Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Misty Mornin' Hop, Part Two

After backtracking from the river and glade, I stepped onto the road’s shoulder and walked across Morris Bridge. A couple cars zipped by, and, as often happens, I wondered if the drivers had any inkling of the natural beauty that sits just off road waiting to be explored:

On the other side of the bridge, I climbed down onto the boardwalk that passes underneath. A great blue heron was standing by the river no more than 15 feet away, but as soon as I reached for my camera it took flight and flapped upstream on its enormous wings. Thus began a one-minute stretch in which I found myself close to several photogenic birds but failed to get any photos.

Soon after emerging from the bridge, the boardwalk empties into a shaded parking lot where a broad-winged hawk was sitting on a low-hanging branch. He did not flinch as I approached holding my camera; however, when I lifted it to snap a picture, he went airborne in the beat of an eye and vanished into the trees.

And when I made it to the trail on the opposite side of the parking lot, I saw a pair of wood ducks swimming in a creek. That would seem to be the perfect place to take a picture, because shouldn’t water slow a creature down? However -- there’s that word again -- when they saw me they managed to go from floating to flying with stunning speed.

With that, I decided to forge ahead and forget about trying to photograph the animals. A minute later I arrived at a live oak with thick, green resurrection ferns growing on its trunk. Knowing that our area’s resurrections had been brown just a week or two before, I interpreted this as a sign of impending spring:

Back on December 6th I wrote about an intersection of trails “from which the Main Trail turns south; the Heartbreak Ridge Trail goes east; and an unnamed side trail goes north…” As I passed the ferns two Saturdays ago, I was walking on the Main Trail and heading for that intersection, eager to check out the Heartbreak Ridge since I skipped it on my prior visit.

After travelling east through pine flatwoods, the Main Trail arrives at the intersection a half-mile from the parking lot, at a spot where the forest abruptly switches from a dry one dominated by softwoods to a damp one dominated by hardwoods. The mucky earth is scoured by the wallows of wild boars:

This forest becomes so dense you could be standing next to a large animal and not see it:

That morning, it was very obvious that some of its sights were early signs of spring:

If you hike the Heartbreak Ridge Trail, you will notice that the sign describes it as “extremely difficult.” This being Florida, that description is clearly an exaggeration, but the trail does have lots of roots that warrant caution and could challenge a mountain biker. Also, you won’t see anything resembling a ridge, but don’t worry: The forest’s beauty makes up for its lack of elevation change.

Approximately five minutes after stepping onto the Heartbreak Ridge Trail you reach an unsigned intersection with another trail. Continuing straight, the Heartbreak Ridge crosses one of its two wooden footbridges before shifting its direction southward:

It took me twenty minutes to hike the entirety of the Heartbreak Ridge. It ends by emptying onto another trail, which I can only assume is the Main Trail because there was no sign to identify it.

I would have kept going to determine whether this “new” trail was indeed the Main Trail, but I had promised to be home at an early hour, so I turned around and made my way back through the morning mist, listening to the insistent chatter of squirrels -- one of whom was kind enough to alleviate my earlier frustration by allowing me to take his picture:

Happy Trails!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Misty Mornin' Hop, Part One

Fog wrapped itself around the forest shortly before seven a.m. on Saturday. After a two-month absence, I was happy to be back in Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve and checking out some trails I skipped during prior visits.

I stepped onto the Main Trail from the same trailhead mentioned in my November 29th post, and within seconds the scenery inverted the message of that old saying about missing the forest for the trees. This forest was foggy, all right, but now that I was seeing it up close, fog became the last thing I noticed. Instead I was struck by all the little things that usually get overlooked, like contours on bark and dew drops on leaves:

There were signs that spring is knocking on our door. While many of the deciduous trees remained leafless, some were sporting bright green leaf buds, and new maple leaves were especially abundant. A scattering of shed blossoms on the ground revealed that the Carolina jessamine, a tree-faring vine, has already completed its yearly bloom:

A few minutes from the trailhead I came to a T intersection and turned left, onto a side trail that my November 29th post described as going “south to points that are unknown to me.” On this day I was going to find out what those points are.

A chorus of birdsong lightened the mood as the trail traveled downhill into a glade. Although I am not typically given to thoughts of fantasy, the word “enchanting” is what came to mind when I saw the look of its emerald hue in the fog-softened light. Having heard Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On” the night before, I thought of that song’s allusions to Tolkien and lyrics about “days of old when magic filled the air.”

About two-tenths of a mile after turning onto this trail I arrived at the Hillsborough River, along whose bank the trail travels in both directions:

I opted to go right and head in the opposite direction from the road. A plump red cardinal flitted around a riverside bush and my attempts to photograph him were not successful. Fortunately, the trail’s faint route proved to be a good photo subject in its own right, with water to its left and open woods to its right:

Eventually it petered out among a cluster of cypress knees. Navigation-wise, it would have been easy to keep walking since all the trail was doing was following the river; however, knowing this area is home to large numbers of alligators and cottonmouths, I did an about face after going only 50 or so steps beyond the blazed path.

After all, this was not the only trail I wanted to explore that morning. And with that in mind, I started heading east…

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Brooker Creek

Pinellas County is about the last place you would expect to find a big tract of undeveloped land. Surrounded by water on three sides and crowded with shoulder-to-shoulder municipalities, it has long been known as the most densely populated county in the state. When I was growing up in Pinellas, if you had told me it was home to a thriving wilderness of more than 15 square miles, I would have thought you were crazy...and thankfully, I would have been wrong:

Located east of Tarpon Springs and Palm Harbor, that wilderness has since been set aside and today is managed by the county. It goes by the name Brooker Creek Preserve, and even more surprising than its presence is the fact that it is larger than any of the state parks in the five-county area that stretches from Manatee to Hernando.

