Serenity amid urban hubbub
By CHRISTINA HEADRICK, Times Staff Writer
CLEARWATER -- Near the Long Center's swimming pool, a nondescript city sign marks the beginning of the Clearwater East-West Trail. The roughly 4.5-mile trail reaches from the Long Center to Cooper's Bayou, where it meets a sidewalk that leads north to Safety Harbor.
"Begin," the sign says. Which is what we did one warm, breezy morning last week, as this reporter and a photographer strolled the trail to check it out.
Mostly what we saw, by the way, was a mix of old Florida woods, urban development and lots of power walkers.
As we left the Long Center, a branch of Alligator Creek bubbled on one side of the trail, and several white ibises and a great egret picked around in a retention pond on the other.
Although we could hear a riding lawn-mower in the distance, the trail was shady, cool and serene. A few spider webs caught the sunlight. A dragonfly glinted as it alighted on a small shrub near the path. A sweaty morning jogger passed us.
From here, the trail traversed Coachman Ridge Park, a tamer place with a playground, tennis and basketball courts, and crossed NE Coachman Road into the aptly named Northeast Coachman Park. At the south end of the park, the trail bridged a very overgrown part of Alligator Creek where several species of butterflies fluttered.
Al and Judy Manis, a couple from Dayton, Ohio, who were visiting friends in Safety Harbor, appeared riding their bicycles over the bridge above the creek.
"When we're down here, we try to do it every day," said Mr. Manis, who is 67 and has about 2,139 miles logged already on his Trek Navigator 100 bike since last July. On this day, their destination was Clearwater Beach.
"We like the trail because it has some hills," he said, in addition to being pretty.
When the Manises reached the Long Center, they said they would take roads to reach the beach.
But that will change by the end of 2004, said Jon Russell, who coordinates bikeways for the city. The city has been aggressively pursuing state and federal grants to cover most of the costs of extending the East-West Trail to the beach.
By the end of 2004, trailgoers will be able to head south on the future extension of the Pinellas Trail along Old Coachman Road beneath Florida Power lines. Then the city has a $5.2-million federal grant to build a trail along Druid Road to downtown.
From there, the new $69-million causeway being built to Clearwater Beach will have a 15-foot section devoted to pedestrians, bikers and skaters. The trail will end dramatically, crossing over a miniature version of the Sunshine Skyway. The short, $3.2-million bridge with yellow cables will be between the edge of a small island and the beach.
But that's the future, and on this day, we were headed the other way to Old Tampa Bay.
After leaving Northeast Coachman Park, we walked through the least scenic part of the trail.
We passed a weather-beaten exhibit about wetlands at a county drainage pond. Then we crossed Old Coachman Road again, feeling like eggs in a frying pan in the open area. Before us, city garbage trucks rumbled in and out of the Clearwater Solid Waste Transfer Station. Seagulls squawked overhead.
On the other side of the trail lay the Philadelphia Phillies' Carpenter Field training complex and just to the south, the future site of a new spring training stadium. Ospreys stood sentry at two nests that were visible from the trail among the baseball complex's lights.
We followed the trail around the complex and bridged the creek again. Above us, cars whooshed along U.S. 19. Down where we were, the highway's embankment was littered with potato chip bags and empty cans of Natural Ice beer.
Yet, elderberry -- with its fragrant clusters of small, white flowers and dark purple berries that can be made into wine -- was flourishing here. And primrose willow, with its lovely, 2-inch-wide, sunshine yellow flowers, also was spreading out. (Florida botanists disagree whether the pretty plant is an invading species, or a native one that has become much more common. But either way, it's an aggressive plant.)
From here, we followed the trail underneath U.S. 19 and entered a shady hardwood hammock that runs between Moccasin Lake Nature Park and Cliff Stephens Park. The hammock is home to live oaks, laurel oaks and water oaks, which you can tell apart by their leaves, according to Alan Mayberry, the city's urban forestry manager, who gave an impromptu identification lesson after our trip.
