Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Hiking Big Shoals - Suwannee River FL

My wife and I took advantage of a sunny day after Christmas to hike some trails that we'd not been on before. We drove through White Springs, then east a mile or two to the Big Shoals entrance to the 3772-acre Big Shoals tract managed by the Suwannee River Water Management District. The upper Suwannee is a tannin-stained blackwater river in this area, gentle with the exception of the Big and Little Shoals, and for the most part flows lazily between high sandy banks. There are 28 miles of trails and trail roads on the tract, so the 4 or so miles that we hiked only scratched the surface of the hiking possibilities there.

We wanted to see the only stretch of "whitewater rapids" in the state of Florida. At Big Shoals the shallow river (during low water) steps down 5 feet or so over a series of limestone ledges that would present a challenge to folks in a kayak or canoe. These rapids are nothing like the big water rapids we have negotiated on the Green and Colorado Rivers in Utah or the Snake River in Wyoming and Idaho. The Suwannee River is a popular multi-day canoe/kayak trail. There is a 3.4 mile paved trail that connects Big and Little Shoals, so bicyclers, rollerbladers and visitors in wheelchairs can also enjoy the park. Several of the trails and trail roads are designated for equine use as well. Hunting is even allowed at some times of the year, with proper permits.

There were many lovely American holly trees growing along the trails we hiked. I was moved to paraphrase thusly one of A.E. Houseman's poems in his signature work A Shropshire Lad:

Loveliest of trees, the hollies now
Are hung with berries along the bough,
And stand upon the Suwannee-side
Wearing red for Christmastide.

We had a lovely afternoon hike, and finished it with sandwiches and water at picnic benches near the parking area. On the way back towards White Springs, we stopped to observe dozens of Lesser Scaup ducks paddling in a vast marshland.

The trail maintenance crews had been through not too many days before we were there. I found a nice freshly-cut, robust length of sparkleberry (an arborescent blueberry) that I've already begun to fashion into a walking staff. We found one individual whose single trunk was as big around as my thigh. Being a forester by profession, I'm curious to see how this small tree blueberry measures up to the state and national champions. The wood is tight-grained, quite dense and reminiscent of the light-colored wood of southern red cedar. I once fashioned a machete handle from a good-sized piece of sparkleberry that had been cut back by a colleague.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Walking O'Leno in Early Summer

My wife and I visited O'Leno State Park on Fathers' Day. The week's weather was mostly rainy but on this day there were only patchy clouds. Although the temperature was below the 90's of the week or two before, the humidity was way up on account of all the rain on days previous.

We walked sections of the River and Parener's Branch trails for a distance of about 3 miles. Highlights of the walk: We saw two 4-foot long alligator garfish holding in deeper pools south of the suspension footbridge and the two rock shoals marking old milldams of the former village of Keno. We also saw an alligator there too, intently watching members of a picnicking family that were watching it. We heard and saw many yellow-bellied vireos, eastern towhees, ruby-crowned kinglets, Carolina chickadees, and a first for me, the barking tree frog (Quicktime required). Botanist/Urban Forester-Planner by profession, I was un-nerved to find a broad-leafed tree in fruit that completely stumped me. Largish leaves like a Styrax but fruits resembling those of Sweetleaf (Symplocaceae) [I ruled out upland tupelo based on the smooth bark and large leaf size]. I'm still stumped. Me - who thought he could identify every tree that grows in this part of the state!

We'd have traversed the entire trail system in the park had my dancer wife not been suffering from a bout of plantar fasciitis that appeared after years of percussive dance performing. As it was, we limited our ramble to 3 miles - enough for a good stretch and a walk among most of the habitat types in the park.

O'Leno is notorious for its ticks so if you go there, be on the lookout constantly. We found just one on this trip and none in the days following, but I managed to pick up a few chiggers around the ankles and backsides of knees on this hike. We don't use any sort of repellent - so there you go.

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Sunday, February 10, 2008

Cemetery Walks In Camellia Time

Every Sunday afternoon we walk our Corgis in the local cemetery. What passes for a Florida winter is ending and spring is on its way. Thus begins the loveliest time of year to stroll through the cemetery: Camellia Time.

