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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
MYAKKA RIVER STATE PARK - Standing 80 feet above the subtropical forest floor, the swamps and hardwood hammocks don't look quite so hot and buggy. Still sweating from the short hike and climb, two kids in tow, the gentle breeze makes me forget it's the dead of summer. But that's the beauty of the Myakka Canopy Walkway. Even a short visit will leave you with an elevated perspective.
Another point of view
Ranger Catherine Collins grew up in Illinois, went to college in Iowa, then moved to Florida hoping to put her environmental policy degree to good use.
"This has been a dream job," Collins said. "I can't imagine ever moving back to the cold."
Over the years, Collins has seen most of the 58-square-mile state park. She has hiked the backpacking trails, paddled the river and even cycled the 7-mile scenic drive that follows the shoreline of Upper Myakka Lake.
But whenever she gets the chance, she climbs the 116 steps to the top of the observation platform for a little free entertainment.
"This is a great place to watch the storm cells form off in the distance," she said.
"There is nothing like it."
Not a tourist trap
When most folks visit the park, they head straight for the concession stand, where they book a ride on one of the world's two largest airboats, the Myakka Maiden or the Gator Gal, and take pictures of the anhingas (a water bird) and alligators.
"People drive right by the canopy walkway," Collins said. "Many people don't even know it is here."
The park gets it share of tourists, especially during the winter months.
The Myakka (a Seminole word whose meaning has been lost to history) River is one the best canoeing/kayaking rivers in southwest Florida.
Bird watchers, backpackers and day hikers come for the 39 miles of nature trails that wind through the pine forests and prairies.
For the car-bound, the scenic drive is even well worth the $5 admission price. There are few places in Florida where you can watch birds, alligators and other critters in their native habitat without leaving the comfort of air conditioning.
But if you do visit the park, be sure to pull over after the bridge, near the sign that says "Canopy Walkway."
Gazing down on the tops of the palms, pines and oak trees, the forest looks like a monstrous vegetable field. The Tree Foundation, the non-profit organization that helped construct the $100,000 canopy walkway, looks at it another way:
"Forests are like gigantic stands of lollipops. Since plant sugars are manufactured high overhead, organisms that depend on those sugars, such as insects and birds, are also far from the ground."
Little was known about the upper stories of the our local forests, also known as the "high frontier," until Dr. Margaret D. Lowman of Sarasota's Marie Selby Botanical Gardens suggested building the 85-foot-long walkway through the treetops.
A researcher who spent time in the tropical rainforests, Lowman envisioned the walkway as a way to teach youngsters about this fragile ecosystem.
Amateur botanists love the state park's canopy walkway because it offers a chance to view epiphytes or "air plants" at eye level.
Most Florida schoolchildren learn about Spanish moss at an early age. According to legend, this long, stringy epiphyte received its name because it resembled the beards favored by the conquistadores.
While epiphytes grow on other plants, they generally don't harm their host tree. In fact, they get all their food and water from the surrounding environment, i.e., dew, rainwater, rotting leaves, insect excrement.
"Those plants live in the air, instead of the ground," I told my 3-year-old daughter, hoping to cultivate an interest in natural science. "Isn't that interesting?"
She looked puzzled. "You mean those plants can fly ..." she asked, "like a birdie?"
Not exactly, I explained. While butterfly orchids and cardinal air plants are fascinating to a nature geek like myself, they are still a little too cerebral for my little princess.
Spiders and snakes
The canopy walkway is a great educational tool for adults and older kids, but if you want to keep a 3-year-old's attention, be prepared to show them something with teeth and/or fangs.
After entering the park, you don't have to drive far to see alligators. Pull over after the first bridge and scan the water.
"We get some pretty big gators here," Ranger Collins said. "Unfortunately, people feed the alligators, which causes them to lose their fear of humans."
Later, near the concession stand, we stopped by the weir that separates the lake from the river and spotted a pair of banded water snakes. Myakka is prime habitat for water moccasins as well.
But by far, my favorite Myakka critter is the not-so-elusive golden silk orb-weaver, also known as the banana spider. Hike any of Myakka's trails early in the morning and you are bound to get a face full of yellow spider's web.
My daughter, a devotee of Dora the Explorer, shared my enthusiasm for the 4-inch arachnid.
"Can we keep it, Dad?" she asked. "It would make a good pet."