Cape Coral and Southwest Florida Feature Stories

Rotary Park...Backyard Wilderness

Rotary Park - Cape Coral

Rotary Park lies at the southern end of Pelican Boulevard in Cape Coral. It’s a quiet area, somewhat off the main traffic routes, situated on 197 environmentally protected acres.

The few internet sites with information about Rotary Park give vague token references to brackish water ponds, mangrove wetlands and uplands complete with waterfowl and fish. It sounded like just what I was looking for…a quaint and manicured setting for a relaxing, mid-morning, Cape Coral walk.

 

Crystal-perfect Floridian spring weather followed me into the ample parking area. The parking lot is adjacent to a gated dog park with plenty of benches. An older woman leashed to two ambitious dogs struggled as she was pulled towards the entrance gate. Apparently a numeric access code is needed to enter the dog-walk area. Only registered dogs are allowed.

I’m not a pet guy. As such, the whole setup seemed a little mysterious to me…secret codes needed for entrance to the canine playground while kiddy-parks country wide can be freely entered by anyone. A posh private club for well-bred dogs? As I lingered in suspicious thought on the wrong side of the gate, visions of a doggy-secret-service coming to escort me away played across my sense of humor.

Dog Park Cape Coral

An impressive 4,200 square foot Environmental Center rests discretely on the property. Staffed with local nature experts, they offer several educational classes on topics diverse as landscape design, orchids, bromeliads, palm, bonsai, butterfly gardening and fish lure carving. Every year, in April and July, the Center holds large native plant sales. In February of each year they hold the Burrowing Owl festival.

Rotary Park Environmental Center - Cape Coral

On my visit, a staff member quickly welcomed me and showed me around, offering a trail map and several other informative pamphlets.

Leaving the building, I walked to the right on a formidable paved road with a gate blocking car access. A sign reading “No Motor Vehicles” sealed the deal. No cars…this is where I need to be. I headed off on foot, in tourist-mode with a bulky camera around my neck.

No Motor Vehicles - Rotary Park - Cape Coral

The yipping dogs behind me faded into breezes and bird calls. A lone osprey hunted from high altitude, circling over and looking down on the multiple, empty, plastic osprey nest platforms. Cape Coral ospreys make strange choices. You’ll often see them nesting atop thousand-watt metal halide light fixtures in the middle of crowded Publix supermarket plazas, or right along the busiest sections of Veterans Memorial Parkway. But here we’ve constructed ready made platforms for them in the middle of preservation land…and they turn up their beaks at us. Cape Coral ospreys must be more urban.

The path veered off to the right, where there was another gate and ‘No Motor Vehicles” sign (just in case you crashed through the first one when you missed that sign). I turned the corner and entered the second realm of car-lessness, walking in the middle of the lane, certain I would not be struck down by any errant drivers.

There was a wooden observation tower in the distance. It looked inviting, but the paved path I was on didn’t seem to head in that direction. A hefty gentleman with some crumpled papers in his hand and a puzzled look passed by me from the opposite direction. A few feet later I noticed an unmarked opening in the brush which seemed to lead to the observation tower.

Unmarked Path - Rotary Park - Cape Coral

Now I’m a northern guy, and up in Massachusetts one can traipse through just about any thickly vegetated area without worry of poisonous snakebite and dismemberment by alligator. So hesitation froze me up for a minute, and instead of bouncing right down the path, I did what any wise tourist would do and reached for my camera instead. I took a picture of the entrance to the pathway. As I did, the puzzled-looking hefty man turned around and came back in my direction as though I’d found what he’d been looking for.

We exchanged an awkward wordlessness and, with a touch of testosterone-laced male bravado, we headed on together into the native growth. I’m not one to enjoy my nature with strangers, but having someone else in the general vicinity did offer some reassurance. A few steps down the path, I feigned interest in some non-existent thing in the distance and pointed my camera at it, allowing the hefty man to scout the trail a short distance ahead of me. He’d probably make a better meal than skinny-old-me anyway.

A couple minutes later, my initial fear had resided, and I envisioned myself as one of the nature writers I admire, trekking into the uncomfortable and beyond-human wilderness, seeking to become as one with the primal interconnectedness all living and nonliving entities in the universe are part of, and then coming back to civilization to teach mere mortals what I’ve learned.

