Wednesday, October 24, 2012

More Big Trees

The Senator Today
Last winter an act of arson felled the 3500-year-old Senator pond cypress, estimated to be the oldest living tree in the US east of the Rocky Mountains.  It was both sad and horrible for many who live close by.  If you have seen the tree you know it was massive, at something like 5200 cubic feet of solid wood.  It started growing on Soldier creek about the time the pyramids were being constructed in Egypt and was already 3000 years old when Ponce de Leon explored La Florida.
My family and I have been to Big Tree Park a number of times and we miss being able to see the Big tree.  The Florida National Scenic Trail goes right by it on the Cross Seminole hike/bike trail, and I have bicycled right past it dozens of times.  Next to the Senator is another large and very old cypress tree, Lady Liberty, growing at 2000 years young.  As a result of the arson, the park is now closed.
Osprey Trail
Just so you know, there are several large and old bald/pond cypress trees sipping that same Soldier creek water a couple miles away in the 1500 acre Spring Hammock Preserve.  Just left off State Highway 419 about one mile East of US 17/92, Spring Hammock Preserve is a hydric hammock, a vital watershed and wetlands area adjacent to Lake Jesup.  It contains a few 1000 to 2000+ year old cypress trees where you can walk right up, crane your neck and feel insignificant.  To find them is an easy walk.
Park in the shade along the entrance road in Spring Hammock Preserve, and get a map from the porch of the Environmental Services Center.  Then walk north along the road to the cul-de-sac in a power line easement where the Florida Trail/Cross Seminole bicycle trail runs.  Go in beside the gate and follow the gravel Osprey Trail into the shade.  This trail/road leads to the education areas of the hammock, where fifth graders are treated to the famous shoe-sucking mud-walk.  Elementary school through high school age children are taught about nature here in classes throughout the school year.
Live Oak
Turn right at an old cypress snag onto Robin Trail, and follow the road a few yards to an old live oak tree on the right.  It is 35 feet or more up to the first branch, which is unusual.  Generally, live oaks branch out much closer to the ground but this one has an unusually straight and tall trunk.  The upper branches are covered with bromelaids and Spanish moss.  I didn't see any bird life in the tree today, but I expect it is home to a few feathered families.
Go back to the Osprey Trail and continue right, passing some trails to the left and a shelter (good for rain).  The trail is marked every 100 meters with a sign and the next one you turn at is 1000 meters.  Turn right onto the boardwalk and follow a few feet until you see benches to sit on.  I suggest sitting first so you don"t topple over backwards while looking up.  This cypress tree is estimated to be 2500 years old and it is huge!  It is 60 feet or more to the first limb and the tree has a large girth with a cavity above.  The different benches allow you to see more of the tree through the lower branches.
2500 Years Old
Once you feel insignificant, continue along the boardwalk to the next set of benches.  As you sit you will see why I call this the flute cypress tree.  There are multiple round holes in one side much like a flute, that woodpeckers have hollowed out to live.  I watched a few red headed woodpeckers flit around this one, generally not trespassing into another's condo.  A sign says to look for an osprey's nest in the top.  This tree is much smaller than the first one but is still near 1000 years old.
Go back along the boardwalk the way you came, maybe sitting for a few more minutes beside the first tree again.  It has been here since 500 years before the common era began and survived being cut for lumber during the cypress timber rush of our century.
Back onto Osprey Trail, going right again takes you from the mixed hardwood hammock into the hydric hammock past Question Pond, a natural sulfur spring.  Its light green color contrasts with the tannin color of the stream water near it.  Around 1500 meters look for a large cypress stump on the right, and at 1600 meters look for a large cypress tree on the left with a hollow at its base.
Trees Growing Out Of A Cypress
You should now be into the mixed hardwood swamp with standing algae-covered water on each side of you.  Just ahead is a boardwalk on the left.  Follow the boardwalk on its way to Lake Jesup, where it passes several large cypress trees.  When I was there the water was 2 feet below the deck.  Beware that sometimes the water level covers this boardwalk and some of the road.  Three red headed woodpeckers darted and flitted around the deck and from tree to tree.
The first cypress tree is adjacent to the right of the boardwalk and has both a full size palm tree and an Elm or Gum tree growing from different sides of the base.  This 2000 year old tree has another 1000 year old tree growing right across from it on the left side of the deck.
Split Cypress
Up ahead is a cypress tree with a split trunk, both of which are large and old.  Look for the multiple 5 foot high-above-water cypress knees on the left with another tree that splits.  A 1000 year old tree to the right has an osprey nest down low.  There are older stumps here also, some that are huge, looking like small islands in the swamp water!
A line of cypress trees lives here, a few are of the 1000 years old age group.  Think about all that has happened in our world since 1000 CE!  Way back in the woods to the left side you can see glimpses of a huge white trunk, maybe another 2000 year old tree?
Dark birds circle aloft when I get to the end of the boardwalk with a view of Lake Jesup.  Today it is windy and clear.
There is an Ibis in a tree by the road when I return, watching some food in the water below.  And it is a quiet walk back to the car.  If you are up to it, check out the boardwalks and trails to the right of the road.  There are some orange trees there mixed in with the palm trees and one very large pine tree.
Lake Jesup
Jim Dooby of Seminole County Natural Lands gave me the good news that they plan to reopen Big Tree Park next spring, celebrating Seminole County's Centennial.  The fire-damaged Senator tree is being carved into artwork to preserve it.  They are also protecting the Senator stump and the Lady Liberty tree from damage.  And they are relocating a 40 foot tall clone of the Senator from a tree farm in north Florida to the park, so the "Senator" will live on in Big Tree Park.  Very cool!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Lake Harney Wilderness

