Friday, April 11, 2014

Lake Apopka Loop Trail

Lake Apopka Trailhead Kiosk
As I listen to the rain tinkle down today, I am reminded of past bicycle loop rides around Lake Apopka, back before the state got serious about water quality and restoring past mistakes.  Those bike rides started from my home then in Apopka, led me on my various road bicycles south along the eastern shore of the lake to the mostly abandoned Winter Garden downtown, with all the vultures perched on the telephone tower.  I would Tour through open country to turn west past Oakland, rolling up and down through the hills of Monte Verde, climbing the wall of Sugarloaf Mountain to turn right to Astatula in the north, and cycle back easterly through the Zellwood area farmlands and Apopka fern fields to return home again.  It was something around a 70 mile ride, crossed a busy highway twice and it took most of the day.  One day it turned cold and rained, but I still rode, a dedicated voyager back then, but not so much now.  I won't ride in the rain anymore unless caught out in it with no where to go.  I like how things have changed.
Lake Apopka, large and looming along your left as you bicycle west.
Crushed cement and gravel trail surface
Today the state of Florida has embraced rail trails and hiking trails and all things outdoors, and have remodeled buildings and opened businesses as the bicyclists and walkers, runners and skaters came and spent a little money on coffee, pizza and antiques.  Whole towns have become great places to live again, and have grown like the downtown area of Winter Garden along the West Orange Trail.  And I noticed the great lake of Apopka is no longer looking 'electric green' and heavily contaminated with nutrients as it did 25 years ago.  Nearly fifteen years into this reclamation and all the work done and all the money spent is beginning to show for the better.
Anhingas resting on poles and posts along the water
Reeds in close and grasses out far along the shoreline
What better way to celebrate area restoration than to bicycle the Lake Apopka Loop trail, along the northern shore of the Lake.  It was supposed to rain, but didn't.  Overcast and windy, it made for a good day outdoors and a challenging ride back into the wind along the open shore.  Now this is not a smooth paved trail, but it is hardened like a gravel road, perfect for wider tires with lower pressures and slower speeds to enjoy the views.  You do start on black pavement at the Magnolia Park trailhead, but after a quarter mile, that changes to crushed cement and gravel.
Old steel supports, well-marked, but be careful bicycling!
Osprey waiting for lunch
The trail follows the top of a dike built around the northern side of the lake in the 1930's-1940's.  This dike allowed the farmers to pump Lake Apopka water onto the muck lands where they truck-farmed for decades, and pump it back out again as the plants matured, creating the fine white Zellwood corn, carrots, lettuce and other farm vegetables for market.  The system was engineered to use labor to cut the produce, toss it up to workers on a shaded platform truck driving slowly behind them who processed and loaded the vegetables into packing cartons, that were conveyor-belted off the back of these slow moving trucks into other refrigerator trucks backing behind them, which then hauled fresh vegetables straight to the freezer warehouse all within 30 minutes of being picked. From there it was distributed directly to stores around the country.  This was American mechanized truck-farm ingenuity at its best.
The problem was that the pesticides and nutrients added to the muck to nourish and protect the food washed back into Lake Apopka with each man-made flood.  Lake Apopka is the head waters for the Ocklawaha River system which feeds into the St. John river and out to the sea at Jacksonville. Contaminates and high levels of nutrients killed the trophy bass fishing businesses on Lake Apopka and ran downstream through the Lake Harris chain to kill fish, birds and wildlife in the St. John river.  This river is also where a lot of Florida's community drinking water comes from, hence the reason for the farmland restoration.
Presently you come to the historic pump house.  It's 3 kerosene pumps are still in place along with huge rusted pipes.  There is a new picnic shelter there with 2 tables, trail brochures and lots to look at both water-side and trail-side.  A raised path has been built around the lake side of the block pump house, and there is a portable toilet on the west side by the ponds and canals.
Along the windy lake shore
Historic Pump House

Big pipes!
Farming culture kiosk
Looking east past the new picnic shelter
Today the farms are all silently gone, the land bought by the St. John Water Management group, but the canals, pumps, roads, bridges and dikes, and a lot of rusted steel remain. The first 4 miles of the trail are open to the lake, providing awesome views across the empty water.  The Monte Verde hills loom above the lake's western shore, water towers and radio towers mark Winter Garden to the south.  Fallow fields to the right seem to flatly go on forever, with a network of dirt roads and old bridges over canals.
About 3 miles further west, you turn inland along a canal, then turn left twice quickly to return back to the shoreline, inside of a line of trees.  Another mile brings you to a picnic table at 8.7 miles, which was my lunch stop and turn around for today.  I believe this is my first-ever stop in a 'new' picnic shelter along a trail that had no trash, no grafitti spray painted anywhere, and had nothing broken.  Even the picnic tables have no carvings in them.  Please, let's keep it this way!
It overlooks a couple of canals and miles and miles of flat land.  Ducks paddled about, hawks and buzzards lofted above, and it was very peaceful.  A Bald Eagle perched on an old power line pole along the way back, then took to the sky with a mate.  I saw a Red-tailed Hawk swooping low along the old fields.  A Blue Heron repeatedly flew a few yards in front of me, then flew again to another branch.  Great Egrets flew in the winds above with an occasional Swallow-tailed Kite.
Nice, new covered picnic area, my bicycle, and more canals
Low and flat farmlands, marsh and more canals
A sign at the picnic shelter & others posted along the trail each half mile
And birds are everywhere.  Anhinga's and Comorants dry their wings on trees and perch on sticks along the shore, Turkey Vultures circle on thermals overhead, Great Blue Heron's take to wing as you approach, Red-winged Blackbirds and Ospreys share tree branches together.  That loud and continuous birdsong that sounds like the Everglade's rookeries was heard along the first section of trail.  I counted 12 of the 18 birds listed in the Orange County Loop Trail handout, and those were just the ones I could identify.  There were many small warblers and yellow colored small birds, cardinals and jays that not on the list.  This is truly a bird-watcher's heaven.  Bring your binoculars!
Well signed trail
Note there are 2 Ospreys and one Red-winged Blackbird sharing a tree
Continuing along the trail you pass wildlife, mostly in the forms of alligators.  Signs are posted everywhere to not feed alligators, so please do not dangle your bicycling partner in front of the 80 tooth monsters as they will bite.  I have read online to stay 15 feet or more away from these beasts, as that is their comfort range (IF they are not hungry or mating March through June).  I usually give them 30 feet or more. Unfortunately this trail passes less than that away from many of these wild animals along the route.  This day, 2 ten-foot-plus ones were sunning themselves just 8 feet off the trail.  Also, don't provoke them to move off the trail if they are blocking it, it may be the last we hear of you.
Do Not Feed Alligator signs are everywhere
Alligator eyeing ducks
Look closely, alligator swimming
Beside the trail, keep 15 feet or more away!
There were also hair-infused animal droppings along the trail, suspected the be from Barn Owls, which I did not see.  There is no one to pick up waste after them.
There is not much, if any at all, shade along this trail, so wear sunscreen and drink lots of water.  Fill up your water bottles at home or at Lake Magnolia Park, there is no drinking water available once you are on the trail.  I drank 2 water bottles on a 3 hour trip in cool, cloudy, windy weather, bring more when it is sunny.
A Bald Eagle waiting for it's mate on an old power pole.
Nearing Magnolia Park on the return ride, and trees are a welcome relief from the wind
Of the entire 14.6 trail miles, I will return to ride the remaining west shore miles along the Apopka-Beauclair canal to the picnic shelter where I lunched on this trip.  Then on another trip I will follow the trails and climb the 4 wildlife viewing towers along the Clay Island loop trails.  The map shows a proposed trail to highway 455 out of Monte Verde, which when finished will make a nice walk (not sure if these trails are to be bicycled or not).  I also want to explore this area and learn more about it before the heat and mosquitoes of summer make it difficult to enjoy being outdoors.
There was really only silence to replace the sounds of farming that once rang out here daily.  I like how things have changed.

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