The preserve’s green tapestry is woven of bottomland hardwood swamps, cypress heads, oak hammocks, forests of longleaf pine, and some freshwater marshes. Enough trees shed their leaves for winter that the tapestry is not entirely green at this moment, but it is pretty nonetheless. On my visit yesterday I enjoyed the look of barren limbs against blue sky:

Contrary to what you might expect, Brooker Creek itself is not a singular waterway. Rather, it crosses the preserve in a series of channels that eventually merge before flowing into Lake Tarpon to the west. Some of them run dry during times of drought, only to get so full during the wet season that they spill over and flood the surrounding woods. Here is one of those channels as seen yesterday:

Brooker Creek Preserve’s main entrance is on the south side of Tarpon Springs Road, 2¼ miles east of East Lake Boulevard. Through that entrance is a 2.3-mile loop road with a parking lot at the 1.1-mile mark. That parking lot is where you will find access to a southward-spreading network of hiking trails, totaling just over 4¼ miles, plus an environmental education center constructed in Florida Pioneer-style architecture. The education center is at the end of a scenic boardwalk that passes under a sculpture made by Colorado artist Tim Upham:

The trails may be accessed from the sign in the parking lot or from behind the education center. It makes no difference which you choose, because the trailheads represent opposite ends of the 0.7-mile Ed Center Trail, a semi-circular path that links up with the Wilderness Trail and Flatwoods Trail…In turn, both of those link up with the Blackwater Cutoff Trail, as the Flatwoods Trail intersects its northern terminus and the Wilderness Trail intersects its southern…At one point rather far afield, the Blackwater Cutoff intersects the Pine Needle Path, which stakes out to the south and meets up with the Wilderness Trail at the furthest spot you can reach without going illegally off-trail…Oh, and I have not even mentioned the Bird Path, a short side route off the Ed Center Trail all the way back near the beginning.

Sound confusing? It probably does, but the good news is that it all makes sense when you look at the trail map and follow the numbered signs. Maps are free and can be picked up from dispensers at the trailheads.

It is worth noting that while this trail network is the only one accessible from Brooker Creek Preserve’s main entrance, it is not the only one in the preserve. There is a second preserve entrance on Old Keystone Road, which turns north from Tarpon Springs Road about 1½ miles to the west. This second entrance provides access to a northward-spreading, 10-mile network of equestrian trails, and though I have not tried to hike them, I suppose there is nothing stopping you from doing so as long as you don’t mind always being on the lookout for “horse pies.”

Lastly, a third entrance to Brooker Creek Preserve can be found on Lora Lane, which turns south from Tarpon Springs Road about a half-mile west of the main entrance. The downside of the Lora Lane access point is that there are no parking spaces, but the upside is that it leads you to a 1¾-mile path that is identified as Site W81 on the Great Florida Birding Trail.

I can not think of any reason not to visit Brooker Creek this time of year, so I encourage you to point your car in its direction as soon as you can. Happy Trails!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Lettuce Lake

Lettuce Lake Park is one of those places that everybody knows about but nobody thinks of as a hiking destination.

One reason for that might be the kneejerk tendency of some hikers to think that walking in the outdoors only counts as hiking when it is done in obscure places devoid of fellow humans. Another might be that some people have a kind of “wilderness snobbery” that looks down on places whose only walkways are a 0.7-mile boardwalk and 1.1-mile fitness trail. But look at what they would be missing by skipping such walkways!

Yet another reason for the mental disconnect might be that some people assume a park can’t be very wild when it is close to office buildings and apartment complexes. However, I take the opposite view: What could better prove Nature’s power and omnipresence than the fact that a place this lush sits so close, and so seamlessly, next to civilization?

Lettuce Lake Park is a Hillsborough County Park, so be prepared to pay the $2 entry fee when you arrive. Then prepare to not be disappointed. The boardwalk wends through a hardwood swamp along the side of Lettuce Lake -- which is not really a lake, but an offshoot of the Hillsborough River that hooks east then north from the river itself. Along the boardwalk is a five-level observation tower providing this bird’s eye view:

If you enjoy looking for wildlife, you may find Lettuce Lake Park to be a kind of gold mine. Every time I come here I see multiple turtles basking on logs, and it seems like there are wading birds hanging out everywhere there is water. Some of them are easy to spot, like this white ibis:

Others require you to walk more slowly and be more observant. What might at first appear to be nothing more than a piece of wood, might upon closer inspection prove to be a black-crowned night heron:

And if you are partial to mammals, don’t worry. There are plenty of them here, including this squirrel who was more than happy to entertain me when I visited the park during my lunch hour this afternoon:

In addition to the boardwalk and fitness trail, Lettuce Lake Park has a playground, picnic tables, and several shelters that make for great places to host a kid’s birthday party. It also has an educational center.

Plus, it has a canoe launch in case you wish to experience the “lake” and river closer than you can from the boardwalk. You may bring your own boat, or rent one at a rate of $25 for every four hours. If you paddle south out of the park you will head toward the city of Tampa. If you paddle north, the river will turn east and lead you to its intricate passage through Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve.

The entrance to Lettuce Lake Park is on the north side of Fletcher Avenue, about one mile west of I-75. Trust me, this is a park you do not want to miss. Happy Trails!