FL - Myakka River - 2003/01/29 - 9 miles

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Myakka River State Park is a large and diverse natural area with brooding and dark palmetto palm swamps, pine land prairie, tree canopy walkways and bright lakes rampant with birds and alligators. Many, many alligators.

I have been to Myakka several times before, but never with a kayak. I have camped here and hiked the trails and watched the birds and alligators from the banks of Upper Myakka Lake. I have walked high up in the tree canopy on the suspended walkway. I have peered into the dark recesses of the swamp palmettos. But this year I would get out on the lake itself.

The campground at Myakka is only a few feet above the lake and river level. It frequently floods and campers are advised to check before coming as to whether the campsites are available or are closed by flooding. In the past several weeks, many southern Florida rivers were heavily flooded. However, Myakka had receded just a few weeks before and there was no problem with the campsite reservations I had made some 2 months earlier. This is a very popular campground and reservations will be necessary in the busy winter months.

I arrived at camp in the late afternoon after a pick up at Arcadia after a two day trip on the Peace River. The rest of the daylight was spent in cleaning up both myself and my gear. The next morning however, I walked up the main campground highway to the aerial walkway. There, back in the subtropical hardwood forest are two towers with a suspension bridge between them.

Climbing the tower brings you up into the canopy where the epiphytes, insects and lizards of the upper branches are intimately observable as you walk along the swaying suspended bridge. The second tower extends above the canopy for a view of the surrounding region clear of the trees. The lake and the river are visible in between the trees and palms lying below.

After breakfast, I moved my car to the large parking lot past the concession area where the launching ramp was located. A small sandy beach to the side of the concrete ramp provided a good place to put in. I was the only car at the lot.

Five years ago I had been here and observed vultures removing the rubber gaskets around the edge of the windshield and stripping off the rubber portions of the windshield wiper blades. I observed carefully for 15 minutes to see if there were still a danger of having my car vandalized by these large scavengers. Although there were several hundred of them roosting in the tall trees at the edge of the lot, they showed no interest in any cars left on the lot. However, in case they were waiting until lunch, I got my father to drive the car back to the campground instead of leaving it in the lot.

The day was warm with 68 F temperature predicted high after a 38 degree low over night. The morning was sunny with high clouds and a gentle Northwest wind of 8 to 10 knots. I filled my water container from a hose at the dock where the tour boats depart. The hose left a rubbery taste to the water, so fill your containers at the campground if possible. I saw no accommodation to fill up at the concession store. There is an improved rest-room at the far end of the concession area away from the lake where it might be possible to fill a container.

There are two large tourist air barges, incorrectly called air boats, as they bear little resemblance to true air boats. These heavy covered barges are powered by a noisy engine with a propeller and air rudders on the back. That is the only resemblance these boats had to the light fast boats that one would normally call an airboat. Holding 50 or more people these boats go out on a tour of the lake several times a day. At 5 to 6 knots they circle the lower half of Upper Myakka Lake and take patrons out to see the local birds and alligators.

I launched into the little canal and headed out clockwise around the lake. At the outflow area of the lake is a small concrete weir dam that increases the depth of the lake by 2 to 3 feet. That small vertical change no doubt increases the area of the lake by a very large amount as the water along the shore is very shallow for a very long way out from shore. This dam forms a complete barrier across the outflow so if you are planning on paddling down the Myakka river from the lake, you will have to portage it and there is no dedicated area in which to do this. Watch out for alligators.

I continued around the lake and saw several small alligators sunning on the grassy banks. Some moved off the bank and headed for the open water. The water was so shallow that they movements were easily tracked by the wave created as they moved across the bottom. They were quite a few alligators and I decided to keep a count of how many I might see this day.

