In honor of Earth Day, Devon Higginbotham reveals one of her favorite Florida islands and camping spot: Cayo Costa.
West of Fort Myers, past the shopping malls, gas stations and fast food restaurants, is a place constantly shifting, and yet, frozen in time. Cayo Costa is a barrier island off the coast of southwest Florida, an hour by ferry from the hamlet of Bokeelia, accessible only by boat. It is a state park, one of 161 in our great state, and this one has camping, cabins for rent, miles of empty beaches, hiking trails, plenty of wildlife and native vegetation but no electricity, hot dog stands or hot water. This is one place where you don’t want to forget anything.
To get there, several concessions offer daily round-trip transport for around $45, camping gear included. We took the Tropic Star ferry, which takes you past Little Bokeelia Island (population, two caretakers). It was previously owned by Charles Burgess, of the dry-cell battery fame (Burgess Battery Company eventually became part of Duracell), though it recently sold to the highest bidder for $14.5 million.
Once on Cayo Costa we were greeted by a lovely New Hampshire couple who weren’t sure if they had discovered paradise or purgatory. They had started a six-week campground host position in March, and the spring weather quickly descend-ed into summer, bringing with it the trifecta of heat, humidity and human blood-suckers.
The couple operated the shuttle, ferrying camping equipment, coolers, air mattresses, umbrellas, lanterns, and everything essential to surviving — and then some. While some go to Cayo Costa to hunt shells, escape the city or run away from life for a while, our group came to see the native habitat. I had been to Cayo Costa 20 years earlier and encountered the removal of the Australian pines that were dominating the island at that time.
Although they provided terrific shade, they were an exotic species that crowded native plants, taking over. It was thrilling to see the transformation of native trees, such as the gumbo limbo and sea grape, growing to 30 feet tall and shading
campsites that used to be surrounded by Australian pines. Some massive stumps still remain as stark reminders of their past reign, like footprints from a past empire.
The exposed west coast is windswept and sparsely populated by sea oats and railroad vine, but as you travel inland, you encounter dense growths of cocoplum, myrsine, wild coffee, wax myrtles, cabbage palms and necklace pods, all growing on the remains of old sand dunes. You can see areas where the waves washed overland in storms, depositing their salt in shallow areas. The prickly pear cacti were in full bloom with their bright yellow blooms covered with beetles seeking pollen. Coral bean were triangular spikes of tubular red blossoms, resembling Asian structures. Moving further east you enter a pinewoods forest with slash pines, oaks and the healthiest poison ivy I have ever encountered.
If I were to live on the island, this is where you would find me.
The island had been inhabited long before it became a park. The cemetery attests to human settlement and the “Quarantine Trail” gives clues to the islands past life. One grave is marked Captain Peter Nelson, died Sept 7, 1919, age 80 years. “After life’s fitful fever, he sleeps well.”
Apparently, he too, was fodder for the mosquitoes, no-see-ums and chiggers.
Approximately 20 fishing families lived on Cayo Costa in the early 1900s, where they established a school, post office and grocery store.
To find out more about the Suncoast chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society, visit SunCoastNPS.org or go to a meeting at 7 p.m. the third Wednesday of each month at the Seffner UF/IFAS Extension office, 5339 CR 579, Seffner.