Standing in shin-deep water on Park Drive, I’m not worried about alligators—until the local news crew shows up. A truck splashes down the road and stops close to where I’m standing with guide Wayne Douchkoff, two fellow kayakers and our boats. A cameraman from ABC 7 leans out the passenger side window and starts filming.
A fall storm system dumped 12.4 inches of rain on Sarasota over the previous 48 hours, with more scheduled to come later today. The Myakka River has overflowed its banks, inundating the park and forcing rangers to shut down everything. But Douchkoff, who leads kayak trips through his company Wayne Adventures and the ecotourism nonprofit Ecko, assures me we can still cruise the river. In fact, he tells me, this is a rare occasion, a chance to paddle through what he calls the “flooded forest.”
The ABC reporter starts asking questions. Are we still going out? Yep. Are we worried about alligators? The cameraman just filmed one resting in the water up the road a bit. That gives me pause. I’m picturing the headlines: “Local idiot mauled by gator while kayaking during a storm.” The reporter flips off his camera. “Stay safe,” he advises.
Leading kayak trips in Myakka requires more than navigational skills. You also need to understand alligator behavior. Before we set out, Douchkoff reassures us that if we follow a few simple rules (stay aware, give gators space, back up if they seem disturbed), we’ll be fine. He says his bigger concern is the giant floating hives that fire ants form to survive floods. Those ants will be eager to escape the water by glomming onto our boats and attacking us.
We slosh over to the edge of the road, help one another into our kayaks and push off into the woods. The water has risen a few feet above the forest floor, converting a low dry habitat into a shallow lake, with sabal palms poking through and the tops of picnic tables, benches and fence posts just visible. We stroke through tree trunks and out into the open water of the river, or what used to be a river. Tea-colored water covers everything, erasing banks and hiding habitat. Douchkof, a genius at reading the currents and eddies of the Myakka, points out where the river’s edges are during the wet and rainy summers and during the dry winters and springs. The beauty, Douchkoff says, is that the river is never the same from trip to trip. Our flooded forest tour can take place only once or twice a year, when the water level is just right and the weather is OK.
We’re even more fortunate today, because the park is closed to visitors. Our four-person caravan is alone in the vastness of Myakka. We paddle upriver to the northeast, cut over and follow a line of barbed wire fence that marks the edge of the park.
In a kayak, you feel as if you’re riding within the stream rather than floating on top of it. You’re not just a spectator—you’re a part of the river, another creature flowing through this great ecosystem. Douchkoff points out gator snouts lingering in the ripples ahead and pink egg sacs that house invasive snails. Vultures congregate in the canopy above. Our boats groan as they rub against the trunks of submerged palms. As we glide, I sigh and savor the quiet. I’ve visited the park dozens of times, but today I’m seeing it from a new perspective.
After a couple hours, our good weather is coming to an end. Low charcoal-colored clouds are rolling in. We do a 180 and cruise back south toward the Park Drive bridge, where gators and tourists alike congregate on good weather days.
Today, we’ve seen only a handful of alligators, none of them near enough to give me a scare. No fire ants, either, thank God. As we portage our kayaks across the road and onto the south side of the bridge, the sky opens up. In an instant, I’m drenched, but we’re pushing on for a little while longer. None of us wants to go home just yet.