Land of a thou­sand al­li­ga­tors

In Florida, Myakka River State Park makes for a wildlife-filled fam­ily trip

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY JOHN BRILEY

The only thing more wor­ry­ing than see­ing a bunch of al­li­ga­tors around your ca­noe is not see­ing them but know­ing darn well they are there.

I am with my two kids, Kai, 8, and Christina, 5, and my sis­ter Gina and her 5-year-old son Quincy, in Florida’s Myakka River State Park. It’s a moss-and-vine-draped do­main of birds, mam­mals and Juras­sic-spiked rep­tiles cover­ing 29,000 acres about 20 miles south­east of Sara­sota. We came here from Gina’s home in Tampa on a mid-De­cem­ber Sat­ur­day seek­ing a taste of the state’s “Where the Wild Things Are” in­te­rior.

The park is an A-list hang­out for gators, har­bor­ing “a cou­ple thou­sand,” a vol­un­teer ranger tells me, giv­ing it one of the high­est con­cen­tra­tions in South­west Florida. Credit this to the name­sake river and two lakes, Up­per and Lower Myakka, which pro­vide the reedy, muddy habi­tat the di­nosaur im­per­son­ators love. Not co­in­ci­den­tally, it also sup­ports a bio­di­verse buf­fet of prey.

My as­sur­ance that this menu doesn’t in­clude hu­mans — al­li­ga­tors sel­dom at­tack peo­ple un­less pro­voked — is calm­ing nei­ther Gina nor the kids as I glide our rented 16-foot alu­minum Grum­man to­ward a shore of Up­per Myakka Lake, where the crocodil­ians lounge in the sun. With a burly north wind rak­ing the lake, and the park’s pop­u­lar air­boat tour fin­ished for the day, we are the only ves­sel out. As we near shore, the gators de­ploy one by one into the wa­ter, de­scend­ing un­til their watch­ful eyes and tails dis­ap­pear.

Rea­son would sug­gest they’re swim­ming away but, given that we are tasty sar­dines in an open tin, flirt­ing with a plau­si­ble def­i­ni­tion of “pro­voke,” we re­treat to­ward a far shore where a pair of sand­hill cranes poke about placidly in the shal­lows.

Like most in Florida, Myakka River State Park is a bird­ing won­der­land. In our six hours here, we see herons, egrets, wood storks, vul­tures and a hawk, a count we might have eclipsed the prior day at the much smaller Let­tuce Lake Park in Tampa, where we saw many of those species along with Roseate spoon­bills, night herons, an­hin­gas, white ibises and some hy­per­ki­netic lit­tle twit­ter­ers that I’m told are called phoebes.

Myakka River is also home to deer, tur­tles, ar­madil­los, tur­keys and feral pigs, a fac­tion that prob­a­bly sticks to the roughly 10,500 acres of the park that are des­ig­nated as a wilder­ness pre­serve, into which are al­lowed only 30 peo­ple per day by foot or non­mo­tor­ized boat. We opt to ex­plore a smaller chunk of the park, a well-trod­den mile of path that is part of Myakka’s 39 miles of un­paved trails.

It is a cool world, in both senses. A hard-sand path winds into a hard­wood ham­mock of live oak, and co­conut and cab­bage palms, ar­riv­ing soon at one of the park’s most-ad­ver­tised fea­tures: a 100foot-long canopy walk, strung with wood and rope 25 feet high be­tween two sturdy tow­ers. The bridge was the first of its kind in North Amer­ica when it opened in 2000 and re­mains among only a hand­ful of pub­lic tree­top walks in the United States.

I had pic­tured a much longer span but this nonethe­less ful­fills its prom­ise of putting us within arms’ reach of the teem­ing ecosys­tem in the high branches of live oaks, which are adorned with bromeli­ads, mosses and other sweet­smelling or­gan­isms. Later, Kai tells me that this was his fa­vorite part of the visit, adding, “You know, dad, al­li­ga­tors are kind of bor­ing. They just sit there. But I bet they think the same thing about us, like ‘When are those hu­mans go­ing to do some­thing in­ter­est­ing?’ ”

I want to linger on this ar­bo­real cat­walk or, even bet­ter, hop the rail and set up camp in a tree, but an­other fam­ily is ac­cel­er­at­ing down the nar­row walk­way, so we clear out.

Af­ter de­scend­ing we con­tinue on, hap­lessly peer­ing into the veg­e­ta­tion for an­i­mals in the last place they’d be — next to the walk­ing path. The kids fall into a fan­tasy stick-and-palm-frond fight­ing game, which proves to be a won­der­ful di­ver­sion un­til Christina, obey­ing a time­less law of na­ture, chooses the far­thest point from the car to have a melt­down.

I re­al­ize, too late, why she’s irate: It’s been two hours since the chil­dren’s last meal, a prix fixe of pret­zels, Skit­tles, and Cheesy Dib­bles paired with a 2017 lait choco­lat, so I hoist her onto my back for the walk back to the car and a bee­line to the park’s lone eatery, the Pink Ga­tor Cafe.

Over­look­ing Up­per Myakka Lake and shar­ing space with the gift shop, the cafe of­fers an im­pres­sive menu of burg­ers, sand­wiches, seafood and sal­ads. As a tourist, I feel ob­li­gated to go with the home­made al­li­ga­tor stew — from farmed, not lo­cal, stock, the clerk con­cedes — and chase it with a Sara­sota-brewed IPA. I try my best to shield the stew from the view of the three gators pa­trolling the boat chan­nel, and as we pass them soon there­after in our ca­noe I shrug a mea­ger apol­ogy. (And, no, it’s doesn’t taste like chicken — it’s more like chewy ground beef.)

To­ward the end of the day, we head out on a bird­ing board­walk that in wet­ter times ex­tends into Up­per Myakka Lake but to­day runs a few feet above a field of ver­dant grasses and reeds. Lateafter­noon sun co­coons the veg­e­ta­tion in a hyp­no­tiz­ing ra­di­ance.

The kids have run off — back down the board­walk I as­sume, al­though I hon­estly can’t re­call see­ing them leave. Gina and I find them clus­tered in a live oak, one of the friend­lier climb­ing species I’ve seen, with broad, low branches and Span­ish moss hang­ing from out­stretched limbs.

In the en­chant­ing light at the for­est’s edge, I spend 15 min­utes shoot­ing the type of pho­tos that might grace a re­li­gious brochure — peace­ful shrouds of Span­ish moss aglow in dewy rays of sun.

We drive out of the park, pass­ing only one ves­tige of hu­man­ity, a posse of campers un­load­ing pickup trucks at a tent site. I slow the car wher­ever I fathom that al­li­ga­tors might be loi­ter­ing, but they’ve all clocked out for the day, headed off, un­doubt­edly, to do some­thing bor­ing. Briley is a writer based in Takoma Park. His web­site is john­bri­ley.com.

Like most in Florida, Myakka River State Park is a bird­ing won­der­land. In our six hours here, we see herons, egrets, wood storks, vul­tures and a hawk.

JOHN BRILEY

Two of Myakka River State Park’s al­li­ga­tors lounge on the banks of the Myakka River in Florida as a bird keeps its dis­tance.

PHO­TOS BY JOHN BRILEY

TOP: One of two 74-foot tow­ers serves as a book­end for a 100-foot-long canopy walk­way. ABOVE: The walk­way at Myakka River State Park was the first such built in North Amer­ica.

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