MAXWELL:  A little wilderness close to home

11/3/1999 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Wilderness is always on my mind.

I am a Florida native, a dwindling breed, who remembers our peninsula when it was more pristine than developed, more sand dune than pavement, more earthy green and brown than kitschy pastels, more shoreline than seawall.

As a St. Petersburg resident, I escape the city as often as possible to recapture at least a handful of Old Florida. Jumping into my Blazer and leaving the area for the weekend is not always an option. During the last four years, I have learned how to enjoy a handful of Old Florida within a 30-mile radius of my home.

My secret? A yellow kayak.

When I need to stay in town, I haul my kayak to Fort De Soto Park and put in at Mullet Key Bayou along Anderson Boulevard near the fort. For visitors who have never been on the side of Anderson away from the beach, a world of beauty awaits them in the back country, as it were.

Last Sunday, I paddled from this site to the family picnic area and then to the southernmost islet near Sister Key, all the while witnessing the perpetual dance of seaweeds on both sides of the kayak as I skimmed across the flats. Hundreds of insects and spiders sinuated themselves through the brine.

Near the shore, I enjoyed a sense of being in the wilderness. A strong breeze hailed from the Gulf of Mexico, making the going challenging in open areas. I saw several pink flamingos, two with white necks, feeding in and around the finger-like roots of mangroves. Several varieties of hawks surveyed the shallows. Snowy egrets, spoonbills and ibises waded in the flats where seaweeds had collected on top of the water. Cormorants dried themselves on posts and tree limbs, and brown pelicans hovered nearby in hopes of getting a free lunch.

Everywhere, mullet leaped into the air, sometimes startling me. As I rounded the bend near the picnic area and entered deep water, several dolphins broke the surface of the blue expanse and disappeared just as quickly. Here, I stopped to rest, waiting to see if my companions would show themselves again. About 30 seconds later, the dolphins, like children in a giant pool, circled my kayak and suddenly went out of sight. I did not see them again until I entered Bunce’s Pass and approached the open waters of the islet where I took out.

Here, the shore is snowy white, and I took off my sneakers to enjoy the soft sand. Overhead, laughing gulls circled and glided in the wind drafts. To the east, I saw a dark shadow creeping across the sand. As I approached, the shadow moved faster, its shape changing with each second. On closer inspection, I realized that the shadow was an army of ghost crabs. When a laughing gull descended, every crab disappeared inside tiny holes in the sand. After I backed away and the gulls retreated into the distance, these clawed apparitions came out and cautiously marched toward the water’s edge. Each movement of my feet would make them stop.

Alone, I walked around the entire islet and went for a swim in the cold water, where I saw starfish, brittle stars, sea cucumbers and sea urchins. Back on land I discovered the petrified shell of a horseshoe crab at the base of a tree. Called a “living fossil,” the horseshoe crab is not a crab at all but one of the last of an ancient species closely akin to scorpions and spiders.

As the breeze swept the area, a stand of sea oats bent from left to right beneath a bank of pure-white clouds that seemed to touch the distant sea. I could not believe that I was only a few miles from downtown St. Petersburg, where many residents are oblivious to this paradise and wilderness.

On my return trip through Bunce’s Pass, I crossed to the other side of Mullet Key Bayou and skirted the shore of St. Christopher Key. Farther on, I approached an oyster bar where two raccoons feasted undisturbed. Again, I sensed that I was in a wild place that people had somehow missed and had not ruined with their luxury homes and effluents. In the distance, giant mangroves sheltered a small rookery.

Viewing the setting sun, I let the kayak drift for about 10 minutes before it hit a mud flat and made me realize that I had a long way to paddle back to land. As I paddled, I could not keep my eyes off the enormous orange ball falling into the Gulf of Mexico. A blue heron flew overhead, and gentle breakers licked at the sides of the kayak as my Blazer came into view.

My next kayak excursion will be a day on the Little Manatee River a few miles to the south. After that, I may try to paddle the Braden River, then the winding estuaries of the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge.