Saturday, June 26, 2021

Fort De Soto Park

I think that during the course of decades I have done a pretty good job of exploring Florida. The county park at the southern tip of the Pinellas County peninsula is one place that has always remained blank on my map of exploration. No more. It lies to the west of the extraordinary landmark that is the Sunshine Skyway Bridge (I-275) south of St Petersburg:
The county park itself lies at the end of a series of causeways bridges and islands stretching into the Gulf Of Mexico and you are only certain you have arrived when you pull up to the entrance gate where they gratefully accept your five dollar parking fee:
The parking charge gets you a map of the place which is handy as the park is vast, an arc of wilderness somewhat tamed about five miles long.  
The layout is simple enough once past the entrance gate. Stop at park headquarters under the giant flagpole and turn left or right. The roads in either direction are long straight and flat in perfect Florida style. 
You can park pretty much where you like unless there are signs and dogs are welcome except on the beach. With one notable exception as we shall see.
I tried to take Rusty for a walk at Soldier's Hole which has a mile and a half nature trail but fifty feet in he said no thanks and we walked around the shade-free parking lot. In 100 degrees it was boring and sticky and entirely to his taste.
They rent all manner of transport in the park. If you want to know why we don't encumber our retirement home the van, with bicycles and kayaks and other impedimenta it's because we like a simple life.
Most places worth seeing will easily rent out such stuff to you and then when you are done you hand it back and drive away. Brilliantly simple. 
I mostly like to walk anyway or swim, cycling and kayaking are not much to my taste. Rusty even wanted to cross the street for some reason known only to him, so there I was following along sweating copiously and grabbed a shot of the main road through the park from the middle of the road: 
After he satisfied his curiosity among the scrub palmetto and other shade-free shrubs we got back in the van which I then parked at the fort itself. You know how they say when you assume, you make an "ass out of you and me"? Well, I assumed the fort would be out of bounds to dogs because in state parks though they welcome dogs in Florida our canines are not allowed, reasonably enough in structures.
No dog prohibitions! Amazing. Still it was boiling hot so I was glad I had left him under the air conditioner in the van snoozing in his bed which we keep on our bed when traveling. Fort De Soto is a cheerful spot full of useful information:
The fort itself is not typical of what we think of when it comes to castles. It is more of a redoubt, a cement structure designed to protect sea approaches  with no thought for encirclement or attacks from the land.
It was built in response to citizens' concerns about the possibility of invasion when the Spanish-American war flared up. I have no idea why anyone might imagine an invasion fleet sailing up shallow Tampa Bay but the government got busy and built what is essentially a cement wall here.
There are store rooms and old canons stuck in place, survivors of a general purge that saw canons sent to France in World War One where the need was immediately apparent in 1917.
I can hardly imagine what a drag it must have been stuck out here in the middle of nowhere doing nothing much waiting for an invasion fleet that happily never came. 
Imagine testing these things on a hundred degree afternoon, operating a generator for electricity and living in the damp cellars built into the cement wall of the fort. People were tough back then. They didn't even have the Internet!
Pinellas County has done a nice job of maintaining the place and there are benches  scattered around to allow a visitor to take their ease and enjoy the passage of time on a hot sunny afternoon.
One end of the fort has a wheelchair accessible ramp which zigs and zags at some great length to make the slope not impossibly steep. From the top one can see and photograph endless miles of gorgeous Gulf Coast beach. 
People mistakenly imagine the Keys, which are built on rock like the Bahamas, make excellent beaches. If you want flat waters and endless miles of sand Florida's coasts east and west are best. The east coast has waves and the Gulf Coast is mostly flat with excellent sand.
The trip back down from the roof of the fort is a bit of  a hike. I actually climbed up this way and went down the ramp at the other end. This family left grandma to cope on her own which she did after announcing her trepidation and being ignored. 
I watched until she got to the bottom safely and disappeared after her wayward family.
In the distance I could see the van with my dog somewhere inside enjoying an 83 degree afternoon in the cool of the Promaster's interior.  I left the roof air conditioner running all day supplementing it with the engine a/c  when we drove. It was that hot.
The water looked inviting and I developed a cunning plan. My wife was off dealing with her shoulder surgery follow up and would never know if I had gone for a  swim. She likes to swim and hadn't been allowed a dip by her surgeon so I stayed out of the water in solidarity.
Pretty nice views.
Hernando De Soto was not I think we can assume, a very nice man. He helped Pizarro conquer portions of South America and in the subsequent rape of anything of value went home to Spain with a large fortune.
The King sent him back to the Americas to explore and claim Florida, the flowery state to add to Spain's overseas dominions. 
De Soto landed somewhere in southwest Florida, there is a site claiming to be the spot near Bradenton, though there are hardly any coastal landmarks occurring naturally around here so it's hard to be sure where he washed up. 
In a general sense it was not a successful expedition with the loss of lives and ships, but it did end up with two notable achievements: the mapping after a  fashion of the Gulf Coast and the death of De Soto in 1542 somewhere on the banks of the Mississippi River. 
His name crops up in west Florida as he was the first European to check the area out and I can only imagine what a nightmare of heat and disease and shallow waters and no landmarks it must have been. They ended up eating every animal they could lay their hands on including their horses, as the natives burned their crops and retreated out of sight as the conquistadores approached and conquered...nothing. Almost all died as they paved the way for Europeans to follow later.
When I got back to the van Rusty was eager to get out and blow me down with a feather if he didn't meander right back to the fort I had just visited.
We took a turn, I sweated more and mightily and finally we took  off for the best and last part of the Fort De Soto program.  There were several parking lots this big scattered along the park's main road:
There are picnic areas...
...and families are as welcome as dogs. This place clearly is extremely popular and deservedly so.
Rusty usually gets overwhelmed at dog parks. I don't think his time on the back streets of Homestead was a very happy one and he bears the scars of encounters with bigger and fiercer dogs. 
There is what they calla  cooling station as you can walk back fro the beach past this spot where you can wash yourself and your dog free of sand. 
We were alone but Rusty was having none of it:
So we went back to the parking lot and took the long way round to the beach.
The rules are: Use common sense. Don't be stupid. Have a nice day.
It was just a  chunk of beach available to dogs. Simple. 
People with normal dogs could be on the beach with their dogs.  They seemed to like it well enough.
My dog sat facing away from the beach bound and determined not to enjoy the day. We shambled back to the cool dark car and took a nap together until it was time to go find Layne.