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State trail a quiet walk on wild side

(ran T edition of B)

There was no ribbon cut at the unofficial opening of the Withlacoochee State Trail on Monday morning, and no bands or windy speeches. But it was grand nevertheless.

The day was cool and brilliantly clear. Tall oaks and long-leaf pines stood on either side of trail, and there were cypress trees where the trail skirted the Withlacoochee River. The undergrowth was thick with chickadees and nuthatches.

"Oh man!" said Jim McCann, raising his arms in the air. "This is the ideal day to hike."

The day's beauty was only one reason for his joy. Ater four years of work, McCann could finally refer to one stretch of the trail without using tiresome modifiers like "proposed," "planned" and "expected."

Crews from the Hernando County Department of Public Works have spent much of the summer mowing and grading 11 miles of the trail, from State Road 50 north to the Hernando-Citrus county line. Though not as refined as it will one day be, the trail is now suitable for hikers, horseback riders and cyclists with fat-tired bikes.

"The trail is open now," McCann said. "It's not officially open, but people can use it."

An opening celebration, which will have ribbons and speeches, is scheduled for 9 a.m. Oct. 24 at a new parking area at Croom Rital Road and SR 50.

Getting the county involved reflected something of a change in thinking for McCann, who founded Rails to Trails of the Withlacoochee in 1988. Largely at the group's urging, a year later the state bought 47 miles of old rail bed between Trilby and just south of Dunnellon.

Getting more state money to develop it would be just a matter of time, and not all that much time, it was thought then. But after waiting nearly three years, and watching budget cuts all over the state, McCann and Bob Seifer, of the Florida Park Service, realized they would have to turn to other sources.

In June, the Hernando County Commission agreed to provide labor and equipment to do the basics: make a wide and level pathway out of the old rail bed and mow a separate, more narrow trail for horses.

"We got tremendous support from Hernando County," McCann said.

And last month, $122,500 in federal money was earmarked to pave the northern 5.8 miles of the trail in Hernando.

Citrus County will soon begin grading and clearing the 29 miles of rail bed in that county in exchange for the valuable granite ballast that remains there.

"That's more of business deal," McCann said. Citrus will also pave the stretch that runs from Fort Cooper State Park through Inverness.

That leaves only the southern end of the trail, south of SR 50 without imminent plans for the future. Improvement there will wait until the state Department of Transportation builds an overpass, McCann said.

That is only one way in which the state is still involved in the project, McCann said. Some state funding will be needed for the trail ever to have all the niceties he has in mind, including campgrounds and even an information center.

And most significantly for him, the state is now paying his salary. After years of working to build the trail, he was recently hired to serve as trail ranger for this and another section of trail in Lake County.

"This is crazy," said McCann, pleased just to be out and hiking on a pretty morning.

"I'm doing something I love to do and they pay me for it. Can you believe that?"