March 15, 2013
Today I found myself with a free day to myself in Lakeland, Florida, having spent Friday at the track in Sebring watching a race with one of our suppliers. While the day started out with a Detroit Tigers spring training game and watching my Wolverines beat the lowly buckeyes in the Big Ten tourney, the highlight of my wanderings was a stroll through the Circle B Bar Reserve south of town.
The Circle B is a former cattle ranch that has been reclaimed as a nature reserve. Much of the acreage has been allowed to revert back into wetlands, a process that has been hastened through restoration work. As a wetland, the area provides a home to many species of birds, snakes, mammals, and of course, plenty of alligators. It also performs many other much needed functions, including the retention of fresh water and the removal of pollutants from that water as it passes through.
To me, it provided a much needed break from the sounds of the human world and an enjoyable glimpse into ecosystems that we do not have in Michigan. It also provided me with an opportunity for my first hike of any real distance since my foot surgery six months ago. I may have overdone it a bit on the hiking, but the sound of silence was worth the pain. That silence was unexpected so close to urban central Florida. For much of the hike, the only sounds I heard were the calls of birds and the rustling of vegetation as unseen animals scurried about. A few other people here and there, but nowhere near as many as the parking lot led me to expect.
The parking lot is at the end of a one mile winding road, that is oft canopied by live oak veiled with Spanish moss. A very intriguing landscape that I had not before experienced. The parking lot is situated next to the reserve’s interpretive center, which was sadly closed by the time I arrived. A substantial building, it would have been interesting to explore.
From the parking lot, signs direct you to the start of the trail system, and so I followed. When presented with my first choice of direction, I turned left toward the shady oaks and away from the marsh (of which it turned out I would also explore). The trail soon turned to a wide dirt trail winding through this amazing scenery. I just love how the moss hanging from the trees creates a mysterious aura. Peaceful yet intriguing.
As the Shady Oak trail approaches Lake Hancock it bears right and becomes Alligator Alley. Alligator Alley is a long straight berm that separates the wetland from the lake. The lake is the home to the densest population of alligators of any lake in Florida, and there are countless “slideways” where it is evident that gators cross often between the lake and the wetland. It reminds me of an abandoned railroad bed in its height, width, and lack of any interesting curvature. This also means that the trail lost its natural feel which was disappointing, as when hiking I like to feel like I am out in natural nature, not nature as people craft it. That said, I do recognize that it is a reclaimed bit of nature and so I understand why it is that way. My feet also preferred the dirt trail over this very hard packed wide dirt road. It was along this stretch that the animal kingdom began to show itself, as I spotted many a gator, quite a few birds, and even a wild hog. Can’t say I expected that last one, and so it was a surprising and interesting discovery.
Alligator Alley eventually bears to the right and enters more of a marsh, where it reaches its terminus at the junction of the Heron Hideout, Marsh Rabbit Run, and. Eagle Roost trails. At this junction a large amount of photographers and bird watchers gathered, and by their excited conversation it was apparent that I was a few seconds belated from an opportunity to see a bobcat. That excitement over, I was left with the choice to turn right and give my sore foot a break by returning to the start along the Heron Hideout trail, continuing completely straight along Marsh Rabbit Run, or turning left to discover what the Eagle Roost trail held for me other than a chance to achieve the longest hike among those options. I chose the latter, in part out of desire to extend my hike and make the most of my hike, but also as the map showed some curvature to the trail.
It was as I followed this trail out into the heart of the marsh that I first realized how truly quiet it seemed. I tried to hear but could not any evidence of our impact on the world. No cars or distant hum of the city. Amazing! Quiet is an elusive friend, yet when we meet I find myself thrilled and at peace. I stopped to enjoy the simple sounds of nature a bit.
This joy was not long lived, as the trail broke free of the marsh and entered a hot, dry field where it continued straight (!) for close to a mile on a hard, limestone (or the like) road. Hot, dry, and straight. And no eagles. Oh well.
Eventually, I reached the next trail junction and turned left to remain in the reserve. I then followed the equally very straight, but much more interesting Wading Bird Way back through the marsh. The photographers and bird watchers must not make it back this far as much, as the wildlife was much more prevalent. A wonderful array of birds in all shapes and sizes, and an alligator swimming in open water all made for a peaceful scene.
Breaking free of the marsh, Wading Bird Way ends and I found myself approaching a windmill left over from the prior life of this interesting place. It was then a right turn onto the Windmill Whisper trail, which transitioned the hike back from the marsh and back into the woods. A welcome return for this tree lover, though the sounds of cars also made a return along this stretch. This short leg soon ended at the park entrance where I turned right to head back towards the trailhead along the Tree Frog trail. I again found myself in a mixed woods that included lots of shady oaks with Spanish moss. Again, they just looked wonderfully mysterious. This last leg of the trail straightened out in the homestretch and offered up one last surprise – an armadillo foraging in the grass! I do not think I had ever seen one in person before today.
It was then back to the car and my hotel. My foot was glad to be done and stayed quite sore throughout the night. Those trees and that silence was a great reward for my effort and I am so glad I found my way to the Circle B Bar Reserve.
(My apologies about the poor picture quality, I only had my phone)