Nature & Community on a St. Petersburg Stream

Category: Salt Creek (page 1 of 2)

Kelly Green (Jaclyn Gatz)

Kelly Green (Jaclyn Gatz)Simply said life creates boundaries that are out of human control. Unfortunate events happen, and there is nothing we can do about it. I came to the conclusion after seeing a bumper sticker that “Life Happens”; it struck me on a personal level. More specifically I am a control freak. If something is not controllable then it’s just not a possibility in my life. As small, yucky and insignificant as Salt Creek is, it can teach a valuable life lesson on boundaries to anyone who explores its waters.

As an adult it becomes essential to set personal boundaries and limits in our lives besides the physical boundaries that happen. As Dave and I canoed down Salt Creek, I tried thinking about boundaries so I could eventually write this paper. My immediate thought was the bridges we paddled under and mangroves that slowed us down or maybe the gator that prevented me from continuing through the tunnel then it clicked, the boundary was not physical characteristics alone but something much larger. Something so complicated yet so simple that it would be hard to smash into a one page essay. The same thing complaining about the boundary between nature and society is the reason that there is a boundary.

A condom, a few foam cups, an arm full of beer bottles and cans, a football, and a load of take-out containers were just a few things that ended up in our garbage bag. It’s people! People are the biggest boundary between nature and themselves. There I said it. We as a society put up this thick boundary that forces nature to fight back instead of work with us. For the entire canoe paddle after I had this thought I felt like I hated people. All I could think of is how stupid we are. Nature is so beautiful and essential to our well being and we continue to throw trash into creeks and cut downtrees everywhere we have an obstructed view. Why is it so hard to let nature in?

Dave and I decided to go down a side trail away from class, just to see what we would find. Spider webs with the most fascinating spiders and the coolest creatures for their dinner, mangrove seeds floating in such a perfect way to create a jungle for the baby minnows swimming underneath. The sun sparkled through the leaves making the Kelly green my new favorite color and for the grand finale a parade of various beverage containers; each hosting its own eco system just in time to ruin my feel good moment.

Thinking about what boundaries are in place between us and nature the obviously is the physical, but the real moment of realization doesn’t come until you can develop some sort of respect for the reality that nature was here before us, and it’s going to be here when we are gone. We are being rude and creating a boundary so that people can’t enjoy nature to its full potential. It took shifting my attention from the kelly green leaves to the small minnows below to see the trail of disrespect that completely ruined my new favorite color for me.

Fish Tales (Dave Pacetti)

Salt-Creek-marina-district-campbell-2011-300x225I walk into the shady hideout, and the smell of sulfur, burning hydrocarbons, beer, and fish stain my nose. Combined, these odors equal a recipe for home. The poor craftsmanship of the bar just emphasizes that backyard feeling, while the view from the barstool frames it. Fish Tale’s is surrounded by boats in mooring, a marina to port, and adolescent like growth patch of mangroves forward. Year-round Christmas lights highlight the garage sale assortment of décor inside.

My beer sweats profusely and soaks the imported beer coaster (advertising a brand not sold here), and the carvings on the bar reminds me of my desk in middle school. The lacquer is thick yet worn to the point that it has preserved the partially warped and rotten wood. The company that surrounds my stool is that of blue collars and callused hands. A rough crowed with good hearts and bad teeth, the patrons are as genuine as the bar itself. These people have made this place unique and express the salty qualities I grew up around.

Every couple of minutes a mullet flies out of the black water with no style or grace, and slams back into it, cleaning the muck out of its gills. The bartender watches me as I wash down another beer, loosing my form and trying to keep my unbalanced barstool at ease, “ready for another one?” she says. Compared to other fish in these waters, mullet aren’t very desirable. The higher end of town prefers the tuna’s rich meaty texture or an exotic snappers tropical flavor. While everyone can go for a light and flaky grouper, mullet (much like Fish Tales) is an acquired taste.

Four legs with no cushion, my ass is happy sitting, staring out at the creek and its humble atmosphere. My elbows pressed against the bar, wet from the condensation of the pint, I order one more. As I lean back, the stool creaks with age, and the nails corroded by the salt air, look like they are about to snap. The stool is on its last leg, but it still has a few more rounds left.

