If you live in St. Petersburg, Florida you might have heard of Salt Creek. What you’d know is that it is a narrow, shallow stretch of polluted water south of downtown St. Petersburg, Florida. It empties into the large Lake Maggiore several miles further south. You might say that Salt Creek is a wilted flower in the backyard of Bayboro Harbor, which is planted with yachts, and snazzy sailboats. Kayaking in Salt Creek is not recommended. Not if you are seeking a pristine nature experience near the city. However, if you want to know a secret, you might want to join me. Remember this, appearances are deceiving.
Get in the kayak at Bayboro Harbor in Tampa Bay on whose banks sits the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, turn right past the towering Coast Guard vessels and leave the sparkling skyline of downtown St. Pete and the bright white anchored yachts to your back. Once past the Fish Tales restaurant, the creek meets you, becoming a narrow waterwau. In no time at all, rusty cans appear trapped in the mangrove roots, and your paddle lifts a plastic grocery bag, then hits muddy, bobbing soda and beer and booze bottles—a true cornucopia of trash fills this little creek.
Salt Creek has been used and abused for decades, by industries that spit smoke and toxins, and people who tossed litter from cars and boats. It looks deserted, but it’s not. It’s still home to birds, mangroves and an occasional raggedy, creased-faced hermit-sailor repairing his ancient grimy motor boat. The creek, also known as a swale which is a narrow shallow marshy place, meanders along looking droopy and depleted . It appears down for the count, yet, invisible to our eyes, this dirty little swale is still doing its job, fueled by an invisible energy; it collects rainwater and eroded soil, and creates a microclimate for plants, amphibians, birds and anthropoids. The swale may look ragged and homeless but in truth its function and beauty are only hidden, not gone. In the same way, the unruly looking mangroves with their propuglates sticking half in the water and half out, belie their vital role.
The mangroves might tell you to buzz off; they will not give in. Even when they are demonized by those well-meaning folk who blame them for overcrowding what could be an urban kayak trail– as if the mangroves and not the swill that is allowed to accumulate are the problem—they are not impressed.
It’s as if they are ignoring any rubbish we toss at them. In fact, they thrive despite the old condoms, and rusty cans in the boggy Salt Creek. You can almost hear this symphony of symbiosis played by the swale and the mangrove. The swale and its mangroves survive all matter of insults by an invasive species, human polluters. The Oil Company that built on its shore, the Milk Company that crowded its banks, the careless drunks in their gasoline spewing boats, the Moonshiners who hid there in the twenties—the mangroves outlived them all. The creek looks injured, yet the mangrove keep nursing it, cleaning its water, exchanging nutrients back into the muddy bottom, housing the egrets, the cormorant, the osprey, the pelican and the roseate spoonbill, buffering the creek’s banks from eroding storms.
A swampy stench mixes with the gasoline exhaust of the nearby marina and yacht repair yard. It’s hard to avoid thoughts of dying things. But this is only the surface truth. A deeper truth is hidden from us by the mangroves and the swale.
Back in the kayak, we float under the pretty little stone 4th Street bridge until we are blocked by a thicket of mangrove branches. We find ourselves in a cool, dark mangrove tunnel on this sunny warm afternoon . We must duck our heads, and bend down in our kayaks. The twists of their black branches suggest gracefully woven baskets , but they are muscular, like protective arms hovering over little Salt Creek and its inhabitants. If we were adventurous, we could find a way under and through the branches to go further, but on this day, we turn back. We’ve seen enough for now. We’ve learaned what is hidden by the trash and detritus.
In Ukraine after a nuclear accident in Chernobyl twenty-seven years ago, scientists expected the land, its plants and animals to be mutated at best or dead for centuries. They were in for a great surprise. They did not know what the mangrove, the egret, the snook fish, the snails or the swale knows.
“…. According to all the population counts performed by Ukraine and Belarus over the past 27 years, there is enormous animal diversity and abundance. The prevailing scientific view of the exclusion zone has become that it is an unintentional wildlife sanctuary. This conclusion rests on the premise that radiation is less harmful to wildlife populations than we are. “—Slate
“… the biologists are still puzzled as to why the plants can so easily shrug off the deadly effects of the radiation, when it’s so hazardous to humans (the accident caused just 57 direct deaths, but thousands of cancer deaths were blamed on the incident for years after). The favored theory is that plants can “remember” prehistoric Earth conditions, when the fledgling planet was bathed in an air of harmful radiation.”—Wired, UK
After the deluge of human ignorance and error, the plants will return, then the insects, and after the insects will come creatures. Eventually even we may grow out of the mud again. So now you know the secret kept by mangroves and snails, herons and swales. Mangroves, like the lotus transform dregs into mulch, mulch into life, life into beauty. Like the lotus that grows only in the muck, the smelly swamps, like the lotus the mangrove rises and Salt Creek flows sweet and slow.