High School Sports

Braden River's ecological health good and good for business

Last in a five-part series

By SARA KENNEDY

skennedy@bradenton.com

MANATEE

In 2003, television personality Al Roker called it among the top five weirdest restaurants in America.

In 2007, Forbes Magazine listed it among the “most unusual restaurants in the world.”

Welcome to Linger Lodge Restaurant & RV Resort, one of the most venerable businesses on the banks of the Braden River.

It caught the fancy of Sen. Mike Bennett, whose first visit there was in 1956.

Now Bennett is among a group of investors who own the property.

“It’s an Old Florida restaurant, sitting on the banks of a beautiful river and a beautiful setting,” explained Bennett. “And it’s got the best hush puppies in town. They’re my recipes.”

But the venerable resort, which also offers a campground and RV park, is facing financial trouble.

“All restaurants are off, RV parks are off, we’re like every other business, we’re way off,” said Bennett. “I hope we can generate enough to stay open. Frankly, tell your readers to come out and eat at Linger Lodge, I hope more people can kayak and canoe up there.

“I hope it’ll kick up business.”

Linger Lodge, at 7205 Linger Lodge Road, has always depended upon the river’s charms to draw people to it. It recently added kayaks and canoes for rent so people can take a closer look at the river’s luscious foliage and abundant wildlife.

Other commercial operations include trailer parks, new housing developments, nursery acreage, and farm, citrus and cattle enterprises. People operate small businesses from their homes along the river, too.

It’s a balancing act, since an increasing human population tends to encroach upon its wild habitat. So far, the river seems to be in relatively good ecological health, scientists say.

“The saltwater portion of the Braden River is in very good condition, in terms of habitat,” said Ernie Estevez, director of Mote Marine Laboratory’s Center for Coastal Ecology and a specialist who has studied tidal rivers all over the world.

“Of all the rivers that flow to Tampa Bay, it has the highest density of wetlands. Acre for acre, the Braden River has more mangroves and salt marshes than any of the other rivers,” said Estevez.

He should know, since he’s lived on the river’s edge for 23 years. Estevez’s property is near 39th Avenue on the west bank of the river, north of the Scout Camp Honi Hanta.

Bill Halstead, a retired marine biologist, has resided 21 years on the river’s upper portion, near Linger Lodge.

When he first moved there 21 years ago, Lakewood Ranch did not yet exist. But even once housing developments started appearing along its banks, the river seemed to welcome its human neighbors without showing much damage.

“From my perception, yes, the river is relatively healthy,” he said.

What has changed, Halstead thinks, is the number of terrestrial animals, such as bobcats, panthers, foxes and otters.

“Habitat is disappearing,” said Halstead, who is an active member of the Old Braden River Historical Society, which is trying to preserve the river’s environmental and historical treasures. “When you knock down trees and build a home, there’s less home for the animals. They’ll move to where they’re comfortable living, and can hide, and where they can find food.”

Still, he saw three deer in his yard recently. And on a kayak trip a few weeks ago, Halstead saw more limpkins, a large wading bird, than he recalls ever seeing.

“I think the wildlife is reasonably stable except for some terrestrial animals,” he said. “River Club has built houses right on the river, but for the most part, because of our environmental laws, and the Manatee County comprehensive plan, I think things have been better controlled.

“The goal, in my opinion, is minimize the environmental impact of any development.”

‘Pretty good shape’

Gary S. Comp, regional manager of ecological and water resources for the consulting firm WilsonMiller, would concur.

“The Braden River is in pretty good shape, considering it flows through an urban area,” said Comp.

He cited changes like the federal Clean Water Act, which helps to keep rivers pristine, and better handling of stormwater runoff, which filters out contaminants like motor oil, sediment or heavy metals.

Also, respect for the river’s natural course is important in keeping it thriving, he said.

“The Braden River has not been channelized,” he said. “Through Lakewood Ranch, it’s all natural; in the river itself, I’m not aware of any channelized parts. Keeping it natural is more conducive to vegetation growth.

“Vegetation in the river does have a filtering effect,” he added. “The more you can keep a system natural, that’s the better way to do it.”

The combination of clean water, vibrant plant and animal life and lots of accessible places to play and work make the river a Manatee County asset.

At the Horseshoe Cove RV Park on 60th Street East, for instance, people can walk across a footbridge to an uninhabited island and find a fishing and boat dock.

“Actually, I think people just love the surroundings, the atmosphere, being located on the river is excellent because they can just walk across the bridge, and they’re on the island,” said Charlsie Cormier, office manager for the park. “It has a lot of wildlife — gators, bobcats, manatees, dolphins, cranes — we even have an osprey back there.

“It’s a nice area for picnicking for people who live here.”

Oscar Smith and his wife, Laureen, live in a modest home along the river’s northern end with a good selection of dogs and boats.

He operates a handyman service, Oscar Smith Home Solutions, from a home office; she is an occupational therapist who frequently works at home.

“It was by quirk of fate we found this house,” said Laureen Smith, who has lived there 23 years. “I didn’t even know I wanted to live on a river. Now, I’d never live anywhere else but on a river.”

They have a motorboat, a canoe and a kayak. They prefer the latter because it’s quiet and offers the best viewing of wildlife.

“It’s nice and peaceful out here,” she said. “My husband and I love nature — we don’t have to go to the beach, we have our vacation spot right here.”

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