Lake Pays No Mind (Brandi Murphy)

maggiore-lake-eli-bridge-seffrin-2011-300x225On a sunny day with low-lying clouds racing a regatta in the sky, our team shoved our cumbersome canoes into the water of Lake Maggiore. An urban lake in south St. Petersburg, Lake Maggioreis a living ecosystem in and of itself. After paddling out onto the muddy mass, the team began to expand across to water, in part because of the wind creating surface currents many which ways. Each pair of paddlers pointed out an action of nature that another may have missed. A few immediately took to the birds, listening for calls and winged kites playing in the breeze. My partner noted the rash, industrious sounds from a mulching site just on the other side ofDellHolmesPark, beyond the wild shore lined with pines and palms and tall grasses. It’s that sort of blind faith reaction that can lead one to, say, the sea; you can’t see it, but you can smell it and hear the waves crashing about it. The noises that so annoyed my partner and the smell of fire further up our watery path had less grace, for sure. Something else we noticed was the lack of recreation on a lake in the middle of so many people.

The history of the lake spans prior to the urbanization of the city. Though, it’s human interaction that has shaped the lake in its recent past. The lake seems to have gone to the birds and the invasive sea grasses and water lilies and the urban runoff and the muddy accumulation on its bottom. Human interaction has even interfered with the saltwater creek that connects to the lake, as the creek has been channelized and gaged, disturbing the natural flux. All the while, though,Lake Maggiore still perseveres. Our group still saw leaping pinfish and, from afar, an alligator. Not to mention the various birds who call the area home. The nature of Lake Maggiore refuses to accept the fast-paced, toxic environment outside its perimeter, and I think I doesn’t even pay it mind.

Pelicans (Karen Lucibello)

It was an awesome sight to behold. As I was driving home from lunch at Munch’s I stopped, as I often do, on the shore of Lake Maggiore. An unusually large flock of white pelicans were congregating near the dam that separates the lake from Salt Creek.creek-from-4-St.-Bridge-shwedo-2011-199x300

Their snowy feathers glistened in the noonday sun as they dipped their golden orange bills into the dark water selecting a meal from the bright school of swimmers below. The silvery fish were effortlessly transferred from beak to pouch with a quick flick of the head followed seconds later by a discernable gulp to swallow them down. Heads were thrown back completing the final stage of the orgy. All the revelry sent diamond drops dancing over the backs of the feasters. 

As each member of the flock was satisfied they lifted off from the surface of the lake with a slow pumping flap of their wings. They took off like 747s from the tarmac, first at low altitude and then executing a sharp angular rise to reach cruising altitude. Within a few moments they were all gone like a school yard after the bell. 

The lake was left dark and empty; I too left walking slowly back to my car.

Name Alone (Eric Vaughan)


The white Suzuki inches closer to the destination. I turn my head around in anticipation. I want to see if our guest in the back seat is as anxious as I was to be going down the valley. The name alone, Thrill Hill, sent all three of us into exaggerated enthusiasm.

I may have embellished the hill a little. I may have told our friend its St. Petersburg’s one and only natural roller coaster. Looking back I did not lie at all. Stephanie—a childhood friend—is in town visiting for a week and I wanted to show her around St. Petersburg. Call it my woman’s intuition but I got the hunch she was planning a move down here –Something I’m sure every visitor considers—and Thrill Hill was the perfect end to the that tour. As we circled around the downtown area dodging through the one way streets, lackadaisical pedestrians, and hipster bikers—sporting their bicycles that probably cost more than my car—all of which are doing a much better job at leaving a lighter carbon footprint then the three of us. The brakes squeak heavily as we make our turn onto Fourth Street. We both look at each other as if to acknowledge that our car is a piece of shit, we then look away from each other in shame, neither one of us wanting to own up to running our brakes in the trash.

“Did you feel that?”

“Feel what?” Stephanie questions. She had not even realized that that slight, jolt in the pit of her stomach was in fact Thrill Hill. “I don’t know, I think I felt something, let’s do it again!!!!”

“Second time is always the charm,” I reply with my smile getting even bigger. “Hang on this time.”

Best School Day Ever (Heather Henson)

maggiore-lake-eli-bridge-seffrin-2011-300x225Remember when you were young and school had “party” days, “rec” days, or all day field trips? Those were the best days of the school year. Party days had pizza, juice and usually some educational or Disney movie playing. Rec days were like having all day recess and sometimes the adults played too. The all-day field trip was everyone’s favorite. Once you got to school a bus took the class to its destination and you didn’t have to see the classroom until it was time to grab your belongings and go back home. At the college level, the “best school day ever” is a little more structured and refined but the point is that it still exists. For me, it happened on a Thursday on a lake in a park with about ten of my peers, a professor and his friend.