These slow-growing tea relatives are planted throughout the cemetery. The white-flowered individuals have all bloomed; the big pink and red ones now have the stage to themselves. It is a pleasure to walk among them and take in their dazzling beauty packaged in blooms as big as grapefruits.

The cemetery has many mature eastern red cedar and longleaf pines. The sandy lanes between the plots are soft with fallen needles that are a pleasure to tread upon. It is especially inspiring to pass along those quiet tracks to see the late afternoon sun's blush upon the cinnamon trunks of the pines and the camellias, and to hear the breeze whispering through the treetops.

It's not a long walk by any measure. But a few minutes' contemplation in the liminal stillness among the silent graves during lovely Camellia Time brings a piece of mind and a sense of calm like few other activities.

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Saturday, February 9, 2008

Evinston - Barr Hammock Walk

My wife and I spent an entire lovely Florida morning trekking the scenic ~8 miles of country backroads between historic Evinston and the home of some dear friends who live on 80 acres west of Micanopy next to Barr Hammock in Alachua County.

We set out on our walk after a lengthy morning catching up (having lived there once)
with Freddy Wood at the historic Wood and Swink store in Evinston, where we purchased a large bunch of Freddy's freshly (that morning) harvested carrots (to be sauteed tomorrow with butter, honey and a touch of curry). This day we walked right through the south side of the town of Micanopy, rather than stop for lunch and walk back the way we came (our usual "Bob Cunningham Memorial Walk"). We continued on past I-75 to our dear friends' inviting and welcoming home ~3 miles west of the town proper. They were expecting us, and happily greeted us with their usual and widely known hospitality, and a great meal.

Fay's country sausage and spinach
minestrone-style soup with savory toast points was just wonderful. We lunched and chatted on their expansive screened wrap-around porch to views of the pine and oak flatwoods beyond. Tom and I took a brief walk among the sand live oaks, saw palmettos, and crooked-wood thickets to view the longleaf and sand pines on that part of their property. Scattered among the trees and palmettos Tom pointed out the remnants of longleaf pine stumps logged long ago, and pieces of clay turpentine cups scattered around them. I don't know anyone who appreciates the longleaf pine and its history in Florida more than Tom. It is a treat to share in his zeal and boyish wonder at that part of Florida's past right on his own property. These true and dear friends are the sort that enrich our and others' lives. We only hope that you too are blessed with similar active and engaging salt-of-the-earth folk. [Click on photos, below, to enlarge.]

United Methodist Church in Evinston. This church was erected in 1909 by the direct ancestors of the families that have lived in the tiny hamlet since then. Why was the building built there? To hear it from Freddy Wood, one of those descendants, it was sponsored and built because the residents wanted a place to gather, worship, baptise, and marry their children, despite the fact that few of the original inhabitants subscribed to Methodism. Formerly, a circuit preacher came to the church monthly or quarterly to preach and conduct services. The current preacher who attends the flock weekly, is Joseph Smith, a judge who lives in Williston, a few tens of miles away. His name, coincident with the founder of Mormonism, is not lost to us. The intact interior of the building and the
pews are lovingly constructed of local longleaf pine and cypress. We attended services there during the time we lived in Evinston on the Vidal property.

A sandy country lane a mile or two west of Evinston. It is a pleasure to walk this lonesome road with its oak canopy filled with chittering cardinals and chickadees, and views of pastures and woodlands on each side.

An old Florida vernacular house, probably built in the 1920-1930's. A sign next to the structure advertises Clark's nursery. The roadside ?vacant house sits on several acres that also has a modern home a couple of hundred yards south of the road. Rumor has it that the old African-American man that owned the property recently packed it in and moved to somewhere Africa to end his days there as a rich man among his ancestors, free of the cares and politics of the USA. But what about the freedoms and securities that are enjoyed here?

A leaning sable palm that angled up into the surrounding canopy as it grew. I oriented this palm's canopy as if it were growing straight up overhead, which caused the normally-pitched trees to appear at an odd angle with respect to the subject of the photo.

