It’s dark. I rub my arms against the cold as a red light appears 30 feet ahead. I hold up a compass and call toward the light, “A few steps to the left.” I check the compass again, and the light lines up exactly: 127 degrees. I start gingerly stepping through the chest-high undergrowth, my own red headlight barely illuminating the palm bushes—much less the invisible roots and branches underneath. As I pause for a breath before taking my next tentative step, I glance up at the moon and wonder: “How in the world did I end up here?”
The idea was simple. Everybody knows how beautiful Sarasota’s beaches are, but what about the rest of the place? What will you discover if you look inland? In our December issue I wrote about staying in one of Myakka River State Park’s cabins, but I wanted more. No electricity, no cars, no comfortable beds, no running water.
So we invited Dirty Boots Adventures to show me what an outdoor adventure looks like in Sarasota. Dirty Boots, formed as an offshoot of local outfitting store Environeers, offers outdoor survival classes and adventure trips around the world—Joshua Tree, Calif., Bolivia and Iceland are upcoming destinations. Dirty Boots founder Sheila Siegel embraced the idea.
“It’s amazing to have such a large state park in close proximity to an urban area,” she says. “There are 39 miles of backcountry hiking trails and six backcountry camping sites. You can drive just 20 minutes from your house and be back in Florida as it was once upon a time.”
She planned our trip: a 4½-mile hike into the Myakka backcountry and an overnight campout, with miniature versions of Dirty Boots’ classes scattered throughout the trip. Sheila’s fellow guides were Everett Dennison, a local photographer and graphic designer, and Brian Luther, a lifelong outdoorsman with, among other things, the entire length of the Appalachian Trail under his belt. All three work at Environeers and help lead classes and trips for Dirty Boots Adventures.
I barely slept the night before the trip. The excitement of spending a day outdoors mingled with my fear of the unknown and a decent amount of insecurity; I thought about being out of shape and inexperienced. What if I couldn’t do it?
My education started right away. Early on a Sunday morning, we parked at Myakka River State Park and unloaded everything we would need for the trip. Sheila loaned me a backpack; my plan was to stuff everything into the bag and keep shoving it down until I could close the zipper. Brian did not approve. He explained that a strategy was necessary not only to make sure everything fit, but for weight distribution—a well-packed bag rests softly against your waist with the bulk of the weight against the middle of your back, saving your shoulders from the strain of a long hike. With a full bag that seemed miraculously light, I already felt like a professional.
Myakka River State Park spans 37,000 acres of wetlands, woods and prairies in east Sarasota and Manatee counties. For our trip, Sheila picked the Bee Island campsite, 4½ miles from our cars—far enough to give a taste of the backcountry experience, but hopefully not too much for a novice hiker. The uncharacteristically warm winter eased enough to offer temperatures in the 70s, and we set out under a bright sun in clear skies, quickly finding our pace.
I have a theory that people are friendlier when they are enjoying nature. I formed my theory when, driving across the country in the summer of 2009, a friend and I discovered that strangers are much likelier to stop for conversation in a national park than in a busy city. Now, less than half an hour after leaving our cars, these relative strangers and I were talking about our lives and backgrounds with a transparency reserved for longtime friends.
Montana might have the Big Sky reputation, but the deep blue arching over Myakka was as expansive as I have ever seen it. Our trail ranged from dense wooded areas, winding through narrow palm trees and ancient oaks, to wide, open fields covered in palm undergrowth. Sheila’s appreciation of our surroundings encouraged me to walk slowly and keep my eyes wide open. Myakka is home to 760 documented species of plants, and the Dirty Boots team was comfortable talking about everything we saw. Brian commented on the orange ribbons marking where our trail intersected with the Florida Trail, which spans 1,400 miles from Big Cypress National Preserve to Pensacola Beach. Sheila pointed out the destruction from wild boars and explained that those boars, imported by European settlers centuries ago, wreak havoc on the native environment. She also told me that armadillos are from South America and came to Florida with the circus—literally. In the 1930s, a crate of armadillos fell off a circus wagon traveling through central Florida, and they proliferated around the state.
After lunch under a canopy of palms and oaks, I learned how seriously the Dirty Boots team takes the “leave no trace” mantra. “I’ll eat that if you won’t,” said Brian, eyeing my apple core. Sheila explained that I didn’t have to eat it, that I could just pack the core out with my trash, but the implication was clear: Brian, whom I was beginning to consider the hiking equivalent of Gandalf (the wise leader and mentor in Lord of the Rings), had thrown down the gauntlet. Thirty seconds and a deep gulp of water later, I had finished my apple—core, seeds, stem and all. A minor accomplishment, but at that moment, as Sheila beamed and Brian nodded his approval, I felt like I could tackle anything.
