Claire Brantley, who says she was never one for any kind of exercise, set off on a hike in December and hasn't stopped yet. She discovered the Hillsborough County Hiking Spree and a new, peaceful world opened up to her.
She loves a number of trails listed on Hillsborough County's Parks and Recreation website, but one of her favorites is the Bald Cypress Trail in Morris Bridge Wilderness Park, five minutes away from her home. She's lived in New Tampa for more than 17 years and didn't know it was there.
"Just right there you have all this big New Tampa development. You just go into this park and it's so quiet and so pristine and the trees are gorgeous, and you see a little branch of the Hillsborough River, and there are all these water birds.''
Brantley, a 49-year-old book editor, is one of hundreds of fans who have taken up the Hiking Spree challenge to explore as many of the 20 listed trails before March 31. Included is a hiker's choice of "anywhere.''
"We're getting a great response,'' said Brad Lympany, nature program specialist with the county's parks and recreation department. In this, the first of what will be an annual campaign to get people to discover the county's recreational charms, the recreation department reached its first-year goal of having more than 1,000 people go on the hiking spree since the program began in December.
Hikers can set off on their own or sign up for a guided hike. Lympany, 44, takes Boy Scouts, seniors and others on guided hikes. Lympany grew up loving the outdoors, so, to him, it's the perfect job.
"I get paid to go hiking. I'm not going to lie — I pinch myself every day,'' he said.
Landscapes vary from Florida palmetto scrub to swampland to pines and meadows to sweeping vistas of Tampa Bay. People who complete at least eight of the listed trails listed get a metal shield or a patch to commemorate the accomplishment. It's based on the honor system.
Brantley earned hers in less than a week.
"I'm like a 9-year-old little girl. Give me a sticker, or give me a bauble, I'm going to do whatever it is.''
Despite her aversion to exercise, Brantley started walking to add an exercise component to her Weight Watchers plan. A friend introduced her to hiking trails, so when she and two pals had a week off between Christmas and New Year's, they decided to go on nature hikes. She Googled "hiking'' and "Hillsborough County'' and found the Hiking Spree.
“That week, we did one or two hikes every day,'' she said. They completed 11 hikes over the week. Brantley believes she was one of the first to bring her completed trails list in to a regional parks and recreation office near her home because everyone was so excited to see she had taken on the challenge.
"The guys were so super-nice. Park rangers are such awesome people.''
Since then, she has expanded her hike beyond those trails on the list. She has hiked the Hillsborough River State Park, the Little Manatee River State Park, and the Wekiwa State Park near Orlando. She said she has lost more than 20 pounds after having discovered an exercise that she loves, a balm for the body and the soul.
"If you live in Florida and you don't do this,'' she said, "you're missing out on the best part of living in Florida.''
Contact Philip Morgan at [email protected]