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[ft-l] More hiking!

Before I start with the hiking for this past weekend, I have two things to 
clear up.

First, some of you might remember our little adventure with the sick deer at 
Hontoon Island.  Sadly, I must report that the little deer succumbed later 
that day from a bout with tetanus.  I'm not sure that I consider this good 
news, but you'll still be able to see the deer.  He'll be on display in the 
education center there on the island.

Secondly, I made a comment in my last report about Sumter County that some of 
you may misinterpret.  I said Sandy had difficulty finding hikes there.  
Please understand that her parameters for the book exclude the western 
corridor of the Florida Trail.  I just wanted to point out that we know about 
those trails.  Now, on to my new report:

On the previous holiday weekend we knocked out 8 hikes on 5 different 
properties in 4 days.  This weekend would be different.  We headed to the 
Citrus Tract of the Withlacoochee State Forest where a 42 mile loop trail 
awaited us. This loop will take us 5 days to hike and count as only one hike 
in Sandy's upcoming book.  We donned our blaze orange vests for the bow 
hunters were free to ply their hobby here this weekend.  We were surprised, 
however, to see gun-toting hunters on two occasions.  According to the posted 
hunting dates for this tract, this was plainly wrong, but we certainly 
weren't going to let them ruin our hike.  

The Citrus Tract is the largest part of the Withlacoochee State Forest and 
offers some real surprises for the hiker or backpacker.  Altogether there are 
four loops labeled A through D. totaling about 46 miles of trail.  We are 
hiking the outer loop which we expect to total about 42.  The trusty 
measuring wheel will verify it.  This weekend we hiked about 27 miles of it.  
We'll finish it in late December on a weekend not open to general hunting.

This is a high and dry tract.  Water is scarce and a backpacker will face 
logistical difficulties in that regard.  All the official campsites we've 
toured thus far are waterless.  We did see a rectangular shallow concrete 
cistern located on the northern part of the loop that is apparently for the 
equestrians to use.  Floating in the water were rotting tree branches and 
discarded beer and soda containers.  But, this trail is dry enough that a 
backpacker wouldn't dare pass this water up.  Just run it through your 
filter.  Your next water source is 16 miles away on the southwestern part of 
the loop.  Curiously, the southern part is relatively moist and there were 
three sources in about 5 miles.  Though we haven't yet hiked the eastern part 
of the loop, it looks dry on the map. And so far, Solar Bear's Rule number 1 
of loop trails is holding perfectly!

So far, all but the southern quarter of the loop are routed through sandhill 
and scrub habitats.  And unlike most of our other recent hikes, these 
habitats go on for mile after mile.  In this regard, hiking here compares 
very favorably with the Ocala National Forest.  When you are hiking here, you 
get a sense of the bigness of the land you are hiking through.  A nice 
contrast to the loops shoehorned into postage stamp sized parcels, parcels 
nice for hiking, but inadequate if you be bear or panther.  The northern half 
of this tract contains a large degree of longleaf pine and wiregrass habitat, 
truly one of my favorites.  Though it might be more varied for a hiker to 
pass through 5 or 6 habitat zones in a day, there is too much to analyze when 
you are trying to understand plant communities.  Brain overload results.  
Here we could ponder the nuances and let them sink in.  Marvel at the fence 
lizards that dart to the far side of the tree when you approach, but if you 
are persistent, they eventually grow tired of the game and rely on their 
camouflage to protect them.  At that point they remain still and let you 
study and photograph them.  It was then I first caught a glimpse of the gaudy 
blue neck coloring they have, no doubt a great attractor to the opposite sex.

We were surprised to see two deer.  We wish them well in their battle of wits 
with the hunters.  They have more to lose, and I'm with the underdogs!  
Animal tracks abounded along the sandy trail.  Having seen bobcat tracks 
before, we saw cat tracks here that were larger, making us surmise that they 
were panther tracks.  How exciting!

Unfortunately, the equestrians seem to have taken a liking to our "hiking 
only" trails here.  In some places we hiked along narrow grooves eroded to a 
depth of 6 or 8 inches.  In other spots, the sand has been loosened up into a 
state no hiker enjoys plodding through, but those were not the worst sins.  
At one point on the second day of hiking, the trail passed the largest cedar 
tree I've ever seen in Florida, its main trunk almost 8 feet in diameter.  
Wow!  Yet, upon looking up at the branches directly above the trail, one sees 
evidence that two major limbs of this ancient tree had been cut.  Too high 
for it to be of concern to hikers, but one only need look to the hoof prints 
below to see that this pruning was required to make our footpath passable for 
horse riders.  How sad.  HOW VILE!  I communed a moment with the tree, hoping 
that someday I will be granted some comprehension of the language of the 
trees.  I have many years left in this life, not many more to be wasted in 
further pursuits of economic or other endeavors deemed valuable by society.  
I shall invest those precious years in the society of trees, learning their 
ways and means, finding happiness and contentment on my own terms in Nature's 

After nearly two days of sandhill and scrub, the character of the land 
changed.  Soon we were hiking a rocky limestone trail.  Soon we came to the 
scene of a cave, a cave Sandy had descended 80 feet into on a previous outing 
with a caving group.  We had no such intent on this trip, but studied the 
ferns growing from its exposed limestone surface.  I studied the cave, the 
first I had ever seen in Florida.  Suddenly, it dawned on me that a pair of 
eyes was studying me as well!  A happy and cute mouse was busy doing mouse 
things in the cave.  The cave presented countless crevices the mouse could 
use for shelter, protection, and storage of food.  The mouse scurried all 
about, darting in and out of view as its chores took it deeper in or back out 
of the cave.  What a wonderful home!  Sandy got many pictures, at times 
leaning precariously over the precipice.

