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Nature hike stimulates the senses

(ran EAST edition)

Like fireflies at dusk, flashlight-toting nature lovers gather at the gates of Boyd Hill Nature Park, eager to embark on a walk in the dark.

Despite the threat of rain, folks young and old join for the monthly Night Hike, a Boyd Hill tradition for more than a decade.

The free one-hour stroll "gives people a chance to not only see another side of our environment, but a chance to see species that are active at night, that they might not normally see," says Anne St. John, a Boyd Hill Park ranger who leads the night hikes.

The hike, which begins right before dark, is an excellent opportunity to experience Florida at its most natural. Situated on 254 acres of unspoiled land in south St. Petersburg, Boyd Hill Nature Park has always been an oasis of learning. The park offers several summer day camps for children, hosts ecological meetings and has a complete nature center inside the South Branch Public Library. A butterfly garden is one of the park's newer features.

All year long, wanderers can traverse pine flatwoods, willow marshes, sand pine scrub and hardwood hammock trails _ ecologically diverse areas that make up the park. Three miles of trails allow nature lovers to cross paths with the park's residents: marsh rabbits, bats, screech owls, foxes and snakes, among others. Alligators camp near the marshy shores of Lake Maggiore. Gopher tortoises burrow telltale holes in the sand pine

scrub area, and it's not uncommon to cross paths with them.

But it's at night when sensory perceptions truly come alive. The inky black heightens sense of sound, smell, and, as soon as your eyes adjust, sight.

"It's very relaxing," says St. John. "You're out in nature, and you have no worries about a car coming along and hitting you while you walk. It's very natural."

Flashlights for the night hike are recommended but not required. They are handy for shining light into a rabbit hole, or discovering what made that bump-in-the-night behind the bushes. Suggested bring-alongs are mosquito repellent and closed-toe shoes.

St. John leads the way, first down the main trail rich with the dusky scent of maple trees, over a boardwalk and onto the mini island on the lakeshore. She puts her finger to her lips and shushes the group. This is gator country, and the reptiles are known to bask at night on the shores of the island.

Sure enough, two alligators are submerged in shallow water. Sensing a change in the atmosphere, they raise their heads out of the water to investigate. The night hikers maintain an even safer distance when one of the gators makes a violent splash in an effort to disappear underwater.

The other alligator is a mother-to-be. "Her nest is about 6 or 7 feet to her left (on the shore)," St. John says. "It looks like a big pile of leaves." The alligator's eyes glow a menacing red in the flashlights. It slinks away from the humans.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District, says St. John, estimates the Lake Maggiore alligator population at 300. Boyd Hill rangers put the total closer to 200. July is nesting season, so the gator population will eventually get closer to Swiftmud's estimate, she says.

St. John, 23, has roamed this wilderness for a year and a half, when she first became a Boyd Hill ranger. Armed with a biology degree from Eckerd College, the Nashville native discovered new wonders within the confines of the park, becoming an expert on the various Florida flora and fauna there.

Someone asks St. John what is required to become a park ranger.

"Well, you must be creative, and have the initiative to take on new projects," St. John says. A high school diploma is also a requirement.

As the group moves through the pine flatwoods trail, the buzz of cicadas is almost deafening. Wind stirs the pine trees. Then, suddenly, someone sees a gopher tortoise crawling through the sand near its burrow.

"It shares its burrow with other species," St. John says. "It's like a big animal condo."

She shines her flashlight on the ground, and sights minuscule activity in the sand. "Watch out for the fire ants!" she says, pulling a child out of harm's way.

The mosquitoes are biting mightily, and the night hikers are eager to move along. The hikes are conducted rain or shine, but are postponed if the rain is particularly heavy or if lightning is present.

"After it rains is the best time to go _ there are lots of bullfrogs," says St. John.

Betty Dendy of St. Petersburg, who is on the hike with her 4-year-old granddaughter Alexandrea, sees the value of connecting with nature.

"We want our kids to be exposed to hiking," she says, "and especially, animals."