Laurel oaks and water oaks have smooth leaves on both sides, while live oaks have thin hairs on the greenish-blue backsides of their leaves. Besides that, water oak leaves are tear-drop shaped and laurel oak leaves are pointed and narrow. Live oak leaves are oval with rounded tips and gently concave, like a boat. The bark of live oaks is furrowed.
There is one terrific example of a live oak along the East-West Trail. As we strolled through Cliff Stephens Park, a huge live oak appeared just north of the path, offering shade to joggers and power-walkers who passed occasionally beneath its sprawling canopy.
Although Mayberry puts the tree's age at a maximum of 60 years, the 3.5-foot-diameter tree has the classic oak architecture with gnarled, serpentine branches draped in Spanish moss. You can lose yourself looking up into the branches. Live oaks can grow up to three times larger than this tree, Mayberry said, and can live 350 to 400 years, with some trees older than that.
But back to our trip. As we rounded a bend in the trail, the woods dissipated and we could see the small lake in Cliff Stephens Park. The area was a terrific place to watch for all varieties of egrets and herons, roseate spoonbills, wood storks, ibises, limpkins, moorhens, ducks, cormorants and anhingas, and we spotted a half-dozen species quickly.
Occasionally, a red-tailed hawk or a bald eagle makes an appearance, and it is also possible to sight a pileated woodpecker or a yellow-shafted flicker, said Cliff Norris, who supervises the nearby Moccasin Lake Nature Park.
The water is inhabited by a variety of turtle species and alligators, while the areas where the trees break into open spaces are places to see raccoons, marsh and cottontail rabbits and armadillos. The best times to spot wildlife are early morning or dusk, Norris said.
Construction crews also will be spotted in this area from June through September, Russell said. A parallel, 10-foot-wide, smooth asphalt path is to be laid next to the smaller walking path between Carpenter Field and the edge of Cliff Stephens Park.
From here, we followed the East-West Trail across Fairwood Avenue and meandered between the Brigadoon townhomes and Eisenhower Elementary School. We braved a few rare Florida hills (10 percent grade) and entered another hardwood hammock.
The live oaks here were slender, younger and mostly growing straight up, competing for the light. Saw palmettos, which get their name from the prickles on their stalks, clustered around the bases of the trees. Between the oaks and palmettos, there were easily several dozen shades of green at play. Another walker and then another jogger passed by.
Just to the north was the Friendly Village of Kapok, a mobile home park that the city has purchased. After the residents are relocated within the year, the park will be flooded to alleviate drainage problems farther upstream and yet another nature park will be created here with a trail spur branching off into the park.
And around the corner was the Eddie C. Moore Complex. The plants here, such as sweet magnolia trees, like transitional areas between wetlands and uplands, Mayberry said. From here, we followed the trail to McMullen-Booth Road, where a $2.2-million pedestrian overpass is slated to be built by fall of next year. People using the trail are supposed to cross at the Drew Street light until then.
On the other side of the road, we resumed the trail through Del Oro Park. The trail here is wide asphalt path, bordered by two concrete curbs on either side. This is what the East-West Trail will look like across Clearwater when the city has completed it, Russell said.
The trail took us through the quiet Del Oro Groves neighborhood to the edge of Cooper's Bayou, where the city will be replacing sidewalks and extending its wide, paved trail within the next year to Safety Harbor.
We didn't quite make it that far though. It was hot, and we decided to call a co-worker to pick us up for lunch.
The trail at a glance
Trail length: 4.5 miles
Future length: 12 miles
How it got started: Art Kader, the city's assistant parks and recreation director, came to work for Clearwater in 1978 and had the idea to start buying slivers of land to connect city facilities and parks with a trail.
How it got its name: It's never been officially named. Park officials decided to use the obvious "East-West" label until they figured out something better.
Users: An estimated 1,000 people weekly.
Reasons people gave for using the trail last week: Trying to lose weight before visiting in-laws this summer. Enjoying a daily exercise routine. Biking to the beach.
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