In the next bay, I came upon a large group of 'gators sunning on a sandy bank. I counted 18 of them. Some of them were very large. I was about 75 yards off the bank when they started to move around. I changed direction so that I would be further away from them as passed by the bank, maybe 150 yards or more. However, the biggest of the 'gators kept coming off of the banks. Even more disconcerting, they were not swimming away from me but they were vectoring in on an interception course. As I sped up and angled out to avoid them, they adjusted their speed and angle to meet me. When they were about 50 feet away, they submerged and I could no longer see them. The water here was deeper and i could not tell where they were. As I paddled harder away from the shore, the rear of my boat suddenly move about a foot to the left, without being lifted or tilted. At first I thought one of the big alligators had hit my boat, and I dug into the water to get away. But I soon realized that I had not really felt a bump of lifting of any kind and I concluded that I had just hit a shallow region where the high speed that I was making at the time had created a ground effect way that threw off the stern for a brief moment. But then again maybe not. So for the rest of the tour a kept well off the shore where I could see the alligators on the bank but they did not stir from the places. I did see several more in the water as I paddled farther along the shore. Some were fishing and one got quite acrobatic with its tail, splashing water high into the air as it pursued a fish. Later that day as I reflected on the alligator incident I concluded that these alligators were use to having the tour boats come around every couple of hours and even though the passengers are told not to feed the alligators, it sure seemed as if they had no fear of human activity and were in fact coming out to see if there was any food to be had. I suspect that they are fed, perhaps , by the passengers on the tour boats. In any case, there are some very large aggressive alligators in the west end of the lake that it may be better to avoid. There are plenty of other small alligators on the north bank of the lake that do not behave in this manner, more like the average wild alligator.

I followed the north bank until I came to the inlet of Myakka River into the lake. It looked like a challenging and interesting paddle up the river, but I bypassed it for the time being. I continued on to the small channel just past the inlet. There I paddled around looking at the various types of reeds, grasses and vegetation and observing the birds - herons, egrets and cranes. One of the most prominent plants were these 10-12 foot tall green buggy whip shaped reeds. These are probably soft stem or Southern bulrush.

The other common type of vegetation covered the bottom in the 1 foot or less deep water. This was the same type of veggies I had seen in the St. John's River earlier. I think this is mostly fanwort, but here is Florida's Submerged Aquatic Vegetation identification page so you can check for yourself.

Another view.

I floated around the upper lake with my paddle parked, just letting the breeze push me about as I soaked up the sun, munched on some granola and drank some water. If there had been room, I would have taken a nap. It really was a very pleasant day, particularly after the cold days of the past weeks. After 30 minutes of drifting, literally and figuratively, I took up my paddle once more and headed up the river.

From the north end of the lake, the Myakka river meanders northward in a 10 to 20 foot wide stream separating small ponds. The banks are lined with seeded grasses which at this time of year were a golden brown and topped by seeds. The banks were stabilized by small willowy shrubs and occasional cypress with green banks of two foot tall knotweed, Polygonum densiflorum.

A three knot current came flowing down the stream making the paddle up stream slow and active, not only to make progress but to stay in the center of the waterway and keep from being driven into one bank or another, particularly at the sharp turns.
The trees were draped with Spanish moss which swayed in the soft breeze. The warm sun had brought the temperatures up to near 70 degrees and the high cloud of the mid morning had been joined by puffy little cottonballs floating well beneath them. The maples were just beginning to leaf, adding a sprinkle of red to the otherwise gray and barren limbs.

At every turn, a white egret would take wing and head upstream to settle beyond the next curve, only to do it all over again as I approached once more. A few small alligators slid from the banks into the water well before I neared them. I saw perhaps as many as 8 different green herons. It is difficult to estimate whether it is the same heron that has just moved on, but I tried not to count the same one over and over again. Those that circled around and headed back down river made up most of my count.

I paddled along the alternating ponds, where many turtles slid or plopped into the water from logs along the shore. Sometimes I did not see them, only the expanding concentric circles of wave after the light splash of their entry. I saw a few shadows as fish raced by the side of my kayak, squeezed between the bank and my boat.

