Sable palmetto

Biking Picayune, Jan 2016

26°05’43.35″N 81°37’06.97″W elev 9 ft
Picayune Strand State Forest,
Naples, Florida 34117
(239) 348-7557

We had been driving west along Tamiami Trail for a while. I occupied the passenger seat and felt a little guilty about it because it meant that I could sight see and Gauthier, in the driver seat, couldn’t. “Holy moly, are there ever a lot of alligators!?” I would exclaim, or “Did you see that Sandhill crane?! I’ve never seen one this far South!” but by the time Gauthier had looked over his shoulder, we had driven past it every time.

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By the time we reached Collier Blvd, my exclamations had become less frequent and their tone had changed. “Veronawalk?” I asked skeptically as we drove past a cement bridge painted a muted red with gleaming white pilasters that led into a gated community. Emerging from a newly tarred four-lane roadway and as-yet vacant strip malls, Veronawalk looked like it could have been snapped together from an “Italian Revival” modeling kit. “Are we going in the right direction?” I asked.

Turning off of Collier Blvd onto Sabal Palm Road, I received my answer.


Driving along the narrow dirt road, a filament bounded on either side by a wild array of sable palmettos, saw palmettos and long leaf pines and the occasional elevated house and fern colony, Veronawalk seemed outrageously alien and sterile, the realization of a dream sold to 17,000 unsuspecting victims in one of the first swampland real estate schemes.




Platted, dredged and drained, Picayune Strand State Forest lacks the diversity of its neighbors, Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, and Collier Seminole State Park.


The trunks of erect but dead Australian pines add a vertical dimension to the grid of canals and roads that was “Golden Gates Estate.” Perched atop this trunk was a gorgeous Red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus).



We parked at the edge of the swamp, where the road forks. Two-feet-deep puddles, murky but fresh from the constant sheetflow of the Everglades, had formed in the ruts of tire tracks and spread out across the road in both directions.


We hopped on our bikes and headed north, skirting the edges of the puddles and trying not to get wet with little success.


We passed a surprising number of jacked-up trucks, SUVs and Jeeps. Hunting is permitted and apparently popular in Picayune. The trail we had planned to take was completely flooded.


One truck stopped to ask us if the road we were on led back to a main road. “Are there any gates?” he asked. At over 76,000 acres, it’s scary to think of how easily you could get lost in Picayune.



Where the road crumbled and disappeared is where it was wildest.


And a good place for a picnic.

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On the return ride, we abandoned the idea of staying dry and rode our bikes straight through the middle of those giant puddles. Fat tires inflated to just the right pressure, seat post shocks and padded underwear eliminated any discomfort we might have felt from the rocky and uneven surface and allowed us to pick up enough speed to keep our balance as our tires sunk into wet gravel and we projected ourselves through the water. It was exhilarating. I almost made it back without falling. Within view of the car, I fell, drenching my pants, but I still felt like a winner.

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Resources consulted:
Everglades Foundation
Florida Natural Areas Inventory
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Naples Daily News
Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan
Tidewater Florida

Bear Cut Preserve

25°43’34.35″N 80°09’13.38″W elev 8 ft
Bear Cut Preserve, Crandon Park
Key Biscayne

We hike, jog and bike this short 3.5 mile (5.5 km) trail regularly. I’ve provided the latitude and longitude of the entrance we always use. Parking is free across the street in the Crandon Park Marina. Fifteen years ago, there was ne’er a person to be seen on the trail and the gay community found privacy on the beach. Recently the trail has become popular with bicyclists. The southern end of the beach is popular with kite boarders.

Nov 2012

Nov 2012

At the northern end of the beach is a very cool fossil reef. Before they banned swimming in this section of the beach, we snorkeled there and once as I was parting the sea grass, one single blade failed to move, and when I looked more closely at it, I discovered that it wasn’t a blade of grass at all, but a seahorse! It stayed still only long enough for my eyes to focus on it and then it disappeared. We’ve also seen sting rays and jelly fish.

Apr 2013

Sting ray, Apr 2013

Restricted section of beach where fossil reef is, Jan 2016

Restricted section of beach where fossil reef is; notice the beach erosion; Jan 2016

Although it’s suffered from invasive nickernuts, kudsu and, more recently, beach erosion, it’s still a beautiful trail. All kinds of birds hunt along the coastline and on the many sand bars: plovers and sanderlings, terns, herons, pelicans, cormorants. We’ve even seen yellow warblers in the trees along the trail.

Nicker nut control, Jan 2016

Nickernut control, Jan 2016

Apr 2013

Brown pelicans, Apr 2013

Sometimes you’ll see a metal variety of bird flying high overhead: commercial jets, sea planes, and once we saw a fighter jet darting back and forth across the sky. Cruise ships departing from the Port of Miami are also a frequent sighting.

Apr 2013

Apr 2013

Papaya trees, sea grapes, sable palmettos, coconut palms, mangroves, wild coffee bushes (psychotria nervosa, perhaps the most appropriate Latin name ever given to a plant), American beauty berry, black eyed susans, morning glories, and even a couple edible plants, like sea purslane and prickly pear grow along the trail.

Sea purslane, Apr 2013

Sea purslane, Apr 2013

Prickly pear, Apr 2013

Prickly pear flower, Apr 2013

Prickly pear, Jan 2016

Prickly pear, Jan 2016

Psychotria nervosa under the protective arm of a sea grape, Jan 2016

Psychotria nervosa nestled under the protective arm of a sea grape, Jan 2016

Sea grapes, Jan 2016

Jan 2016

Sable palmettos, Jan 2016

Jan 2016

Path leading to beach from Osprey trail, Jan 2016

Jan 2016

Apr 2013

Dogs are not permitted on the beach, but until recently it wasn’t patrolled, Apr 2013

Bird Highway, Nov 2015

27°44’49.91″N 81°46’47.98″W elev 74 ft
Launch site: Fort Meade
Landing site: Pioneer Park, Pioneer Blvd, Zolfo Springs, FL 33890, (863) 735-0330

We returned to Peace River for Thanksgiving. This year we kayaked upper Peace River, from Fort Meade to Zolfo Springs. We left the car at Pioneer Park, where you can park overnight for free, and took a cab to Fort Meade for $40 including tip. Our cab driver, Mario, said it would be ok to give out his phone number: (863) 245-1527.



At fort Meade the river is narrow and intimate. It had overflowed from several days of rain, which sometimes made it difficult to tell which way the river bent. The current was fast and there were many downed trees, making paddling a little more rigorous than the year before.The thorny water locust trees that lined the banks were a concern in our inflatable kayak.



We heard lots of alligators; we saw few because they tended to jump in the water with a loud splash before we could get close enough to see them.



It was like a bird highway. Great blue herons coasted down the river 20 feet above the water, following its bends like a race car driver follows the bends of a race track. Brown and white ibises poked about for crayfish in pairs, little blue herons, their beaks a striking midnight blue in the sunlight, hunted frogs, egrets waded up to their bums in search of fish, white herons scanned the surface of the river for insects from atop fallen trees, and black headed vultures hung out in flocks high above the water hoping to spot a cow or armadillo carcass.





River cooters are shy like alligators and jump, sometimes from impressive heights, into the water when they hear us coming. Their compact little bodies make melodic plopping sounds when they hit the water.



We arrived late the first day, leaving us only three hours of paddling before it was time to set up camp. A campground provided a convenient place to spend the night. Rustic, it had no water or electricity, although there was a pavilion, bonfire pit, porta-johns, an elaborate, four-grill barbecue and a dumpster. The porta-john was green with lichen and neither Gauthier nor I dared to go in it. I was afraid of what it might smell like, but Gauthier was afraid of what we might find in it.



The ceiling of the pavilion was covered in spider webs and mud dauber nests. Spider carcasses made it look like a macabre scene from a movie. I was terrified and transfixed. Gauthier wanted to set our tent up under the pavilion, but didn’t argue when I suggested that we set it up under the stars instead.



Gauthier made moong dal and couscous with harissa for dinner, and southern hospitality supplied us with sweet potato pudding. Shortly after we arrived, a truck pulling a trailer drove up and a man in his 50s stepped out. Walking over to us, he introduced himself as Martin and asked us how we were doing. He was talkative and told us the park was built and maintained by the company he worked for, Mosaic. I told him I recognized the name because a sign in the entrance to the park said that the park was dedicated to all the people from Mosaic who had donated their time and labor to the construction and upkeep of the park. That made him smile. He said the park was built 40 years ago and had suffered greatly during the 2005 hurricane, but that everyone had chipped in to restore it.



I asked him about the spiders and he said they were harmless, that they called them “house spiders” (I later learned that they are called neoscona domiciliorum or spotted orb weaver). He said the mud daubers wouldn’t hurt you unless you crushed one, which was unlikely to happen unintentionally.


Before he left, he said he and his two children would be camping on the other side of the campground and that we wouldn’t hear from them again, and insisted that we have some of his home made sweet potato pudding, still warm. It’s easy to regard the Mosaic phosphate mining company as the enemy – breaking EPA laws and decimating the landscape – but it was hard not to like Martin.


