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Outer Limits: Happy Trails

Miles and miles of beautiful paths are waiting for you out there. But, please, fellow hikers, keep an eye out for spider webs along the way.

By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 14, 2002

DADE CITY -- I am barely two minutes from the parking lot and nature is pushing my expectations far too high.

To the right of the trail, perhaps 100 feet into the woods, is the largest animal I could have hoped to spot on this morning hike. By the time I spot the deer, it is well aware of the man with the backpack and ballcap. I blink, and the deer is leaping away, white tail bobbing among the shrubs for a split-second before it disappears.

I can appreciate the beauty of the foliage. I can enjoy the peaceful outdoors and the concept of walking as exercise. But, ultimately, I'm still a little kid in that I'll judge this foray into the forest based on the animals I encounter.

* * *

It's just past 7 a.m. Wednesday when I see the deer. I'm breaking a basic rule of hiking, passed down from trailmasters Rodgers and Hammerstein: You'll never walk alone. The original plan was for a photographer to accompany me, but the shoot was pushed to Friday in hopes of better weather.

This first trip into the Withlacoochee River Park is a scouting trip, and a solo one at that.

I'm alone but armed with a compass, first-aid kit, proper footwear, a thick layer of bug repellent and ample water, plus a cellphone in the unlikely and humbling scenario that I lose myself on a ridiculously well-marked trail. The phone might not even carry a signal from a few miles in, so I ask myself, "If a "send' button is pressed in an empty forest, does it make a sound?"

* * *

The Withlacoochee River Park Trail is a side trail along the Florida Trail, a 1,300-mile pathway north from the Everglades through Ocala National Forest and west to Pensacola. The trail at Withlacoochee is a 5.3-mile loop, including 1.7 miles along the river.

In the middle of the park is a four-story observation tower, offering a beautiful view in all directions. The trails are marked, or blazed, with red and orange markings painted on tree trunks about 6 feet off the ground. The rectangles are 2 by 6 inches, about the size of a dollar bill standing on its side. The markings are spaced out close enough to keep hikers on the correct path, though exactly how far apart they should be is a source of debate.

"Not everyone out there is a true hiker, and we don't want anyone to get lost," said Julia Weary, section leader for the Richloam Tract, north of the Withlacoochee section and just off State Road 50. "Some paths are so well-worn, you think, "Why do they need blazes?' Sometimes, when there's a lot of rain and a lot of growth, you can lose the trail."

Weary recalls one volunteer, a man in his 80s, who grew tired of painting blaze after blaze.

"He stopped and said, "If they can't see these, they shouldn't be out here," Weary said. "But then not long after that, he got lost. It happens."

In addition to the longer trail, the Withlacoochee park also has a 2.5-mile guided "interpretive trail," with 20 numbered stations and a free guidebook to walk you through the highlights. Even on this short trip, the terrain changes quickly from sandhill to prairie, marsh to cypress swamp before finishing along the river.

* * *

Two days later, I'm back along the Withlacoochee with an entourage. I've enlisted the help of my brother, Steve, an Eagle Scout and sophomore at the University of Florida. Times photographer Lance Rothstein is also with us, and now that there are three of us -- including one with a camera -- I'm glad it's been a while since I've seen The Blair Witch Project.

From Dade City, we've driven five miles east on River Road to the park, then back through dirt roads to a central parking lot by the canoe launch. It's rained enough that the lower docks on each side of the walkway are submerged under a few inches of water. A red sign warns "NO SWIMMING," with a picture of a person who looks like Edward Munsch's The Scream drowning. We hit a trail that breaks off a short distance from the canoe launch.

I've told them about the deer but warned them we might not see much in the way of wildlife. We spot a young egret, a turtle, a few squirrels but little else. Online trail guides mention a menagerie of other inhabitants, from foxes and bobcats to feral pigs, alligators and armadillos, but we've missed them. Lance makes a good point: Our generation is spoiled by Discovery Channel specials edited so tightly the host seems to stumble on an animal every 3 feet.

The biggest obstacles on the trail are endless spiderwebs, which catch the early-morning sun just in time to warn unsuspecting hikers. The heat and rain of summer months make it the slow season for Florida hiking, allowing impressively large golden silk spiders to weave impressively large webs across the length of the pass.

As the lead hiker in our trio, I already know to keep my eyes on the trail ahead. Spotting a web ahead of time allows a hiker to limbo under it, while looking off in the distance will get you a face full of silk.

After stepping into a few webs, I begin walking with one arm extended in front of me, as if in constant salute to the forest. Steve, after stepping into two webs a few feet apart while leading the pack, begins waving his arms in front of him as if he's dog-paddling in air. Lance has the common sense to stay back and watch us walk into web after web. Collectively, we have set the local spider community back several weeks in its work.

* * *

The most impressive aspect of the trail is how well-kept it is. Litter is nearly impossible to find, and debris along the path is surprisingly little despite weeks of steady rains.

The Florida Trail Association is a volunteer, not-for-profit organization, and the Suncoast chapter covers nine counties, down the coast from Citrus to Manatee counties. Volunteer hours are collected like badges of honor -- a green, footprint-shaped Trail Blazer patch is given for 10 hours with bars added for every 100 hours.

Last year, the 12 trails in the Suncoast area combined for 4,402 volunteer hours -- the equivalent of a five-person crew working 'round-the-clock for 37 days. What's missing, however, are younger volunteers to continue the commitment to preserving the trails. Weary, 70, has been volunteering for 25 years, as have most of her core group of a half-dozen or so.

"We need some young blood," she said. "We'd love to have some young people get involved. It would be really nice if more young people get the hiking bug."

* * *

We leave the Withlacoochee trail in hopes of catching a group hike south of Zephyrhills off U.S. 301 at Dead River Wilderness Park. We arrive a half-hour after the group left, but we set off hoping to catch up on the loop back. Thunder rumbles as we leave the parking lot, and 15 minutes later, the sky looks more like dusk than midmorning.

I'm reminded of the joke that asks how far you can walk into a forest, the clever answer being halfway, because after that you're walking out. We're close to halfway between Dead River and the Hillsborough River State Park when Lance asks if we should head back to avoid getting soaked.

Steve and I agree, and within a minute of our about-face, it's pouring. The rain does solve one problem better than even Deep Woods Off: Amid a steady downpour, the bugs have disappeared. One last thing to add to the list of essentials: a poncho.

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