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Treasured Island

The legends, the lore, the stories and the history of Weedon Island come alive in a St. Petersburg Museum of History exhibit. But don't stop there. See it for yourself.

By JON WILSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 12, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- The mangrove corridors muffle the world. They hide its testy mug. They let you take a deep breath. No wonder they are protected. Maybe they would rub your shoulders if you waited long enough.

Within Weedon Island's green wombs, it is often quiet and eerie enough to contemplate such witchery.

You cannot see it overhead, but a passenger jet may tear the chapel-like silence. It is the only sound to suggest civilization's pushy ways.

photo
[Times photo: Jonathan Newton]
Canadian visitors Patricia Messervey and her father, David, paddle their canoe through mangroves while Kim Stockwood takes in the view at Weedon Island State Preserve.
The canoe trails at the state preserve here offer a refuge.

And they provide a close-up way to feel some of Weedon Island's past, which the St. Petersburg Museum of History is celebrating with an exhibit starting Saturday.

The show focuses on Weedon Island's more recent history, dating from the Smithsonian's archaeological dig during the 1920s. It will reach through the 20th century, recalling the activities and eras virtually chiseled into St. Petersburg lore:

The movies that were made on the island. The nightclubs, the movie studios, the airport.

Many longtime residents know about these things, either through experience or from hearing the stories passed along. Newer residents are often surprised.

Sometimes the true stories suggest other tales, or whispers, or legends.

Of course, the man with the hook prowled Weedon Island. Parents told their teenagers so, imagining they could break youthful parking habits. Bootleggers sneaked their shallow-draft boats into the coves and inlets. Bloody murder occurred. Apes dangled grinning from twisted branches. Or so the legends say.

Weedon Island continues to fascinate, and the museum exhibit will touch on many of the reasons why.

"The end part of the story is going to be current, when it is made a place for people to come and enjoy nature and the preserve," said Rebecca Hagen, curator of collections.

Weedon Island State Preserve was opened to the public in 1980; the canoe trail around Bayou Grande, Papys Bayou and Tampa Bay, more recently.

The preserve doesn't rent canoes, but a business a few hundred yards from the main gate does.

The trail starts at the fishing pier at the end of the preserve's main drive. Signs spaced at fairly short intervals help guide paddlers. The signs seem easy enough to spy; reach one and you can usually see another a short distance away.

Oyster bars appear almost immediately. Dozens of short, brown birds poke around on them, and tiny mangrove plants sprout. They look as though they were planted, but grow naturally, said ranger Keith Thompson.

The trail winds through little passes and coves, familiar territory for anyone who has puttered around Tampa Bay in a small boat.

Then the trail pops into a hole in the mangroves and into something more exotic.

The corridor is a few feet across, and the canopy closes overhead. Below, branches and leaves are reflected in the water, and paddlers seem to be navigating through a tube of green and gold and brown.

Mangrove roots, close enough to be elbowed, look like a tangle of giant spiders. Black crabs creep over them.

Pre-Columbian Indians lived out here. Some say they ate the coon oysters sprouting on the roots. They are not to be tried now (nor are the bivalves on the oyster bars, because of health directives).

Sometimes the trail branches. But the main path, cut as a Boy Scout project in 1998, is cleared about twice a year by a kayak club. Stay on course by taking the path less tangled.

It is not impossible to get lost in the mangroves or elsewhere on the trail, though probably not likely. Nonetheless, Canadian visitor David Messervey entered his route on a global positioning system (GPS) while paddling early this week.

One could do the entire route in a few hours, or spend all day on it. Some people bring along fishing gear.

Annoying insects were not present this week. It is spring, still too early for bugs, but not for sting rays in the flats. Neighborhood Times followed one about the size of a manhole cover. Its wingtips fluttered as it glided languidly near the bottom. Then something startled it, perhaps a paddle's clack on a gunwale. It shot away.

Civilization had gotten too close.

If you go

The St. Petersburg Museum of History is at 335 Second Ave. NE on The Pier approach. It is open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., and Sunday 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, $2 for ages 7-17, free for 6 and under. Call 894-1052.

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