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Vision for trail goes beyond its path

Walking behind Mitch Almon, watching his steady footfalls on an oak-shaded trail, I thought of something the mother of a cross-country runner once told me.

Trying to explain why she liked her son's teammates, she came up with this: "They're long thinkers.''

Perfect, I thought, and not just for runners, but for everyone who takes part in endurance sports, competitive or not.

These are folks who can cope with delayed gratification, who realize the effort is part of the reward, who know about perseverance and patience.

Which brings me back to Almon, a retired computer programmer who moved from Tampa to Spring Lake two years ago. He is a fit and wiry, a hiker and former distance runner, and he has taken on the ultra marathon of volunteer work — helping build the Florida National Scenic Trail.

Started 42 years ago, "it's now about 60 percent done,'' said Ralph Hancock, chairman of the Florida Trail Association's Suncoast Chapter.

Sounds promising enough, until you find out that most of the finished segments cross public lands.

"We've done the easy part,'' he said. "Now we're trying to fill in the blanks, and that's what Mitch is working on.''

The blanks, in many cases, must be filled in on land covered with Florida sprawl, or held by owners hoping to attract more of the same.

Locally, what should be a line on a map is a series of loops confined to three tracts of the Withlacoochee State Forest: Richloam, Croom and Citrus.

Starting on the western edge of Richloam, Almon and other trail association volunteers have cut a path through the county-owned Cypress Lakes property. With the completion of a footbridge across the Withlacoochee River in November, this walkway will meet a bank-side trail leading to the loop in Croom.

The next link is the one Almon and I walked Tuesday morning, following orange blazes through the pine forest of northwestern Croom, to a short, unavoidable stretch of pavement, Willow Road, to the publicly owned Perry Oldenberg Mitigation Park, where the trail skirts a pasture planted in young long leaf pines and then dips into an oak hammock.

After crossing heavily forested state Division of Forestry property near Lake Lindsey Road, the path dead-ends at 270 acres owned by Audubon of Florida and marked by a yellow "No Trespassing'' sign.

"Unfortunately, what I've got now is not much of a story,'' Almon said. "We've built a trail to nowhere.''

Except that he's at work nearly full time, planning a snaking route north and west to the Citrus tract.

He can't say exactly how it will get there. Negotiations are too sensitive.

But he's trying to link fragments of publicly owned land north of Brooksville. He's seeking permission to run the trial through some of the largest private parcels.

He can see how, once the trail reaches the Citrus tract, it will form a path from the Green Swamp to the end of Cross Florida Greenway in Putnam County. A resource like this will attract more hikers, which will further Almon's ultimate goal — building political support for preserving the forest itself.

"Really, this is just about getting people out in the woods,'' he said.

I told you he was a long thinker.

Vision for trail goes beyond its path 08/07/08 [Last modified: Thursday, August 7, 2008 5:39pm]

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