ward off most of the predators.
“If they can make it past the third year, they can live 35-40 years.”
He points out other animals that inhabit the area: White tail deer, fox, armadillo, and feral pigs. The pigs have caused a tremendous problem, digging up areas; their population has grown to thousands, and are such a nuisance that the state hired a trapper to keep the population down. He doesn’t get paid, just gets to sell the pigs, which average 400 pounds apiece, for meat.
Florida is the capital of alligators, with about 1-2 million. The Upper Myakka has 600-700 alligators and it isn’t unusual for alligators born here to spend their entire life here in this lake, he says. Some may go to Lower Myakka Lake, five miles down from the weir, but there is less food there.
As we pull in, he reminds us the airboat has no brakes, so to stop, he smacks into a post. He wasn’t kidding – we gently bump into the post.
The airboat ticket gets you a discount ticket for half off the company’s safari ride (a tram through the woods), or a discount on return trip within a year.
The Airboat trip is really wonderful, way more than I expected it to be, and the trip just long enough ($12/A, $6/child, 6-12).
The Outpost also has a café where you can get alligator bites and gator stew as well as burgers and ice cream, and an excellent gift shop where I eye beautifully done leaded glass lamps like a heron, komodo dragon.
One of the best ways to experience the park is to bike. You can peddle seven miles of paved drive or over 20 miles of dirt roads.
We get just a taste of that, biking on the road about 1 1/2 miles from the outpost to a nature trail that leads to the Canopy Tower. This proves a real novelty: you climb the first tower, 25 feet high, then cross a 100-foot suspension bridge that sways, to another tower, to 70 feet high. From there, you are above the canopy and can gaze out over the tree tops.
Built by volunteers and completed in 2000, this structure is reportedly the first public treetop trail in North America. The walkway is suspended 25 feet above the ground and extends 100 feet through the hammock canopy. A second tower lets you climb 74 feet where you have expansive view of tops of live oaks and palm trees, wetlands, and the prairie/hammock interface. If you are lucky, you may well find yourself with the unusual perspective of looking down on eagles, hawks, vultures.
The Myakka walkway was the inspiration of canopy scientist Dr. Margaret D. Lowman, Executive Director of the TREE Foundation. More than just a sightseeing, they are part of science research, coordinated by the Tree Foundation; people are invited to submit their observations.
In fact, the walkway proved its practical value with an alarming discovery several months after it opened of an exotic weevil from Central America, accidentally released in Ft. Lauderdale about 1990, that had arrived in southwest Florida.
“Until recently, we did not know much about life in the treetops of the world’s forests because their canopies were difficult to reach. Now scientists can climb safely into the “high frontier” to discover some of its wonders,” the foundation notes (www.TreeFoundation.org).
There is also a Visitor Center which features exhibits and “Myakka Movies” near the SR 72 park entrance. After an enchanting visit, it is easy to see why this is one of the most visited of Florida’s state parks, with more than one million a year.
Myakka River State Park is located 9 miles E of I-75 at 13208 State Road 72, Sarasota, FL USA 34241, (941) 361-6511, www.MyakkaRiver.org orwww.FloridaStateParks.org/MyakkaRiver (open 8 a.m.-sunset daily, $6/car fee); for camping reservations, Reserve America, 800-326 3521 or visit,www.reserveamerica.com.
From Myakka State Park, we change our pace, going into downtown Sarasota to Marina Jack (www.marinajacks.com), a marina and city recreation area, where boats are available for daily sightseeing, fishing and sunset cruises. The best parts of this city are actually walkable – the historic district which has been revitalized and is absolutely charming – down to the marina, which is really an encompassing recreation center.
With our first day devoted to nature, our next day is devoted to culture – and it is all contained in one amazing campus: The Ringling Museum.
Monday, 28 February, 2011
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