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Weedon Island Preserve: A Wild Wetland Paradise

Until I recently was sidelined by a knee injury, running the trails and boardwalks of Weedon Island Preserve with legendary running guru Joe Burgasser and members of his Forerunners Club was a frequent and favorite Friday morning outing. The runners, of diverse backgrounds, careers and interests, are always interesting. But with or without company, a morning at Weedon always is exhilarating.

This natural oasis between Tampa and St. Petersburg offers abundant wildlife, stunning vistas and a fascinating history. The Pinellas park on the west side of Tampa Bay is a wonderful place to watch the day break.

Despite its semi-urban location and an adjacent power plant, Weedon Island still provides ample territory for bird watchers, kayaker anglers, photographers, hikers and anyone seeking to experience coastal wilderness. The 3,600-acre park, owned by the state and managed by Pinellas County, is a mix of mangrove islands, uplands and marshlands.

For hikers (or runners), there are more than four miles of trails and boardwalks. The boardwalks lead mostly through the mangrove forests, along the shoreline, and include a 45-foot observation tower with a panoramic view of Tampa Bay, as well as nearby homes and enterprises.

Though more skittish here, many of the same birds that inhabit The Florida Aquarium’s Florida Wetlands Trail, including yellow-crowned night herons, roseate spoonbills, pelicans and snowy egrets, can be observed at Weedon Island. (A trip to the Aquarium can make any wilderness outing more rewarding by helping you identify wildlife and learn about ecosystems.)

Ospreys, bluebirds, hawks, gopher tortoises, foxes, bobcats, raccoon and assorted other creatures, including rattlesnakes, also inhabit the diverse habitat. Weedon is known as a hot fishing spot for snook, redfish, mangrove snapper, seatrout and other species. Mullet are almost always visible from the boardwalks.The fishing pier and adjacent kayak launch are understandably popular. Some anglers wade along the mangroves.

I’ve caught redfish, mangrove snapper and trout from my kayak here. But the paddling is worthwhile regardless of how the fishing is. Last time I kayaked Weedon, a manatee and her calf, contently swam nearby.  Weedon’s kayak trails wind through dense mangrove jungles in mostly shallow water. Be prepared. While beautiful, this is real Florida – spider webs, mosquitoes and all (bug spray or protective clothes are a must at the park during summer).

Weedon’s history is as rich as its wildlife. It provided food and shelter to prehistoric Native Americans. According to Pinellas County’s informative “The Weedon Island Story,” scrappers, knives, hammerstones, projectile points and other artifacts indicate humans occupied Weedon perhaps as long as 1,800 years ago. There are a number of Indian mounds in the area.

Among the displays at the Preserve’s excellent Cultural and Natural History Center is a nearly 40-foot canoe, estimated to be 1,100-years old. Don’t miss it. The canoe was discovered by a resident walking the shoreline in 2001 and kept safely buried in the mud while funds were raised and preparations were made for its preservation. In 2011, workers carefully excavated the fragile dugout canoe, cutting it into sections so it wouldn’t crumble when lifted. Then it was immersed in a tank of a waxy material for three years to prevent the wood from deteriorating.

Now visitors can visit this remarkable craft, which scientists say was made from a single pine tree. Experts say its structure indicates it was made for traveling long distances and crossing rough waters, perhaps suggesting maritime commerce on Tampa Bay eons before Tampa became a port. Native Americans were not the only ones to make use of Weedon. “The Weedon Islands Story” raises the possibility that Spanish explorers visited the region.

The island is named for Dr. Leslie Weedon, a Tampa physician known for his efforts to cure yellow fever. He received the land from his wife’s family in 1898. He loved the island’s wildlife and exploring the Indian mounds, and his family used it as a weekend retreat. Through the years, it has been the site of homesteads, farms, St. Petersburg’s first airport, a film studio, and a speakeasy whose foundation remains near the Preserve’s parking lot. There also are numerous mosquito canals.

Weedon could have easily been dredged and paved as so many other coastal lands have been, but dedicated citizens campaigned to save the land, which the state acquired in 1974. Despite all the various human disruptions that have occurred at Weedon, it remains impressively wild, illustrating how nature, given a chance, can reclaim disturbed areas.

You may never far be from the sights or sounds of civilization here, but the Weedon Island Preserve nevertheless offers ready access to Florida’s natural beauty and colorful history.

 

By Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune.