Posted by: floridanature | November 29, 2008

Rooting Like a Hawg: Just a Bit Lost in the Woods

An esteemed professor in “environmental studies” is down on all fours, like a feral hog. He is crawling through a tightly woven tunnel in an otherwise impassable thicket of saw palmettos, cat briar and wild grape vines. Like me, he is making odd exhalations that sound a bit like grunts. The only difference is my forearms seem to be bleeding a bit more than his.

Driving on SR 46 to RSRSR

Driving on SR 46 to RSRSR

We have been winding our way through the Rock Springs Run State Reserve in Lake County, just west of the Wekiva River for the last four hours. The 20,000-acre-plus tract of land is one of those miraculous relics of the natural Florida landscape, protected in the river basin here since the early 1980’s. The best we can figure is we’re the only visitors out here today.

It all started out with the righteous idea of avoiding the pre-holiday, obsessive-compulsive behavior that the media slams us with every season at this time. Today is supposed to be the busiest shopping day of the whole year, and that is reason enough to stay away from it. If I were forced into buying something today, I would go into the little historic downtown of Sanford, where I live, and patronize local merchants—Yvette at Maya Books & Music, and the other genuine few Mom ‘n Pop retailers who are still unbound by the lockstep of mindless corporate selling, folks who really do care about the quality of what you buy.


But, I am not. And so, I continue following Dr. Bruce Stephenson through the labyrinthic weave of foliage, hoping soon for a respite that will show us the light. We stand up and look around. More sabal palms, briars, vines everywhere we look. Bruce is a rarity: One of those gentle and intellectual souls who also doesn’t mind crawling on his belly through the fretwork of Florida’s true landscape. He reminds me of my other hiking buddy, Steve Phelan, in that way. Both guys are at once mild-mannered, brilliant, and athletic enough to make “hikes” like this one.

Brilliance aside, we are lost. That could be because neither of us brought a compass today—figuring the bright Florida winter sun alone would guide us. Or it could be that we strayed so far off the Fire Break Road we were on that we simply became confused. It was a natural mistake, since we started tracing a wide animal trail back into the brush. Trails like that always look like giant vegetative avenues, and the temptation to follow them is great. (In a “Far Side” moment, I briefly imagine the animals building those avenues just to lure humans down into them—and then, when the poor, deluded human is entwined in briars, they sit back in their lawn chairs and have a good chuckle at it all.)

Climbing aster at trail side

Climbing aster at trail side

But now, with vines wrapping around us and thorns pulling at our arms and legs and the soft Mesic landscape everywhere falling into sloughs and sawgrass, well, maybe that was a temptation we might have reconsidered.

No matter. Bruce is a good fellow to get lost with. We’ve spent the earlier part of the trek talking about John Nolan, the visionary planner, and how his strategies for sustainability were so ahead of their time here in Florida. Bruce is planning a couple of Nolan books, and so we consider the probability of having elected public officials in Florida actually pay attention to planning—-instead of to their own short-sighted, bubba-driven chaos. We laugh at that prospect, and then, we crawl some more, sometimes rising up to simply bull through the green stuff.

The air around us is sweet and pure, some of it from the fragrance of winter wildflowers, like the climbing lavender-colored aster we saw on the way in, a Gulf Frittiary and a giant Tiger Swallowtail there feeding on different blossoms. Some of it may be from the tall pines, the long leafs and loblolly, and upland on the way in, the tiny sand pines. We are crashing so loudly through the understory of this forest that we are likely to frighten most wildlife. For now, all we see are several “walking sticks”, a couple of patches of Florida black bear scat, a mat of fur that came from a small mammal of some sort, and many tracks in the sand—bear, deer, hog, raccoon, snake, wading bird.

Bear Scat

Bear Scat

We stop a couple times for water, and then once for snacks, apples and some tangerines from a preserve near Rollins College where Bruce teaches. Finally, with water getting as low as the sun in the sky, I start to silently wonder if we will make it back to a trail of any sort. Just as I do, we blunder out onto one of the fire break roads which I know will lead us back to the main trail. We are jubilant and smiling. And to top it off, we also see the hooded pitcher plants that, all along, I was hoping to find again. It is nearly winter now and the plants are far less conspicious. But when we stop to look, they are no less spectacular than they’ve always been. (I photographed a clutch of them last spring when they were in bloom and vibrant.)

Pitcher plant in bloom from last spring

Pitcher plant in bloom from last spring

One of the plant stems has fallen over, dead now, and I pick it up and open its vascular throat and at the bottom see a bundle of tiny insect carapaces, all that is left after the plant sucked the life juices out of them. Bruce and I speak in reverent tones about the plant and, in fact, all living things that surround us. Now that we’ve found a trail out, we are even more joyous, and we walk with new vigor, past the rising scrub and sandhills to our west and the swamp to our east. We breath, exhale, laugh.

I figure that being in any of Florida’s wild places for any amount of time is always a heart-felt experience. And if your companion is a good sport, well then, that’s a bonus.

howdy, with my thumb

howdy, with my thumb



  1. I have been lost out at Rock Springs Run Preserve too. It is really the only place in Florida that I have wondered off a trail and got lost. Getting lost is always an interesting experience. For a few minutes you actually get to use your senses.

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