BRADENTON -- Roughly 1,000 volunteers drove out to 99th Street Northwest in Bradenton between 2007 to 2009 to help build something special.
What made it special was that few people would ever notice it even if they looked right at it.
Those 1,000 built a salt marsh.
They either knelt in the salty soil and planted tiny sea purslane that spread along the ground or they waded knee deep into the water to install waist high marsh grass that would one day let aquatic animals have a place to live in high tide.
In all, the volunteers at Robinson Preserve planted 20 different species to establish habitat in a previously disturbed area.
The preserve’s salt marsh is now home to jumping mullet and hundreds of other species of fish and other marine life that may not have been able to exist at the site before it was restored, said Melissa Nell, manager of the volunteer and education division of the Manatee County Natural Resources Department.
“For me, it’s the salt marsh,” Nell said when asked to list the most remarkable feature of Robinson Preserve, which opened to the public in July, 2008 at 1704 99th St. NW, Bradenton, and hosts hundreds of visitors daily.
The preserve, which is often called “the kayaker’s dream,” has three miles of kayaking streams, a boardwalk for watching 300 to 400 species of birds, six nature trails, an observation tower and many bridges.
The preserve’s kayak launch and kayak storage area are also appreciated by those who use these facilities.
On May 1, the Valentine House at Robinson Preserve became the official visitor’s center.
The house is staffed by volunteers who usually open it 8 a.m. - 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays but rarely on weekdays.
Originally fields and farms
Robinson Preserve was originally farm lands and fields. But Manatee County, enlisting the aid of volunteers, was determined to get the habitat back the way it was before the farming, Nell said.
“Their work really helped set the clock back to a time when the habitat was healthy,” Nell said of the volunteers. “Pristine isn’t quite the word because it will never go back to that. But healthy? Yes. That’s what it is now thanks to them.”
John Hamilton, a fish biologist from Ashland, Ore., stopped to check out Robinson Preserve on Sunday on a trip to Florida with his daughter, Katey, 25.
The pair, staying with John Hamilton’s mother, Lorraine, of Bradenton, recently toured the Florida Everglades so that area was fresh in their minds.
“Preserves like this will keep me coming back here,” Hamilton said of Robinson.
Hamilton and Katey hiked the roughly 10 minutes from the parking area to the observation tower.
On that short hike, they saw numerous osprey, a brown pelican, turkey vultures, a white ibis, a great blue heron and a snowy egret.
“The tower was beautiful,” Hamilton said. “It’s nicer than the tower in the Everglades at the end of the Shark Valley bike loop there. The tower at Robinson is taller and has a more commanding view.
“What a wonderful and accessible asset this preserve is to Bradenton and especially to the neighborhood,” Hamilton added. “It’s like having a mini-Everglades in your backyard.”
Said Katey Hamilton: “Robinson is truly beautiful with a kind of wildness that reminds me of Mexico.”
Chris Akers and Shirley Kipp, of New York, spent three hours paddling Robinson in their individual yellow kayaks Sunday.
“Very nice,” Akers said. “We saw a lot of birds and fish.”
“And no alligators,” Kipp added, making Akers chuckle.
“If we had seen an alligator or snake, she would have paddled right onto the shore,” Akers quipped.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 6686.