Land of a thousand alligators
In Florida, Myakka River State Park makes for a wildlife-filled family trip
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.
Two of Myakka River State Park’s alligators lounge on the banks of the Myakka River in Florida as a bird keeps its distance.
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.