OCALA NATIONAL FOREST
Riding an all-terrain vehicle is a lot like riding a jet ski, Jon Rall said. "Except it hurts more when you fall," he said. "So don't fall." Rall, an ATV/motorcycle/personal watercraft expert for Kawasaki, flew in from California to test some of his company's latest models in the 383,000-acre Ocala National Forest. "I have been riding all around the country, but this is one of the best organized and managed trail systems that I have ever encountered," he said. "It is perfect for a beginner."
Throttle and brake
Today's ATVs are user-friendly. Even an uncoordinated, overweight, out-of-shape outdoors writer on the wrong side of 40 can look like a pro with a little coaching.
"Just watch your speed," Rall said. "And don't hit anything."
I had heard tales of the great four-wheeling in Ocala National Forest. The forest sits between the Ocklawaha and St. Johns rivers. It has been logged, so there are numerous access roads cutting through the scrub.
So in an effort to control the various motor vehicle enthusiasts (dirt bike, ATV and four-wheel drive) the U.S. Forest Service took a systematic approach to controlling access.
Today, there are more than 190 miles of trails that fall into three categories: off-road motorcycle trails (narrow trails), ATV trails and off-road motorcycle shared-use trails (wider trails) and mixed-use roads that allow both ATV and off-road motorcycle use.
Watch your head
Barreling down one of the shared-use trails, I quickly discovered why veteran ATV riders stand up on the foot pegs.
"I think that last bump did some permanent damage," I said, climbing off during a break. "I feel like I've just been on a bucking bronco."
The secret, Rall informed me, was to let my feet, not my derriere, absorb the shock.
"You'll get the hang of it," he said as I took off again on the 750cc beast. "Just watch your speed."
After 15 minutes, I mastered the ATV stance and started to get a little cocky. The trees were whizzing by, and I didn't see the low-hanging branch until it was too late.
I was only going 20 mph, but the blow almost knocked me off the four-wheeler. I slowed to stop and examined the damage.
"Are you all right?" Rall asked.
"Yes," I said. "Thank God for helmets."
The Ocala National Forest opened 45 miles of new trail July 1. The Ocala Centennial Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) Trail runs through one of the most unique ecosystems on the planet — the Big Scrub.
Comprised of the largest contiguous area of sand pine scrub anywhere, this OHV trail was designed for slow speeds so riders would have a chance to see white-tailed deer, wild turkey, bobcat, black bear and the elusive Florida scrub jay.
In the future, rangers hope to build interpretive displays along the trail to help visitors better understand the intrinsic value of the Big Scrub.