Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Walk in the Woods

For this Florida girl, born and raised on the Gulf Coast where white powder means the sugar sand that gets caught between my toes at the beach, snow is something of an enigma.  Yes, it has snowed in Florida.  But Florida snow is more like a Sno-cone that has been sitting out in the hot sun for a few hours.  It is wet and thin, and melts into the sidewalk within minutes, even on the chilliest day.  I had yet to see real snow, deep snow, the kind you can make a ball out of and nail someone in the back with.

 Creek as trail along the Sweat Heifer Creek portion of the hike up to Charlie's Bunion

We hiked up to Charlie's Bunion in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park recently (a hike not to be missed should you ever go there), traversing a bit of the Appalachian Trail, and making it up to a little over 6,000 feet. 

That morning, we prepared for a typical early April hike in that area: we dressed in layers, brought our winter hats and gloves, and packed plenty of water.  However when we got there, it was very warm, even in the higher elevations.  And everything was covered in a thick blanket of beautiful white snow.

I've mentioned the duality of the Smokies in early spring before; it seems that winter has been reluctant to let go of her tight grip on the mountains this year, and while the temperatures were screaming that spring had most definitely sprung, the landscape was painting a quite different picture.

Winter wonderland in Spring in the Smoky Mountains

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Where the Buffalo Roam

No matter how many times I tried to convince them, my kids never believed that there are bison on Paynes Prairie.  Bison, you say?  In Florida?  You don't believe me either?  Why yes, we do have a rather large herd of bison roaming freely in North Central Florida.  As a matter of fact, hundreds of thousands of bison roamed in Florida until the European settlers and Seminoles hunted them into extinction.  In the 1970's, in an effort to restore a population of bison, a few were brought to Paynes Prairie, and they have pretty much thrived there since.

We have been taking the kids hiking since they could walk.  We have been conditioning them to walk farther and farther, and now they can do up to a respectable 8 miles at a time.  We have known that the farther into the Prairie they could go, the bigger and better the payoff would be.  Still, up until now, they didn't really believe that bison were out there.

It's a special thing to see the bison on Paynes Prairie, even if you see them from afar or from one of the many observations decks built there.  But it is a very unique and extraordinary experience when you not only see one - or a few - on the hiking trail, but you also get to hike with one!

That is exactly the experience my family had.  It was thrilling, exciting, and utterly frightening.  I challenge anyone not to be in awe of a huge, 500+ pound beast staring you in the eye from a mere 15 feet away.  He came out of the brush as we were resting on the trail, and we were forced to follow him out.  Thankfully, he didn't seem to mind too much.

We saw 5 bison on this day on the trail.  This guy was by far the biggest and the most humbling.  Notice that one of his horns is missing.  There was much speculation as to what happened to it.  Fighting for territory?  Fighting for a mate?  Or is he simply just a klutz?

These guys were the cutest.  They were about half the size of Chewy up above.  They were docile enough for me to get about 20 feet from them to take their pictures.  We were told by some fellow hikers that a herd of about 12 had been with them only a few minuted before we got there, and these two guys stayed behind for lunch.

Our experience with the bison taught us that no matter where you are hiking, you aren't alone on the trail.  Whether you seen them or not, there are animals that call home the places that people only casually use.  The forests, the prairies, and the mountains are not ours to use or abuse, and we must respect the trails - and the creatures that we borrow them from.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Wild Horses Couldn't Drag Me Away

Even though I have hiked just about every inch of the sanctioned trails of Paynes Prairie, I am always pleasantly surprised and reminded by how special the place is.  On the right day, you forget you are in Florida, and feel transported to another place. 

Our recent hike was no less surprising than others before it, and it had one of the great payoffs for people patient and ambitious enough to rise early and hike farther than the 1/2 mile hike to the observation post:


These are wild horses, often talked about and not often seen, that live and thrive on Paynes Prairie.  They are descendants of a herd of horses brought to the area by the Spanish in the 1500's.  This is only the second time I have seen them in the 15+ years I have been hiking the prairie, and yesterday my kids finally got to see them after hearing us talk about them for years.
About 4 miles into our hike, the kids were growing restless and frustrated, having not yet "seen anything".  We knew that if they could hold out just a few footsteps more, that the odds of seeing something on four legs were pretty good.  So we exercised our parental authority, and commanded them to march, just around the bend and we promised that if there was nothing down the trail that we would turn around and head back for lunch.  As we rounded the bend, we all looked up, my kids hoping the coast was clear, my husband and I hoping for a big payoff.  As I squinted my eyes, I noticed a dark spot moving about a mile down the open trail.  We got out the binoculars, and confirmed my suspicion: HORSES!  

