Field Notes: South Florida’s Best Kept Secret

Exploring Florida's Oleta River State Park. Photo: Noah Lederman
Exploring Florida’s Oleta River State Park. Photo: Noah Lederman

Florida’s Best Kept Secret

Through the dark estuary waters, it appeared as if a constellation was being reflected off of the surface, somehow visible in the daytime sky. But the heavenly white polka dots below were actually studding the brown, diamond-shaped body of a ray that undulated away from where I’d dipped my paddle into the water.

“That’s a spotted eagle ray,” said Stefanie, a standup guide for Blue Moon Outdoor Center, the only official concessionaire inside Oleta River State Park. “But it’s just a baby.”

Most of the creatures swimming through the waterways, an ecosystem fortified by red mangroves—the auburn, above-ground root systems looked as if the maritime trees were trying to stand atop the water like paddlers—were in their infancy. In the dozen or so trips I had taken to South Florida, I’d never heard of Florida’s largest urban park, even though Oleta was situated just twenty minutes from both Miami and Fort Lauderdale and covered 1,033 acres of land. It was certainly the area’s best kept secret.

I continued to paddle, but it was hard to focus on balancing as a world of orange Ruddy Daggerwings, golden Julias and yellow and black Zebra Longwings fluttered past, their colors seemingly reflecting and being
magnified off the surface of the water like the supposed daytime constellations.

As we glided through the park, it felt as though we were floating through some remote wetland. But with South Florida’s busy cities each ten miles away, Stefanie explained that the park experienced the negative effects of weekend traffic. On our weekday cruise, however, we only passed a half dozen kayakers and two boats.

Even the surrounding mountain bike trails and the few rustic cabins in Oleta were empty. (Humans are only one of the invasive species inside Oleta: the lionfish, which has no predators, and pine trees, which blanket the forest floor with acidic needles, are also poisonous to the stability of the ecosystem.)

“Is that pollution?” I asked, getting a strong whiff of something sulfuric.

“That’s low tide,” said Stefanie. “At high tide, we have beautiful blue waters from the ocean and no smell. But at low tide, you get sulfur. It’s natural though. The leaves are decaying.”

We paddled into the open waters, where the Intracoastal Waterway and the mouth of the Haulover Inlet funneled currents and wind through the channel between Oleta and Sandspur Island. The paddle to get beyond the pier and duck back into the protected waters between the mangroves and the Seagrape trees, with its sprouting of green, spherical, salty fruits, was the only difficult leg of the journey.

At the mouth of the calm waters sat a little blue heron, just one of the many species of heron in Oleta, which includes tricolored and green herons, too.

I crouched down to avoid one of many golden silk orb-weaver webs that stretched across the waterway. A golden-bodied female occupied the web, centered like a large piece of bullion. While the giant spiders are beautiful, their craft is what’s more impressive, spinning complex webs of golden strands to attract prey and scare off predators.

A paddler's view of the Gold Silk Orb Weavers on their webs. Photo: Lederman
A paddler’s view of the Gold Silk Orb Weavers on their webs. Photo: Lederman

After dodging the yellow webbing, I took one hard stroke to catch up and stopped paddling to stare down at a three-foot blacktip reef shark. The shark darted forward and I froze, taking a few moments of pause before I was reminded that the creature was just a newborn. I still could not believe that this serene place existed between two metropolises.

“Follow me,” Stefanie swung her board into a cove and searched the waters below.

Black crabs scattered across the roots of the mangroves as we paddled near to the trees.

“This is usually where we spot the manatees,” she said.

We spent a few minutes circling the cove, watching for the slow sea cows to surface. But nothing from below broke the calm waters. When a great blue heron sailed in and docked itself in the protected bay, we paddled away, down the remaining miles of waterway, through urban Florida’s best kept secret.Noah Lederman

If You Go
How to get there: Head north on A1A from Miami. At 163rd Street take a left over the inlet. The entrance into Oleta is on your left, in about a half mile. (From Fort Lauderdale it’s south on A1A with a right on 163rd.)

Distance from City: About 10 miles from Downtown Miami and Fort Lauderdale

Blue Moon Outdoor Center: 305-957-3040; www.bluemoonoutdoor.com; info@bluemoonoutdoor.com

More Field Notes here.