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Beauty and the Beach

By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 21, 2002

CALADESI ISLAND -- The ferry was supposed to leave at 10 a.m. sharp. I pulled into the parking lot at 10:02, sure that I had missed it but relieved to see the boat full of people still sitting at the dock.

CALADESI ISLAND -- The ferry was supposed to leave at 10 a.m. sharp. I pulled into the parking lot at 10:02, sure that I had missed it but relieved to see the boat full of people still sitting at the dock.

"They told us you were coming," the woman at the ticket booth said. "Now don't trip running down the dock."

I was waiting for angry glares from my fellow passengers but instead was met with smiles and friendly "hellos." They were tourists just happy to be visiting one of America's "Top Beaches."

Every year, Dr. Stephen Leatherman, a.k.a. Dr. Beach, rates the nation's beaches. Caladesi Island ranked No. 5 in 2002 and consistently makes the top 10.

But I had been to this barrier island dozens of times over the years and considered my mission to write a story on this undeveloped beach more of a chore than a treat.

My fellow passengers, however, were enthralled with Capt. Joe Graffley's tales of homesteaders and hurricanes.

"The storm of 1921 cut what used to be called Hog Island in two," Graffley explained. "Some folks living on the north end of the island tied their kids to a tree to keep them from getting blown away. That part of the island is now Hurricane Pass."

Graffley, who makes the 20-minute trip from Honeymoon to Caladesi a half dozen times a day, was particularly intrigued by the life of Myrtle Scharrer Betz, who lived here with her family in the early 1900s.

"She went to school in Dunedin, so every morning and every afternoon she would row her little row boat back and forth," he said.

He sounded like my father talking about walking 20 miles through the snow to catch a bus to school, I thought. But as we pulled into the fancy, new 99-slip marina and looked at the dozen or so powerboats docked on a Wednesday morning, I thought of little Myrtle. He did say row, didn't he?

I thought about turning right and heading straight out to the water -- after all, this was supposed to be a story about a great beach -- but I went left instead, and followed signs to the nature trail.

To get there you pass ruins of an old house and a sign that warns about rattlesnakes. I had seen my share of diamondbacks on Honeymoon while fishing for snook in that cool, gray time just before dawn.

About 50 feet down the trail I heard a faint rustling in the bushes. I stopped, crouched down and waited silently for a minute. Then I saw it -- a 4-foot long Eastern diamondback rattlesnake slithering across the sand. I could see just enough of the snake through the palmetto leaves to make the hair on my arms stand on end.

"Cool," I said out loud, even though there was no one else around. You see, I love snakes. Sharks and alligators too. To me, that's what makes Florida special. So I called a buddy on my cell phone.

"I just saw a rattlesnake," I told him.

"Really," he said.

"Really," I replied.

This trip was getting more interesting by the minute. I turned off my cell phone, stowed it in my backpack and decided to pretend I was the "Crocodile Hunter."

I continued through the beach scrub, alone, but narrating every step in a thick Australian accent. The landscape -- cabbage palm, saw palmetto and wax myrtle -- was sparse due to the periodic flooding of tropical storms.

Barrier islands such as this one, left in a natural state, are in a constant state of change. Caladesi Island State Park is currently composed of six islands, 650 acres of uplands and more than 1,800 acres of mangrove and seagrass.

Caladesi's very topography is an example of change. Starting at the beach, the intrepid explorer can travel through three distinct types of habitat, made possible by an 11-foot increase in elevation, which is rare for barrier islands.

From the beach you go to scrub, home to the rattlesnakes, armadillo and gopher tortoise. The snakes and tortoises sometimes share the same burrow, which the tortoises dig deep in the sand to escape the stifling heat of the midday sun.

Prickly pear cactus also thrive in the scrub, a habitat that resembles more of a desert than a tropical paradise. But to Myrtle Scharrer Betz, this was a paradise. She lived here with her homesteader father, Henry, from 1895 to 1934. Her autobiography, Yesteryear I Lived In Paradise, is available in most local public libraries.

But the scrub soon gives way to pine flatwoods as the elevation increases a few feet in height. In the transition zone, you can still see some dead trees where the saltwater advanced when the island last flooded in 1968.

Mixed in the pine, however, I spotted some poison ivy.

"Crikey," I said. "The dreaded Sumach."

I hate poison ivy, but it loves me. All I have to do is breathe near it and I'll be itching for days. So I scurried past the plants, hopped a mosquito control ditch and climbed the last few feet into the maritime hammock.

While South Florida Slash Pine dominate, there are some live oaks on the high ground. It was here that old Henry Scharrer probably built his 156-acre homestead.

In her book, Myrtle Scharrer Betz wrote about living alone in this wilderness. As a child, she explored the beaches of Caladesi and Clearwater Island, which was then called Shell Island. On one adventure she found some ballast bricks, a rusted piece of chain and the remnants of an unglazed jar, which the Smithsonian Institute later identified as dating to the 15th century.

The old-timers thrilled the girls with tales of Spanish conquistadores. They said two of the armor-clad warriors were killed on Shell Island and buried in the dunes. The only historical evidence of pre-Scharrer settlement on Caladesi is an old Indian burial mound hidden in the mangroves on the west side of the island. In 1903, archeologists excavated the site and found 33 skeletons, probably of Tocobago, the dominant tribe in the region.

The island trail winds on around through the hammock then heads back toward the beach. A small pond is the favorite haunt of local water birds -- egrets, heron and the occasional ibis. If you're lucky, you might even see a roseate spoonbill.

Then it is over the dunes and onto the beach.

"Another day in paradise," said a man sitting on a bench where the trail meets the beach. I don't answer at first because he had startled me -- he's the first human I have seen in more than an hour.

"Right, mate," I said, forgetting that I'm still talking Australian.

I turned and headed south, away from civilization, and stopped at a bench near the dunes. Using my backpack as a pillow, I lay down. Soon, I was asleep.

A half-hour later I woke up to seagulls squawking all around me.

"Go away," I yelled. "I don't have any food."

Then I started back toward the marina. I could see the umbrellas of the tourists about a mile up the beach. I passed the bench where the man had been sitting, but he was gone.

Was he just a dream, I asked myself?

It didn't matter. He was right. Caladesi Island was close enough to paradise for me.

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