The sun was shining just as bright as it ever does when we pulled into the parking spot at the park. We all got out, stretching and looking for the rest of the class. While I didn’t see the class right away, I did notice the loud and stinking mulch plant across the parking lot. We all agreed the air smelled like rotting wood and went looking for our class. We all met up under a pavilion. I had been looking forward to this educational adventure for several days and while I should have been more engaged in the class discussion I could not help but look around and take in my surroundings. Even though the air smelled sort of putrid the breeze was nice and the temperature was perfect. There was much space to look across and I kept noticing the water in which we would be canoeing. Tall grass was dominating the scene. I would soon find out how much water was behind all that grass. Sitting under the pavilion, looking at the tall grass and water, smelling the air and feeling the breeze, I thought to myself, I am so happy we are not in the classroom today. I felt calm and excited at the same time.

Once we were all in our little, rocking and seemingly unstable canoes, and headed in the same direction, we started paddling. Now I had never canoed before and neither had my partner. We soon found out that paddling as hard and fast as you can, does not help one in getting anywhere any faster. We were out of breath and sweating under our life jackets while the rest of the class was canoeing ahead of us. However, I forgot all about racing to the front when I realized that we were canoeing through the tall grass I admired from the pavilion. Slicing through it like a knife the canoe split the grass and as we turned through what seemed like a maze in the water, the smell in the air became less putrid and sweeter. The sound of the mulching machine faded and our little canoe brought us out into a wide open area of what is called Lake Maggiore. Houses dotted the shoreline to the left. On the right I was looking at trees, and more tall grass. Lily pads. I had never seen so many lily pads.

Beyond that we came to a little bridge that we canoed under and into a quiet and calm area cut out along the lake that seemed to be a world apart from the mulching business going on not so many yards away. It is here that I saw a White Water Lily. Not just one, but several. I was smack in the middle of what seemed like a remote waterway in some other world where the land and water were enchanted and unknown. It was so serene. The soft breeze, the white flowers floating among the lily pads, the tall grass, and I was in a world all of my own. This moment was perfect. The setting was unimaginable for a moment.

Canoeing back was much more relaxed. I was trying to savor all of the scenery as we paddled and I felt slightly unsatisfied as I was not ready to go back to campus. Several Coonts ran across the water with their cartoonish feet and the grass waved back and forth in the breeze as if it were saying farewell for now. And although I never found out what the name of that beautiful grass was, it certainly turned out to be another best school day ever.

Urban Jungle (Arlene Pickard)

Bartlett-Park-Bridge-Hallock-2011-300x225Salt Creek, the wild underbelly of St. Petersburg, flows southwest. It mirrors Thoreau’s walking pattern and America’s patriotic vision of wilderness but this creek proves you don’t have to go west to journey through nature. Or danger. Lake Maggiore, once at the end of Salt Creek and known as Salt Lake before it was dammed, is Walden Pond beside I-275. It’s part of the Florida Bird Trail with great blue and tricolored heron, ibis, anhinga and egrets galore smack in the middle of the city. It’s where my ‘mind and nature meet,’ unmolested by the din of civilization. I come here for the quiet, like the moorhen. 

Not especially chic or beautiful, Salt Creek is an overlooked connector between our two bays, Tampa and Boca Ciega. Visions of beautification and industrial profit once ran along with the tide while the tangled edges pass by the fringe of our society and the poorest urban parts of southeast St. Petersburg. When industry left, the heron and children were still here. The kids call it their ‘hood and step carefully. I see their sweatshirts, those famous hoodies, pulled up tight over their heads and eyes. These kids are mostly, though not all, black, and like to stay hidden inside those hoods. Their eyes peek furtively at me from deep inside to see if I’ll cause trouble.

Wearing a sweatshirt in Florida can cause deadly trouble. On February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin was visiting his father in Sanford, Florida. He pulled up his hoodie to walk home from a convenience store in the rain. He was followed through the gated community, shot, and killed by George Zimmerman, a community watchdog. Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law makes it possible to shoot anyone you deem malevolent. Trayvon was unarmed. He was just seventeen, ‘walking while being black.’