St. Johns River
Lake Harney Wilderness is a short, but quiet hike far away from Orlando's noise along the north flowing St. Johns river.  It starts with a one mile walk through a flowered oak hammock down to the flood plain along the shores of Lake Harney.  The open space is huge and since the elevation is so low, you may not see the lakes water, just the dark line of trees at the opposite shore.  The trail goes into the trees and turns back to the parking lot, following a canal through a tree tunnel.  My friend Walt had joined me to hike the trail.  We saw two eagles flying high and a perched red tailed hawk on this portion of the walk.
Lake Harney Shoreline
Once you finish the waterfront trail, follow the entrance road bed to the right out of the parking area.  This trail is shaded well throughout the day.  This road was once a Henry Flagler railroad called the Florida East Coast Railroad, and his trains hauled cypress lumber from the old sawmill nearby to northern markets in the early 1900's.  That mill supported a town of 200 souls called Osceola, which thrived with running water and electricity well before larger communities in the area had these luxuries.  The commercial draw for St. Johns river cypress lumber kept the plant operational and profitable for years, processing 60,000 board feet of lumber daily.  It ran out of trees in 1942 and the town closed, eventually becoming the Osceola Fish Camp for which the road is still named.  Just to your right there is a field with two eagle nests, look for them high in the pines.
Field Near the shell mound
Continue enjoying the butterflies along the railroad bed and turn right at the signed trail junction, following through a hydric hammock to the river.  Here you will turn left and follow back to the shell mound near the river crossing passing a bench in the shaded area.  There is an open field here that runs from the hammock to the trees along the shore of the St. Johns river.  This is the area around the shell mound, which was started by the Timucuan Indians settling the area around 500 BC. The town grew and eventually became known as King Phillips Old Town.  The park signage tells the story of the Indian community there, and how that ended during the Seminole wars.
Great Deck!
A deck is at the top of the mound where the railroad crossed the river, it was proceeded by a ferry boat at the same location, crossing Volusia County to New Smyrna Beach.  This deck was built as an Eagle Scout project by a scout in my old troop in 2009.  We sat there under the cedars, enjoying the cool breeze, watching eagles soar above us and listening to fish jump below us.  It was 66 degrees when we started hiking and it was still in the 70's when we finished with humidity in the mid-fifties, low for Florida.  A beautiful day!
We followed the trail past the Osceola signs to finish the second loop.  A side trail split off to the right after a bench, and we followed that down to the rivers edge and to the wilderness property line.  It was cool here and some of the trees with roots were awesome.  Water marks on the trees showed how high the water level had been.
A bench built to last
We walked back and rejoined the trail where it followed through the old mill town area, on the lookout for those foundations and other man-made right angles.  We didn't see anything man-made but the ground cover was very thick.  Maybe we will come back after a freeze and look for cement.  The trail ends at picnic tables in the hydric hammock and rejoins the railroad bed for the walk back to the parking lot.
Lots of Cool Trees are by the river
To get to Lake Harney Wilderness, take state highway 46 east of Sanford.  After the first bridge out of town, turn left onto Osceola Road West and follow that several miles to Osceola Road East, then take Osceola Fish Camp road the last half mile to where it turns into the parking lot.  You are north and east of Geneva and there are stores there along highway 46 if needed, accessed by taking The Old Geneva Road.

