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Thelma and Louise Squared; Florida Trail Days Two/Three; There’s a Bear!

I have received word from Suzanne out in San Jose/Santa Barbara. She, Ann Lavelle, Elizabeth Magee and Bev Garlipp have managed to stay out of trouble and have not been arrested for disorderly conduct or disturbing the peace… yet. That is very encouraging. Here they are at lunch in San Jose, obviously having too much fun. They have just arrived at the Awakened World Film Festival in Santa Barbara, and so far are enjoying it a lot. The Messages of Hope documentary is being screened Thursday afternoon, and producer/director Chris Lavelle and His Lovely Bride Gina will be there for the event as well.

While the party girls are out in Central California, Your Humble Correspondent continued his hike of the Florida Trail. Before donning my pack, though, I had to see Alexander Springs, and the cold air (50F) over the warmer water (72F) had left a layer of evaporation fog on the water. It was a lovely scene, and at that hour I was the only person around to enjoy it.

I departed the crowded Alexander Springs campground and within five minutes was alone in the woods, with nothing but a few birds and squirrels for company. It was a couple of hours later during a rest stop that I saw the first human on the trail, in the form of Diane Roesch, a Florida Trail Association (FTA) volunteer who was surveying part of the trail for an upcoming work weekend, when volunteers don safety gear and head into the woods with chainsaws, shears, and bush hog mowers to clear the trail of nasty undergrowth and fallen trees. Diane said I’d probably run into her husband in the next section of the trail; they were to meet at the Highway 19 trailhead. 

I took off to the west while Diane was surveying the trail, and ran across lots of signs of bear activity, in the form of scat… the polite term for poop. The acorns throughout this specimen marked it as belonging to a black bear, and one of decent size; thankfully, there are no grizzlies in Florida, so the risk of attack was minimal, but I had thought to bring my can of bear spray, which I have never had to use. 

Just before reaching Hwy 19, I must have startled a sleeping bear near the trail, because there was a big thrashing in the bushes 15 feet away, a flash of something black, and sounds of something big moving slowly through the shrubs. It was too big and lumbering to be a deer… At the trailhead I met Diane’s husband, Rollin Patrick. Blaze orange is a good color of choice, particularly during hunting season, which opens soon. Rollin’s garden shears are one of the tools of the trade for trail maintainers. While we were gabbing, Diane arrived. She was only about 5 minutes behind me, and had heard the same noises just off the trail. Being nocturnal, bears don’t move around during daylight much unless disturbed. We talked about bears for a bit, then I proceeded on my way, being grateful for the hard work performed by FTA volunteers. (Yes, I am a member of the FTA, and will be helping out on a future “work hike”.)

The next topographical feature was Brook Pond; I could have gone down to the water’s edge, shooed away a gator or two, and filled my water reservoir with a purifying filter pump, but there was another water source ahead using a pitcher pump, much less work, and without any worries about losing miscellaneous body parts to a hungry Alligator mississipiensis that might mistake me for a deer or steer. The grassy areas around ponds are called prairies, not at all like their Midwestern cousins. These areas are often full of mosquitoes, and I didn’t want to linger here, although I had on a light coat of DEET repellant. 

A short time later I came upon the only recreational hiker I would meet in two days on the Florida Trail, Anthony from Queens, NY. Anthony is a financial services IT guy, in Orlando for a few days for work, and taking a Sunday hike to see something of Ocala National Forest. It was great to stop and chat about hikes in the Adirondacks and out west; he is obviously an avid runner as well as a hiker, and a nice guy to boot.  (No pun intended about hiking footwear…) 

I asked Anthony to take my picture to prove to My Lovely Bride that I wasn’t hanging out at the Hooters in Paisley (I never could find it, anyway… with population 734, it must have been a tiny place). He was headed southeast, back to his car, and I was headed northwest, so after our chat and photo op, it was back to solitude. 

One of the interesting species of flora in The Forest is deer moss, or powder puff lichen (Cladina evansii), which grows in little colonies in the sandy soil common here.

I came to this notice advising hikers that the Florida Trail had been re-routed a few miles to the east; using the old trail would put the thoughtless hiker on the edge of the Pinecastle Naval Bombing Range, where aircraft drop inert and live ordnance. That navigational error would really ruin your whole day… Fortunately, the new trail was freshly blazed with orange paint, and several trees had been felled across the old trail route. You would have to really try to put yourself in the bomb range.

I had planned on camping at a Forest Service campground, Farles Lake, but arrived after a five hour, ten mile hike to find that it was only day-use until hunting season opened. A local guy out for a Sunday drive with his granddaughter offered me a lift to Juniper Springs CG, where I could get a shower. (I must have smelled pretty bad at that point.) I accepted his offer, and while we drove, he told me how much The Forest had changed since he was a kid. Lake levels were down 15-25 feet, probably due to extensive real estate development and population increases sucking down the aquifers. I guess us Villagers are partly to blame for that, but then there is the huge economic benefit to the area, so it’s a trade-off. 

I checked in at almost-deserted Juniper Springs, and since it was in the high 80s, decided to go for a swim in the 72F spring. The spring is about 100 feet in diameter, and in the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built the millhouse in the center of the photo; the millwheel still turns, and the sound will lull a tired hiker to sleep.

But I was here for a swim, and to cool my tired, hot feet. The relatively cold water was a bit of a shock at first, but going in a few inches at a time made it bearable, at least until the mandatory plunge. A dozen or so tiny minnows were checking out my feet looking for scraps of who knows what to nibble on.

After a nice hot shower, I began to prep for dinner. Tonight would be freeze-dried Pad Thai, but as I was getting my kitchen together, a guest arrived… an unwanted guest… in the form of an aggressive young male black bear of about 150 lbs. Not that big, but who wants to wrassle (that’s a Southern word) a bear to protect your dinner? I chased him away with shouts and waving arms once, only to have him return in a few minutes, walking right toward me; at 20 feet, I gave him a shot of pepper spray, and he turned and ran into the brush. 

Unfortunately, these photos are of poor quality because when I asked him to stop and pose, he kept moving, and the light at dusk was very low, darn the bad luck. At least I saved my dinner. After a ranger came by, I found out that the previous week, he had marched right up to a picnic table while a couple was eating and started munching on their meal… how rude! Thoughtless campers and others who feed bears are doing them a serious disservice, because “problem bears” often have to be euthanized to avoid injuries to people when they become too aggressive, like “Barney” was here at Juniper Springs.

The bear returned several times during the night, to my campsite and others, judging by the shouts of “Go away, bear!” from two or three widely-spaced neighbors. I hung all my food from a 15 foot oak branch on a long nylon parachute cord, and my sturdy tent was empty of food, toothpaste, soap or anything that might tempt the bruin to interrupt my slumber in my sleeping bag. Nevertheless, it was a restless night without much sleep, and when I went to the rest room building at 0530, he was still patrolling the campground. That encounter was more than a bit unnerving, because I hadn’t remembered to bring the bear repellant with me, but fortunately he kept his distance. 

Morning brought this lovely lighting to The Forest, a fitting scene to end my Florida trail hike. I considered more day-hiking until the afternoon, but decided that rest and recovery were in order. (Sometimes common sense does prevail, in spite of my best efforts to the contrary.) Bob and Jan arrived to pick me up and shuttled me back to my car, and we had a nice lunch in Umatilla before heading back to The Villages. I think Rudy and Gretchen were glad to see me, although I’m sure they had a nice mini-vacation with their aunt and uncle. It was a memorable weekend, and I hope Barney the Bear has learned not to steal food from campers…

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