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Water water everywhere...and most of it is free!

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image This is a small portion of the public part of Bahia Beach at Ruskin’s Little Harbor near the Sunset Grill. Penny Fletcher Photo

There really are still places where people can enjoy the beach experience for free.

By PENNY FLETCHER

SOUTH COUNTY — For years I’ve heard residents say there aren’t any beaches in South County anymore. That development has taken away all the free swimming opportunities that used to be afforded along the bay in places like Ruskin, Apollo Beach and Gibsonton.

Not true.

In a search for places to walk on the beach, lie in the sand, and even swim in salty water without cutting my feet on rocks or shells, I checked out some areas that make taking the grandkids swimming a whole lot easier than driving to Gulf beaches in Bradenton or St. Pete.

There really are still places where people can enjoy the beach experience for free, and another two very different kinds of swimming, at a very low cost.

E.G. Simmons Park, located three miles north of Ruskin off 19th Avenue, is 258 acres of native mangroves and open land areas with an additional 200 acres of mangrove swamp that is preserved as a bird and wildlife sanctuary.

The public areas have waterways for fishing; a fully-equipped playground; boat launches; barbecue facilities, many shaded areas and plenty of restrooms.

Best of all, there is a beautiful sandy beach and a marked swimming area which has a lifeguard in the summer.

Until last summer, there was no cost to the public for entry at E.G. Simmons and it is still a cheap deal: $2 entry for up to 8 persons in a car and an additional $1 per person after that. (There are special permits for wounded veterans and their families and the military and other special circumstances and passes people may check out at the park.)

But even $2 isn’t free — and neither is Lithia Springs Park, a beautiful “old Florida” rustic spring located at 3932 Lithia Springs Road just northeast of Balm-Riverview, where you pay $2 to swim, picnic, or walk the many woodland trails.

This story promised to show you beautiful places where water sports can be enjoyed for free. And that’s just what I aimed to do as I set out not only to physically visit the spots mentioned here, but also to check with those who run them.

I called the Hillsborough County Parks and Recreation Department about what can and cannot be done at the Apollo Beach Nature Park and also the office manager at Little Harbor to find out what areas of Bahia Beach (south of Little Harbor’s Sunset Grill) are still free and open to the public.

I even checked with local businesses near Little Harbor Resort to find out where the “free” public is supposed to park so no one gets in trouble if they want to try the area out.

Because there are signs at Bahia Beach saying “Private Area” many have the idea that now that Little Harbor has built its resort and townhomes there the public — both residents and tourists alike — are no longer welcome on any part of Ruskin’s sandy saltwater beach where Tampa Bay is clear and almost as salty as swimming directly in the Gulf.

Well, “unwelcome” couldn’t be more of a false perception.

In fact, residents are encouraged to use the area of Bahia Beach south of the volleyball courts, according to Little Harbor’s office manager Debbie Bartolacci.

I found there is still quite a long stretch of beach on the south side of Sunset Grill. After walking as far as the first jetty where the beach seems to stop, I found walking trails that go through the 61 acres of native scrub that are listed for sale.

Some of these eventually wind back to small areas of sand with water access.

“People on the beach mean businesses for everybody,” said Joel Brandenberg, owner of Ana Banana Fishing Company whose parking lot adjoins the south end of the lot belonging to Sunset Grill. The grill lot is paved, while Ana Banana’s parking lot is sand. The public may use these places to leave their cars while enjoying the beach experience without worry of angering businesses.

“I love it when there are a lot of people,” Brandenberg said. “I get a chance to tell them I’m the only charter service in the area that says if they don’t catch fish they don’t have to pay.”

Sunset Grill gets customers in bathing suits at their outdoor seating and tiki bar.

“It’s a win-win for everybody,” Brandenberg said.

The Apollo Beach Nature Park, open from sunrise to sunset, has different rules. While it allows people to bring (nonviolent) dogs — and let them play in the water — as long as they are on a 6-foot leash (or less) they have “No Swimming” signs.

That does not mean people cannot lie on the sand, lie in the beautiful clear water at the water’s edge, or wade fish or let small children dig in the wet sand and splash in the water.

It’s just not deep enough there unless you go way out to swim, and since there is no lifeguard, no actual swimming may be done.

No swimming, however, does not mean no water play.

Dogs playing with Frisbees; people reading in beach chairs under newly-built shelters or with their feet in the water; families gathering shells and looking for sharks’ teeth in the wet sand; and children splashing knee-high in water so clear you could see straight to the bottom, dotted the sandy part of the preserve. Fishermen waded in other areas and others barbecued on pits provided by the park’s department and picknicked both on the sand on blankets and on tables in the shade.

In a deserted area of cool clear ankle-deep water I found 17-year-old Hayley Niehaus of Riverview walking her dog Cookie. Well, Cookie was so short he was practically swimming.

On the other side of the park Milton and Peg Erlenbach hunted shark’s teeth with their nearly-grown children, Rodney and Sara.

Sara showed me some teeth she had already found.

“We both grew up here,” Milton Erlenback said of himself and his wife. “But we moved up North. We come down at least once a year to check on our parents.”

I talked with them about the changes they’ve seen.

Even with all the development, it was agreed that South County still has a lot of places like the one where we stood in the brilliant sunlight sparkling off the water as Sara found another shark’s tooth.

“A part of us will always be a part of this,” Milton said.

It wasn’t hard for me – who has been in South County since 1980 – to understand exactly what he meant.

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