Of course there were many ibis on the river as well. Most were stalking along the edges of the river in the knotweed and grasses on the bank. This pair however, sat quietly in the tree as I paddled underneath and took this shot without a telephoto. They seemed to be waiting for something.

Finally I had gone as far upriver as my time would allow as I had arranged a time to be back at the launch ramp and I had dallied overly long as it was. I turned the kayak around and headed back downstream. I turned around briefly in order to take the picture on the left. It took several attempts to guide the kayak end for end as there was very little width in the river and either one end or the other kept getting hung up in the reeds.

Having taken my picture, I once again turned downstream. Now with the current under me and being a little behind schedule I was shooting through the turns and enjoying the ride. This was a mistake. As I turned a blind curve around a screen of rushes and into a narrow and swift section of the river, I startled a large alligator hauled out on the bank. When I appeared there was only 30 or 40 feet between me and him. When I first saw him he was up and rushing down the bank towards me. My boat was less than 3 feet from the bank even though it was in the middle of the stream. I reflexively held the blade of my paddle towards the charging 12 footer, with the thought racing in my mind that this wasn't going to be of much use. The 'gator was really fast and reached the bank before I had time to really get scared. Once he reached the water, without so much as a ripple, he slid just in back of my cockpit, turned up river and with a powerful whip of his tail was gone. He was so close I could have touched him with my hand had I any inclination to do so, which I most definitely did not. As I reflected on this encounter as I continued downstream, I decided that a slower and noisier descent of the river was in order. I did not startle any more alligators, although I did see another alligator, although not as big. Perhaps I was not in as much danger as it seemed at the time since the alligator kept its mouth shut (an open mouth is a sign of aggression) as he came off the bank, but it could have been bad had the 'gator any different idea than pure escape.

I paddled across the lake during which I saw several more alligators along the edges of the lake. In total, I saw 62 of them on this 9 mile, 4 hour paddle. If you want to see alligators, this is the place.

From MyFlorida.com

"Myakka River State Park is one of Florida's largest and most diverse natural areas. The "Florida Wild and Scenic" Myakka River flows through 45 square miles of wetlands, prairies, hammocks and pinelands. The river and its two shallow lakes attract a myriad of wetland creatures making birding, canoeing, fishing and wildlife observation popular activities.

A 7-mile scenic drive winds through shady oak-palm hammocks and along the shore of the Upper Myakka Lake. Over 39 miles of hiking trails and many miles of dirt roads provide access to the remote interior.

Large expanses of rare Florida dry prairie thrive here thanks to intense restoration efforts. This globally-imperiled community suffered many decades of fire exclusion before people realized how dependent these grasslands were on frequent fire. The park also manages and is restoring the "Myakka Prairie," an 8,249-acre property adjacent to the park, owned by SW Florida Water Management District.

You'll find many opportunities to discover the uniquity of Myakka. Brochures and information about park programs and tours are available at the Ranger Station. Stop by the Visitor Center for videos and exhibits of wildlife and their habitats, then discover how plants and animals adapt to survive flood, drought and shade at the nature trail. You can even explore the treetops on Myakka's canopy walkway, and climb the 70-foot tower for an awesome view of wetlands, forest, and prairie.

There is a large variety of wildlife that can be seen in the park including alligators, turtles, and an amazing number of different types of birds. The park also features a "Birdwalk". A boardwalk out on the Upper Lake to enhance wildlife viewing opportunities.

Fourteen miles of the Myakka Wild and Scenic River flow through the park. Bring your own canoe or kayak, or rent from Myakka River Outpost. A boat ramp on the Upper Myakka Lake provides access to the river and both lakes. Additional canoe launch locations are at picnic areas along the main drive. During periods of low water (winter and spring) it is necessary to portage around the weir at the south end of the Upper Myakka Lake. It may also be necessary to portage along shallow portions of the river or when blockages of water hyacinths occur."

USGS Water Gauge Myakka City

USGS Water Gauge Myakka River at Sarasota

University of Florida Pictures of Myakka




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