On a rainy morning in Myakka, Florida, Dave Harshbarger and Michelle Keirsey arrive at their job, gearing up for another normal day at the office.
Their office encompasses more than 57 square miles of wetlands, prairies and woodlands that make up Florida’s Myakka River State Park.
As Florida park rangers, their job is to protect those wetlands, prairies and woodlands.
A normal day for these rangers could mean anything from dealing with a brushfire, an alligator encounter or a group of misbehaving campers.
Day in and day out, Michelle, Dave, a dedicated staff of nine other rangers and 25 to 30 volunteers maintain and preserve the natural resource known as Myakka River State Park.
Being hired as a park ranger five years ago was a dream come true for Dave.
“I was born in Florida, love the outdoors and have always wanted to do whatever I could to preserve the natural beauty of this state,” he says.
Michelle, who has commuted from her home in Tampa to Myakka the past four years, was drawn to her career in high school, while volunteering with her mom for AmeriCorps community service programs.
“My involvement in AmeriCorps programs like hurricane clean-up, flood control and native plantings led me here doing what I love: working with plants and people,” she says.
A Bit of History
Myakka River State Park takes its name from the Seminole Indian term for the river, “miarca,” which means “big water.”
Grasslands fed by the great river served as perfect cattle-grazing country from the 1850s through the early 1900s.
The first parcel of what would become the park was purchased from the Palmer family, Sarasota area cattle ranchers.
Between 1934 and 1941, the Civilian Conservation Corps—the federal relief agency established as part of President
Roosevelt’s New Deal program—constructed facilities and developed what became Myakka River State Park in 1942, with help from the National Park Service and Florida Park Service.
By the Numbers
- 37,198: Total acres in Myakka River State Park
- 12,428: Acres burned by park rangers last year to help keep the land healthy
- 71: Years since Myakka was dedicated as a state park
- 760: Species of plants identified in the park
- 255: Bird species seen in the park
- 10: Species of oaks in the park
- 180: Depth in feet of deep hole at Lower Myakka Lake
- 74: Height in feet of the canopy walkway tower
- 66: Miles of the Myakka Wild and Scenic River that run through the park
- 52: Years of Christmas bird counts held in the park
- 250,000: Average number of people who visit the park each year
- 161: State parks in Florida
In 1985, the Florida Legislature designated the Myakka River a Florida Wild and Scenic River. It is the only river in Florida to be recognized with this status.
This special designation provides for preservation and management of the 34-mile portion of the river within Sarasota County.
Visitors can view alligators, bald eagles, ospreys, ducks and other wildlife from a boardwalk over the Upper Myakka
Lake, a canopy walkway suspended 25 feet above the ground or a tower 74 feet in the air.
The river and two large natural lakes are ideal for boating and freshwater fishing. Scenic lake tours are offered daily on the world’s two largest airboats. Canoes and kayaks can be rented.
Hikers can explore the 39 miles of pet-friendly trails that cross large expanses of rare Florida dry prairie.
Safari tram tours of the park’s backcountry are offered from mid-December through May.
To really experience the great Florida outdoors, camp overnight in the park. Full-facility family campgrounds are available with concessions, as well as primitive campsites for the more adventurous.
A Varied Job
For Myakka River park rangers, working with plants normally involves the removal of non-native plants and trees such as Brazilian pepper, Australian pine, Cogon grass and others designated as category 1 invasives by the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council.
Eliminating non-native plant encroachment and returning Florida parks to their natural state presents one of the park system’s greatest challenges.
“Seeds transferred by machinery and people facilitate the growth of non-native plants and need to be removed by a combination of herbicide and prescribed burning,” says Dave.
It helps to be a jack-of-all-trades, according to Michelle.
“One day you may be dealing with electrical problems, another day you might be fixing a toilet and still another clearing land for a prescribed burn,” she says.
People skills come in handy when dealing with park guests unfamiliar with native wildlife or park rules.
Park guests are politely encouraged to respect the natural resources the park has to offer and are constantly reminded to be cautious of wildlife.
“Alligators are for viewing only,” Dave says with a half smile.
Sometimes their interaction with visitors leaves them laughing.
After a series of summer storms one year, several beach-like sand piles had appeared near the mouth of the river and then disappeared a week later due to storms and wind from a different direction. An older couple was visiting the park one day after the storms. The old man approached Michelle and another ranger concerned, asking what happened to the beach they saw last week at the same spot.
“We explained to him that it was nothing to be concerned about, that barrier islands are constantly changing due to storm winds and rain,” Michelle says. “The gentleman walks away and minutes later his wife approached dissatisfied with the explanation, insisting that it was President Obama’s doing.
“The lady said, ‘Obama did it. He said in the news that he was going to make changes in the park systems.’”
David notes that storm activity has changed the park.
“When I got here my first week or so, after a storm, much of the park was flooded, knee-deep water everywhere, even fish in some of the parking lots,” he says. “We needed to canoe our way from point to point in some sections. When I returned to those same areas less than a week later, I thought I was in the wrong place because it was dry. Things change fast here.”
Michelle marvels at the wonder of working in the park’s natural setting.
“Being here we sometimes just take for granted the regular sighting of rare birds, hawks, fawn, deer, a bobcat on occasion,” she says. “You get spoiled.
“Come out and see us. It’s a beautiful park. It’s better than Disney!”Volunteering at a state park is a great way to get in the door at Myakka River State Park. “By volunteering you can get on-the-job training in park operation, plant and wildlife skills and experience working with park guests,” says Michelle Keirsey, a park ranger. If you are interested in becoming a volunteer, contact a park to ask.
A Life Structured Around the Park
By day, Paula Benshoff faces a hectic and never-ending schedule of public service presentations, seminars, staff training, plant removal projects and prescribed burnings.
But the park services specialist is quick to tell you Myakka River State Park is much more to her than a job.
“Working at the Myakka park has completely changed my life and helped to make me the person I set out to be,” says Paula, who will retire in February after 32 years as a member of the park’s staff.
“Working in Myakka has made me understand that all of life’s answers can be found in nature. Basically, my life is structured around the park.”
Her appreciation for Myakka led her to write about the park and seek out the people who remember the area from the 1930s. Her nonfiction guide, “Myakka,” is considered by many to be the definitive guide to the prairies, woods and wetlands of Myakka River State Park.
“It always surprises me the number of park guests that have read and ask about my book,” Paula says. The book was a compilation of columns she wrote for a local newspaper, the Venice Gondolier.
The book’s publisher says it takes readers “into secret places it would take years to discover on your own.”
Paula also wants to preserve the story of Myakka. She says she hated history class in high school. Memorizing facts and taking tests did not interest her. But her outlook about history changed after attending a park history course at the Florida Ranger Academy in Wekiwa.
The instructor was a talented story teller who transformed the historical information into an interesting tale.
“All of a sudden I realized history wasn’t just names and dates,” Paula says. “History was something else—a story.”
When she returned from the academy with a fresh curiosity for Myakka River history, she found little in print. Paula reached out to former rangers still alive in the area and gathered leads to a list of older Myakka residents who were around during formation of the park.
“I started tape recording interviews on lunch hours and my days off,” she says. “Eventually, the park let me do some of it on park time.”
During a span of two years, Paula recorded 24 interviews. Most of the oral histories remain unpublished due to a lack of time and funding.
“I have boxes of tape, some that haven’t been transcribed,” she says. “I need to organize them before I die. Perhaps many of these tasks will be accomplished in retirement.”