St. Johns river at the outflow of Lake Harney

Thursday, October 11, 2012

It happens to everyone

I think we're lost!
My daughter, Lyz, had been hiking with her boyfriend in Wekiva Springs State Park when a huge storm blew in.  They pulled on ponchos and debated their next move while the heavy rain fell and the lightning crashed around them.  The storm was so large and heavy, it was red on the radar from Daytona Beach on the east coast of Florida all the way across to Tampa on the west coast.  Rain was so heavy, they couldn't see more than a few feet in front of them and it would continue through the night.  Alone on the trail, they figured they could wait out the storm but it didn't let up for hours.  Darkness came and along with it the fears that they wouldn't get out of the park before closing time.  Lyz says she ran "crouched down" on the trail to avoid being hit by lightning.  And somewhere in the dark storm they took a wrong turn.  And they went on and on, lunging over huge puddles, running through knee deep water and stopping to drain the gallons of water from their galoshes. Wild eyes stared back at them from the trees in their flashlight beam.  At some point they came to a horse fence and crossed it, thinking they were on the backside of the actual Wekiva Springs.  But they were not.
Wekiva Springs, Kelly Park is top left
When Lyz called us for help, it was 7:30 at night with the storm still raging. They were very unsure of their location.  She said she thought they were at Kelly Park, a county park just west of Wekiva Springs,  due to some signs near her. Our last conversation with her before her phone died was to listen for the car horn and look for flashing headlights in about 5 minutes. We drove to the closed gate at Kelly Park and honked the horn. Since the exit gate was still open, I pulled on my raincoat and started to look for them right as a park ranger arrived to lock the gate.  When I told him I was looking for my daughter and her boyfriend who were lost, he immediately took charge and said "Follow me" and led the way back into the park in his cart.  We followed in our car.
We didn't go far before running into the pair of soaked hikers on the road.  With great thanks to the ranger, we drove back to the gate at Wekiva Springs, calling the park phone numbers over and over with no answer and no way to leave a message.  We were concerned they would have to initiate a search for the car's owners when it was left behind, who were now safe and warm and eating mom's cookies in the back seat of our car.
We stopped at a neighborhood Publix grocery store where a clerk helped us get the correct county sheriff's phone number.  My daughter left a message with a deputy about her car at the park. This was to notify the authorities that they were found and safe and would be back in the morning to get the car. Since they were safe, we hoped no one at the park would be searching for them.
At this point, we drove them home while listening to them talking about ways not to become lost. Experience is the best teacher. It was good to hear how many things they got right. Between them, they did have plenty of water, a flashlight, ponchos and boots, waterproof matches, emergency whistles, a compass and a knife (you brought a knife? Lyz's boyfriend asked).  As we laughed at that, I counted this event as great news and excellent training and experience for my future backpacking partner. Things to consider in future hikes are to turn off the cell phone data service or put the phone to sleep to conserve power.  Also having a compass was great, but without a map it was of little use to them. With a map, they could have also have followed a trail south to get back to their car.  Generally, in case you need to find your way back it is crucial to know long it took you to get somewhere. Food would also be good, even if it wasn't actually needed for the trip.
It was funny how my wife talked about never having to know where she was or what we brought with us because when we were outdoors, I assumed that responsibility.  I told her I had been lost many times and she said, "No, we were never lost."  (Really very funny!)  She was happy to hand that responsibility over to me.  Lyz's boyfriend shared that same level of confidence with her. When we got out to drop her off, Lyz gave me a second huge hug. I was happy also.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

