At the Myakka River state park, I officially met the Florida alligator. Oh, sure, I had seen one or two at the other parks. I had taken some pictures already. I knew they were around. At Myakka, they were everywhere. On the banks, in the water under the bridge, around the boat launch, just plain everywhere. I did kayak at Myakka on the giant shallow lake and it was remarkably unpleasant and choppy. I was recommended a spot on the river by another kayaker. He and I were standing on a bridge with four alligators in sight and he said, “You have to paddle down to Deep Water. That’s where all the alligators are. As you come around the bend there, the really big ones will roll off of the beach into the water. I’ve seen them longer than my kayak.” “Oh?” I said, trying to disguise that what I meant by “Oh” was “No way, sucker.”
The only thing that Myakka had more of than alligators was….would you care to guess…go ahead… Vultures. I bet you didn’t guess that. Yes, they were everywhere. On the shore, in the trees, in the air, on the benches, on my truck. Just about any stationary spot would soon have at least one vulture. The park was regularly shooting off a canon to dispel the birds, but it seemed to have little effect. The vultures were so large and their wings so heavy that when they flew, it sounded like someone was shaking out an old braided rug. They did lend a certain je ne sais quoi to the park atmosphere. In my head, I renamed Myakka park as The Park Of Doom.
But, the park trails were beautiful and filled with birds like the giant Sandhill Cranes which I photographed doing some kind of elaborate dance – and here I thought drunken frat boy dances to impress were the worst. The cranes wrapped their necks around each other and opened their wings which had a span of at least five feet. Right impressive. In the end, I think the wooing worked. On the other bird, not on me. The trails wound through marshes, forests, and wetland prairies full of grasses and bushes. And I was surprised several times by the frantic appearances of raccoons and wild pigs.
The Myakka alligators were really quite polite. They stayed away from me if I stayed away from them, though I did see one sign that said “A Magnificent Lab was killed by a gator here. Please don’t let it happen to your dog or child.” There was one path, an unofficial path used by fisherman, that ran quite close to the water and I have to admit, I was nervous on that path. I was very careful about where I stepped and I watched the bank. I saw the largest alligator while hiking that path. He sunned on a small strip of sand a little way into the river. I had to squat down to try to get a picture of him and my hands were shaking just a bit, but the gator wasn’t moving. I took one picture, glanced down at my camera to adjust a dial, looked back up and he was in the water. That quickly. That silently. Watching me. He wasn’t coming toward me, but he was being just as cautious as I was. I very slowly stood up and went the other way. The Park Of Doom. I tell you.
Boring details: the park has miles and miles of beautiful land and trails, and the campground is the ugliest spot imaginable. No brush between campsites and there are roads running on either side of it. Plus, the bathroom generator starts up every 20 minutes or so with a low whirring noise. It is not picturesque.
You do not need to be a member of facebook to see them, but if you are a member, feel free to friend me and tell me in the note you're from my blog. My facebook status tells where in the world I am, even when my blog has fallen behind.
Even without the manatees, the park is extraordinarily pretty. It contains a warm water spring with perfectly turquoise waters that flow out into a river. There are trees draped with Spanish moss, alligators and turtles practically cuddling on the banks, and all sorts of birds lining the fallen trees. The spring is so pretty that it looks fake. Now imagine in the water large sacks of gravel which seemed to halfway float and occasionally rose to the surface to loudly exhale steamy breaths into the air. The manatees were massive and bizarre and yet somehow extremely graceful when they chose to pivot under the water. When I first saw their bodies with flippers and tail and strange small protruding head and tiny inset eyes, I felt like something was missing from them, that these giant gray bathtub-like animals couldn’t possibly be fully functional creatures. Then, the more I watched the way they interacted with each other, the way the babies swam alongside and then threw one flipper over the side of the females as they drank milk, and the way they rolled in the water and congregated together in groups, the more fascinated I became. I didn’t buy a t-shirt, but I would consider it now. They’re very worth seeing. Go. See them.
While the manatees are visiting in the warm spring, people are not allowed to swim or boat in the spring. However, there was a boat landing just outside the park where I was able to put in and kayak the river. The river there was broad and slow but marshy enough that the banks were filled with birds, downed trees, wild turkeys, dragon flies, cypress knees, and lily pads. I was on the lookout for alligators since I still had not seen any while kayaking and at first I was nervous, but I never saw an alligator…but the alligators saw me. On going through my photos, I found this picture…I was taking a picture of the bird and never saw the alligator at all.
