Ocala National Forest

Travis is the trip planner. For some reason he enjoys spending hours on the internet looking up every possible option involved with any trip we do. For this occasion, I attempted to plan a four day bike trip through the Ocala National Forest to Blue Spring in Orange City, which is right outside of Orlando. I was overruled, partly because my trip planning ended after I looked up the bike route option on Google Maps. Also, Travis told me about how his Romanian intern said the main difference between American women and Romanian women was that Romanian women don't talk back, and how for ONE DAY WOULD I PLEASE JUST LET HIM DO WHAT HE WANTS WITHOUT QUESTIONING EVERYTHING HE SAYS. So we didn't go on a bike trip. We went backpacking. Because that's what my boyfriend wanted for his birthday.


In my mediocre trip planning however, I did find Juniper Springs Recreational Area, which was right smack in the middle of the Ocala National Forest. Travis used that as our start off point. Our entrance into the wilderness started on the Florida Trail, a 1300 mile trail that stretches across the state starting in Pensacola Beach and ending at Big Cypress National Preserve in the Everglades. But WHAT? Yes, seriously, that is a thing. I didn't know. But now I am pumped to hike all of it. (Is someone going to pay me to go on nature trips yet? BECAUSE I'M READY.)

We started North through the forest. The Ocala National Forest is the oldest National Forest East of the Mississippi, and its 383,000 acres cover the area between Gainesville and Orlando. Even though the terrain is brittle and desert-like, it's rife with water sources including 600 lakes and three first-magnitude springs. It's the landscape that Margorie Kinnan Rawlings used as the backdrop for The Yearling, her 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. And the landscape is certainly distinct, different from what I'm used to in the Panhandle and beautiful in its own stark way. It was a warm day, and it was unseasonably warm even for Central Florida, but the sky was bright blue and an awesome time to be outside.

We passed through four distinct landscapes in five miles: squatty scrub oak forests; spindly waving scrub pines; burnt out forest in the first decade of regrowth; and golden grass prairies.

It wasn't till halfway through the hike that we realized we had forgotten a lighter, which might have been a consequence of celebrating Travis' birthday at the Top the night before. It was the kind of night that caused him to tumble off the back of the tandem bike we rode to the bar. I don't know whether to blame it on the bike, my steering, or the well tequila shots, but in any case we didn't have anything to light our stove with. Luckily we passed a Boy Scout troop that let us have one. At least THEY were prepared.

The Boy Scouts took the optimum camping site, which sheltered by a hammock of oaks right next to a stream fed pond. So we kept hiking on over the next hill and spotted a graveyard of burnt out oak tree skeletons nestled in a meadow of tall dry grass. It looked creepy and awesome and it was obviously the best place to set up tent.

The soil was straight sugar sand, which meant yet another Florida camping trip shaking sand out of all our gear-- no matter where we go, whether it's the beach, a river, or a forest, we always camp on sugar sand. We made camp in a flash, and then I made peanut butter ramen with wilted Swiss chard (we fancy). Just as I was adding the flavor packs to the noodles, I noticed the dark clouds that had been gathering behind the oaks were starting to look a little more ominous. Travis also noticed, but Travis suffers from something called "weather optimism". It's not raining, it's misting. Well, ok it's raining, but it will pass by quickly. So it's been pouring for 45 minutes, at least it's not hail. I tried my best to be a Romanian girlfriend and not question his judgement, but it was difficult. It took a lightening count of one second to convince him that we actually needed to put on the rain fly. And then it really rained.

This was not just a steady rain. This was an intense, nutso rain that made me worry maybe the tent would blow away. This is the kind of rain that really puts your tent to the test, and makes you rethink your choice of camp placement. The wind was so strong it basically collapsed the frame of the tent, so much so that I thought we set up the poles wrong. The rain was blowing in sideways, plastering the rain fly right up against the side of the tent (thus negating its purpose) and blowing the droplets in through the mesh, creating a fine mist that lightly dusted Travis and all of his sleeping gear. Luckily, Travis brought an emergency poncho that we ripped apart to create a water shield, while simultaneously recreating a scene from Dexter.

It was over soon enough though. Not real soon, but soon enough that the poncho scheme worked and we were able to sleep dry. I passed out when it got dark. At 6:30. PM. It was great. It's amazing what the absence of light bulbs does to your little brain.

Needless to say, I woke up feeling REFRESHED. The slight humidity and heat of the day before was replaced with the kind of weather that makes Florida's intolerable heat worthwhile: high 60s, no humidity, bright sun and blue blue sky. Winter in Florida is beautiful. That was the hardest part about living away up North for three winters. I couldn't handle the January grey.

As everyone knows, the early bird get the worm, so we set off to do some early morning bird watching. We walked out separately into the oak scrub, burnt out oak snags and meadows surrounding our campsite to see what we could find.

The night before Travis caught sight of a bird that looked like Florida Scrub Jay, but the twilight made it difficult to ID. Five minutes into my walk, I was sure. I walked up on a whole family of them clustered high up in an oak snag. The flew around from branch to branch, cracking open nuts and talking to each other. They even followed me for a little bit, the leader calling to everyone else to keep up and check out this girl walking through their forest.

Florida Scrub Jays are the only bird in the United States to be found exclusively in Florida. Birders from all over the country come to scrub country to catch a glimpse of one. And Travis saw one on his birthday! There is a campaign to get Florida's State Bird changed from the Northern Mockingbird (boooooooring) to the Scrub Jay. I'm all for it, and seriously, forget mockingbirds. Scrub Jays are restricted to living in scrub habitat. These dudes depend on wildfires for their homes-- the regrowth the occurs afterward, as well as the dead trees that are left behind. And of course this habitat is in danger of disappearing as Florida's development continues its terrible march. It makes refuges like state parks, national parks and forests, private reserves, and other forms of habitat conservation so much more important as the pressures of human impact encroach on the lives of creatures like the Scrub Jay. I am all for paying more taxes to keep those programs going.

We finished off the morning by hiking a little further North on the Florida Trail, getting a little deeper into the wild of the forest. Everything we saw was just five miles away from civilization, and the diversity found in that experience makes me appreciate all over again how special these natural places are. I can't wait to hike 15 miles into the forest. Who knows WHAT I'll find then.

In any case, we had to turn around, and finish out our hike right where it started: Juniper Springs. It was mid-January, but it was Central Florida so you know what that means.

The cool thing about swimming in the springs in the winter is that the water temperature is always the same, so it ends up feeling much warmer than you would expect, especially if it's cooler than 70 degrees outside. So we had our January swimming moment, and then packed the car for the next leg of our journey-- Blue Spring to continue Manatee Count.