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It's time to create a trail corridor north of Brooksville

Mitch Almon is a great trail builder, a great trail advocate and would be a great trail navigator if he didn't do so much off-the-cuff exploring.

"I think we ought to take this road just to see where it goes," said Almon, 68, veering off from a direct, open power line easement and onto a grassy lane that, I have to admit, did look inviting.

We were in a little-known patch of natural land — the Perry Oldenburg Mitigation Park, north of Brooksville — and on a mission.

For years, naturalists advocated buying enough natural land to form a "wildlife corridor" between tracts of the Withlacoochee State Forest.

With money tight, why not create a hikers' corridor with the neglected Chinsegut Hill at the center of a far-reaching network of trails — and not spend a penny?

I've written about this theory enough. Monday — cool and clear, a perfect unofficial opening day for the Florida hiking season — Almon and I set out to prove it was feasible.

Why Almon? Because the retired computer programmer and one of the leaders of the Suncoast Chapter of the Florida Trail Association has been pushing a similar idea for years, connecting the loops of the Florida National Scenic Trails in the Citrus, Croom and Richloam tracts of the Withlacoochee forest.

Also, he can picture what I can picture: Chinsegut Hill as an ecological/historic tourism headquarters, with birders, hikers, cyclists, and motorcycle and horseback riders staying in its cabins, stopping in for tours of the 162-year-old Chinsegut Manor House, dropping a few bucks in charming restaurants and stores in (as long as we're dreaming) bustling downtown Brooksville.

"Ecotourism could easily be a big deal here," Almon said.

We started at the Tucker Hill trailhead in the Croom Tract because it's already a regional hub for outdoor recreation. If any reasonably fit person could walk there from Chinsegut, it means guests on the hill could access a vast web of trails in the forest and beyond.

A decade ago, at Tucker Hill, you parked on the side of a lime rock road. If you wanted water, you knelt down and drank from a spigot. If you didn't have a map, you were out of luck.

Now there's a parking area, restrooms, a water fountain, a kiosk with a detailed trail map and a steel box for our $2 visitors' fee, which, considering the amenities, seemed more than reasonable.

The forest, too, looks better. Frequent burns to improve habitat also improved views, clearing out oak saplings and promoting the growth of wildflowers. Already on display are early blooming fall varieties, most prominently a legume with fern-like leaves and a bright-yellow blossom, the partridge pea.

It thrives not only because of fire, but because of a sugary secretion that attracts ants. The ants keep away caterpillars, and the pea is free to go about its business of returning nitrogen to the soil and providing food for quail and other species.

"It's a fascinating plant," said Vince Morris, ecologist with the state Division of Forestry.

Almon and I focus less on such tiny wonders and more on making miles. After walking one of them, we came to a wooden sign that Almon made several years ago, pointing to Willow Street, and headed that direction on a stretch that Almon and other volunteers had cut.

After another mile, we left the forest for Willow Street. It was the one unavoidable stretch of asphalt on our journey, and so what?

Some of my favorite hikes, in France and England, passed through a mix of woods, fields, even villages. It's a kind of walking that could easily catch on here with more access.

Forget private land. In this country, property owners aren't going to let such a terrifying breed as hikers — skinny, generally, and armed with binoculars and wildlife guides — cross their property.

But why not public land?

This isn't a problem at Perry Oldenburg, which we entered after a half-mile on Willow Street. Nor would it be if we headed north on Almon's trail to a block of Division of Forestry land. Even Audubon of Florida, which owns the land just to the north of Forestry's tract, recently agreed to let Almon extend his trail onto its 270 acres.

But access is a problem on land owned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Subtropical Research Station.

With 600 cows, apparently there's no room for hikers on its 3,800 acres, one large chunk of which blocked our path to U.S. 41 and the existing trails on the other side.

So, in Oldenburg, we headed not north but southwest on the power line easement, then on that inviting, grassy lane, which almost immediately led us to a fire break and several hundred yards of miserable walking in loose, freshly disked, ankle-deep earth.

This, in turn, spit us out on Deer Run Road, a stretch of asphalt that was avoidable, in my mind, considering the expanse of USDA land immediately to our north: pasture without a cow in sight and a fringe of woods on the horizon that seemed ideal for a fenced-off trail.

"I'll just generally wander in this direction," Almon said after we had crossed U.S. 41 and crawled under the barbed wire at the border of the Chinsegut Conservation Center (formerly known as the Chinsegut Nature Center).

Miraculously, we found the trail that loops around May Prairie — the property's centerpiece wetland that has been dry so long a stand of maples has grown up in front of the main viewing dock. More encouragingly, we scared up deer and a covey of bobwhite quail, which are making a comeback on this land because of regular burns.

Completing this loop, we could have headed south to the Big Pine Tract and its trails that pass through one of the largest stands of virgin longleaf pines in the state. But, once again, we were blocked by a section of USDA property, and, besides, after 9 miles, Almon and I decided we'd had enough.

We crossed Snow Memorial Highway to the car we'd left at the base of Chinsegut Hill.

And being tired, broken-down former runners with bad backs, Almon and I drove from there to the top of the hill, where the deserted grounds and the peeling paint on the Manor House's outer walls called out for Audubon or the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission or any other group to, please, rescue it before it's too late.

We then drove north to the charming general store in the bustling community of Lake Lindsey, where we dropped a few bucks on the best Cuban sandwich I've eaten in ages.

It's time to create a trail corridor north of Brooksville 09/17/11 [Last modified: Saturday, September 17, 2011 1:02pm]
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