We were back on Sunday and were blessed by Nature again.  Shortly after 
starting, we saw two bald eagles up in the canopy of a tree maybe 50 yards 
away.  I'm guessing a mated pair.  They were cavorting and I think they were 
oblivious to us.  In their play, one swooped down below the canopy and flew 
unerringly between the tree trunks as low as 6 feet from the ground for 
several hundred yards before emerging out into the open.  For about 10 
seconds we were mesmerized.  Unfortunately this stuff happens too fast to get 
photos, but I'm not complaining.  It was a spectacular memory.  To see that 
six foot wingspan down at our level and so close only magnified the stature 
and grace of our national bird.

After a couple miles, we came to the Lizzie Hart Sink.  Now I haven't a clue 
who Lizzie Hart was, but I wonder how it came to be that she got a sinkhole 
named after her, and whether that can be considered an honor!  (Of course, 
I'm guessing Sandy will take this as a challenge and find out for the book. 
He he he!)  This was a spectacular region of trail.  Up until now, I've 
considered the Suwannee to be the most varied and dramatic Florida landscape 
I've hiked.  (Sorry Panhandlers.  I'm still ignorant of your trails, but 
Nimblewill Nomad has painted a word picture for me of what I can expect, so I 
mean no disrespect.)  This section of trail has everything, a sinkhole that 
you could actually examine and see where the limestone collapsed.  And by 
that I mean you could stand on the big limestone formation that gave way and 
see for yourself where it had been before the collapse.  This was even a 
great surprise to Sandy who has written a book on sinkholes.  This was also a 
rocky trail.  I'm not talking, "Hey, there's a rock."  I'm talking, "Watch 
every step so you don't turn an ankle."  And some fun elevation gain.  No, it 
didn't last long, but it was sure steep.  And the sinkhole had transformed 
the flora.  Big oaks and hickories abounded, somehow bigger and more stately 
than those not under the spell of the sinkhole.  A rare swamp chestnut oak 
with its leaves that just don't seem right for Central Florida and its huge 
acorns much bigger than others residing hereabouts.  More caves!  This 
sinkhole is an ecological playground!

Still we hiked.  Several miles farther, just as Lizzie Hart's spell was 
receding, we came to a dry streambed that presents us with a riddle.  First 
let me describe it.  It is a steep walled canyon, in one place 15 to 18 feet 
deep.  At that place the eroded surface is of an impermeable clayey layer 
that has the appearance of sandstone, but softer.  At the low spot of this 
streambed lay a small pool of water with the characteristic blue gray 
limestone tint to it, with small fish swimming in it.  One sees a pothole, 
the rock that is extruding it still in place.  The streambed is narrow and 
"V" shaped indicating a fast moving stream has eroded it.  Yet, here is the 
puzzle.  Where is the water?  Is this only a seasonal stream?  If so, what is 
its source?  A seasonal spring?  Or is the aquifer here still below the level 
of a spring that used to run continually, but has still not recovered from 
the effects of the drought?  It's just a guess, but I favor the last 
hypothesis.  I hope Sandy finds out.  I'm curious, but lazy!  :)

The trail crosses then follows this mysterious, but beautiful streambed 
downstream to where it empties into another sinkhole, this one filled with 
water.  We saw evidence of other drainages to this sinkhole, but none 
flowing.  Obviously, from here, the waters find their way back into the 
aquifer.  Again, it was so much to see and experience and think about.

The trail continues on and crosses Stagecoach Road and then skirts Stage 
Pond.  It doesn't take much imagination to guess that here was a route and a 
watering stop for early settlers and travelers.  So now the mind shifts gears 
again, from caves and sinkholes, dried up springs and aquifers, to thoughts 
of history, thoughts of early Florida settlers.  What kind of paradise had 
they found in those days before air conditioning and insect control.  Can we 
really comprehend the strength and courage of these folks?  And the mind can 
wonder back further still, to the Native Americans who didn't fight to tame 
Nature, but rather find a way to live with Her.  Something to ponder.

Eventually we made it back to the car, hot and tired because of the 
unseasonable hot temperatures.  What a better way to end the weekend's 
excitement but with a stop at Dairy Queen and a dip in the hot tub!  Ah, the 
decadence of 21st century hikers!

Happy trails,

Solar Bear and Navigator