I have heard that the myth of mermaids came from sailors spotting manatees. Seeing the manatees at Blue Springs state park this was hard to believe unless the sailors were extremely near sighted or the women they were exposed to were pretty hideous. However, after I kayaked about 2 hours up river and I was floating back down, with my legs pulled out of the kayak and balanced precariously on top, while I leaned backward low rider style, and I was drifting soothingly along, a manatee surfaced right next to my kayak and exhaled loudly into the air before just as suddenly disappearing back under water with a giant flip of its tail. Even after having spent two days staring at the manatees at the Springs where they are so clearly visible, even after reading all the signs and information about them, and after watching the state park movie, this sudden spontaneous appearance and disappearance felt magical, so magical that I nearly flipped over my kayak because it startled me so badly. A bit later, another manatee came up for a second and I managed to get a snapshot of its tail as it went back under.
Experiencing these two manatees in a setting more similar to what sailor’s may have experienced, I understand. I'm willing to believe in mermaids now.
My final last wildlife encounter of the afternoon happened on beaching my kayak. I built up speed paddling so that I could beach hard on the sand and easily get out of the kayak without getting wet. I don’t know what the odds are, but there was a cottonmouth snake swimming along the shore and I beached right on top of it, cottonmouth head on one side of my kayak and cottonmouth tail on the other. Neither the snake nor I were very pleased with the situation. He turned and hissed and showed his white mouth at me and then began striking uselessly at my kayak. I frantically dug my paddle into the sand trying to push my kayak off of the beach before the angry snake wiggled his way loose. Eventually, I was able to back off of him and I paddled backward into deeper water while he swam angrily into the weeds. Fierce serpents, chubby mermaids, invisible alligators, it was a very good state park.
Boring facts (unless you’re planning on going to Blue Springs State park): Make reservations in advance, especially during manatee season. I was going to stay an extra night but could not get a spot. Even if you’re not camping, during manatee season on weekends you need to get there early because they will close the gates once a maximum number of people enter. The park itself is not very big. The trails aren’t that interesting so you’re either going to see the manatees or swim in the spring. Otherwise, I wouldn’t recommend the park. The camping is quite nice for such a small park. Each camp spot is surrounded by dense bush and vegetation so that even the center spots feel secluded. They also rent canoes.
P.P.S – I am really trying to catch up on my blog which is now more than a month behind my actual travels. If you receive this in email, you may get far more blog entries than usual over the next two weeks and for that I apologize. The rate will decrease back to once or twice a week when I have caught up.
I was dumped. This isn’t the sort of thing I usually write about on this blog, but this dumping has specific life influences. No, I won’t go on about the stupidity of the Dumper, or the banality of the reasons, or even the lameness of the dumping event which occurred via email. The result of the dumping event was that I was pretty darn angry at the end of it all. When I’m pretty darn angry about something, I find a little walk is calming, okay, well, in this case it was a six hour hike, but same concept.
I was at Wekiwa State Park, Florida, when the notorious email arrived. I did not respond immediately, except by tossing a granola bar, some water, and a folded trail map into my backpack and setting off at a hiking pace best described as, well, furious. It was still very early in the morning and I began quite literally charging ferociously down a park trail. This was not one of those slow dumpings where both parties come to the realization that they barely even belonged in the same species much less belonged dating. No, this was quite sudden and I was quite angry and I was charging down the trail while perhaps revisiting our very brief dating life and perhaps muttering under my breath, or not so much under my breath, incredulously “HE dumped ME?” And I was angry and hurt and stomping forward when I realized that I was breaking again and again through spider webs.
Now, there is some chance that through past adventures (http://jamiesue.typepad.com/jamiesue/2008/03/index.html) you might be slightly aware of what can only be described as a spider phobia of mine. Snakes, alligators, vicious hyenas – basically, I’d sit down to dinner with any of them (would we call it a date because I could use one) instead of passing the time of day with a spider. But, that particular morning, the morning of the dumping, I had an advantage. I was a recent dumpee, a woman scorned, infused with anger and purpose, to hike until I had come up with every last name imaginable for the Dumper. And, the spider webs only added fuel to my already hot fire. You see, there was a bit of spider Dumper history.
