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Guest column | Charles Huhtanen

Starkey Trail is a gift for exercisers, nature lovers

Government can do the right thing. Consider the Starkey Trail. It didn't start out as the best multiple-use recreational trail in Pasco County (if not in Florida), far from it.

Jay B. Starkey (1895-1989) gave up a job in U.S. Postal Service in St. Petersburg in 1922 to pursue a career in cattle ranching, first in Largo where his business soon outgrew the available acreage, then in Ulmerton, and finally, in 1937, with partners, on a 16,000-acre spread in Pasco County at the headwaters of the Anclote and Pithlachascotee rivers. In 1972, Starkey donated 250 acres to the Southwest Florida Water Management District. The district purchased 8,000 acres from the Starkey family and this became the J.B. Starkey Wilderness Park in 1989. It was stipulated that the property would remain in a pristine natural state.

Underlying Florida is the Floridan aquifer, which extends into coastal regions of Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina; 14 wells drilled into the Starkey section supply water needs of Tampa Bay Water and Pasco County. Seven access roads provide service to these well houses. Originally these paved access roads extended for 3.5 miles through the Starkey Wilderness area and public nonmotorized recreational use was permitted.

The trail was extended in 2001 to meet the Suncoast Trail running parallel to the Suncoast Parkway. It extends from Lutz-Lake Fern Road in Hillsborough County through Pasco and Hernando counties to a junction with U.S. 98 in Citrus County, a distance of 41.3 miles.

Stimulus funds will enable a 4-mile extension along Decubellis Road and Massachusetts Avenue to Congress Street and construction is under way to extend the southern section to the Tampa Trail and then to the Pinellas Trail. Perhaps the northern portion may eventually extend to the Withlacoochee Trail, another multiuse recreational facility in Citrus County.

The Starkey Trail together with the Suncoast Trail from State Road 52 to State Road 54 provides cyclists with 33 miles of unimpeded travel with no automobile roads to cross; there are no other trails in Florida (as far as the writer is aware) that provide such a long and safe ride.

The 33-mile section of the Starkey/Suncoast trail is used by many people, especially on week-ends. Bicyclists ranging from youngsters on training wheels to the casual rider on Wal-Mart specials to erstwhile Tour de France wanna-bes on the finest of road bikes frequent the trail. Families on bicycles push baby carriages or tow trailers with their progeny inside and some parents opt for inline skates instead of bicycles.

The trail also is a haven for dog walkers, and all dogs must be on a leash. Owners may be on bicycles or inline skates.

A variety of animals inhabit the wilderness area; some are nocturnal (bobcats, wild boars, raccoons, armadillos, opossums, coyotes) and can be seen only by the very early rising walker, runner or rider. Virginia white-tailed deer are common. Rattlesnakes are sometimes seen; they are not to be feared unless threatened. Wild turkeys are occasionally seen; gopher tortoises are usually seen later in the day munching on green grass or weeds. Alligators bask along adjoining water holes.

These are great recreational trails but improvements could be made. The dangerous road crossings over SR 54, SR 52 in Pasco County, and Spring Hill Drive and County Line Roads further north, could be bridged as on the Pinellas Trail. Hesitant riders at these points should dismount and walk their bicycles across. Larger, more visible bicycle warning signs on the highways would warn drivers of cyclists crossing the road ahead. The trailhead near SR 52 badly needs attention by enlarging and paving it and adding water and toilet facilities.

The importance of exercise can scarcely be overemphasized for people of all ages and the availability of excellent resources in easy proximity are indeed a tremendous boon to Pasco County residents. In my retirement community of Timber Oaks we have an active group riding the trails at speeds of over 12 mph at distances up to 50 miles; five of us are over 80.

The ultimate exercise is the triathlon. A mini version is planned for Sunday starting at Longleaf.

Charles Huhtanen lives in west Pasco.

Starkey Trail is a gift for exercisers, nature lovers 10/15/09 [Last modified: Thursday, October 15, 2009 9:12pm]
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