What I’m struck by, as I kayak along the creek, are the night heron who sit quietly hidden inside the mangroves. Like the neighborhood boys they see me before I see them. The wading birds sit tight, adjusted to city life. Their heads are tucked in as they wait for nightfall to approach; at dusk they stir and come out of their hiding places. Their darker blue-grey bodies mimic the black clothes of the urban jungle; their bright kohl-rimmed eyes and brilliant yellow hoods mark them as exotic. The way they lurk and peer at me make them look dangerous. We tense when I come close, and again, I’m reminded of the boys who don’t want trouble.

The boundaries that surround Salt Creek are more economic, more mental and social than physical. Like its kids, Salt Creek is gritty and authentic, maybe the last authentic piece of St. Petersburg. Those boys in their sweatshirts can walk two blocks and reach a university but two blocks are thousands of dollars off their grid and not so easy to navigate. They’re hemmed in by more than gated communities and chain link fences because poverty is self-perpetuating, just like wealth. Few aspire to a college education or can afford one. Lots of these children look out on the world tensed for blowback. Exotic to some, they know their boundaries are different. They are neighbors of mine just like the night heron.

Baby Bass (Wendy Joan Biddlecombe)

The baby bass jumps into my boat. I squeal, not because I fear the fish, but because he hopped into the boat and upset a ridiculously tranquil moment. Like, silently floating through lillypads and lotus flowers while a bald eagle soars overhead kind of moment.

A minute or two earlier I rolled my eyes as the girls in the canoe next to ours shrieked and swatted a spider to death. Every wind-up and whackrocked the boat, and I was sure they’d end up in this shallow corner of Lake Maggoire, screaming even louder as they struggle to find their slimy footing.

But now, I’m a screamer, too.

I hear Grab on to my oar! and see one of my male colleagues coming to my much unneeded rescue. For a split second I ignore his command in a subconsciously feminist retaliation.

Grab on! he says, firmer this time, and I do as he says. He swiftly catches the fish using only the palm of his hand—sticking his thumb in the bass’ mouth and displaying for our group to see. Man dominates nature, and the class congratulates his valiant effort, remarking he doesn’t even need a pole or a net to catch a fish.

And as we paddle away and duck under an overpass filled with cobwebs, I mutter I wasn’t afraid of the fish. I didn’t mean to scream.

Cities (Jennifer Smith)

She weaves in and out of traffic as she drives through the heart of downtown St. Petersburg. Her pulse races after an old lady cut her off and then slammed on the breaks. She hasn’t even made it to work yet and already she can’t wait to go home and nurse a longneck. 

Anhinga, Lake Maggiore

Anhinga, Lake Maggiore (Patricia Seffrin)

As the building starts to fade in the distance she hears birds chirping in the trees, lizards running through the dry grass, and the sound of her footsteps as she walks along the shelled path. The breeze dances around her face while the tree limbs sway. She reaches her favorite spot and sits on a fallen tree snag that overlooks Lake Maggiore. Common moorhens utter their high pitch cry as they acknowledge her presence and a gopher tortoise walks nonchalantly by in search of some wiregrass. Ospreys circle overhead in hunting for an aquatic morsel. She is sitting in a lush nature preserve and yet the tall buildings of downtown St. Petersburg looms in the distance. Boyd Hill Nature Preserve makes her feel like she is in the wilderness and yet it sits in the heart of Pinellas County, the most densely populated county in Florida. Boyd Hill serves as an oasis for wildlife that thrives in the city.

Many animals have no problem adapting their lifestyle in the human urban environment. Somehow, people always have a hard time accepting them. No matter how hard people try to remove them from their buildings and yards, they always have a way of returning. Take bats for example. Many of the common species that thrive in the St. Petersburg area actually prefer man-made dwellings rather than homes created by Mother Nature. Many people don’t even realize that they have a colony of insect eating bats living in their barrel tile roofs or their attics.

Go to any outdoor restaurant in St. Petersburg and one will almost be guaranteed to compete with a flock of boat-tailed grackles over food. These birds have no problem sitting on the chair next to a human and squawk to their hearts content until the human foolishly decides to share a French fry, thus causing a chaotic swarm of fighting birds and the chance of bird doodle dropping onto the dinner plate. One may notice that there is no population problem amongst these avian critters.

Pinellas County is almost completely built out. Only 10% of the land is set aside for conservation. Yet, the nature tourism market is thriving. People flock from all over the United States (and other countries) to get a taste of white sandy beaches and to walk amongst Florida’s unique wildlife; including the oasis of Boyd Hill Nature Preserve. To these people, wilderness still exists. They still pay to enjoy a natural paradise and yet they still get to enjoy the luxuries of the city; hot showers, delicious dining, and souvenir shops.  

