By Erika Webb
Somewhere around 120 meals were served at the Friends of Hontoon Island semi-annual fundraiser at the state park Oct. 19.
That's a lot of ferry rides across the St. Johns River.
Park manager Mike Hayes said the cookouts for cash started 2-1/2 years ago after a board-of-directors changeover brought some new ideas for the park to the table.
"At the Friends of Hontoon Island meetings they have potlucks after. Everybody loves that," Mr. Hayes said.
So the group decided to host a meal-based membership drive in March 2011. Not only did the first event generate more memberships, it spawned four more events, which have generated even more memberships and raised part of the funds for a new playground, which was completed a week before this fall's cookout.
The playground was completed in two phases.
"Phase 1 was very simple -- one little slide, a climbing area and monkey bars," Mr. Hayes said.
Phase 2 added two more slides -- a "swish slide" and a taller, faster slide, chin-up bar, disc challenge and Air Dancer.
The PlayBooster Air Dancer lets kids use arm, leg and abdominal muscles, building total-body strength, coordination and agility, according to www.playlsi.com.
A park manager's job is never done.
"I waited till it was dark out and went on that high slide to see how fast it was," Mr. Hayes said. "I was surprised at how quick it was."
A wise camper would stay tuned, phone at the ready to film the next "testing" session. YouTube waits.
"It went from a very basic playground set to a very nice playground set and we're very proud of it," Mr. Hayes added.
At the next Friends meeting, Mr. Hayes said, money will be collected for playground surfacing or a phase 2 swing set.
This year's event brought a good turnout considering the limited parking available across the pond on River Ridge Road, he said.
Friends of Hontoon provide the food, some of which is donated by area businesses.
"Sonny's (Real Pit Bar-B-Q) donates the drinks and Winn Dixie provides the hamburgers," Mr. Hayes said.
A local Bluegrass band also donates time and talent to the cause.
The organization usually clears around $250 per cookout, only a portion of the money raised each year for improvements.
"But the event introduces a lot of people to the park and that's one of the objectives," Mr. Hayes explained. "We get new (Friends of Hontoon) members every time."
He said the bulk of the park-benefiting funds are collected in the Island Store, where camping items, drinks, chips, chocolate, firewood and ice are sold.
And from other parks.
"As a park system we support each other," Mr. Hayes said. "Parks like Blue Spring, Anastasia and Bahia Honda that make a lot of money ... all of that goes into a state trust fund to help support parks that don't generate as much."
Hontoon Island State Park likely has been occupied for more than 6,000 years, the park manager explained.
"Native Americans were probably the first inhabitants," he said.
And probably the ones who carved the owl totem recovered from the St. Johns River during a 1955 dragline operation. It was found in the vicinity of the Hontoon parking lot, near a burial ground established more than 3,300 years ago.
"That's been the most significant find," Mr. Hayes said. "At first they thought it was just a log, it was so muddy. It was quite a discovery."
Easily accessible at the end of one of the park's trails is a 30-foot rise.
"Native American Indians gathered shellfish from the St. Johns River more than 2,000 years ago. The discarded shells accumulated over the years and can be seen from the hiking trail at the southwest corner of the island," states floridastateparks.org.
Mr. Hayes said there are other mounds on the island, "just no paths to them."
"The University of Florida had groups out there a few years and have done excavations," he said. "Some individual archaeologists have been out there too."
He said the "typical mound" has yielded mostly broken pottery and small shells.
One mound sits under the sign and flagpoles at the front of the park. Park Ranger Ron Rogers said it once was around the size of the large mound at the end of the hiking trail.
"They dug out the shell and used it to build roads in DeLand in the '30s," Ranger Rogers said.
The island has also been a pioneer homestead, a boat yard, a center for commercial fishing and a cattle ranch throughout the years, the website noted.
In the 1920s, the island was a refuge for a northern federal agent who came to the area to investigate organized crime, according to information posted in the museum.
Several years ago, the Friends of Hontoon Island raised enough funds and procured a grant to erect a $100,000 museum at the park.
"For this small island, that's pretty significant," Mr. Hayes said.
The group also added a pavilion and regularly buys the canoes and electric motors for the ferries.
Whatever the park manager asks for, his Friends provide.
"If they have the money they're glad to give it up," he said.
And if they don't have the money, they have a fundraiser "like the cookout."
The day to day operation requires all hands on deck, too.
"We have Friends of Hontoon, and we also have volunteers who come out and operate the store one or two hours a week," Mr. Hayes said. "Some, once they're qualified, run the ferry. You get to meet a lot of people and interpret the island to them."
Those who prefer not to work directly with the public are appreciated for helping with grounds and trail maintenance.
"We're always looking for volunteers," Mr. Hayes added.
This is the time of year when campsites at Hontoon Island start filling up. Though some outdoors people do brave the summer heat and mosquitoes, Mr. Hayes said the park does not reach full capacity.
There are 12 tent sites and six rustic cabins, which provide elevated shelter from the elements without modern day conveniences.
"The cabins have a screened room and one outlet," Mr. Hayes said. "People bring everything for tent camping except the tent."
There also is a centralized bath house.
He said visitors enjoy sightings of "typical Florida animals," including squirrels, raccoons, armadillos, hawks, eagles, a variety of snakes and osprey.
Some swim over for a picnic and some stay. Some play now you see me, now you don't.
"There's a pretty good population of deer," Mr. Hayes said. "Sometimes you'll see a lot and sometimes you'll swear there's not a deer on the island."
Bear and bobcat sightings are not unusual and once, Mr. Hayes said, a pregnant bear swam to the island to give birth, eventually swimming back across the river with her cub in tow.
Mr. Hayes has been at Hontoon Island for more than seven years, following a stint on Bahia Honda in the Florida Keys.
"You can't hate working for the park service," Mr. Hayes said ... with a wave as he went down the slide, just kidding.