Gators and Manatees

May 21, 2011   Myakka River State Park felt like a magical forest as we drove in the entrance under the canopy of live oaks draped with Spanish moss.  After setting up camp we took off to explore.  Within a mile of our camp we found the gators we had been seeking.  Big gators.

People kayak in the waters of Myakka on a regular basis and gator attacks are rare.  But Alan’s aversion to gators is on par to mine for sharks, so our kayaks did not get launched here.  Not that I didn’t understand.  One of the big guys we saw on the shore sunning was almost as long and as wide as our kayaks, and these animals are fast—they can move at 25 mph---a lot faster than we can paddle.  Rangers discussing the potential for conflicts said the kayakers who had been attacked had generally provoked the attacks by harassing the gators.  Photographs of the prehistoric looking reptile were easily obtained from the safety of the bridge and boardwalks.

The park offers the world’s largest air boat tour, a seventy-passenger monster that lumbers over the swamps, sighting multitude bird species, as well as the gators. (They’re in all the waters of the park.)   Our favorite bird sighting was a wild male turkey running through the forest and grasses. 

The next morning we arose early and took off on our bikes.  Bike trails are not available but during this off-season visit, the roadways were quiet and we biked all the roads in the park.  A unique offering in the park is the canopy walkway.  The walkway is suspended 25 feet above the ground for 100 feet through the hammock canopy.  A 74-foot tower provides an overview of the oak and palm treetops and the grassy wetlands.

We made it back to the RV just before the rains, which continued through the night.  Packing up in the morning, we set the GPS for Ft. DeSoto Park in St. Pete Beach.  Due to a cancellation we lucked into a waterfront site, perfect for sliding the kayaks into the water.  Friends, Tim and Sharon, live in nearby St. Petersburg, so we invited them for dinner our first evening in town.  The waterfront dining spot added an extra star to the dinner review. 

Bike trails are available throughout this extensive park that has over 2.7 million visitors a year.  Hopping on the bikes the next morning, we pedaled over the asphalt bike/pedestrian trail to the beach areas and then back to the largest boat ramp in Pinellas County, in fact the largest we have ever seen, with over 20 lanes for launching your boat. 

We never got around to putting our boat in the water here but once we had taken a break from the morning workout, we gathered up our fishing gear and headed out on the kayaks.  Our timing was perfect for the high tide.  If we tried to leave our camp on a low tide, we would have to portage the kayaks over 100 feet of muddy, grassy flats to get to a water depth we could paddle in, so we fished in the mid day-sun.   Trout were biting, in spite of the sun’s position, at least for Alan.  He caught several legal trout but we only saved one for dinner.  The following day found us back on the waters again.  The tranquility of floating over the still backwaters with mullet jumping, blue herons and osprey flying overhead and an occasional hit on the line made it a wonderful way to spend the day.  Alan caught a few and I lost a couple but we had already had our St. Pete trout, so the trout were released to be caught another day.

Next, we headed to Blue Springs State Park just outside Deland.  This is where Mom lives, so we were able to get in some visits.  Initially, we had reserved at a fish camp because the State Park showed no sites available online.  Calling the park as we left Ft. DeSoto, I found they had a site for us, so we made a beeline to the park so we wouldn’t miss out.   Activities in the park change through the year depending on the manatees.  Luckily, there were still some juvenile manatees for us to spot in the crystal clear waters. 

Kayaks can be launched into the St. Johns River and paddled into the spring and spring run from March 2 to November 14.  The remainder of the year this portion is closed because Blue Springs is a designated manatee refuge.  Another caveat, there is a swim area that you cannot paddle through from 11 A.M. to 5 P.M.  So kayaking up to the springs is an early morning or late afternoon outing.  The “warm” water, perfect for the manatees, is 72 degrees (year round.)  A wimpy Floridian, like me, was not about to take advantage of snorkeling in the springs—maybe with a wet suit.

Kayaking in the springs, we spotted manatees, young gators, hundreds of garfish and mullet and dozens of tarpon.  Paddling up to the springs is a lovely experience with oak and palm trees hanging over the river, providing perfect sunning spots for turtles and gators, and resting spots over the feeding area for the numerous heron and ibis.

Now, it is time to return home.  We will be back on the road again in July.  Until then, love to all. 

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