Kathleen Joest sat in a beach chair, a stick's throw from lapping waves, an indulgent eye on 1-year-old Olive Oyl, scampering with doggie pals in the sand. This is the best dog park she and Olive Oyl — Miss July in this year's Flagler Humane Society calendar — have ever visited. "The fact that you have a
beach where the dogs can run around is really wonderful,'' Joest said of the 300-yard stretch on Pinellas County's southernmost tendril.
Many agree, including Southern Living.
The magazine has named Fort De Soto's Paw Playground, which includes a beach for dogs, one of the South's five best dog parks.
"What put Fort De Soto over the top was that it was a dog beach. It was scenic. It was beautiful,'' said Jessica Thuston, the magazine's features editor.
"It was the only one on our list that was a beach.''
Southern Living was wowed by the pooch-friendly amenities — drinking fountains for pets and owners, plastic bags for poop clean-up and doggie showers.
"We loved that they included hoses to wash your dogs down,'' Thuston said, noting that it's no fun to carry a sandy dog home.
Already widely known by locals and tourists alike, Fort De Soto's Paw Playground, with its secluded beach and adjacent fenced areas for large and small dogs, attracts throngs of weekend visitors. It's where dogs swim, play fetch and roughhouse while their owners watch protectively and brag about their four-legged family members.
One recent weekday evening, a steady stream of cars carrying dogs and their human companions pulled into the Bay Pier parking lot, next to the 3-acre fenced area where dogs roam unleashed. A nearby path leads to the doggie beach.
"The dogs love it. As soon as they get out of the car, they start pulling the dog parents toward the beach. They know where they are going,'' said Mary Cordray, a retiree who volunteers with her husband, Bill, to clean up the messes naughty owners leave behind.
The Cordrays are among dozens of volunteers the park increasingly relies on because of budget constraints.
St. Petersburg resident Michelle Bistok and her fiance, Martin Wager, visit regularly with their dogs, Lita and Bitzie. Bistok said she likes the scenery, the quality of the beach and the social scene. The pets are as interesting as their owners, she said.
Other regulars, like Bryan Arnette and Jason Smith, make the trip from Tampa. It's a place where dogs can run and play, especially important for their "hyper dog," a black Lab named Baxter, Arnette said. The beach also is a place to meet understanding dog people who wouldn't mind if Baxter jumped on their blanket, Smith said.
"It's a family, dog-owning type beach,'' Arnette said.
Much planning went into creating the doggie recreation area, said Jim Wilson, who has run the 1,136-acre Fort De Soto Park since late 1998. Environmental issues had to be considered, as dogs are detrimental to shorebirds, he said.
"During the nesting season, which is right now, birds interpret a dog as a coyote and leave their nests,'' he said.
Park officials consulted the Audubon Society to find an area that would work for dogs but not disturb the birds. The first area they tried was on the eastern tip of the park, but it was muddy and dog owners avoided it. In 2002, they chose the current piece of property west of Bay Pier.
"It's a beautiful beach, just not as desirable to wildlife such as nesting sea turtles and shorebirds,'' said Wilson, who owns two yellow Labs.
"It's not a very big area to dedicate to a single use. Environmentally, it's a good bang for the buck to ensure that there are no dogs on the remaining 6 miles of the beach,'' he said.
"It's as busy as any other part of the park, especially on weekends,'' Wilson said of the pooch playground. "It's a social thing. There are a lot of people that meet or end up dating or marrying after meeting at the dog park.''
Dog owners themselves, the Cordrays know just how popular the park is, but they worry that pet owners could lose the facility if they don't clean up after their dogs.
"We hope people will start protecting it,'' Mary Cordray said.
"It's an absolutely wonderful park, and we love it. The parking lot is full every weekend, and people drive around and around waiting for somebody to leave. They drive from long distances. We understand what a wonderful asset it is to have.''
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.