Into the dark woods
Published: Sunday, January 15, 2006 at 3:46 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 15, 2006 at 3:46 p.m.
OCALA NATIONAL FOREST — The nearly 600 square miles of the Ocala National Forest are home to diverse natural habitats, wildlife and recreational opportunities an hour's drive from Gainesville.
They also provide numberless places for a variety of people to get away — from the stress of life, the snow up North, society and, in some cases, from people asking too many questions.
Earlier this month, "the forest," as locals call the 380,000-acre tract in the heart of the Florida peninsula, became the destination for a troubled man police say may have been intent on launching a life as a serial killer.
On Jan. 7, the bodies of Santa Fe Community College students John Parker and Amber Marie Peck, both 26, were found shot to death at a remote campsite in the 13,260-acre Juniper Prairie Wilderness, about 50 miles from Gainesville. On Tuesday, 19-year-old Leo Lancing Boatman of Largo was arrested and the next day charged in the killing of Parker and Peck.
Somehow Boatman — whose uncle said wasn't very good at travel directions — was able to make his way to Juniper Prairie, the largest of the forest's four wilderness areas. In wilderness areas, visitors and even staff are prohibited from having anything powered by a motor — from vehicles to chain saws.
From the point where Parker and Peck entered Juniper Prairie Wilderness on Jan. 3 to camp overnight, it takes about two hours to hike to the Hidden Pond campsite carrying or carting gear. The remoteness of the site illustrates, as police contend, how random the attack on the two SFCC students was.
Police allege that Boatman, carrying an AK-47 assault rifle, happened upon Parker and Peck about noon on Jan. 4. The students apparently were about to leave the campsite and return to Peck's GMC sport utility vehicle parked at the entry point when they were slain.
The site where the murders of Parker and Peck occurred represents just one of the many natural and developed areas that make up the second-largest of Florida's three national forests.
"The Ocala" — another nickname — was established in 1908 and is the oldest national forest east of the Mississippi. Its vast and varied landscape stretches up Florida's midsection, mostly in Marion and Lake counties, but also dipping into Putnam County.
Its northwestern border lies about 30 miles from Gainesville, as the crow flies. But most entry points into the forest are at least 40 to 50 miles from Gainesville.
State Road 40, the east-west highway that runs from Ocala to Ormond Beach, divides the forest into two districts: the Lake George Ranger District to the north and the Seminole Ranger District to the south.
Less obvious a divider is the Florida National Scenic Trail, which cuts a 70-mile path from north to south through the forest. When the Florida Trail was established in 1966, the first segment was constructed in the Ocala National Forest, and today it remains the most popular part of the trail.
The forest's natural wonders may help explain why it attracts 1.7 million visitors a year.
"It has cathedral ceilings and walls made out of wood," said a 47-year-old woman in the smoky Shanty Pond primitive campsite, who said she goes by the name "Mama Copper."
The natural features of the forest are dominated by more than 200,000 acres of sand pine scrub. It's the world's largest contiguous acreage of this type of ecosystem, said Bret Bush, recreation program manager for the Ocala National Forest.
The sand pine scrub makes up the spine of the forest. The sandy soil of the scrub runs deep, Bush said from the top of Central Tower, the last fire tower in the forest.
"Florida's desert," he called it.
Stretching horizon to horizon on both sides of SR 40, the sand pine scrub is descended from some of the first vegetation to sprout on the Florida peninsula after it began emerging from the sea eons ago.
Bush said the chief purpose of timber harvesting in the sand pine scrub is to manage the habitat for the threatened Florida scrub jay, which is found only in Florida. Most of the gregarious, blue birds are in the Ocala National Forest, whose scrub jay population is estimated to be about 2,000.
The jay prefers to nest in scrubby early stage trees, Bush said, and will move out of an area when the trees get too tall.
In far lesser acreage, a variety of other ecosystems exist alongside and within the sand pine scrub. They include slash or loblolly pine, four or five islands of longleaf pine and several water ecosystems.
Wildlife inhabitants include the Florida black bear, deer, bobcats, alligators and wild hogs.
At one time longleaf was the dominant forest species in the Southeast, but today it is an endangered ecosystem due to the near total loss of its native habitat, said Denise Rains, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service in Tallahassee.
Longleaf is the preferred habitat of the federally endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. The Ocala National Forest's red-cockaded woodpecker population is estimated to be from 100 to 160 birds.
Scattered throughout the forest are pond prairies similar to Paynes Prairie, dozens of named and unnamed lakes and ponds, and creeks, rivers and a handful of springs.
The largest water body is 46,000-acre Lake George, Florida's second largest lake. Its 14-mile length comprises a portion of the eastern border of the Ocala National Forest. (By comparison, Newnan’s Lake near Gainesville is about 5,800 acres.) Lake George is a six-mile-wide bulge in the St. Johns River, and Bush said some people arrive at the forest via boat from Jacksonville.
The Ocklawaha River makes up a portion of the western border of the forest.
About 47,000 acres within the Ocala National Forest remain in private ownership, Bush said. They include several municipalities along SR 40 — such as Nuby's Corner and Astor — and a few mobile home communities.
