If mounds of wrapping paper, growing gift lists and too many social obligations are overwhelming you this holiday season, consider giving yourself a gift: a couple of stress-free hours at Brooker Creek Preserve. It is one place in Pinellas County where you can find peace and quiet, even the week before Christmas. Head east from U.S. 19 along Keystone Road, almost to the Hillsborough County line, and look for the entrance sign to the single largest piece of undeveloped land in Pinellas County. The preserve encompasses more than 8,000 acres of natural habitats, including 5 miles of carefully marked walking trails.
The attraction of the place for wildlife is evident upon entering the grounds. Deer and rabbits might dart into the entrance road. Miles of cypress swamp, open wetlands and acres of pine trees also are home to other wildlife, including wild turkeys, bobcats, coyotes, swallow-tailed kites and an occasional gopher turtle.
Those who want to escape the hustle and bustle and get some exercise can hike trails anytime from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Boardwalks in the area of the preserve's educational center are user-friendly for those with physical disabilities.
For visitors needing information on trail walks or hikes, the educational center is the place to start. It is open Thursday through Saturday, 9 a.m. until 4:30 p.m, and has maps for hikes ranging from 0.7 miles to 4 miles.
The center, often a beehive of activity, emerges at the end of a boardwalk that winds through the trees. The center has a library, classrooms, small theater and gift shop. Inside, one is likely to find several volunteers with information on hikes and classes given at the center. Some of the volunteers, including longtime volunteer Martin Schachter, have taught science in schools across the country.
Vestina Crayton, an extension specialist in parks and conservation resources with a wealth of information on the preserve and its history, is available whenever the center is open.
"The most exciting job I do here is to help others appreciate the natural beauty Florida offers," said Crayton.
The Brooker Creek Preserve, she said, is one of three extension services in Pinellas County. The other two are the Weedon Island Preserve and the extension service in Largo. "We assist with bringing research-based information from the University of Florida into the community," she said.
The information she provides is used for planning yearlong programs and classes at Brooker Creek. Among them are guided hikes provided free of charge, a series of specialized hikes for which there is a fee, and several children's programs in the center's classrooms.
The hikes are a big draw.
"We have guided hikes led by volunteers every Saturday," said Crayton. "Those hikes are free and usually start at 9 a.m."
The next hike is scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 7. Hikes will be held every Saturday thereafter.
Ecology specialist Dr. Craig Huegel, a board member of the Friends of Brooker Creek Preserve, will lead a series of four nature-based fundraising hikes called "Off the Beaten Path," for which a $25 donation per hike is requested. His next one is slated for Sunday, Jan. 22 at 9 a.m. This three-hour hike involves a walk through woodlands and salt marshes, ending in a secluded spot along the Anclote River.
Classroom activities are located in the educational center, which contains several computers and seating arrangements conducive to hands-on projects. The "Discovering Wildlife with your Child" series, led by a volunteer, is designed for children of all ages. The group meets the second Saturday of each month between noon and 3 p.m.
Other classroom-based programs include one for pre-school children called "Book Time," which meets on Thursdays from 10:30 a.m. until 11:15 a.m. The next two sessions are scheduled for Dec. 22 and 29.
Crayton said programs are subject to change and suggested frequently checking the website (brookercreekpreserve.org) for updates on scheduled events and hikes.
Crayton radiates enthusiasm for Brooker Creek and the role she plays there.
"Here we have natural Florida at its finest in the midst of an urban community," she said. "Come down and learn with us, or even volunteer to help."