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Monday, January 28, 2008

Henslow's Sparrow

During the walk in the grassy savannas of the 550+ acre farm property that was the subject of my previous post, my 3 friends and I flushed a small secretive bird that repeatedly flushed then dove into the grass and scurried into frozen seclusion like a quail or pheasant. It turns out the solitary bird was a wintering Henslow's Sparrow. The patient bird (image at left), who didn't stray more than 15 feet from us lead-footed humans, tarried long within camera shot and was photographed by my good friend, fellow botanist, and all-around naturalist Michael, to whom credit for the ID and image is due, and whose diverse nature photographs are to be enjoyed at his interesting Flickr site.

Henslow's Sparrows are on the Audubon Watchlist, and have been placed on the ICUN redlist of threatened birds and conservation plans of several national and international organizations.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Winter Ramble in a Florida Woodland

Today's lovely walk was a ~3-mile stroll in and around a 550+ acre complex of woodlands and abandoned pastures and farmlands NW of Gainesville, Alachua County, Florida. County development review staff is currently reviewing phases of a 999-unit subdivision to be built over the next decade or so. This is the second largest housing development to come to this area. [Click on images below for a larger view of same.]

Protected gopher tortoises abound in open areas of the property. The developer has set aside and fenced in 45 acres of prime tortoise habitat, into which the residents of this site will be relocated during construction. The lucky fellow on the left was stranded in the bottom of a deep (25-30 feet) karst chimney when we arrived, having fallen in during his peregrinations in search of food. He was rescued with the help of a bucket truck and an intrepid helper who rappelled into the hole from the lowered bucket.

The moss-covered arms of a Florida Live Oak (Quercus virginiana). The brilliant green moss is truly a moss. The gray stringy epiphyte known as Spanish Moss, is not a moss at all. It is, in fact a member of the bromeliad family, of which the pineapple is the fruit of the most recognized species. How does the Spanish Moss get up in the trees? The tiny seeds are furnished with a long tuft of dry hairs like seeds of dandelion or milkweed. They waft long distances in the wind and become snagged on the rough bark of trees, where they germinate. Does the moss hurt the tree? No, although when wet it contributes a good deal of extra weight to the branches, and amplifies the "sail effect" during strong winds. Spanish Moss is not parasitic. It derives all nutrients and water from the air, dirt and debris on the tree bark, and from dew and the rain.

Corky thorn-covered bark on the lower trunk of a toothache tree, a.k.a "Hercules Club". This tree is in the citrus family with its more recognizable cousins the oranges, lemons, etc. Chew the tart leaves and your mouth and gums go quite uncomfortably numb. The tree prefers open, sunny, dry, sandy upland areas, and is common in old pastures, and along fencelines around old pastures (the seeds "planted" by birds "sitting" on the wires). They're also encountered hanging on unhappily in wooded areas where abandoned pastures and farmlands have been allowed to return to woodland, most commonly populated by the aggressive and weedy laurel oak.

Young Sabal palmetto fronds and branch of a sand live oak. One commonly encounters palmettos beneath oaks in the forested areas of north central Florida. Birds roosting in the oak tree expel the pencil-eraser-sized palmetto seeds onto the ground below, where a few germinate and survive. It is not uncommon to find a veritable thicket of young palmettos beneath oak trees, especially in actively farmed or pastured areas where perches are more or less at a premium, at least locally.

Sabal palmetto. This is the state tree of Florida. You may have seen it's faithful likeness on the verso of the South Carolina quarter dollar. This tree cries "Old Florida" like no other tree. It is my favorite tree, especially in open habitats like this recently abandoned pasture, sandhill communities, and especially though rarely along open shorelines of certain lakes in this area, where the rich morning and afternoon light bathes them in their most vivid and photogenic glory. Some of this particular tree's young offspring are carpeting the ground around it's trunk. In the background, a thicket of young live oaks.

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Sir Edmund Hillary Dead at 88

Legendary New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to scale Mt. Everest, is dead. His spirit will be missed. May we all encounter that spirit as we walk the hills, dales, and mountains of those places we frequent when we wish to be at one with the world.

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