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It is the dream of so many people — finding a deserted tropical island with a white sand beach, a place in paradise all to themselves; a place where nature can be enjoyed in all of its remarkable, indescribable beauty. Such a dream represents peace in an increasingly hectic world.
It is a universal dream that crosses age and financial circumstances. In places like the Bahamas or the South Pacific, billionaires are buying islands while sailors and tourists go in search of those that remain. And those in colder climes can only dream while the snow falls. There is just something about a deserted beach with palm trees that inspires so much.
In South Hillsborough, that dream is just a walk away. OK, it’s actually wading and a little bit of swimming or kayaking away but that paradise is right here, although few seem to know about it. On Tampa Bay, rare clusters of islands beckon. And with eco-tourism on the rise, South Hillsborough may well be sitting on a rare gem of a natural tourist attraction that could result in significant new revenue for the county, and South Hillsborough in particular.
Gus Muench (see companion article) is the driving force behind the Uzita Trail, following a line of islands and mangroves that Indians walked and lived along for centuries. Starting at the mouth of the Little Manatee River, the trail extends all the way down to the Manatee County line. It is nine to twelve miles of wildlife, beautiful islands and mangroves — a dream for eco-tourists and adventurists. Although the entire trail would generally be for those up for serious adventure, even small bits of it can carry you to an entirely different world, a world far from the hustle and bustle of the four million people living in the Tampa Bay area. Even small bits walking in the footsteps of the ancients can calm your soul and carry you to a simpler, quieter time, even if only for a little while.
Muench has spent 42 years on the water and could easily pass for a man in his 50s. His true age is revealed only by the fact that a half-century is not nearly enough time to acquire the wisdom and knowledge that he possesses. He has long been a self-taught naturalist and has had a hand in much of the preservation that has taken place along the Hillsborough County coast of Tampa Bay. He has been a commercial crab fisherman since 1976. In 1996, he decided to change his methods to specifically avoid damaging the sea grass with his crab traps, a time long before many people were concerned about sea grass.
There are few places left in Florida, let alone in America, like the Uzita Trail and Muench is hoping that the Hillsborough County Parks Department could take an oversight role over it, without having to undergo the expense of ownership from the various public jurisdictions that lay claim to the highly unique string of islands and shallows. But for now, the trail is there, just as it was when Native Americans lived in the area many centuries ago.
“People could put a kayak in at the Cockroach Bay boat ramp and go around Paradise Key,” Muench said. “Once you get past that, the bottom is hard sand and you can walk on it.”
The water is only six to twelve inches deep closer to the islands and is indeed walk able, an experience unlike anything even the most scenic land trails can provide. For centuries, the Native Americans walked the same route barefoot, although Muench strongly recommends that modern travelers wear surf boots or water slippers to protect from the oyster shells. Muench also recommends that hikers do the “stingray shuffle” to warn snoozing stingrays of your presence, warding off the possibility of a painful sting. Stingrays typically aren’t aggressive and will tend to get out of your way rather than harm you.
Muench also recommends that those interested in experiencing the Uzita Trail bring along a kayak or a canoe, which would be used to paddle past the deeper and dredged waters near the Cockroach Bay boat ramp and also, possibly, to paddle across the natural deeper washouts that exist between the numerous islands, although the washouts are usually narrow enough for most people to simply swim across. According to Muench, a kayak also provides a dry place to keep fishing poles and cameras along with snacks and drinking water for a day trip.
The trail could be an enormous draw for people in search of a unique and natural outing or adventure with very little cost to the county and the taxpayers. While the trail itself would not generate revenue, the sheer unique qualities, found nowhere else, could well bring tourists to area hotels and restaurants, along with new business opportunities for the county or private enterprise for kayak rentals.
“The Parks Department could do this,” Muench said.
Florida is a state known around the world for its stunning natural beauty but with an ever-increasingly population moving into the Sunshine State, that natural beauty is under a constant threat, even without an intention to do so.
“Every new person that comes to Florida impacts it a little bit,” Muench said. “We don’t want to impact things but we do. Every person impacts things just a little bit.”
But for now, and, with a little help from Hillsborough County to ensure its pristine existence for generations to come, a natural experience that is nearly incomparable in this nation remains, much as it has for centuries.
Muench is hoping Hillsborough County Commissioners will recognize the trail for the remarkable and unique jewel that it is — a place like no other that could well have a significant impact on tourism with very little investment. In a letter to Commissioners, dated September 18 for the Board of County Commissioners meeting, Muench wrote:
A few years ago, Friends, a group of South County individuals met with BOCC Members to discuss creation of Uzita Conservation Area around the Cockroach Bay area. Because ‘Friends’ lacked clout and leadership, nothing materialized from those discussions. To create the Uzita Conservation Area requires only drawing a boundary line around the area, not purchasing property. Hillsborough County benefits by managing the region, unlike today where management is divided between FDEP’s Aquatic Preserves, State Park Services Tampa Port Authority, and the Parks Dept. Hillsborough County Parks would be lead management agency under the BOCC to oversee and manage the Uzita Conservation Area. The Parks Department and HCEPC are the only departments providing any meaningful management in this area now.
Today, [the] BOCC is recognizing the ELAPP’s 25th Anniversary. I’m suggesting that the 25th Anniversary should be used to begin the process for creating the Uzita Conservation Area. The original Indians survived off the bounty of fish and shellfish of the area for some 700 years with only their shell mounds as history. The De Soto Trail starts in here.
[The] BOCC should demonstrate to citizens of Hillsborough County the importance of its past history and protection of the environment, which amounts to a big plus for the BOCC [and the residents of this county].
Muench quoted President Theodore Roosevelt from his speech about the Grand Canyon as equality appropriate to the rare jewel that exists largely unknown in Hillsborough County: “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American if he can travel at all should see.”
Leaving it as it is, yes, but proper management by county officials is still essential to ensure the resource will continue to be available for generations to come, keeping it for our children and us. Muench has already begun the process of installing small, discreet signs marking the water trail at his own expense.
With just a short drive, a sense of adventure and a kayak, paradise awaits, with deserted islands, palm trees leaning over white sand beaches and a bounty of wildlife and history. Moving south along the trail, the water becomes clearer, the mullet can be seen jumping while majestic ospreys soar and dive for fish. It is a trail that leads to a simpler time, a place of incomparable beauty this stands on the doorstep of one of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, but remains a world away.