My literary heroes are the guys who say, “Screw the human paths,” and follow animal tracks out into the unadulterated places we haven’t bulldozed and paved yet. And when I turned the corner and saw animal tracks heading out into the drought-dried pond bed, I realized today was the day…my chance had finally arrived. I crashed through the tall, yellowish, grass clusters and out onto the dry and cracked alien landscape of the former waterhole.

Animal Path - Rotary Park - Cape Coral

Once I was inside, a rush of thrill surged through me. I had crossed some sacred threshold, and truths were being revealed to me. My senses came alive. A horrible, salty, decomposing smell filled my lungs with joy…Ahhh, the scent of the circle of life. I breathed deeply, as if to fill myself with the olfactory experience of the place. Animal and bird tracks crisscrossed the muddy surface, and I ruined my sneakers squishing ankle-deep across the landscape, placing my tracks alongside theirs. Now I get it. Now I’m part of it.

I was caught off-guard when all the birds resting in what remained of the brackish pond came alive at once, as if they shared the same consciousness, and flew away from my human intrusion. So much for the universal interconnectedness.

Undaunted, I journeyed across the vista, making mental notes, taking photographs and wondering what type of diseased parasitic bugs were biting at the flesh of my shins. As I brushed away the bugs, what can only be called a prehistoric bee dive-bombed my head. Oh God…what if I disturbed a beehive somewhere and more are on their way? Every news snippet I’ve ever heard about aggressive Africanized bees came back to me as the angry bee came in for a second try at the target. I swatted and flailed at it, doing some half-dance/half-run in the foul smelling mud. It finally flew away. When I looked up I could see the observation tower, and the hefty man on the top level looking right at me and chuckling.

Pond Bed - Rotary Park - Cape Coral

Right about that point was when the rustling of a large animal came from some of the bushes between me and the path. Something had eaten something else. A struggle had ensued. Branches had broken. And it was time for me to head back to the main path.

My feet made sucking noises as I quick-clipped it back to the break in the brush where I had first entered this godless terrain. And as I came back out onto the path, my nerves still jangled with quandary. Should I head back to the car or continue onward and complete the mission?

The observation tower was only a few hundred feet away. But the clump of bushes the big unidentified animal was in was between me and it. I’m a human being, damn it…top of the food chain. The Discovery Channel documentary about Sanibel Island alligators resurfaced in my mind. I picked up a few small rocks off the ground and charged tenuously forward.

I tossed a rock or two into the clump of bushes to warn whatever was in there that I meant business. Right after I tossed the second stone, the biggest, longest, meanest looking lizard I’ve ever seen in the wild darted stealthily across the path. Four feet of dark green reptilian armor. Ridiculous. This isn’t Cape Coral…this is Jurassic Park.

I shot back to the closest safe area, still not wanting to turn back. I looked for evidence of an approach by the carnivore as if I was Steve Irwin. Every palm frond rustling against another sounded like something coming towards me.

The Path - Rotary Park - Cape Coral

As I was trying to formulate a logical plan of advance, hefty-man came smiling down the path, unawares, right across the area the Nile Monitor had just crossed. I got my chance to chuckle as I warned him about the lizard.

His face went pale and his eyes kept darting into the growth surrounding us. “I came here for a GPS treasure hunt, and the clues warned me there were snakes and alligators in the area, but I thought they were exaggerating just to make it seem adventurous.” he stated.

I felt better crossing the path knowing he had just come down it. So onward I went. Within minutes I was atop the observation tower, looking at the wide expanses of wilderness I never new existed in Cape Coral. Vast, sub-tropic flora stretching on as far as the eye can see, looking like an African savanna right in our Floridian backyards.

Observation Tower - Rotary Park - Cape Coral

I finished the rest of the walk uneventfully, but still hypersensitive to each noise nature’s soundtrack gratuitously provided. Plants rubbed against plants. Small lizards scrambled across fallen leave debris. Airborne bugs buzzed and birds brightly chittered. Above it all one lone Cape Coral osprey rode the breeze, weightless…just visiting…taking a short jaunt into nature before returning to his suburban nest amidst the roar of traffic and the poison of exhaust fumes….the bulldozed and paved places where motor vehicles are allowed…the wilderness human animals have constructed for themselves. Which place do we belong?

Alligator Warning - Rotary Park - Cape Coral

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