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The Wild Myaka

Author’s Note: This article appeared in Sarasota Magazine.

Usually when you paddle past an alligator, it watches you go by without blinking an eye. Not this ’gator. It slid from the bank and splashed into the water, sending a wake toward the canoe. Maybe it was ornery. A hunk was missing from its tail, recently torn out by another alligator.

This was on the Myakka River, some miles south of Myakka River State Park, on a warm, sunny spring day. A swallow-tailed kite had just sailed overhead.

Although the reptile’s gaping white mouth was startling, this was not an attack. Likely, the alligator was just defending its territory with a display of aggression. Attacks are very rare.

“In the 20 years I have worked at Myakka River State Park, I have never had an alligator threaten me,” says Paula Bischoff, a park naturalist and paddler.

However, the alligator’s bluff did serve as a reminder (and humans need one from time to time) that the Myakka River is a wilderness. Sarasota resident Joy Scott realized that when Dick Pfaff, a kayak guide and instructor at Economy Tackle of Sarasota, took her onto Little Myakka Lake and her kayak was surrounded by large alligators.

“I wasn’t afraid,” Joy says, “but I decided to count the ’gators on the way back to the SR-72 bridge put-in.” Her total: 99.

While now it is possible to see such natural wonders of Myakka with a little effort and a kayak and paddle or a tank of gas, it was not always so.

Many millennia before humans occupied the earth, alligators that probably looked just as they do today glided through the Myakka River, which wound through a violent land of saber-tooth tigers, weird-looking sloths, giant armadillos, and camels.

The Myakka River remained exotic and mysterious even to the early settlers. More than 300 years after the Spanish arrived, Myakka was still an unexplored foreign land for much of its length. The name “Mykka” may have first appeared on a map prepared by a Spanish spy, Juan Jose Eligio de la Puente, while the English held Colonial Florida. No one is quite sure what the name means. It has been spelled “Miaco,” “Mayaco,” “Mayaca” and “Miaakka.” The best guess is in the book “Florida Place Names” (Pineapple Press, 1995) where the author says its origin could be Choctaw, the language of an American Indian tribe, meaning “It is so.”

In the late 1800s and around the turn of the century, Myakka belonged largely to cattle-perhaps 1,000 head to a single cowboy settler. The vast range was unfenced, with some cattle branded and others identified by notches cut into their ears. The notches were registered with the Florida court as proof of ownership.

Only in the last century did the incessant activity of humans begin to change the wild lands bordering the Myakka. In some places, human development and cattle pastures have stripped the earth of native vegetation. Growing numbers of people now live along the Myakka in various subdivisions, and the river’s delicate ecosystems feels their presence in a host of ways, from storm-water runoff that deposits chemicals from lawns into the river to the interruption of natural wildlife corridors by buildings and other human structures. Surrounding industries also have an effect. Some, such as tomato farming, use methods that interfere with percolation. And humans have diverted the river’s historic flow-for example, severing waterways like Cow Pen Slough, now a canal, from the Myakka. Other manmade canals such as the Blackburn Canal, pull about 10 percent of the water off the Myakka and diminishes the river’s flow.

Myakka River itself, however, is still wild. The river begins as a trickle from drainage streams above Myakka City, growing ever so slightly as it travels south. By Myakka City, those streams form a river, which flows south into Upper Myakka Lake, which it leaves as a stream again. Then it passes through Lower Myakka Lake. After that, a river once again, it twists and turns toward rustic Snook Haven, rolls through North Port, bends toward El Jobean and Charlotte Harbor. Near its terminus, mineral-rich water feeds into the river from Warm Mineral Springs, adding to the torrent that pours into the prolific estuary that is Charlotte Harbor.

Sometimes a trickle, sometimes a torrent, the Myakka flows for 60 miles. In the popular phrase, it flows 24/7, following the simplest of principles - water flows downhill. It can be so shallow a small child could skip across it. With heavy rains, it floods so broadly that even experienced kayak guides can become lost in the trees. Most of the time, the water level is somewhere in between.

