by Miri Hardy, Executive Director of Friends of Myakka River
Last year's theme for National Public Lands Day, the nation's largest single-day volunteer event for public lands, was “More ways to connect to nature.” Adventure Cycling's Bike Your Park Day, which encourages exploring parks by bicycle, is celebrated on the same day. So at Myakka River State Park in Sarasota, Florida, we combined a stewardship project at the park with a fun, and informative, guided bike ride. We called our event “Bike Myakka! for Biodiversity.”
One of the ways many connect to the unique beauty of Myakka River State Park is through cycling. With Bike Myakka!, an initiative of Friends of Myakka River, we aim to build and sustain such connections in a meaningful way to the benefit of future generations and our own. In keeping with our mission, we planned a service component and guided bike ride to offer participants a deeper dive (or ride, as the case may be) into exactly why invasive plants are such a big issue at the park.
“Our service projects have always had a learning component to them,” says Michelle Keirsey, Park Services Specialist. “Bike Myakka! for Biodiversity was the first in awhile where that was the main focus.”
By spending more time connecting with Myakka through recreation, while also acquiring a deeper understanding of the threats these delicate ecosystems face, Michelle hoped that such events can inspire positive change in participants, perhaps even more so than would result from an event focused solely on service.
So on September 25, 2021, bright and early, event participants, many of them biking Myakka for the first time, as well as numerous Park Rangers and volunteers, gathered at the South Pavilion, ready for a day of biking and invasive plant pulling. Once fortified by healthy snacks, courtesy of Friends of Myakka River, we headed off in two groups, one led by Ranger Zack Westmark, the other by me, for a 7-mile slow-paced guided ride down Myakka's scenic Park Drive.
Making several stops along the way, we discussed what biodiversity is and why having a variety of life at Myakka matters. We reflected on the value of Myakka's native plants, as the critical base of Myakka's delicate ecosystems, and how invasive plants and litter negatively impact the region's health. We also discussed what we can each do to help.
The opportunity to experience Myakka in this different way, in the company of like-minded individuals, was appreciated by participants. “I liked the sense of camaraderie, how, by the end of the day, we had made our own little community," said one participant.
Jarred Wilson and Mark Steinwachs, members of Friends of Myakka River, especially enjoyed our stops by the Upper Myakka Lake. Serendipitously, the area was closed to cars, due to high water. With few people around, no traffic to contend with, and an abundance of wildlife, our discussions about Myakka were interrupted only by a few loquacious American crows.
"We were excited to get out on a bike ride and hear from some experts about plants in the park,” Jarred and Mark told me. But the event exceeded their expectations: "The conversations were thought provoking and gave us a deeper appreciation of the work that needs to be done to lessen and reverse our impact on this place."
Not by chance, Caesar's weed featured heavily in our program. This plant is so noxious that it is considered a Category I invasive by the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council, meaning it's damaging our habitats and displacing native plants. It's abundant at Myakka: Once you learn to identify it, as did our participants, you start seeing it everywhere!
Caesar's weed grows so dense and tall, it chokes out native plants. With burr-like seeds, which easily get caught on animals or clothing, it spreads aggressively and quickly!
And after a high-energy day of riding, talking, and helping remove over 50 lbs. of invasive plants from the park, we ended our event with a haiku-writing session, to capture our thoughts and feelings about our experiences.(Ed. note: Find the haikus below!)
"During the event, we learned new information many were not aware of," said Sandra McFarland Bernardi, Florida State Park volunteer and Friends of Myakka River Board Member, with a smile. "But the request to write a haiku was kind of scary!" But, she added, "it turned out to be a fun exercise and I loved listening to everyone's contribution. We had some good bike riders and writers."
Indeed! Good bike riders, good writers, and great people! We are thankful to Adventure Cycling Association and the National Environmental Education Foundation for their support, as well as the impetus to create this fun event. We're excited to share that, thanks to its great success, we'll be repeating this event again this year!
Curious to learn more? Follow us on Instagram @BikeMyakka. Or better yet, join us at beautiful Myakka River State Park for Bike Your Park Day on Sept. 24 this year!
All Photos and Text courtesy: Miri Hardy, Executive Director , Friends of Myakka River
Haikus by Bike Myakka! for Biodiversity Participants
Clean up Myakka
free up native plant spaces
make wildlife happy
Blue skies and clouds
Alligators, ducklings and mama
Show me to Myakka
Caesar weed's prolific
Invasives will rule the world
Pull to help the park
When the river floods
wildlife seems to come alive
sharing a secret
Biking in the park
Plants and birds easy to see
I am so sweaty
Gators swimming by
Beautiful old trees with moss
Feels like home to me
Sweat sticking down my clothing
Ibis calling loud
Connected to land
Sky as far as I can see
Nature at its best
Weeds are getting pulled
Native plants are rejoicing
Insects are singing
Songs of the wind tell stories
Troubles flow away