MYAKKA RIVER STATE PARK
Deep in these woods on a moonlit night, it is easy to imagine you are not alone. The 37,000-acre wilderness, one of Florida's oldest state parks, has 39 miles of trails that snake through every type of habitat — cypress swamp, pine flatwoods and hardwood hammocks.
It is the perfect place to get lost, or not be found. The word Myakka is Seminole in origin. Some say the exact meaning has been lost to history, but I've heard it mean "hairy man," or at least that is what I tell the youngsters that I am camping with.
Unlike most folks, I don't need a holiday such as Halloween to scare the living daylights out of little kids. I do it every chance I get. Just ask any of the boys in my scout troop.
Sometimes I go for the standard ghost story, but I am also fond of the one about the homicidal lunatic who just happened to have escaped recently from the home for the criminally insane, which you find conveniently located somewhere near every state park in Florida.
But my all-time favorite is a large opportunistic omnivore that can make a quick meal of a scout. No, I'm not talking about bears. I'm referring to the legendary Florida Swamp Ape, also known as Skunk Ape. Over the years I've encountered evidence of this bipedal beast from the Green Swamp down to the Everglades.
Friends often laugh at my fascination with this creature, but I quickly counter that history is full of examples of previously unclassified species going mainstream. The mountain gorilla, first reported by an explorer in 1860, was not officially recognized until 1902.
For the past 25 years, I have dedicated much of my life to the discovery and identification of species yet to be classified by science. Many of my fellow cryptozoologists tend to focus on "mega monsters" such as the Mokele-mbembe, a supposed living sauropod dinosaur thought to inhabit the Likoula Swamp region of the Congo, or its more famous cousin, the Loch Ness monster. I have specialized on a more modest creature, a.k.a. "wildman."
I began my formal studies in 1972 after viewing one of the greatest movies of all time, The Legend of Boggy Creek. This film, ignored by critics, chronicled the exploits of an Arkansas Bigfoot bearing striking resemblance to the Sunshine State's Skunk Ape.
Florida has had numerous reports of hairy hominids, including one that was said to have been captured and held by federal authorities at Everglades National Park in the 1960s. Unfortunately, the beast proved too strong and escaped by knocking down a concrete wall.
There have been numerous other sightings, including several from nearby Ochopee, where a group of British tourists spotted something described as "6-foot tall, with long brown hair" walking across a road. There have been other reports closer to the Tampa Bay area, including several from the Myakka River area, as well as Hillsborough River State Park, one of my troop's favorite camping spots.
The best time to look for Swamp Apes is at night. And remember, if you bring back suitable evidence, i.e., a hair sample, foot cast or better yet, the real thing, you will have the honor of getting to name the new species. I recommend you choose a campsite with a fire ring so you can educate your junior cryptozoologists before hitting the woods.
Remember — while there have been no documented Skunk Ape attacks in Florida, similar creatures such as Sasquatch and Yeti have been known to get a bit testy when confronted by humans. These are wild animals and should only be approached with caution.
If you are looking for a good place to search for the Swamp Ape this weekend, please consider my following favorites. I've had excellent luck over the years, and while nothing is for certain, your chances are better than 50/50 if you hunt on Halloween. But please note, that while the Skunk Ape may stink, it can still smell, so it's best if you don't bathe for three or four days to ensure a successful hunt.
Tuesday, October 27, 2015