If you lived beside the Myakka from 1963 to 1991, you would have thought the Myakka never floods. If you lived there from 1992 forward, you would think it floods all the time. Such variability is mostly just the result of the weather and how wet the ground is when the rain falls. It doesn’t take a lot of water to flood the Myakka. The land is like a pancake with some dimples, bumps, and a few engineered cuts. When the pancake is soggy, just an inch or two of rain can cause flooding. When the land is saturated and lots of rain comes, as it did with Tropical Storm Gabrielle last fall, the flooding can be drastic.

“The face of the Myakka is always changing,” says kayak guide Pfaff. “The seasons change, water levels rise and fall, so the environment is always in flux. No two days on the Myakka are ever the same.”

Water is life, and the Myakka is good at life. Sandhill cranes flock to its banks to feed, mate, and rear their chicks. Large assemblies of wood storks graze on nearby flooded pasture land. Ferocious feral pigs root at the rich earth that surrounds much of the river. Tawny deer feed on abundant shrubs and grasses. Bobcats, coyotes, and foxes also roam along its shores. Signs of a bear have also been recently found in the Myakka area. The bear was probably a young male and may have been just passing through. It was the first sign of bear in the area since 1959. And from 1999 through May of 2001, prints that wildlife experts say were “consistent with a young male panther” were found near the Myakka. No one has actually sighted the elusive cat, which some speculate may be the offspring of free panthers or a captive-bred escapee. (Since this was written, the presence of panthers in the Myakka area has been confirmed.)

Myakka River State Park, one of Florida’s largest and oldest parks, is home for much of this wildlife. Only minutes east of Sarasota and I-75 on SR-72, the 28,750-acre park provides perhaps the easiest access to the wild Myakka and the most complete recreational opportunities of any Florida state park.

The park is a busy place. Every day, fishermen line the banks. Visitors ride aboard the Gator Gal, a noisy airboat that tours the lake within the park. Canoeists paddle silently down the river while bicyclists cruise along shady roads. Miles of trails attract winter hikers. Horseback riders saddle up for tours. Up in the treetops, the intrepid explore the park from a new canopy walkway of swaying rope and wood planks. At night, campers, whether in the park’s cozy log cabins or in sleeping bags under the stars, hear the rustle of foraging wild things. In the morning, flocks of birds greet the rising sun with a cacophony of calls before taking flight.

Adjoining and managed by the park is Myakka Prairie, a Southwest Florida Water Management District land. Taking a walk there is to be alone in a different kind of wilderness. The landscape, which is largely devoid of large trees- and humans -and dominated by low vegetation, recalls the vast prairies of the American West. Once the predominant ecosystem around the Myakka, the prairie is now being restored. In addition to the prairie and the river, the park includes flat lands dotted with pines, higher areas where hardwoods thrive, marsh and swamp. As the river approaches U.S. 41 and the Gulf of Mexico, twisted mangroves begin to line its shores.

High on the life list of many paddlers is a journey from the park to Snook Haven, a campground and restaurant about 15.5 miles from the S.R. 72 bridge. With sufficient water, this trip is fairly easy and can be completed in a day. In drought, it could be more strenuous, as paddlers struggle to evade fallen logs and push through vegetation jams. The trip provides close encounters with Myakka’s turtles, wading birds, perhaps a deer or two, and lots of alligators. Surprisingly, some banks along this journey rise 15 to 20 feet tall.

