Dot serves up fun exercise with a view
Published: Sunday, January 29, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 28, 2006 at 11:41 p.m.
It's a great time for a hike
It's cool, the bugs are behaving and February is a time just right to lace up your walking shoes and head for the woods.
The Florida Trail Association will host an open house at its headquarters, 5415 SW 13th St., Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The association members will also be leading hikes throughout February, including a Feb. 5 hike and picnic starting at 1:30 p.m. at Manatee Springs State Park, west of Chiefland. There will also be an 8 a.m. birdwatching hike Feb. 25 at Suwannee River State Park, west of Live Oak.
For a complete list of activities for the month, along with links to information about the association and the Florida Trail, look on the Web at www.floridatrail.org/html/fhtm.html
I'm standing at the trailhead at the northern entrance to San Felasco Hammock Preserve State Park, just off U.S. 441 in Alachua, ready to collect on an offer from Dot Morrison to take a hike with her group.
As I wait, a few of the regular members begin to arrive. It's a mixture of retirees and those with flexible work schedules that allow for an early-morning walk on a weekday. Marilyn Colby, a winter resident from Rochester, N.Y., is an early arrival and she's equipped with hiking poles, which she says will notch up her level of exercise during the five-mile trek.
"It's just more stable and it helps you get up the hills," she says with a laugh, quickly adding, "we can imagine there are hills up here."
It's the chill in the air that brings Greg Tracey out.
"I figured a good, cold morning would be good to walk," says Tracey, who should know, having marked his retirement by hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Bonnie Powers is joining the group for the third time.
"I love going outside and I love to hike, and going with the group makes you feel safe," she says. "They're friendly and the pace is perfect for me."
Friendly is the predominant spirit of the walk that often resembles a rambling social as those on the trail strike up conversations, changing partners as the path weaves through the woods and over sunny meadows.
Morrison's hike is just one of many led by members of the Florida Trail Association. Some are on the association's 1,400-mile namesake that winds through the state starting from the Big Cypress National Preserve east of Naples, and climbing the peninsula and crossing the Panhandle to end near Pensacola. You can find many scenic spots in the sections that pass through our area.
Morrison refers to the gathering as the Thursday group. On the Florida Trail Web site it has a bit catchier title, "Thursday Treks with Dot." She says her goals are to offer weekly hikes, close to Gainesville, that can easily fit into a morning. That's why she's frequently on the trails at San Felasco.
The group today numbers more than a dozen, bigger than usual, and Morrison suspects that could be because of the cool weather that's so hiker-friendly, and partly because of her enthusiasm for the trails on the north side of the park that offer a good variety of habitat and scenery.
On weekends these trails on the north side of the park are filled with off-road cyclists and people on horseback, but on a weekday only a couple of bike riders are encountered, and the only equine presence are some noticeable "trail markers" that group members are careful to step around.
About two miles into the walk there's a time-out. Layers of jackets and sweatshirts are tucked into backpacks and away we go again.
As the group moves on down the trail, I'm aware of what I don't hear. We're now deep enough into the woods that I don't hear the hum of traffic from nearby highways. We move along at a steady pace that would never be confused with a mosey or a stroll. But we slow as we turn down a utility easement that cuts through a stand of trees as word quickly spreads that there are deer on the path ahead. There are so many, and they are so lively, getting an exact head count is tricky. "A dozen or more" seems to be the consensus of our counting efforts.
While the path is well-trod, there are several places where one trail crosses another, and I know if I wasn't in a group, I might be feeling lost. As we approach a clearing that Morrison calls Sweetgum Hill, she announces it's coffee time, and from her backpack come a thermos, cups and a plastic bag of golden brownies. Like a priest, she holds caffeine communion al fresco as the experienced hikers pull out sheets of plastic or large plastic bags and plop down to enjoy the goodies.
Charles Jones is one of the newer members, having recently moved to Newberry from Crossville, Tenn. There he was an active member of the Tennessee Trail Association and he had a group he hiked with regularly on Wednesdays. He says he finds hikers share a lot in common, even more than he realized. He recently e-mailed a photo of the Thursday group back to his wife, who is still teaching in Tennessee.
"She told me it looks like your old Wednesday hiking buddies," he says with a laugh.
Annette Rao has been walking with the group for about four years. Walking was part of her life growing up in the Netherlands, and it has continued over her 74 years.
"It's just the freedom you have," she says, explaining what she likes about hitting the trails with the group.
As we round a bend, we come to an overlook of Itchy Bottom Lake. While the name doesn't conjure up pleasant images, the reality is one of the hike's highlights.
"This part of Florida is just so gorgeous, so gorgeous," Winnie Perez says as she takes in the view. "It's what you see in a painting."
Perez is a retired travel agent who moved from Pasco County to High Springs. She's enjoying the change of scenery. She also likes the change of atmosphere of living in a community where the people in line at the grocery, along with the cashier, will just strike up a friendly conversation. And while there are retirees here, she says they're different from the crowd she left in the Tampa Bay area.
"You get old active people," she says, "a lot different mentality."
By 11:30 a.m., we are on the homestretch to the parking lot. It's been a 2 1/2-hour trip, about two hours of actual walking. It's all been quite a sales pitch on why Florida Hiking Trails Month is something to celebrate.
Gary Kirkland can be reached at 338-3104 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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