Friday, April 20, 2018

Four days, four hikes: A Tampa Bay trail crash course

I have hiked Ozark hills in Missouri and through Costa Rican forests. But in St. Petersburg, the beach calls louder than the woods, and after three months of living here, I hadn't been on a hike.

I needed a Florida outdoors crash course, so I set out to do four hikes in four days. Hiking about 3 miles each day and staying within an hour of the downtown St. Petersburg newsroom seemed about right. I would also get some exercise. Gyms can be intimidating, but on trails, it's just you, the woods and whatever crosses your path.

Tuesday: Eagle Lake Park, 1800 Keene Road, Largo

Visiting this park was not my plan. It was the Tuesday after Hurricane Hermine, and when I rolled up to the gate at Honeymoon Island State Park in Dunedin, the ranger told me parts of the wooded trails were closed. (Tip: Call ahead.) But I drove all that way, and I needed to find a place to hike. I looked up Eagle Lake Park, about 20 minutes south.

The south and north loop fitness trails add up to 2 miles. It was 91 degrees at about 3:30 p.m., but a soft breeze and shade eased things. A relaxed 5-foot alligator swallowed up food pellets off one of the park's observation decks. It was an easy walk on a paved path with no incline and far from tranquil.

Two teens on bikes hollered at each other about Pokémon GO and a bicyclist flipped off the driver of a black Honda when the car almost backed into him. I told myself the next day I would call ahead.

Wednesday: Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, 1101 Country Club Way S., St. Petersburg

The woman who answered the preserve's phone told me parts were still swamped, but conditions were "better than yesterday." Good enough. Plus, I read that I might see turtles — the gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus), to be exact.

The 6 miles of trail in the 245-acre preserve covers sand scrub, flatwoods, swamp and marsh. I hiked a little less than 3 miles, going through parts or all of the Main, Uplands, Canal, Sand Scrub and Center Loop trails.

A three-member raccoon family crossed my path. They didn't notice me. If they had, I would like to think they'd have stopped to smile for my camera.

I high-tailed it toward the parking lot after finishing the 1.2-mile Center Loop, where I found a 1970s-era Pabst Blue Ribbon can washed up from the rains. I was drenched in sweat and ready to go. But I hadn't seen a tortoise, so I scanned the brush on the Uplands Trail, hoping for a sighting.

Out of the corner of my eye, there was a watermelon-sized tortoise where the brush met the gravel trail. It was still as a statue, and didn't duck inside its shell when it saw me. When I moved closer, it flinched, but didn't scoot away like every box turtle I harassed as a kid.

I got back to my car, glad I finally felt the crunch of gravel under my boots. My legs hummed.

Thursday: Weedon Island Preserve, 1800 Weedon Drive NE, St. Petersburg

My legs were sore. Thursday I visited the Weedon Island Preserve, 3,190 acres on Tampa Bay. There are a lot of mangroves.

I hiked the Bay Boardwalk, Lookout Point Trail and the Boy Scout Trail. The boardwalks led me through mangroves where egrets and ibises flapped around and tiny crabs scurried everywhere.

The boardwalks led out to lookout points that didn't disappoint. I stopped long enough to hear the mangroves buzz with activity. A pelican glided into the bay and an egret strutted in front of me. I sat back, fiddled with my binoculars and camera, and watched.

Friday: Hillsborough River State Park, 15402 U.S. 301 N, Thonotosassa

The park ranger told me the trails were open. "Open" doesn't necessarily mean "dry," though, and that's okay. The ranger said the 3.2-mile Seminole Trail was his favorite, but it was wet.

"Ankle wet or shin wet?"

"Ankle wet," he said.


My colleague, Kathryn Varn, went with me. She said she didn't mind a little bit of mud.

After some time getting our bearings — the Seminole Trail online is actually labeled the Florida Trail at the park — we were off. Most of the tree-covered trail ran parallel to the Hillsborough River, which looked glass-like and oh so refreshing in the Friday heat. The river tempted me, but these are not like the Missouri streams where I come from. There are … alligators.

We didn't get far before we came to a bridge under an ankle-deep amount of water. Turning back would have been a bummer, so we threw a bunch of dead palm fronds on the bridge to make it easier to cross. I watched beads of water roll off my water-resistant boots and hoped Kathryn's boots were water-resistant, too.

We might have been some of the first hikers on the Florida Trail since the storm. I noticed raccoon and deer prints, but no human ones. And I probably walked through a dozen spider webs along the way.

There were about five more wet spots along the trail. We hopped and sloshed and everything was fine. We talked the entire time, and finished faster than I expected.

The four days of hiking — all right, technically three — were a reminder that a good hike acts like detox. Leave the anxieties of office life, change into breathable clothes and get out. Bring a friend if you can. Come back clear-headed, tired and content.

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