Two Sarasota companies offer Myakka paddling tours and outfit journeys: Kayak Treks (941-365-3892) and Economy Tackle/Dolphin Dive (941-922-9671). Osprey Kayak Tours (941-966-7308) offers guided Myakka tours. Visitors to rustic Snook Haven can rent canoes and boats, including easy-to-steer and very stable pontoon boats (941-485-7221). Surrounded by primeval-looking waters and oak trees dripping Spanish moss, Snook Haven was selected as the site of a Tarzan movie, Revenge of the Killer Turtles, made there in the 1940s. One visit often leads to a Snook Haven addiction. Laid-back fishermen tell tall tales over a cold one. Banjo players pick their favorite tunes. Dulcimer players sometimes converge to pluck notes rarely heard in this day and age. Snook Haven’s ever-present cats add more local color, as they accept little shreds of snook from diners who display proper humility. Snook Haven is usually a few feet above the Myakka. With high waters-as resulted from Tropical Storm Gabrielle’s downpours last fall-the river can run through Snook Haven rather than by it.

Below Snook Haven lies Warm Mineral Springs, listed on the National Register of Historic Sites and claimed by many residents as Ponce de Leon’s elusive Fountain of Youth. Warm Mineral Springs and nearby Little Salt Springs are the only warm springs in Florida, and both contribute to the Myakka. An average nine million gallons daily pours from Warm Mineral Springs into the Myakka River just before Port Charlotte. That’s not a big spring compared to an average of 64 million gallons a day from one of Florida’s 27 first-magnitude springs. But it’s still a lot of water by any measure.

Warm Mineral Springs, which is thought by many to have healing properties, is contained within a private resort and health spa. The water’s constant 87-degree temperature draws visitors from around the world, and families descending from their cars and vans to spend a few hours in these healing waters are as likely to speak French, German or Spanish as English. A tour guide boasts that “the mineral content of this water is five times higher than any other spring in the world.” Enthusiasts claim bathing in Warm Mineral Springs helps with arthritis and rheumatism. Cancer patients believe it relieves the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation. If so, Myakka is good at life in yet another way.

Can you drink the water? Yes, but do you really want to? Bottled water from the spring is sold at Warm Mineral Springs. However, it is said to be a powerful laxative, and two ounces are proclaimed as more than a healthy portion.

Little Salt Spring, Florida’s other warm spring in Florida, is located two miles northeast of Warm Mineral Springs. Little Salt Spring flows into the Myakkahatchee, then into the Myakka. Its waters are a proverbial drop in the bucket.

Ancient ancestors of Native Americans lived around this other warm spring more than 10,000 years ago, and Little Salt Spring, which is an archeological research site, has preserved rich evidence of their presence. Long before the days of ancient Greece and Rome, Paleo-Indian hunters at Little Salt Springs lanced a giant land tortoise with a spear. The wounded tortoise crawled off into the spring only to have its carapace retrieved 100 centuries later by underwater archeologists, its shell still impaled. Remains of more than 200 ancient Americans, and more than 9,000 human bones, have also been brought out of Salt Spring by divers.

At last, the river emerges into Charlotte Harbor, a complex and rich estuary. The harbor lies between Port Charlotte to the north and Punta Gorda to the south, and the Myakka enters to the west of Port Charlotte. At this point, it looks like part of the ocean. What started as a trickle is now anywhere from half a mile to a mile wide, expanded by the enormous pull of the tides. But even as it disappears, the Myakka continues to be a source of life, as it joins its sister river, the Peace, in supplying the fresh water necessary to maintain the rich variety of plants and animals that thrive in a successful estuary.

The Myakka is not as long as Florida’s other great rivers, the Suwannee or the St. Johns rivers. Nor does it have the thunderous rapids of the state’s Aucilla or Northern Withlacoochee rivers, or the sheer flow of the most powerful Florida river, the Apalachicola. No one has yet designated it “wild and scenic” or even an official state canoe trail.

But it is marvelous, nonetheless. The Myakka is one living system, a long one, supporting a rich array of life and providing stunning visions of an earlier and untouched Florida right at the doorstep of rapidly growing Southwest Florida. And thanks to the vast acres of public lands along its banks, even today the Myakka River remains mysterious and gloriously wild.

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