On the next leg of our hike, the trail moved out of the trees and into a vast, savanna-like prairie. Everett and Sheila said this part of the park made them think of Africa, and I immediately saw the resemblance. Then we heard rustling in the undergrowth beside the trail—it was becoming a familiar sound, but this was the closest one yet. Through the bushes we caught glimpses of wild pigs. “If a boar charges you, don’t try to outrun it,” said Brian. (I’m sure he meant to sound reassuring.) “Your best bet is to climb a tree.” As I noticed that the few trees in our area were branchless palms, I remembered the bald guy from Lost who hunted and trapped boars, and I wondered how I would fare with a machete.
A few more minutes down the path, with the threat of boar impalement behind us, Sheila shared her long-term vision for Dirty Boots Adventures: a plot of land, maybe somewhere in Myakka City near the park, where guests could stay while learning about how to survive in and appreciate the outdoors. “I want more people, especially women, to know that they can do this,” she said.
I could tell that Brian and Everett were passionate about the idea. “We need to rescue people from their Facebook newsfeeds,” said Everett. It’s what makes them a perfect team: Sheila the visionary, Brian the experienced guide, Everett the philosopher photographer.
When we turned off the main trail and into the oak-encircled Bee Island campsite, I was both surprised and relieved that the hike was ending. The 4 ½ miles had passed more quickly than I expected—in my nervousness leading up to the trip, I thought about it as if I were facing a marathon. We rested our feet on the fireside logs for a few minutes, and then my companions jumped into action—emptying packs, organizing supplies and setting up tents. I helped Everett assemble our tent, but mostly I watched as three people completely in their element performed tasks that seemed like second nature to them.
Then it was time for class. As afternoon turned to dusk, I learned how to operate a nearby well (don’t drink from it unless you brought a purifier), how to build a proper campfire (the traditional pyramid structure works, but Brian’s smothering technique—laying the wood flat on the kindling—was more impressive) and how to navigate with a compass and map. Compass Skills is among the most popular Dirty Boots classes—there is something romantic about charting a course using only basic tools, a natural sense of direction and a little common sense.
Within 20 minutes, Brian had me pointing out the direction of specific degrees and determining the degree of nearby landmarks. Brian also made sure I understood the gravity of error; a difference of a few degrees seemed minimal for short distances, but it would drastically affect the direction of a long walk. He promised we would practice more after dinner.
Sheila explained that they wanted to show me a variety of meal options, so she started us off with basic deli meat sandwiches. They were followed by several dishes Brian had prepared and dehydrated. He can make an entire meal, dehydrate it (a dehydrator costs at least $200), and then store it as long as he wants—he had made that night’s chili almost a year earlier. The sealed bags, which also included a rice and chicken dish and pie for dessert, took up minimal space in the backpack, but were full meals after Brian added them to boiling water. Brian said the variety is important, especially for longer trips, since “by the third day, all people talk about is food.”
We lingered around the campfire, sharing jokes and telling stories, and waited for darkness to settle. Then Brian said it was time to continue the compass course. We grabbed our headlights, set them to red (which preserves night vision better than the standard white light, Everett explained), and walked a few minutes down the trail. After pointing to our location and intended destination on a map, Brian handed me a compass to determine the direction we should walk—through a field of chest-high undergrowth.
All day I had seen a boyish excitement in Brian, joking about the proper disposal of toilet paper or saying things like “Your hands are only dirty if you look at them” as he prepared our food. So his sudden seriousness was sobering. He and Sheila pointed out we were miles from help if one of us twisted an ankle or stumbled on some danger lurking in the dark. Just when I thought we were about to turn back and wait for morning, Brian said it was time to start.
The exercise worked like this: I pointed in the direction of our compass bearing, then Brian and Sheila started walking through the palms, painstakingly feeling out each step. After several minutes they turned and shone their red headlights back at us. I checked the compass and guided them until the light lined up perfectly with our bearing, and then Everett and I started wading through the brush. Next we handed off the compass, and Everett and I moved forward while Brian and Sheila checked the direction.
We continued for what felt like hours, the relay and compass exchange becoming a silent routine. I was sweating despite the cold, wary of stumbling upon an unsuspecting animal or falling over an unseen root, but it was thrilling, too. I imagined early settlers exploring the area in similar fashion—compass in hand, eyes on the distant tree silhouettes that marked our destination. When we finally reached the end of the field, we compared scratches and tears in our clothes, and I downplayed my giddy sense of accomplishment, eager to impress the seasoned professionals.