Great blue heron (Robin Shwedo)

Great blue heron (Robin Shwedo)

When a person visits Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, he or she is coming to experience the wilderness of St. Petersburg. One would never think that a city as urbanized as St. Petersburg would have 245 acres of lush flora and fauna. And yet it sits on the Great Florida Birding Trail and is a Mecca to bird enthusiasts and other nature lovers alike. Come in the spring and take a pick of herons, egrets, spoonbills, osprey, bald eagles, owls, alligators, coyotes, snakes, etc. People can enjoy the shade of a dewy oak hammock or experience the dryness of the endemic Florida sand scrub. When they leave they are engulfed once again by buildings and traffic. Hopefully they have left their problems behind so that they may have room for new ones.

Close Encounters (Christopher Campbell)

It is the year 2009.  I am at Boyd Hill preparing to interview Ginger, one of the volunteers.  She works at the front desk of the education center and greets people as they enter the park.  She is perfect for the job because she is friendly and loves to talk to people.  I decide to interview her while she works the front desk.  I ask her if she has any memorable stories to tell; her face lights up and she begins to tell a story about an alligator and some tourists.  It goes something like this. 


Alligator, MLK Bridge (Robin Shwedo)

Ginger appeared to assuage the tourists fear that the alligator was dead and hung up the phone.  A few minutes later, however, the tourists call Ginger again and exclaim that they feel positive the alligator is dead.  They tell Ginger that the alligator’s eyes are closed and it is not breathing, but Ginger once again tells them that the alligator is simply soaking up the sun’s energy and will remain motionless; once again the tourists appear to be mollified by Gingers persuasive explanation.  Ginger continued to go about her business when she receives a third phone call from the same tourists who whisper that they are about two feet from what they feel absolutely positive is a dead alligator!  Ginger yells STOP through the phone and tells the tourists to slowly step away from the alligator and don’t do anything until a ranger comes out to check on the alligator.  When the ranger drives up to the tourists, the alligator, which is very much alive, springs to life and slides into the water.  The tourists are astonished and later admit to Ginger that she was right.  They came to Boyd Hill looking for a mythical Florida alligator, but little did they know that would have a close encounter of the alligator kind.            One day, a group of tourists visit Boyd Hill, and they tell Ginger that they want to see a real alligator.  Ginger tells them that an alligator has been spotted near Wax Myrtle Pond.  The tourists thank Ginger and quickly make their way into the park.  About twenty minutes later, Ginger receives a call from the tourists who tell her that the alligator is dead.  Ginger, knowing that people often times mistake a dead alligator for a live alligator, assured the tourists that the alligator is alive and is sunning itself.  Alligators are exothermic, which means that their body temperature fluctuates depending on the temperature of the air.  If the ambient air temperature is cool, alligators may indeed look dead to the untrained eye because they remain motionless until it is warm enough to move. 

Alligators are common at Boyd Hill.  I saw an alligator on almost every visit to Boyd Hill when I was filming.  One reptilian resident of Boyd Hill, however, had eluded me: the mystical alligator known as Half Jaw, aptly named because it was missing half of its upper jaw.  After months of searching, I had my own close encounter of the alligator kind.  My story goes something like this. 

One day I was at Boyd Hill crouched on my stomach filming gopher tortoises when I heard the puttering engine of a golf cart behind me.  I look up, and I see Jessica (another volunteer) and Ginger in the golf cart.  They tell me that Half Jaw has been spotted near the lake.  They ask if I want to film Half Jaw, and I quickly hop into the golf cart.  Finally, a chance to film Half Jaw!  My heart is pumping as we race – albeit not to fast, we were in a golf cart – to see the alligator.  What would we find?  Images of a huge alligator with a fish dangling from its mangled jaw popped into my head. 

When we did find Half Jaw, however, reality was not nearly as exciting.  Half Jaw turned out to be only medium size, maybe about five feet.  Half Jaw was not mean and scary; in fact, he seemed to be a lot more scared of us than we were of him.  No one really knows how Half Jaw lost half of its upper jaw; some believe it was the result of a fight with another alligator, possibly over a female.  We point and stare at Half Jaw for a few more minutes until I have enough footage.  We haul ourselves into the golf cart and putter away to leave him in peace.  I never saw Half Jaw again, but years later someone tells me that he was found dead by one of the rangers not that long ago.  I wonder if Half Jaw realized he is an important part of the folklore of Salt Creek?

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