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Rolling on The River

Follow the twists and turns of the Myakka River, heading west from the Gulf of Mexico. Eventually, you’ll arrive at a secluded spit of land called Snook Haven. During Prohibition, this was a convenient outpost for moonshine runners. Today, it’s part of the Sarasota County parks system, and boasts a perfectly legal watering hole (aka the Snook Haven restaurant), along with a fishing camp and a boat dock. That dock is the launch point for Logan River Tours—a leisurely adventure led by Keith and Diane Logan on a covered pontoon boat that comfortably fits 31 passengers.

It’s a one-hour cruise on an unspoiled, seven-mile stretch of the officially designated “wild and scenic” river. Along the way, Diane and Keith will share tidbits from their vast knowledge of local lore. You’ll hear tales—tall and otherwise—about the indigenous peoples who lived here in ages past, the moonshiners, and about the movies filmed on location, on subjects from Tarzan to killer turtles.
But natural Florida is the tour’s star attraction. You’ll pass stately pine flat woods, verdant marshes, shady hammocks and sun-dappled prairies. The cast of critters who make this their home includes alligators, herons, anhinga, turtles, osprey, egrets and the occasional eagle.

“People say Old Florida is a thing of the past,” says Diane. “We prove them wrong every day.”

Upon your return, be sure to sample the down-home tastes—barbecue, catfish shrimp Po’ Boys and more—at the Snook Haven restaurant. And there’s sometimes a sizzling line-up of live music.

If You Go: Bring sunglasses, a camera and a cold beverage. If you carry a cooler, make sure it’s small enough to fit under the seat. Private tours available. Call ahead for days and times. $15.45 adults; $8.45 children under 12. (Not recommended for ages 1 to 5.) 5000 E. Venice Ave., Venice, (941) 875-2070, loganrivertours.com.

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Close Encounters of the Bird Kind

Charlie Sample earned his bird study merit badge as a Boy Scout back in 1948. “I’ve been a birder ever since,” he says.

He shares his passion by leading monthly birding nature tours at T. Mabry Carlton, Jr. Memorial Reserve. Located east of the Myakka River, this 24,565-acre reserve boasts 80 miles of hiking, equestrian and biking trails. The unspoiled habitat ranges from wet prairies and hammocks to pine flatwoods and forested wetlands; its denizens include white-tailed deer, bobcats, feral pigs, river otters, Florida panthers and a long list of snakes and reptiles. And, as Sample will be quick to tell you, at least 163 species of birds.

“Over the past 10 years, I’ve personally identified 128 species,” he says. “They’re not there all the time, of course. Some are snowbirds. On a typical tour, we’ll spot 40 to 50 species. Birding is about being at the right place at the right time.” The bald eagle, the blue-gray gnatcatcher, brown-headed nuthatch, American kestrel, pileated woodpecker and white-eyed vireo are just some of the birds you might spot, he says. Sample’s tours are once a month on Saturday or Sunday, except June, July, August and September. They start at 7:15 a.m. and end around 12:30 p.m. Most of the tour is conducted by car or van, which drives out about seven miles into the reserve and stops at different sighting posts. Are amateurs welcome? “You bet,” says Sample. “That’s how they learn all about the joys of birding.” The tour is also accessible to the disabled and those in wheelchairs.

If You Go: The tours are free and open to a maximum of 15 people. Participants should bring water, sunscreen, a broad-brimmed hat, binoculars, a camera and a bird book. Register at scgov.net/prnr/pages/default.aspx.

Extra: Charlie Sample’s top birding books: The Roger Tory Peterson Guide to Eastern Birds of North America and National Geographic Birds of Eastern North America.

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Diving for Treasures

Jaws’ 20-foot great white shark was a minnow compared to the Megaladon shark. This prehistoric predator could grow up to 60 feet long, with an enormous jaw stuffed with 270 dagger-like teeth. These real-life sea monsters appeared about 200 million years ago and went extinct only 2.6 million years ago. Before then, the shallow waters off what we know today as Venice teemed with Megaladon sharks and other prehistoric marine life. When they died, their bodies fell to the sea floor and were soon encased in sediment—an ideal recipe for fossilization.

As Captain Steve Jones of Florida West Scuba & Charters puts it, “Venice is known as the ‘Shark Tooth Capital of the World’ for good reason. It’s a fossil hunter’s dream.” As a licensed USCG captain for the past 25 years, he’s explored our waters inside and out and knows where the treasures lie hidden.

Jones offers daily fossil dive charters from a 31-foot Island Hopper dive boat, U.S. Coast Guard-certified for 12 divers. Underwater adventurers have found Megaladon chompers along with manatee bones, whale bones, prehistoric horse bones or other unique fossils. Expect a visibility from four to nine feet, although specimens have been found in as little as two feet of visibility.

“If you enjoy diving you’ll love this,” says Jones. “It’s great for families because it’s in less than 30 feet, a very easy dive. My team takes care of safety and service and the divers just have fun and enjoy the treasure hunt.”