The next morning started with yoga—another new experience for me. Brian led the exercise, encouraging us to give our full attention to the rising sun and the wind moving across the field. Despite my soreness, the stretching and meditation were the perfect way to start the day.
“Hey, Beau, if you’re looking for facts for your article, you’ve eaten three spiders so far,” Everett said after yoga. Before I could ask him to clarify, Brian was serving breakfast.
We packed up the tents and loaded our bags, Brian showed me how to work his water purifier and gave a brief knot-tying class, and then we were back on the trail. “The hardest part is hiking back to your car,” said Brian, “because you start thinking about everything you have to do when you get back.”
We spent most of the hike talking about what makes camping—and the outdoors in general—so special. “Time is different,” said Brian. The minutes and hours don’t matter as much as “time to eat, time to rest, time to go to the bathroom.”
“It makes you a better person and changes how you live your daily life,” said Sheila.
Everett agreed. “The mental aspect is interesting,” he said. “You have to plan everything out, and your whole value system changes. Never have you valued a flashlight or missed a pillow so much.”
I was surprised to realize I knew exactly what Everett meant. For the last two days, my value system had been entirely different: I cared more about little things—a bottle of water, an apple, a breath of wind—than I did about prized possessions like my phone and my car. I thought about this, and about how I felt so close to people I had just met, and I dreaded the end of our adventure. I could see where the open prairie led to dense oaks and palms narrowly guarding the trail ahead, and I knew the park road would follow soon after. As if he recognized that feeling, Brian stopped us at the tree line and explained that the final leg of our hike would be solo. He would walk first, and we would follow one at a time, pacing ourselves so we could be alone to reflect and process the trip.
“Be with this moment,” said Brian, “because as soon as you get out, it’s gone.”
I appreciated the time to think about our adventure: the conversations, the challenges, the food, the coyotes howling the night before. Every time my mind drifted to meetings or deadlines I would start walking faster, as if subconsciously preparing to reenter the real world. But then I would stop, feel the breeze and admire the moss dangling from the oaks, and move forward one step at a time.
We rested at the trailhead, loaded the cars, and said our good-byes. Exchanging handshakes and hugs, I was struck by how our two-day-old friendships felt lifelong, and by the realization that a connection like that would be impossible anywhere else.
Driving toward the park exit, I passed people at scenic points standing beside their cars, cell phones in hand. I waved in passing and imagined the conversations I wanted to have: “Go. Go now. Leave your car, leave your phone, and start walking. You have no idea what you are missing.”
Myakka River State Park
Founded: 1941 (open to the public in 1942)
Size: 37,000 acres
Lodging: cabins, full-facility campsites or primitive backcountry sites
Activities: hiking, birding, picnicking, airboat rides on lake, canoeing, kayaking, biking, a “canopy walk” through the treetops, special campfire nights and more. (Activities can be as easy as watching wildlife from your car or the bridges over the river to backcountry hikes and camping.)
Entry fee: $6 per vehicle
Contact: (941) 361-6511; myakkariver.org
More Sarasota Adventures Three picks from the Dirty Boots team.
Lido Park Nature Trail: An 84-acre park with sandy trails, boardwalks, fish and bird viewing, and access to beaches. Park at the northeast section of South Lido’s public parking lot and follow sandy trails that lead to boardwalks winding through mangrove tunnels, with stunning views of Sarasota Bay. Perfect for families with young children or those who want to experience the outdoors without leaving town. For similar spots in Bradenton and Palmetto, check out Robinson Preserve and Emerson Point. sarasotafl.org/lido-key
Kayaking Inland Waterways: A hands-on way to experience the diversity of local ecosystems. Contact Greg Bowdish at Sarasota Paddle Adventures to plan a trip. Dirty Boots’ Sheila Siegel recommends the area just outside the Myakka River State Park, where water levels tend to be higher than inside the park. The river is a hotspot for a wide variety of birds and animals, so bring binoculars—and watch out for the gators. (941) 313-4928; sarasotapaddleadventures.com
Mountain biking: Mountain biking in Florida might sound like nonsense, but a nearby trail will challenge the most extreme cyclist. Head north to Alafia River State Park—the 17 miles of trails are located on old phosphate mines, which make for some of Florida’s most dramatic elevation changes. The trails vary in difficulty, so you can go for a leisurely spin or an epic ride complete with steep hills, sharp turns and unexpected obstacles. (813) 672-5320; floridastateparks.org/alafiariver
To contact Dirty Boots Adventures, call (941) 920-4549 or visit dirtybootsadventures.com.