Mosquitoes made it necessary to stay inside the tent, but there was a full moon and a clear sky and it was warm, but not humid, and we left the rainfly off the tent so that it was flooded with moonlight. I woke up several times throughout the night; every time I woke up the moon had traveled a little further across the sky, reminding me that we are all just floating in space.



Breakfast was scrambled eggs with fresh green onion, followed by pita bread filled with Nutella, peanut butter and honey. After sticking my foot in a fire ant’s nest, we returned to the river around 9:30 AM.


The river widened near Wauchula. As we approached the city we expected to see other kayakers, and were very surprised when we didn’t. The only other boat we saw was a fishing boat with a trawler. There was one man inside the boat and another chest deep in the water outside the boat. The man in the boat yelled to us in a delightful, southern accent, “Did you see that alligator over there?! It’s 12 feet long!”  The man in the water smiled and nodded his head and pointed in the direction of the alligator. And there you have it. If a local fisher is not afraid to be up to his chest in the water with a 12 foot alligator nearby, I am not afraid of alligators either. Well, not very afraid.



It was the most peaceful paddling imaginable; effortless in a gently moving current that guided us around bends and islands. We took tiny sips of aromatic heirloom whiskey by Widow Jane.


We stopped for lunch at Paynes Creek Historic State Park where we were welcomed by a “No Camping” sign. I wondered why they needed swinging trash cans. Did they prevent raccoons from making a mess?



Come 4:00 it was time to start looking for another place to camp. A lovely field on a high bank seemed safe from unsuspecting alligators. We had mashed potatoes and pouched tuna followed by split pea soup for dinner.


That night, something large and solid rustled in the bushes nearby. An auroch, Gauthier said it was. But Ollie and I weren’t fooled. We knew it was an armadillo.


In the morning, dew-drenched grass sparkled in the sunlight and revealed many tiny spider webs – orb and three dimensional – suspended from blades of grass. Ollie and I explored the webs for a while until we discovered a tick. Thankfully it was the only tick we saw. It was an all-black specimen, not like the red dog ticks we have around Miami.


Between Wauchula and Zolfo Springs we passed many ranches and private homes. We saw confederate flags, enormous live oaks, and sable palmettos clinging to the river bank with roots that looked like hair. Once, we heard the sound of human voices interspersed with gun fire a little too close for comfort.


Just before Zolfo Springs boat launch at Pioneer Park, you learn why it’s called Zolfo Springs. Gurgling up into the river, springs cause the tiniest bit of white water. I was very sorry to reach Pioneer Park, although the prospect of a shower tempered my disappointment.


On the way home we stopped for lunch at Wheeler’s in Arcadia and browsed the antiques on sale in the stands that line the street every Saturday. An amazing traveling companion, Gauthier drove us through some very unique landscapes on the way home. Although we couldn’t go in the Archbold Biological Station to explore the unique Florida scrub because we had Ollie with us, we drove through it on Old State Route 8.


We also drove by a pine tree plantation. On one side of the road was a vast forest of pines trees growing in eerie rows, and on the other side was the muddy and desolate remains of a harvested forest.

We traveled through Florida flatlands that reminded Gauthier of the south of France, and alongside massive orange groves, and around gigantic ranches with “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner!” signs hung outside. The Brahman cattle with their humped backs were a sight to see.

Closer to home, near Lake Okeechobee, they were harvesting sugar cane in the cane plantations. Bright lights lit up the fields like fire flies.

Off the Beaten Path, Dec 2012

Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, 1200 Crandon Boulevard, Key Biscayne, FL 33149
25°40’27.02″N 80°09’29.55″W elev 1 ft

Among the long overgrown campsites where only forgotten trail seekers dare to go…

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Giant Zebra Long Wings are everywhere.

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And so are Golden-Silk spiders, also known as banana spiders. This one was about 4 inches long. Their bite is less painful than a bee’s, and apparently, “In the South Pacific, females are induced to build webs on bamboo frames, which are then used as fish nets. The natives also relish the gravid females as a protein supplement, eating them either raw or roasted. Different reports say that the flavor is somewhat like mixed raw potato and lettuce mixed, or nutty flavored like peanut butter with a sticky consistency (”.

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Ficus roots give Ollie a height advantage.

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The sable palmetto is not just a tree, it’s a habitat.

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One of South Florida’s many thorny vines…

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Is no match for Gauthier as he takes a photo of a dragonfly with his Lytro.

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A lizard (Eastern Fence?) with a skull pattern on its head reminds vagrant hikers of the dangers of hiking off the beaten path.