7 10 C 71

My wife is amazed that I can remember so much detail about camping gear I have owned.  Remembering the previous dozen or so backpacking tents is easy.  So are the times spent "crushed" under a very heavy backpack!  Join me as I reminisce about what started my enthusiasm for and love of all things outdoors, especially backpacking.
The Tooth of Time.
Standouts include my second canvas pack, the one that went to Philmont with me, and through college afterward.  Only it went west with an external pack frame including a shelf on the bottom but no waist belt.  It didn't come with that frame, we found it locally and figured out how to attach it so I could carry more weight (what was I thinking?)  Besides the main pocket, the pack had one large back pocket and four side pockets, two on each side with a flat map pocket on the top but had no waist belt.  It carried all my gear and some woods tools (folding saw, hand-axe) the snake bite kit and the iron skillet.  Plus my share of the Troop's patrol food and cooking gear.  The heavy oil-cloth raincoat worked fine but smelled badly, my candle lantern melted candles daily, and the one army canteen I had never held enough water for the whole day.  While at Philmont I wore my one pair of dirty white jeans, a waffle-type insulated long underwear shirt, a green cotton hoodie (not called a "hoodie" back then) and the latest astronaut yellow "space jacket" which was the first fiber-fill light jacket on the market and was really warm, especially when everything else was wet.
Like my second canvas backpack
The leather boots wore well, my cotton socks not so well.  I somehow went the whole Philmont trip with no blisters, a first and last for my life!  I liked my new aviator sunglasses and had made sure my scout uniform was washed and stored dry in my bag, locked up for the return bus trip home.
Philmont was difficult, beautiful, and fantastic, and it rained all day for the final 3 days.  At some point, a few days before this, we had descended into a high mountain valley surrounded with purple peaks.  A stream gurgled through the grass, the pinion pines were swaying with the breeze and the old log cabin sitting just inside the trees waited for me to stop!  I sat down in the grass by the trail, pack, pack frame and all, and watched the patrol march away.  They were only gone a couple of minutes but I swear I could hear my own heartbeats in the peace.  I laid back against my pack and watched the clouds swirl by overhead, listened to dragon flies beat closer and then further away, inhaled the grass and the pine scent and found myself lost there in that singular moment of now.  I wanted to live there in the old cabin, cutting and splitting wood daily for fire and heat, farming the land for food and help teaching new skills to the scouts who hiked by.  I needed nothing else, and wanted nothing else.
My third bacpack
The loud angry noise I heard next was our adult leader standing above me on the trail bellowing something but I was too detached into now/nature to hear his words.  I finally drew myself up, nodding agreement to something I never felt and followed his voice along the trail.  I told them at dinner that night to leave me there and tell my parents where I was while I was washing the metal pots from dinner.  They kept watch over me that night and made sure I didn't sneak off before breakfast.  I followed blindly that day and the next few days along the trail as the weather worsened, sleeping first cold, then wet at night.  Then waking up and walking cold and wet all day.  We were all soaked through but I was warm with my dirty yellow astronaut jacket on.  And that is how we finished the trip, waiting for the bus to pick us up at the end of a dirt road in the cold, dripping woods, watching our breath rise.  I somehow got on the bus back home to Florida, became an Eagle Scout, went to college, found work and made my way through life, marrying well and raising wonderful children.
That canvas pack was replaced a few years after college by my first orange nylon "Skyline" type-pack with a frame (and a waist belt) and it carried me and my gear all over Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Virginia, and North Carolina.  The next pack was blue and it carried me to Colorado also, but was way too top-heavy for the on-the-edge-of-the-cliff-face trails like Phantom Terrace in the Sangre de Cristos and the Chinese Wall in the Flat Tops Wilderness.
My fourth backpack
I returned to Philmont one weekend fresh from a hundred-mile bike ride at Taos in September 2001.  I walked around the tent city, checked out the sales at the store and wandered into the Philmont museum.  Inside the museum along the wall they now have a display of several old scouting uniforms, including one like I wore along with the canteen, that flat hat, the long socks and a pocket knife for the times.  I felt sad for a moment that Scouts didn't dress that way anymore and how their world has changed so much since that time.  I knew my son's world would also be different than mine, but figured that he would find his own way just fine.
I earned this!
7 10 C 71 is my Philmont troop number, from July 10, 1971.  I still have the b&w photo of the whole bus load of us in front of the flag pole out front of tent city.  We were the C group of four total groups and the people on our bus all finished the trip.  I still remember the daily "activities" including fly fishing, tying our own flies and actually catching 3-4 fish with a kernel of corn on a hook, that was after we had "drowned" our home-made (nasty) flies. We also rode horses one full day and couldn't stand on our own two legs after that.  My sure-footed horse was named "Orange Blossom".  We got our boots branded along with the cattle and climbed a rock wall with ropes, cooked some good food and spent most nights cleaning pots and just enjoying the New Mexico mountain outdoors.  We even built a new trail as part of our service projects, and that included using the compass to select the grade of the route.  There was survival class under a parachute and we were supposed to cook a southwestern meal but the oil had gone rancid.  We learned about walking uphill all day long (you can't do that in Florida) and about walking downhill without toppling over ourselves.
I pulled out my Philmont map a few years ago and traced our hike across the 214 square miles of the oldest still-in-almost-one-piece Mexican land grant.  I remembered climbing the huge boulders up to the Tooth of Time rock outcropping, overlooking tent city and the rest of Philmont far below while watching the lightning and the storms come close.  We watched virga, where the rain never reached the valley floor below.  It reached us though and never let up until we were somewhere in Texas returning on the bus four days later.  If you can't tell, I had the time of my life!
Several of these hikes are burned into my mind clearer than most of my last winter's hikes and some trails are long forgotten.  We'll discuss more of the past another time.  I'll follow my own advice and make some new hikes now.  Only lighter.