I made plans to paddle Rock Springs Run and the Wekiva River. However, the forecast called for a 60 to 80% chance of rain, from the far edges of Tropical Storm Ophelia, as it moved slowly to the northeast. If the storm is moving northeast, the weather may be good to the southwest. Sarasota had only a 10-20% rain forecast. Myakka River State Park, here I come.
Myakka River State Park, located on State Road 72, 9 miles west of I-75 near Sarasota, is one of the oldest, developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1934, and largest, at 58 square miles, State Parks in Florida. The name sake River bisects the Park, linking Upper Myakka Lake with Lower Myakka Lake.
I arrived at the Park and drove the scenic Park Road 3 miles to the concession/launch site. It is possible to launch from points along the road, but these require a longer portage from the car. I parked in front of the concession, the water about 20 yards away. The concession has food, drinks, rental canoes, kayaks and bikes. Two tour boats are docked, one preparing for the 10:00 am tour. Two restrooms are nearby. Coming back from one, I saw my car was covered with bird droppings. I looked up, I was not under a tree. No white spots near my car, just on it. Vultures have good aim. I suspected vultures as a large flock of black buzzards was in the area, perhaps looking for leftovers left by alligators.
The Myakka is famous for its large alligator population. One was in the launch area. I shoved off, and decided I would count gators. I entered Upper Myakka Lake, paddled west along the south shore over shallow, choppy water a short distance to the River. A low dam separates Upper Myakka Lake from the River. I read that it was constructed in the 1930's to raise the Lake level so a water ski show could perform. Those days are long over, the River and the Lakes are no wake zones. This was my third visit to Myakka. The first, I had to portage the dam, the second, the water was high and I paddled over. This trip, I had to portage. It is easy. Beach, lift the yak over a 2 foot wall and relaunch from a flat area into the waiting alligators. I think I was up to ten already.
The Myakka meanders through a low marsh area, Big Flats Marsh. In addition to alligators, the bird life is very impressive. I saw cormorants, anhingas, ibis, blue herons, great blue herons, belted kingfishers, least bitterns, snowy egrets, great egrets, woodstorks, limpkins, sandhill cranes, reddish egrets, rosette spoonbills, more vultures, and numerous other birds I cannot name. The gator count increased. I reached 60 when I passed under a power line just over an hour into the trip. I stopped counting. As it flows downstream, the River circles 3, according to my basic map obtained at the Park entrance, sable palm covered islands. These offer a contrast to the marsh, and look like they are a place where you could stop and stretch your legs if required. I say this is a moderate paddle as at times, the main channel can be difficult to find. My attitude is, that only leads to more interesting finds, as was the case when I went up one channel, and soon ran aground. I reversed course. An alligator saw me and did what they usually do, go under water and swim away. However, the water was to shallow and he flailed across the bottom, half in and half out. Reminded me of the old Wally Gator cartoon.
I reached the Park Road bridge, three miles from the launch point. This was farther then I had gone before on this river. I decided to press on, to the State Road 72 Bridge, perhaps another two miles. Reaching that, I decided I might as well keep going to Lower Myakka Lake. The area south of State Road 72 is designated as a Wilderness Preserve. One is supposed to obtain a no-cost permit from the Park to enter. This keeps the numbers down, enhancing the experience. I did not have a permit, not knowing how far I would paddle when the day began. I hope the State of Florida will forgive me. But, not seeing anyone on the River other than two passengers and the captain of the tour boat on Upper Myakka Lake, I do not think the Wilderness Preserve was overcrowded this weekday. The River narrowed considerably past State Road 72. In a few spots, a canopy was formed by trees on each bank. Further downstream, near Lower Myakka Lake, the predominant marsh was reestablished. I entered the Lake. Across the Lake was a large flock of birds, including many colorful rosette spoonbills. I paddled across for a closer look. As I neared, a couple little blue herons noisily took flight, followed by two wood storks. The 15 spoonbills remained, oblivious to my presence. No wonder they were almost wiped out in the early 20th century, plume hunters could get very close. I got to close, and half the flock flew a bit farther away. I then remembered proper bird watching etiquette, and moved slowly away.
I reentered the River for the return voyage. The current and wind were now against me, but as long as I kept paddling, progress was steady. Past the Park Road bridge where a couple fishers tried their luck, the River comes close to the Road. I came ashore at a picnic area to eat lunch. Back in the kayak. Again a few scenic detours. Saw my first swimming snake on one. At another, I had two choices. One channel was patrolled by half a dozen alligators, the other, spoonbills, herons, egrets and ibis feeding in the flats. I chose the bird route. The mud flat extended into the water and I got stuck. Looked like I had to try alligator alley. I warily approached. The prehistoric predators submerged. Six gators and a kayak at the entrance to a narrow channel do not leave much room and I was splashed by one as it flicked its tail to swim away.
I made it to the dam. Dam, an alligator was right where I wanted to land. I'm bigger than he is, and I paddled in front of it to the landing. The gator went below, and I beached. I got out of the kayak, walked along the dam, maybe 3 feet high, 2 and a half across and watched the gator retake his position, along with others on either side. I then launched, and made the short paddle to the launch area.
I saw more alligators then I have ever seen, easily over 100. Also more rosette spoonbills on this one day then I have seen in my lifetime. If you like wildlife, this is a premium paddle.
It was almost 4 pm when I landed. I quickly went to the concession, which closes at 4, and in a "man bites dog" story, ordered a bowl of gator stew. Delicious. I was now ready to bike the Park Road. More alligators visible in Upper Myakka Lake as I rode along the shore, wading birds in the Lake and in the hardwood swamp on the other side of the Road. Walked out on the birdwalk, an extensive boardwalk over a marsh into the Lake. Opportunity for those poor souls who do not have canoes or kayaks to get a glimpse of what we see. Next, rode to the Canopy Walkway. Climb a 25 foot tower, then cross a 85 foot walkway suspended at treetop level. On the other side, a 74 foot tower offering spectacular views of the Park. Other then birds flying below, nothing but green as far as the eye can see. A walk on a nature trail near the Canopy Walkway yielded a barred owl sighting. I was glad to see it, having not seen any raptors all day, although I did hear hawks in the woods as I biked the Park Road.
Besides this short nature trail, there is an extensive system of hiking and off road biking trails in the Park. Myakka State Park is a Mecca for the paddler, biker, hiker and nature lover.
Full service State Park, Camping, primitive camping, and rental cabins.
$5 for 2-8 persons in vehicle. $3 single. $1 bike, foot entry.
Permit for Wilderness Preserve
Nine miles west of Exit 205 on Interstate 75 west of Sarasota, FL, on State Road 72.