Monday, September 10, 2007

Hiking Torreya State Park

My wife and I journeyed to Torreya State Park for a weekend camping/hiking trip for my birthday.

We left after a leisurely morning, bound for breakfast on the road and a previously reserved campground. I'm a professional botanist, and during the dozen or so years in Florida had yet to explore this botanically-rich park on the banks of the Apalachicola River. I'll say from the outset that we had a most remarkable and enjoyable weekend. For the weekend we packed a cooler full of frozen water, snacks and food for 2 days, our hiking and camping gear, a small fold-out table, and our old portable color television. I'll mention the TV later.

We stopped for breakfast in Bristol, a small community not far from our destination. We ate at a country-cooking restaurant called" Pouncey's", a name that baffles us still. I immediately thought "cat" upon reading the name, and had no idea that that intuition would play into the tale that follows. We dined on an "adequate" meal of scrambled eggs, corned-beef hash, biscuits and gravy, grits and home fries. The wife went to the restroom while I paid. Suddenly there was a noisy commotion in the kitchen attended by shouting, banging, and the sounds of struggle. Peering in the windows of the swinging waiters' doors into the kitchen I observed a young female cook and an older waitress clash amid a storm of profanity. When the shoving and shouting turned to thrown punches, screaming and hair-pulling, two young busboys leapt from their vigil at an unused table to stare at the ruckus behind the doors. The cashier who had been processing my bill camly turned and said in a wonderful drawl to the boys, "I wouldn't stand there, last time they went at it they were throwin' kitchen stuff and eachother right out those doors".

I watched with a little glee and a lot of concern at the full-blown
pouncy cat fight while wondering if I hadn't ought to collect the wife and run for cover. Two other ladies from the kitchen tried to break up the fight to no avail; it took two additional male kitchen staff members to subdue them and stop the fighting. Try as they might, they couldn't stop the profanity. As I finished paying, the older of the two combatants quit on the spot and stormed out in a flurry of profanity. The cause of the battle: a side order of biscuits that wasn't ready. I think the scene was about as redneck a thing as I have ever seen. Of course, my wife missed the whole thing, minus the sounds of the commotion ringing through the walls.

We continued on our way and arrived at Torreya shortly after noon. We checked into our campground and began to explore the area. We immediately realized we'd picked a wonderful site, #17 in the Weeping Ridge camp area. This particular site has a westerly view from the bluffs of the Apalachicola River and is adjacent to an open area with a short trail that leads to an overlook of the river bottoms and the lands beyond. We set up our tent, got situated, then went for our first walk of the weekend. We hiked down roads to the Gregory House, an antebellum mansion situated atop the bluff overlooking the river 260+ feet below. We found a trail leading north from the mansion grounds, and soon found ourselves hiking past civil war cannon emplacements notched into the top of the bluff. The trail wound down the bluffs to the river bottoms, then turned south along the river, eventually leading up the bluff back to the camp. We spotted 2 wild hogs among the towering cypress, winged elm, sycamore, and tupelo trees in the river bottom. One of the large hogs was black and white. It was a great start. We got back to camp, showered, and prepared for dinner and some television watching.

Not just any television. It was Saturday evening, and we were determined to watch British comedies on the local PBS channel out of Tallahassee. We lit several votive candles and set them around the camp area, lit a large citronella candle, and spent a quiet evening alternately watching the sunset and wry comedy on TV. As dusk fell, a tiny bat flew right between our heads as we sat side-by-side laughing at the antics of the British actors. A few more bugs came out as we began to tire from our hike and from sitting in the camp chairs. We simply took the TV and its table into to tent and continued watching from our bed until sleep compelled us to retire. We felt like we'd discovered the ultimate lap of luxury with the sunset, our flickering candles and watching television under the stars.

The next morning we found a much longer and harder trail to occupy us. We hiked from the picnic area near the Gregory house along a trail that took us past the CCC stone bridge, Rock Creek, and through upland areas of the park. The trail traversed deep ravines with thickets of the rare Torreya tree, up and down the ravines and ridges that finger through the park, across broad expanses of sandhill scrub with rocky cliffs and amphitheaters, back down to the river bottoms, and straight back up knife-edge ridges to the shoulders of the bluffs. We drank the rest of our water on that hike, but were rewarded with a diverse array of topography and plant communities that one couldn't imagine could occur in one half-days' hiking. During this second days' hiking we saw a white-tail deer (immediately after my wife mentioned "here" is where I'd expect to see a deer), and a barred owl. This hike was very, very strenuous to we who had become used to walking relatively flat areas over longer distances. The wife's summary during the drive home and remembering afterwards proclaimed that that second hike "spanked our butts". I don't exactly disagree. But I'd return in a heartbeat, straight to that lovely campground #17, and do it all over again.

Below is a list of common names of the 50 or so tree species I identified during the hiking in Torreya St. Park, more or less in the order in which I remembered them as I wrote them down after each hike:

Tulip tree (grand examples)
American beech
2 different hawthorns
Basswood (linden tree, lime tree)
Water oak
American holly
Carolina silverbell
Red mulberry
Florida sugar maple
Winged Elm (state champion here has lost its crown, and status, alas.)
Sand pine
Loblolly pine
Slash pine
Bald cypress
Needle palm (you mightn't ever see so many in the wild as here)
Red buckeye
Southern magnolia
Mockernut hickory
Wax myrtle
White oak
Southern red oak
Swamp chestnut oak
laurel oak
Southern red cedar
Southern live oak
Boxelder maple
Red maple
Yaupon holly
Red bay
Wild cherry
Laurel cherry
Black gum (upland tupelo species)
Crab apple
Turkey oak
Bluejack oak
Longleaf pine
Witch hazel
Chickasaw plum
Swamp tupelo
Ashe's magnolia

The Torreyas were among the most memorable trees, and to see thickets of them was magical, since they grow wild nowhere else on earth. I saw the largest sparkleberries I'd every seen; lovely individuals of this arborescent blueberry. I must return again to ferret out the elusive Florida Yew, which also is found in the park.

The 2 park staff members we interacted with during our stay were very obliging and helpful. They helped make it a most wonderful weekend. We returned with a couple of pounds of locally-harvested tupelo honey as a souvenir.

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