A loud rustle from the swamp stops us. A Great Blue Heron has just landed on a cypress tree a few feet from the boardwalk.
The bird is easily five feet tall: all legs and neck, with a dagger of a bill and yellow eyes. It scans the fluorescent green water for food.
Lettuce Lake Park, just 20 minutes northeast of downtown, is one of the bird’s largest remaining habitats in Tampa.
Exploring Lettuce Lake Park
Here, 240 acres of swamp, forest and floodplain are crisscrossed by about two miles of paths lined with pine needles and dirt. The hum of the nearby highway is almost ignorable.
Lettuce Lake Park is Florida at its Florida-est: palm trees, alligators, pot-bellied men with ripped sleeves playing frisbee, snakes, chatty seniors, birdwatchers sporting ponytails and community radio t-shirts.
The coolest part of the park is a 3,500-foot wooden boardwalk that weaves through the cypress swamp.
Here’s where we saw the Great Blue Heron. A few minutes later, we joined a group admiring a rat snake wrapped around a branch a few feet from the boardwalk. It was easily as tall as me.
Further on, a woman walking in the opposite direction warned us about a cottonmouth snake coiled in a tree stump near the trail.
“Those are the mean ones,” she said before walking on.
The boardwalk travels through the swamp, over canals clogged with water lettuce, and past the knobby stumps of cypress forest.
As we walked we saw snail shells as big as my fist in the bony tree roots. I swear I heard the grunt of an alligator from somewhere in the bush. Most visitors see gators during their visit. We weren’t as lucky.
The boardwalk ends where the river begins. The swamp opens up to the brackish waters of Lettuce Lake River. There’s a bench to rest and watch the passing kayakers.
At 11am on a Saturday morning we had stretches of the park to ourselves. Around 1pm, the families arrived. The sound of owls hooting in the trees was replaced by kids going gaga over the turtles sunning on rotten tree branches near the boardwalk.
The Great Blue Heron was long gone the second time we passed its perch.