Friday, March 21, 2014

The Yearling Trail

The Yearling Trailhead sign, across SR 19 from Silver Glen Springs.
Last week I traveled to the Ocala National Forest to hike the Yearling Trail.  If you didn't know, the Yearling Trail is named for a fictional story written by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in the late 1930's about a family subsistence living in the Florida scrub, who's son adopts a wild fawn.  I read the story while mending my broken hip in 2012.  The story is written conversationally, in the way the people spoke then, and it covers the antics and adventures of adolescence and the hardscrapple life they lived.  Most amazing to me is also what was most amazing to Rawlings, that these people lived with absolutely nothing, yet were happy.
They made a film about The Yearling, shot on location at Pat's Island about 10 years after the book was published. You can read more about the story here.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings visited the Long family living on Pat's Island and wrote from the stories they told, fictionalizing the people's names while covering their everyday lives.  The story about the fawn happened at least 50 years before that time.  She was a great listener, capturing the details and phrases of a time long past.  Her book Cross Creek is also a very good read about old Florida.
The Ocala National Forest created the hiking trails in the Juniper Springs Wilderness area that illustrate the Pulitzer Prize winning story.  Markers along the trails are set where homesteads used to be and where cemeteries, dip tanks and sinkholes still are.  You can find a map here.
Pat's Island is a hill above the Florida scrub that is covered with pine trees and is cooler and wetter than the scrub around it.  Much like an Island surrounded by water, Pat's Island is surrounded by the poorer and dryer scrub lands around it.
Hot & dry Florida scrub with lots of wildlife
Trail kiosk
From the Trailhead on highway 19, you hike west through one half mile of hot Florida scrub.  The white sand is quite dry and the trail offers almost no shade.  The scrub has a few towering pine trees but is mostly low shrubbery, bushes and palmetto.  It still supports a lot of wildlife like the beautiful and endangered blue scrub jays and the bright red cardinals that I watch flit from branch to branch. Wear a hat, bring lots of water and use sunscreen.  Kiosks along the trail explain the story and the trail markers.  There is also what looks like a blank white sign.  This sign used to explain the land contains archaeological materials that are not to be dug up or removed, but the paint is worn and faded away.  Practice Leave No Trace and leave the archaeology for other hikers to discover.
Blank archaeology sign, the far trees in the background are Pat's Island
You will see Pat's Island ahead as a line of trees as you climb towards it.  Once you reach the trees, look back at the rolling scrub lands and you can see that you have, in fact, climbed a hill.  In the shade it was much cooler and the wind in the trees was peaceful.  At the first marker, I took the Jody's Trace trail to the right to follow counter-clockwise around Pat's Island.  This portion of the trail was not cleared yet and I walked off it repeatedly.  By carefully watching the yellow blazes on the trees I could follow it, but I had to pay close attention as the shrubbery and wiregrass had grown to cover the trail in many places.  There were some careful balancing moments with multiple fallen tree crossings, but with patience and a walking stick you will be fine.  The volunteers must clear these trails annually to prevent trail loss, and I expect they will get to this section before summer heats up.
Jody's Trace trail sign, turn right

Disappearing trail, must watch the yellow blazes closely
I did stop from time to time for a photo and to listen to the wind.  Once when stopped I heard the knock-knocking of a red headed woodpecker and was able to get a photo of that elusive bird.
The trail passed through shade and sun, going through several burn areas, some with tall widow makers all around you.  Once dead, these sentinels stand strong for a decade or so, then are silently toppled by wind.  Do watch and be careful.  I did feel the sense of stillness around me a few times, surrounded by stark sentinels on all sides, dead oak trees and dead pine trees where the fires once burned too hot.  But then I moved along into shade with birdsong and the wind sounds through pine needles keeping my thoughts company.
Widow-maker propped over trail by a very thin sapling

Look closely between the trees to see a red headed woodpecker knock-knocking
Coming down a slight incline the trail passes adjacent to a dip tank, where cattle were driven through a chemical (crude oil?) filled trough in the ground to kill ticks.  Though it is nearly 100 years old, do NOT drink the water!  Here is a video about how this works.  Further along a marker showed there used to be Calvin Long's field to the right, but the trees have reclaimed it all.
Dip Tank
Once a field
 The next marker was at a trail junction, where you could either travel south to a cemetery and the return trail, or hike north then west to the Florida Trail.  It is also the site of the sinkhole.  About 100 feet across and at least 60 feet deep, this sinkhole used to trickle drinking water to the 12 families who used to live here.  The southeast side has been shored up to prevent the sinkhole from filling in.  There are dogwoods and hickories here.  From the rim I couldn't see any water in the catchments or dripping from the now dry moss along the side.  I think the water table has changed.  With the recent rains, there should be some surface water lingering, but I didn't see any.
Trail sign, left to cemetery, turn right to Florida Trail

