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The breeze rustling through the oaks was cool for a March night, so we threw on sweatshirts before we left the cabin. My son and his wife had rented one of the rustic lodgings at Myakka River State Park, and George and I had stopped for a glass of wine by their campfire before heading to the Moon Over Myakka concert in a nearby meadow. We had a few minutes before the music started, so we decided to drive out to the boardwalk that extends into Upper Myakka Lake.

When we got out of our car, it hit us: We were the only humans in this vast expanse of nature. Most visitors see the park by day, but only campers or special-event guests are allowed after twilight, and the sense of splendid isolation was stirring. We walked out on the boardwalk and looked over the lake, gleaming pink and gold and silver in the sunset and rimmed with tall green grass.

Everywhere we looked we saw birds—a pair of roseate spoonbills, tall egrets stalking for prey, a black night-crowned heron with a wispy white plume trailing from his head perched on the rail just a few feet away. The air was filled with music: the raspy high notes of what sounded like thousands of Florida chorus frogs in counterpoint with the deep bellows of another frog species. A few hundred yards away, a deer and her spotted fawn nosed through the grass.

That scene remains etched in our minds. To be utterly alone in such a primal place was a rare privilege and reminded us of what a treasure we have in Myakka River State Park. Less than half an hour away from our better-known Gulf beaches, its 37,000 acres of prairie, waterways, swamps and forests provide a wealth of outdoor experiences and a window into the Florida that generations before us knew.

For this annual visitors’ issue, we challenged ourselves to create the ultimate insider’s guide to the park. We called on rangers, volunteers and frequent visitors; dove into history books; and sent our editors and photographers out to Myakka. On a rainy fall day, when most of the park was under water from seasonal flooding, Cooper Levey-Baker, who helmed the story, braved alligators and floating fire ants to kayak through what he calls “the flooded forest.” He also reports on camping, both in the cabins and far out in the wilderness with only what he carried on his back. You’ll also read our Myakka bucket list—the 20 greatest things to see and do there—and meet a few fortunate families who live—and raise their kids—in the park.

Years ago, I invited a moody Parisian director whose film was showing at the Sarasota French Film Festival to ride the Gator Gal airboat with me at the park. He was mesmerized by the mysterious, magnificent setting—the swamps misty in the morning fog, the giant prehistoric reptiles basking along the lake, the ghostly Spanish moss weeping from trees in the dark and tangled forest. He gazed at me and in his romantic-sounding accent exclaimed, “I weel return someday to make a film here. I must!”

Alas, my smoldering director friend never came back. But I predict that once you visit, you will—over and over again.

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