We were able to get alarmingly close to them.  They watched us suspiciously as we approached, but they were calm and quiet.  I snapped a few photos of them, we stood and watched them for a few moments, and then turned around to leave them to their grazing, because they were in the middle of the trail, and I had no intentions of challenging them just to move ahead.  My son periodically turned around to make sure they weren't sneaking up on us, of course. 

My kids' frustration was curtailed, and as we hiked back to the trailhead to have our picnic, talk turned from "my feet hurt!" to "that was AWESOME!".  And it most certainly was.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Groundhog Day

While obviously a myth, Groundhog Day is celebrated every February 2 out of the desperation to see green again, to feel the warmth of the sun on our faces, to pack our winter coats away for the next 6-8 months, and to touch doorknobs again without being zapped across the room.  Now, I live in Florida, and know little to nothing of the frigid winters that most people north of me deal with year in and year out.  This winter has been an exception, though, and I have realized that I, too, am desperate for the little guy to see his shadow!

We hear all about Punxsutawney Phil, up there in Pennsylvania on Groundhog Day.  He gets all the press, all the applause.  Imagine the pressure that little guy feels!  He doesn't ask to get yanked from his warm and cozy hibernation in his burrow, but he does it with a smile, a wiggle of his nose, and takes the brunt if winter wields her wicked ways for another 6 weeks.  There are groundhogs the world over that know nothing of the expectations placed upon poor little Phil. 

If you've never seen a real groundhog, in his element, it's easy to stumble upon a fat and furry little guy or two if you visit Chimney Rock State Park, just outside of Asheville, NC.  Case in point:

I walked right up to him, and he just kept munching on his clover in the most careless way.  At Chimney Rock, the groundhog is a mascot of sorts, waddling through the park unnoticed.  All over the region, you can see them in the forest, along the rivers, and unfortunately, on the roadsides.  They're fat, they're furry, and even though they're rodents, they're cute.  You can't deny that.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

All Puffed Up

I came across this immature Green Heron as I was hiking with my family on Paynes Prairie.  He was licking his chops, having seconds before I took this photo just finished off a large insect that he had plucked from the murky water.  It didn't take him long to realize that he was being watched, though.  Giving it his finest effort, he tried to show me that he wasn't too keen on having someone watch him eat...

Monday, December 21, 2009

Everyone must take time to sit and watch the leaves turn. ~Elizabeth Lawrence

Who says there is no change of seasons in Florida?  Though it might come a little late, and with less fanfare than those showoffs in New England, we do indeed have fall here in the Sunshine State.  Yes, it is December.  Yes, there is copious amounts of snow blanketing much of the country.  I say, better late than never!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Autumnal Arrival

I always know that Fall is in full swing here in North Florida, not by the changing of the leaves or the sudden crispness of the air, but by the arrival of the Sandhill Cranes.  The Florida Sandhill Cranes live here year-round, populating North Central Florida from Gainesville south to Tampa.  They live in residential areas with lakes and ponds, and in the many state parks and wildlife refuges in the region.

While I love the permanent crane residents, it is the migratory Greater Sandhill Cranes that arrive every late November that provide me with the most joy - and picture-taking opportunities.  Avoiding the frigid northern cold, these magnificent birds descend upon my temperate hometown by the thousands, making their presence known with a cacophonous thunder.  They are huge birds, standing tall at four feet, and seeing a field or prairie filled with several hundred of these guys is, just, WOW.

Every morning during this time of year, a massive flock of cranes flies over my house, roaring so closely that the windows sometimes rattle.  They travel from nearby Paynes Prairie to several marshes and fields in the area, including one about 1/2 mile from my house, for a buffet breakfast.  Around 10 or 11, they make their way back to Paynes Prairie, with a few loner birds hanging out in various pockets of town.  It is fun to watch these birds, a real observation of their social structure.  You see the dominant birds, the submissive birds.  You see fights over females, fights over territory, and even friendships among them.

Each year, many of the residents of my town look forward to the arrival of these incredible creatures.  People flock to the Prairie to observe and photograph them, to appreciate their mere presence.  If you ever get the chance to get an up-close look at one of the cranes, a bird who is more than 2/3 as tall as an adult man, it is quite humbling.