I do not generally portray myself as a girly-girl. In fact, I probably prefer to portray the exact opposite. For example, on my very first date with the Dumper I suggested off-road biking in a South Carolina state park. I had my beat up old bike in my giant lifted pickup truck and country music playing. I had stories of traveling Argentina alone and a glass of Jack(neat) as my favorite drink. No girly-girl details there. First date and we were riding down the path in the park and the Dumper was in front. We were riding for maybe twenty minutes when he stopped and I pulled up behind him. He turned and said in his calm mechanical matter-of-fact-way, “I can’t help but notice that I am riding through a rather large number of spider webs,” at which point I see that he has a fist-sized giant spider crawling on his shoulder and I, in a rather less mater of fact way, screamed in high-pitched bird voice, “There’s a giant spider on your arm get it off get it off get it off I can’t help you” while fluttering my hands about face frantically. Yeah, I’m a tough one. So, the Dumper casually brushed off the spider and we continued forward with him pointing out giant spider webs stretching across the path from tree to tree. We tried to avoid them for about five more minutes before I, having regained a small amount of my decorum, suggested we perhaps desist from the spider-death-biking and walk through the woods down to the lake. We did just that and we walked and talked on the beach for at least an hour before returning to the spider laden path. I thought that I had regained my composure and at least a little bit of my pride.
Oh, but what I had forgotten was that we had to get back to my truck, and by then the sun was low in the sky and many of the spiders we had ridden through earlier had rebuilt their webs, and with the sun so low we could actually clearly see them and they were….everywhere. The path was a massive shining spider web tunnel. The Dumper again took the lead on the path and very chivalrously pointed out the giant hanging spider webs. I discreetly carried a stick across my handlebars with the image of being able to brush off a hard-to-reach spider or perhaps destroy a web if one was lowered on to me. I managed to ride (terrified) through the webs for about ten minutes. Then, we approached a whole spider community. There were webs stretched the length of the bushes, over head and down the other side of the bushes so that there was, literally, room only for the Dumper to crouch forward on his bike and peddle through with not even six inches of spider free territory on either side. The Dumper very deftly did this feat. I, on the other hand, stopped my bike a good six feet from the spider enclave, and stood with my entire body shaking and, frankly, my eyes starting to tear up at the concept of going through that tiny little space. I started to, quietly, hyperventilate.
After a moment the Dumper realized I had not followed him through spider hell and he asked what was wrong. I said I could not go through the webs and explained my phobia of spiders. He parked his bike, returned, took my bike through the giant web hole, walked back and then walked with me further into the woods and around giant spider death trap. In other words, he, the boy, the Dumper, walked me, the girl, the drinker of Jack driver-of-stick-shift dessert camper around a big spider web. At the time, I felt both pleased at his kindness and very, very embarrassed. Now, you may be thinking “awww…isn’t that sweet of him. Oh so sweet.” Yeah, well let’s remember that he is the Dumper and additionally he subsequently explained how it was irrational (duh) to be afraid of spiders and how he did not understand how I felt that I could not move. Worse, he explained this after admitting that he, himself, had a fear of heights. I am not afraid of heights, I pointed out. But heights can really hurt you, he said. Let’s just say that now that he is the Dumper, I really cherish the knowledge that when he repaired the roof on his one story house, he had to lay on his belly to do it. I imagine myself stomping around on that roof, perhaps doing a little jig.
So, there I was in Florida. On a trail covered in spider webs. Angry as hell, both at being dumped and at the previous embarrassing (certainly no longer sweet) spider date story. Once again faced with a path covered in spider webs through which I would need to walk or turn around and return to my computer and dumping email. There was obviously no choice. I forgot to be afraid or maybe I just decided not to be. Every time I charged through one more spider web, I gave a little smirk at the Dumper on his belly roof repairing and felt just a little bit better. And even, after a while, I stopped walking and started taking pictures of some of the spiders . I’ve taken pictures of spiders in the past and I enjoyed it even then, but my hands shook the whole time and my breath came in little pants that made the camera unsteady. Well, no more. I photographed spiders. I climbed under webs. At one point, I had sat down on a tree to eat a granola bar, I looked over and there were two spiders just a foot from face (see ridiculous picture of me trying to take a picture with the spiders) and I didn’t leap up in terror. I didn’t even leap up. There was no fluttering of hands. There was no girly screeching. Six hours of hiking, a great deal of muttering at the stupid Dumper, and dozens of spider webs crashed and I seem to no longer have a phobia. In fact, as this blog travels at least several weeks behind where I actually am, I have since petted a huge tarantella at the ranger station. My hands didn’t even shake (and the tarantella back was soft, who knew?).
What does this all mean? Why is it important, you wonder? Well, without my spider fear it will certainly be a lot easier for me to slip that black window into the Dumper’s mailbox. Black window. Apropos, no?