This sinkhole used to supply drinking water to about a dozen people who lived here, now it is dry
There used to be Patrick Smith's homestead here, right next to the sinkhole, but there was no sign of it on the ground besides the marker post.  Maybe on another trip with more time I can look closer for foundation or fireplace stones in the underbrush.
Trail sign at the Florida Trail, turn left

Florida Trail clean campsite
I took the trail to the north around the sinkhole, then west following the Major Churchill road.  This trail was immediately wider and better maintained than the trail I had been walking and I was able to pick up my pace.  I soon came to the intersection with the Florida Trail and turned left (south) at about 2.5 miles.  It was familiar to be following the orange blazes again.  A campsite came up on the left very quickly, the fire pit was cold but the land here was clean of the usual National Forest trash.  Good job campers and trail volunteers!
I pushed on another half hour along the Florida Trail going up and down the rolling terrain to the next trail marker and turned left (east).  This was a high point, with the land falling off Pat's Island down to the scrub below.  An old cistern was sunk in the ground here and it is surrounded by a low fence.  The map shows this was the site of Reuben and Sara Long's home.  If that is correct, what a view they had!
Return trail sign, turn left

Fence surrounds sunken cistern at the Long's home site

The view goes on forever and this photo just cannot show it the way I saw it
The view to the south held me in awe, a spiritual word meaning I was witnessing something like the grace of god in nature.  I was certainly feeling joy!  The land was rolling up and rolling down, sparse trees were poking through the scrub, small islands of trees dotted to the left and the right, and the hills were rolling into valleys just about as far as you can see at one time in Florida.  I could see the Florida Trail punch through the scrub here and there.  It was like while I was hiking on the trail, I hadn't seen the forest for the trees, but now I was seeing the forest and seeing the trees and so very much more.  I paused in the shade a while to take in and enjoy the beauty.
On the trail again, vultures circled far above on the air currents, looking for food.  About halfway back to the first trail junction, there is the Long Family cemetery to the right of the trail. There are several headstones, most of them are marked and the fenced plot was kept clean.  Reuben & Sara Long are buried here, along with many of their children.  Someone takes care of this site and that did my heart good.  The short trail to the north connects with the sinkhole.
Along the trail

A sign at the cemetery gate

Reuben Long, a Confederate soldier passed in 1915

Sara Long, Reuben's wife passed in 1909

Many family members are buried here and the cemetery was kept very clean, return to the trail and turn right to return to your car
Continuing along the main trail for a ways you pass a marker for where Calvin Long's homestead used to be. This was the homestead where the Yearling movie was filmed and is the place where Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings visited the family and learned of their stories.  Again, I could see no sign there ever was someone's home, farm, barn or that a family once lived here.  This trail is wide, and this used to be the Grahamville road, a wagon trail through the woods.
I passed another post marking the Cora Long home that used to be there.  Again, there was nothing to betray the fact to the casual hiker.
I came to a post with the numeral 11 on it, but only had 10 posts marked on my map.  At the trailhead kiosk, marker 11 shows an old cedar tree, which was not at the post with the 11 on it.  Maybe it was burned in a fire or I just missed it.  Cedar trees growing naturally in Florida usually mark where an outcropping of limestone is 30 feet or less below the ground. 
More of Pat's Island forest

Cactus in the scrub along the trail back to the car
I finished the loop around Pat's Island when I returned to the first trail marker, a 4.5 mile hike.  The half mile approach trail makes this a full 5.5 mile hike.  I understand the Florida Trail trailhead walk is a shorter walk from the north side and I will try that on another trip.  I left the cooler temperatures and shade of Pat's Island and walked back along the entrance trail through the scrub to my car.
If you are driving, from Orlando, go east on I-4 to Deland and exit on state road 44 and follow that west to town.  Go right (north) on highway 17, and stay left on 17 when 92 splits off to the right to Daytona Beach. Follow 17 north through the country to Pearson, where you turn left (west) onto State Road 40.  Cross the St. John river at Astor and follow to highway 19.  Turn right at the light (north) and follow about 7 miles to the Yearling Trail sign on the left.  Park here at the trailhead for a fine walk.  Silver Glen Springs is directly across the road.
Cellular service in the Ocala National Forest is sparse at best.  Do carry your 10 essentials, wear a hat and carry a couple quarts/liters of water and make sure you leave written instructions of where you are behind with a friend or a loved one.

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