Perks to help people, pets to commune with nature
By MAUREEN BYRNE AHERN
Visitors can watch ospreys perch on tall trees or black racers slither under saw palmettos from the boardwalk that winds through a mangrove swamp, a coastal oak hammock and pine flatwoods.
The Pinellas County park at 12410 Old Oakhurst Road is home to a variety of wildlife, including gopher tortoises, otters, wild turkeys, great blue herons and eagles.
"It's just so beautiful out here," park employee Skip Tumber said Monday while standing on a platform on the boardwalk that overlooks a tidal pool.
The wooden path extends from a three-story observation tower that offers a panoramic view of Boca Ciega Bay and the wetlands surrounding the park.
A white butterfly dances in the mangroves. A bird's softened chirp floats in the air. A fish splashes in the murky water.
The serenity is interrupted periodically by the drone of a drill as workers attach railing to the boardwalk. The boardwalk, which cost about $612,000 and stretches nearly three-quarters of a mile, is scheduled to open in about two weeks, said park supervisor Judy Jarosz.
People aren't the only ones with a new perk at the park.
Dogs will be able to mingle with other canines in Paw Playground, a 11/2-acre fenced-in area with a cooling station, water bowls and benches for owners. The dog park will be divided into two sections: one side for large breeds and another area for small dogs.
"It's a good social area for dogs and their owners," said Jarosz, adding that 30 percent of the people who visit the 184-acre park bring their dogs.
One of those visitors is Vi Perkins, whose 100-pound Labrador retrievers Sage and Saber used to run in the park before the county developed the land two years ago. For years, dogs from the nearby neighborhood would play in the mud flats offshore. Today, dogs are allowed in the park, but they must be on a leash.
"I'm thrilled," Perkins said of the soon-to-be dog park. "I would just love for (my dogs) to get some saltwater on their skin."
Keeping dogs from the bay protects the area's wildlife, Jarosz said. Playful dogs can flush waterfowl from their nests, she said.
The county also is building a dog playground at Fort DeSoto Park at the southern tip of Pinellas and has plans to develop one at Walsingham Park in Seminole. Dogs already can run in a designated area in Anderson Park in Tarpon Springs.
St. Petersburg offers a handful of dog parks. Largo is opening one on Saturday, and if Clearwater commissioners approve, a park for canines will open in Clearwater in the fall.
Dogs won't be allowed on the boardwalk at Boca Ciega Millennium Park. People, though, will be able to walk a loop west of the observation tower. To the east, the path stretches to the platform, where people can sit on benches and watch wildlife at the tidal pool.
"Animals drink and bathe there, and when the tide comes in, you'll see mullet," Jarosz said.
One of 15 county parks, Boca Ciega Millennium Park has a canoe and kayak launch, children's playground, nature trail, seven picnic shelters and a bicycle and pedestrian path. Sunday will mark the park's one-year anniversary.
"We are probably the best-kept secret in Pinellas County right now," Jarosz said.
A sensor at the park's main entrance registered 20,000 vehicles last month. But many of its visitors walk in from the neighborhood, Jarosz said.
Getting to the park on foot is easier than by car these days. A widening project on Old Oakhurst Road often blocks the park's entrance. Visitors can drive to the park by using the service entrance on 125th Street, Jarosz said.
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