If You Go: Participants must be certified divers and all dive tours depend on the weather. Tanks and weights provided. Bring fine mesh collecting bag and a compass. (Available for purchase at the dive shop.) $84 per diver; dive certification card required. Florida West Scuba & Charters, 509C N. Tamiami Trail, Venice, (941) 486-1400, floridawestscuba.com.

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Paddle Power

Sarasota Bay is part of a larger system of bays and estuaries threading the Florida coast in the shelter of our barrier islands. It makes for a beautiful sight, gleaming like a sheet of glass or the shimmering waters of an Impressionist painting.

Want to see what’s behind that beauty? Brad Tanner’s two- to three-hour kayak tour of Lyons and Blackburn bays in south Sarasota County will open your mind and eyes. Tour participants experience the plants, animals, habitats and restoration projects that set Sarasota Bay apart. The tour is paddle-powered, so there’s no loud motor to scare Mother Nature’s minions away.

As Mote Marine Laboratory’s schools program coordinator, Tanner partners with the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program to provide these up-close encounters with natural Florida kayak tours. He’s passionate about sharing his knowledge of this delicate ecosystem and the urgent need to protect it.

“Kayaking is an awesome experience,” he says. “The bay is so clear and shallow, you can look straight down into it and see the life below the surface.” On any given day, participants might spot manatees, dolphins, hermit crabs and a host of water birds. You’re just floating on the water with no agenda,” he says. “It’s all about the journey, not the destination.”

If You Go: Saturday, April 15, 2017. 9 a.m. to noon; (941) 955-8085; co.wrch2017.com/event/Lyons--Blackburn-Bays. $10 per person. All kayak equipment included. Wear clothing that can get wet. Sunglasses, binoculars and cameras optional. Bring Ziplock bags to keep food and valuable items dry.

The tour is part of the 2017 World Rowing Championships’ 2017 Paddling Passport Series. For more information about this series, visit eckotours.com/paddle/

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Walk on the Wild Side

Karen Fraley is a naturalist and the founder of Around the Bend Nature Tours. Her walks on the wild side include birding, dip netting in grass flats, and traveling preserves in covered wagons. “It’s all about creating a sense of authentic Florida,” Fraley says. “We tell stories of the land, its early settlers and indigenous peoples. Along the way we teach the science of sustainability.”

The tours are led by certified master naturalists and interpretive guides. “We strive to build awareness of Florida’s rich history and abundant wildlife,” Fraley says.

One popular trek: the Native American Technology tour near Bay Preserve in Osprey. Nestled next to Historic Spanish Point, this beautiful oasis offers access to scenic Little Sarasota Bay—a great spot for kayaking, rowing, fishing and enjoying the views.

Some views are windows into time. Fraley explains that people lived here as early as 5,000 years ago. Decades ago, archaeologists excavated their burial grounds, discovering remnants of the pottery and tools used by those Native Americans. The tour guide brings replicas of that hunter-gatherer technology made of shell, ceramic, bone and stone.

“We pass the tools around, and let people guess how each one was used,” says Fraley. “You feel surprisingly close to these bygone peoples. It’s fascinating for the whole family.”

If your group is sufficiently adventurous, the tour guide can also lead expeditions across the shoreline and grass flats, where tour participants can collect conch, shrimp, crabs and little fish with nets.

If You Go: The tour is less than a mile, so sneakers are fine. If you plan to wade into grass flats, bring shoes that can get wet. Also bring sunscreen, bug spray, water and sunglasses. Ask about tour dates and times. Cost: $25 per person. (941) 794-8773, aroundbend.com.

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The Ultimate Eco-Tour

For a great eco-tour, consider an ecko tour. Created in partnership with the Science and Environment Council of Southwest Florida, ecko offers a wide range of excursions led by environmental experts and educators. These eco-conscious explorations explore the wild beauty of Florida’s Gulf Coast in highly civilized style. Modes of transport include hiking, canoeing, and kayaking. And, of course, the bicycle.

Their pedal-powered, four-night Urban Wildlife by Bike tour takes you along Sarasota County’s Legacy Trail, a converted railway line and important regional recreational pathway. The trail threads through Venice’s urban parks and waterways. Visitors from outside the area stay in a beachside hotel; local residents are welcome to join the group every day from their home base. 

The tour includes a five-mile bike trek and ranger-led hike through Oscar Scherer State Park, where you’ll experience close encounters with the park’s exotic flora and fauna, including the imperiled Florida scrub jay. When night falls, you’ll camp in tents under the stars, with a camp concierge preparing meals and setting up tents with comfy air mattresses and linens. Other highlights: a canoe excursion along South Creek guided by an Oscar Scherer State Park ranger, visits to community parks, and a breezy guided bike tour of historic Venice Island with James Hagler, director of the Venice Museum and Archives.

If You Go: Tour organizers advise that participants should be 14 and older—and fit enough to ride a bike for at least seven-mile intervals. Minimum group of six. Tour fee starts at $675 for commuters; $900 for those staying in the hotel. Bikes and all supplies are included in price. eckotours.com, (844) 299-3493

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