A Cove With No Name: Boyd Hill Nature Preserve Captures Florida’s True Paradox | Tampa Bay News | Tampa
I have a favorite spot at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, our beloved wilderness spot in southern St. Petersburg. I visit as often as I can (and still, not enough). I like to walk halfway over the bridge on the Willow Marsh Trail.
The view captures what I appreciate most about the city. An ever-expanding skyline in the distance and Lake Maggiore framing a perfect February blue sky. The swamp below teems with life. Egrets, ibises and long-legged waders fish in the shallow waters. The moorhen pushes the duckweed. Cooters are common, as are rabbits and alligators.
St. Petersburg specializes in this confluence of flats and alligators, high art and cold-blooded wilderness. We live in a town where you can hear Brahms at the Mahaffey Theater on Saturday nights, and the next morning get eaten by an apex predator. Boyd Hill captures the true paradox of Florida.
And this paradox contains contradictions. The willow marsh (over which the bridge passes) is fed by a stream to the south. Visitors pass this stream just after paying their entrance fee, just before the aviary. The creek does not appear on trail maps (nearby soccer fields do) and does not have an identifiable name. It is barred, near the service entrance, by a chain-link fence.
A stream disappears in the nature reserve.
I’ve always wanted to explore this nameless creek, which feeds into the lake, then Salt Creek, then Bayboro Harbor, Tampa Bay and the Gulf. Maya Burke, a native of Pinellas and a bona fide friend of Boyd Hill, lives nearby. She thinks a lot about watersheds; his day job is assistant director of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program (Tarpon Tag People). She likes to wade in this stream with her son and she offered to retrace its course. Kira Barrera, who works for the city and volunteers at the Sierra Club, agreed to join us.
Couldn’t ask for more intrepid and knowledgeable guides. (They had the good sense to get permission from the city for this morning’s adventure.) Maya leads Kira and me to the 14th hole of St. Pete Country Club, just south of the reservation. Here, a once meandering sheet flow and stream has been transformed into a series of water hazards. The creek here doesn’t mean much more than a one-stroke penalty and a two-dollar stray ball. “Nature on a leash,” marvels the peddler in Sunshine State, playing John Sayles’ great film.
Maya points to the southernmost impoundment, where the water path is carved around the fairways and greens. Note the absence of any buffer zone between the artificial pond and the well-maintained lawn. The country club mows to the edge so golfers don’t lose their shot? Clippings and who-knows-what-else flow off the course, into the creek, and then into the Gulf of Mexico. In a few months, the red tide will devour this junk.
The creek connects.
When we enter the open culvert, we find more than our share of lost Titleists.
Just past the golf course, the creek runs along a hidden neighborhood with some of the best mid-century modern architecture in the entire city. My friend Tanya, who passed away a few years ago, lived here in a converted birdcage. Maya and her family own a Harvard-Jolly Bunker, designed by the same company that built our city’s once-iconic inverted pyramid pier.
Because the creek banks remain in private hands, erosion control is uneven. Overbearing taro and ginger dominate. Along her property, Maya proudly points to leather ferns and cypress trees, which shade a culvert where otters nest. Tidal creeks are ideal fisheries, she points out. “If we all took a stream like this,” Maya notes, the whole region would benefit.
Instead, we get fragmentation. At Country Club Way, I crawl under a concrete bridge. Shallow water rushes over sand and Corbicula, an invasive mollusk known to clog pipes. Scientists and policy experts measure the global damage of this bivalve in the billions. Around Ocklawaha, a friend tells me, the Corbicula has materialized so thickly that no other mollusk can reach the bottom.
Just outside the reserve (permission granted!), we hide under the chain-link fence. On city land, the character of the stream changes. Thick fronds of leather fern, beautyberry, maple and cypress replace taro and ginger.
Perspectives change when walking on a stream.
Here, under familiar paths, the stream opens up to new vistas. Park landmarks appear unexpectedly. We pass the aviary and an outdoor classroom where I take my USF students for nature writing lessons. For the first time, I walk under the bridge near the visitor center.
Past the parking lot, then an underused stone amphitheater, the tangle of leathery ferns widens into a vine-covered floodplain of cypress.
Maya, Kira and I think about our next step. From there, the creek will merge into the marsh, where the alligators nest. A promenade stands before us. The rest is cypress (mostly dry, as the level of Lake Maggiore is kept low).
We agree to take the walk, now joining other civilians for the usual Sunday hike. We salute birdwatchers, families, and casual mountain bikers as we make our way to the Willow Marsh Bridge. We are off the creek, back on the “natural preserve”. But the question of a forgotten stream remains. If a small stream has no name inscribed, do we care less? What should the stream that crosses Boyd Hill be called? Little salty stream? Willow branch? Ditch the fairway?
How many other nameless streams await our exploration? Let us know. Tell us your story about an undervalued or invisible waterway. For what is Tampa Bay if not the sum of culverts, springs, streams feeding rivers and nameless streams?
Thomas Hallock teaches English and Floridian Studies at South Follow University. He and Amanda Hagood have teamed up for the #creekshed project, stories in Creative Loafing about the human and natural lives that power Tampa Bay.