At first I was disappointed: I wanted a rugged Florida experience.
One glance at Glen Oaks Park, with its tamed expanses of green grass and neatly arranged piers, fields and ponds didn’t offer much promise in the way of wildness.
I had intended to take my kayak to seek out a wetter, wilder Clearwater, but stiff winds dissuaded me. Driving around aimlessly, looking for something to do, I realized that even though I’d grown up less than a mile from it, I hadn’t been to the park. Ever. On impulse, I turned into the parking lot and started walking.
In 2006, the city redesigned the area. Although I drove past the old green space at least once a week (it’s the back way to McDonald’s from my old house) during my senior year at Clearwater High, I never gave it much thought. Even now, I have vague memories of a golf course and not much else. The park that’s there now, which stretches from Druid to Court and Hillcrest to Betty Lane, is more than a simple neighborhood green space.
This is a place to bring the kids to let them run off some energy. This is a place to share an old-fashioned picnic under the dazzling saffron Florida sun. This is a place to spend a moment watching the feathered and scaled community that exists between two of Clearwater’s busiest streets.
Glen Oaks, which centers around several ponds created to filter contaminants from the Stevenson’s Creek estuary, has a wide, paved trail circling the ponds, a small but uber-cool playground (think climbing rock and rope jungle gym), and fields. The park also has grassy lawns by the ponds and a few barbecue grills.
After taking in the neat way the city orchestrated the paths and lawns, I held little hope for salvaging what was supposed to be an adventure-filled Florida afternoon. Nonetheless, it’s hard to stay depressed outdoors in Florida when snow and ice clot the rest of the country. The path leads around the ponds and interrupts itself several times with observation piers that let you stroll out over the pond.
That’s when I realized that no matter how civilized a place looks, with neat grass fields and professionally landscaping around the signs, there’s always a little bit of wild Florida lurking just beneath the surface.
In this instance, it was just a teenager, but he looked as though he’d make a ferocious adult. The gator didn’t yet reach more than five feet from snout to tail, but his eyes tracked me as I moved over the pier. I knew I was out of his reach, so I lingered, wondering if he thought perhaps the red-beaked gallinules paddling just past his snout would , indeed, taste like chicken.
Another green flurry of activity caught my eye, pulling down on the water hyacinth and duckweed-type vegetation on the pond’s surface: turtles. Red-eared sliders were all of a sudden everywhere in the water. The fearsome diminutive saurian suddenly seemed forlorn and alone against the syncopated splish of turtle beaks crunched bread and water lilies. Cormorants perched on cypress trees; ibis eyed me warily as I made my way down the pier. In the distance, the manicured soccer fields and traffic zooming by on Court street reminded me that wild Florida waits everywhere.
Even in the tame parts.