The isolated wilderness of the Green Swamp is a pleasing and puzzling potpourri of history and mystery.
By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor
Published December 2, 2005
THE GREEN SWAMP - Coyotes howl in the distance as the moon peaks above the pine trees, illuminating a wilderness playground few Floridians know exists.
It's midnight and the temperature is dropping but I've abandoned the warmth of the campfire in hope of solving a mystery that appears almost supernatural in origin.
They call this place a "swamp," but much of the land is high and dry, a mixture of hardwood hammock, pine flatwoods and sandhill scrub, interspersed with the occasional stand of cypress trees.
Covering some 870 square miles in Pasco, Hernando, Polk, Lake and Sumter counties, the Green Swamp serves as the headwaters to four major rivers: the Hillsborough, the Withlacoochee, the Ocklawaha and the Peace.
With its highest point 130 feet above sea level, this region is a major recharge area for the Floridan Aquifer, the state's water supply.
Indians lived here long before the Egyptians built their first pyramid. The Swamp's inhospitable terrain set the tone for Spanish conquistador Hernando De Soto's ill-fated attempt to conquer the Florida peninsula.
Later, during the Seminole Wars, U.S. troops discovered that the Green Swamp provided the ideal backdrop for a protracted guerrilla war. Then, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, homesteaders eked out a living here through the timber and turpentine trades.
But nature has a way of healing all wounds, and the scars of that exploitation are barely visible. True, you can't wander far without seeing some sign of past human activity, but today, the Green Swamp is mostly deserted.
You can hike, ride or paddle for hours (perhaps even days) and never encounter another human being. If solitude is what you seek, the Green Swamp is a good place to start looking.
I guess that is why I have come, for a taste of wilderness within an hour's drive of downtown Tampa.
The Southwest Florida Water Management District manages this state treasure. There are eight named, backcountry campsites in Green Swamp West, which is what they call this section of the Wilderness Preserve. Some camp names - Compressco and Concession Stand - harken to the lumbering days. Others, such as Gator Hole, are much easier to explain.
There are roughly 72 miles of the Florida Trail in Green Swamp West. The path is well-marked by orange blazes, and after a short, two-hour hike, we found our home for the night nestled in a palmetto thicket near a shallow, seasonal pond.
After dinner, as the night grew cold, we shared stories around the campfire. The Swamp has its tales of betrayal and murder, some real, others imagined.
"We need some more wood," I told my friend Dave Sumpter. "I don't want the fire to go out."
I turned to grab another log and was shocked to see a set of tiny eyes staring back at me. I have seen my share of wild hogs, raccoons, deer, bobcat and gator at night, but this was something entirely different, downright creepy.
"Wait a minute," Sumpter said, flicking on his headlight.
He scanned the hillside and we were left speechless by what we saw. There wasn't one set of eyes, there were hundreds, perhaps even thousands.
"That's weird," I said.
"Real weird," Sumpter agreed.
So we headed straight toward the closest set of eyes and got down on our hands and knees to have a closer look. There, under a cover of pine needles and leaves, we identified the mystery beast.
"They are spiders," Sumpter said. "Thousands of little, tiny spiders."
With the moon now high in the sky, we switched off our electric lights and sat down in the sand. After our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we could see the faint glow of the spiders' eyes reflected in the moonlight.
Only in the Green Swamp, I said to myself ... only in the Green Swamp.