River rockets: Bradenton Area River Regatta
The fastest inland boats on water, the Powerboat Superleague racing boats, will light up the Manatee River alongside the quickest personal watercraft in the world, HydroCross, at the Second Annual Bradenton Area River Regatta on Saturday. The action literally runs from dawn to dusk. You'll find the best viewing Bradenton Riverwalk, but this year's event will also feature activities on Palmetto's Riverside Drive, where you will find racing pits and the kids zone. A field of 12 professional "pilots" in the F-2 powerboat race will climb from 0 to 100 mph in less than four seconds and reach four G's or more on the course, negotiating turns at nearly full speed. Race fans can look forward to a series of qualifying runs and time trials before the division and championship racing from 2 p.m. to 4:15 p.m. The stand-up HydroCross racers will also be on the water competing for the Florida Winter Cup/Mayor's Cup title. In between races, the top riders will do stunts along a river course in front of Palmetto Pier.
Destination: Big Cypress
The "Big" in Big Cypress Swamp describes the vastness of this 2,400-acre national preserve, not the size of the dwarf cypress trees that dot the South Florida landscape. The name "swamp" is actually a misnomer since the area has a variety of habitats, including forests of slash pine, hardwood hammocks, cypress domes and wet prairies. Most backpackers who travel this section of the Florida Trail, which runs from the Tamiami Trail to Alligator Alley, do so in the dry, cooler months when most of the surface water has either evaporated or been soaked up by the limestone just beneath the soil. Big Cypress is known as one of the last refuges of the endangered Florida panther. This is also bear country, and backcountry travelers must take care to hang or hide their food so these opportunistic omnivores don't rummage through their camps in the middle of night. Jeep trails snake their way through the preserve, and if you are not careful, it is easy to find yourself wandering around in circles. At times, the Florida Trail follows the old "roads," but hikers must keep a keen eye out for the orange blazes that signal a turn. Winter is the best time to visit, so if you are looking for adventure, park at the Oasis Ranger Station and head north. You can leave your car there overnight, but be sure to check in with the rangers. They'll update you on trail conditions. Let them know when you finish. It is possible to walk all the way to the Alley, but you'll need to arrange transportation back to your car. It's much easier to do the loop trail.
Wildlife spotting: River otter
You will find the river otter throughout most of the state except for the Florida Keys. Hillsborough River State Park is a good place to see these fun-loving animals. Neat water cooler fact: Otters have five toes but sometimes only four show in their tracks. River otters prefer freshwater and will move from rivers to creeks to lakes to ponds to swamps. They live in burrows on the bank sometimes under the roots of a tree.
Essential gear: Life Gear Spotlight
If you are looking for a great light for your boat, kayak or car, check out Life Gear's AR-TECH Spotlight and Lantern, an inexpensive, yet durable, battery-operated lifesaver that will go the distance. $23.99. lifegear.com.