Public land in the forest includes hundreds of camping areas that draw a mix of short-term inhabitants. They include hunters, snowbirds, all-terrain-vehicle enthusiasts, birders, backpackers, canoeists and horseback riders.
Rains said some people have more or less homesteaded in the forest. Although there are limits on how long visitors can stay at a campsite, some people move from camp to camp for a long-term stay.
One man reportedly has lived in the forest for 20 years.
Primitive campsites feature few amenities beyond spots to pitch tents and portable toilets, and are favored by people who enjoy roughing it. Among them are those some in the forest call "the Rainbows."
The Rainbow Family of Living Light is a loosely organized group of vagabonds who espouse — in Web sites and Internet forums — peace, love and a spiritual connection to nature. The Ocala National Forest is a popular place to stay in the winter, and Rainbow "Gatherings" have been held here for many years, usually in February.
"It's pretty," "Tinkerer," a 27-year-old man at Shanty Pond, said of the forest's appeal. "I come down here for the winter because it's warm. About March, I'll leave and head for the Rockies."
People in the Shanty Pond, Disappearing Lake and other Rainbow encampments tend to avoid giving their full names.
One 26-year-old identified himself as "AKA Nick." He offered a mug of tea to a visitor.
"Johnny" is 29 and from Kansas. He played with a sleepy hound dog puppy named "Boy" as a kettle of something simmered on the campfire, and a Confederate flag strung between two trees fluttered gently.
A man in a black leather hat and open-fingered gloves said, "They call me Blackjack," before he got uncomfortable with questions and, smiling, rode away on a bike.
A few miles away is the Salt Springs Recreation Site, a recreational-vehicle campground that caters largely to snowbirds escaping northern winter. It's the polar opposite of Shanty Pond.
Managed by a private concession under contract with the U.S. Forest Service, the Salt Springs site is a tidy community that features 106 full hook-ups for motorhomes and travel trailers. Gray hair and Midwest accents define the population here, where no one minds giving their name and roughing it is making the short hike to the picturesque springs to watch mullet and blue crabs.
"I just like the woods," said Henry Mandziara, 68, a retired toolmaker from Clinton Township, Mich. "It's just like Michigan — but warm."
He was seated in a lawn chair outside the 30-foot trailer home of his sister, Marge Mohan, and her husband, Ed Mohan, of Harrisville, Mich. Joining them for an afternoon beer was Richard Hankins, 78, of Effingham, Ill.
They talked of the beauty of the forest and the friendliness of the people who visit.
All had heard about the murders of Parker and Peck. But they said that in this community of like-minded nomads, they didn't feel in danger.
A security officer at Juniper Springs campground said a couple of people canceled their reservations last week after the killings. But they re-booked after Boatman was arrested, he said.
Recreation in the forest sometimes is structured, as in horseback riding and canoeing. Sometimes it's on the fly.
Rains said that when the Navy conducts bombing exercises at its forest range — its schedule is announced in local media — a contingent of people gather in places along the bombing range's secured boundaries.
"They set up lawn chairs and watch the planes," Rains said.
Planes, and the ubiquitous warning signs, are about the only thing they'll see. The live or dummy bombs drop in an area that cannot be seen from the perimeter of the range.
One of the fastest-growing activities in the forest is riding dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles.
"The forest is the No. 1 provider of off-highway-vehicle recreation in the state," Bush said. "We have people coming here from Miami, Tampa and Jacksonville."
The prime ATV site in the forest is near the Big Scrub campground on the southern end of the forest. Once a campsite almost exclusively used by hunters, it now is mostly an ATV site. Bush said on weekends hundreds of dirt-bike riders and ATVers churn up the dust on an ATV trail that runs for miles along a power line.
On Wednesday, Mike Coppola and Juan Herrera of Miami had the trail almost to themselves. They always come during the week to ride their four-wheelers, they said, because there are too many riders on the weekend.
After an all-out ride bouncing along the power-line trail, they drove their noisy machines back to their well-equipped campsite. As a scrub jay drank from a puddle created by one of their water coolers, they cooked and ate a brunch of ham, eggs and orange juice — occasionally sipping from a Red Stripe beer. Then they settled under a canopy to play an X-Box game on a TV powered by a gas generator.
"There's really no place to ride in Miami, nothing like here," said Coppola, 34, who owns real estate and apartment buildings. "We come here about three times a year to get away. You can forget about everything and just relax."
Bush said until now motorized trail riders have had almost unrestricted access in parts of the forest. That has caused severe damage to the ecology of the forest, he said, as spinning tires have plowed up the vegetation and left many trails denuded.
He said a report documenting the environmental damage from off-highway vehicles has prompted forest managers to devise a plan to control their use. In a few months, he said, new restrictions will drastically limit where and when riders can operate their vehicles.
"It's going to be a huge change," Bush told Coppola and Herrera.
"That's good and bad," Coppola said, adding that he welcomes restrictions on riders "who make it bad for everybody else."
In another, more silent part of the forest, life is returning.
On Friday, after being closed for nearly a week during the investigation of the latest forest tragedy, the Hidden Pond campsite in Juniper Prairie Wilderness reopened to the public.
Bob Arndorfer can be reached at 352-374-5042 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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