Pinellas County, Fla., is strange. Really strange.
Wait, now. Don’t jump to conclusions. Not eerie/scary strange. Not overrun with weirdoes, either. Nice folks here. Nice enough to be forgiven their yankee accents.
No, Pinellas County is only strange in that it is a happy anomaly, particularly from an off-the-beaten-path outdoorsman’s viewpoint.
To be honest, I wondered just what I was getting myself into as I crossed Old Tampa Bay on the Howard Frankland Bridge. I’m a notorious non-lover of big towns and big traffic and, frankly, Tampa/St. Petersburg traffic is nobody’s idea of a good time. However, metropolitan interstate highways do have exits and (mercifully) I-275 is no exception.
Ah, yes. There it is, Exit 17, Pinellas Bayway. Get off, drive west a piece. Turn left at the gaudy, looming, interestingly pink Don Cesar Hotel, a landmark at which one simply cannot help staring (and smiling). Lots of history there, I’m told, going back to 1928.
Slowly, now, drive along the seawall at the southern end of Boca Ciega Bay, into the winter-sleepy village of Pass-A-Grille. Stop, alight, check in at Island’s End Cottages (Oh boy! A fishing dock and winter seabirds to watch!) How fortunate. I-275 is a distant memory. Still not sure what I’m into, but now I’m thinking I’ll probably like it.
Lest I be accused of “blowing smoke” and auditioning for some overblown SOUTHERN LIVING promotion, let me point out that a sojourn in this southwestern stretch of Pinellas County is not devoid of automobiles and the occasional run-in with hustle and bustle. This is, after all, a densely populated area in close proximity to a major metropolitan center. There are, as one travels about, busy thoroughfares, honking horns, and, in places, the incessant sounds of internal combustion engines. Therein, however, lies the story; the weird, wonderful anomaly. For, strangely, there is always somehow to be had peace, serenity, natural beauty, even solitude, often just a stone’s throw away.
“Think about it,” my guide said. “We’re at the edge of one of the most densely populated areas in the state and look where we’ve just been. Sort of amazing, don’t you think?”
Where we’d just been was fishing, from kayaks, in a network of Pinellas County tidal creeks and bayous. Not a far-flung wilderness expedition (just a couple hours between put-in and take-out near a bustling 4-lane highway), but there was a genuine backcountry feel about it. Deep in the mangroves, it was difficult to believe “civilization” was so near. At the whim of the morning tide, we cast lures for snook, tarpon, and redfish, often errantly, as we found ourselves caught up in the abounding flora and fauna in and around the mangrove-lined waterways. Fact is, I probably missed casting into the choicest snook hideaways in my quest to add some new rare bird to my life list.
Another busy road, another guide. Pull off on the shoulder. Wintering migrant ducks on a freshwater pond. Not 50 yards away, a bald eagle sits sentry at its nest. Roseate spoonbills. A wood stork, looking for a handout, shadows me in a marina parking lot. Go deep for the best birding? Not necessarily.
Nighttime. Fish Boca Ciega and its backwaters by moonlight. Tempt and boat grouper, snook, and seatrout. No backcountry feel now, just great angling around lighted dock pilings. Quiet, peaceful; despite wall-to-wall waterfront dwellings. Weird? Yes. Wonderful? Yes again.
Back in Pass-A-Grille, on the fishing dock at Island’s End, brown pelicans eye me suspiciously, but sit patiently as I take dozens of typically bad photographs. I take a twilight stroll through the village, on the “Gulf Side.” Breakers crash. Sea-fog rolls in. I cross streets, all empty.
Wait. A car. No problem. Just a little old orange-haired lady with a stuck parking brake. Heck, even a mechanical idiot like me can help with that.
To bed now. Early day tomorrow. Wade fishing southern Tampa Bay shorelines at Fort Desoto Park. Boca Ciega laps the dock pilings as I begin to doze.
“Just where, now,” I ask myself, “is Tampa and St. Petersburg?”
Fifteen, twenty minutes from here, you say?
Aw, get outta here!