It’s time to hit the trails of Hillsborough County. The Parks & Recreation Department’s annual Hiking Spree, started four years ago by nature program specialist and hiking guide Brad Lympany, drew about 3,000 participants last year. They completed at least eight of more than 20 designated hiking trails.
Information about the 2021 Hiking Spree, which starts Nov. 1, 2020, should be on the department’s web site shortly before the start. Go to Hillsboroughcounty.org/en/residents/recreation-and-culture/recreation/hiking-spree.
Lympany, a lifelong outdoors enthusiast, is disappointed that the coronavirus pandemic has shut down guided hikes, summer camps for kids and other programs that take him into the wilderness. He talked with the Tampa Bay Times about the Spree and the job.
How varied are the trails in Hillsborough County?
They are quite varied. I’d say the three categories we have are our neighborhood parks, which are smaller, and sometimes they have a recreation center there. ...And then we have our conservation parks, and then we have our preserves. You can encounter anything from a paved ¾-mile path around a park... to some of our regional parks, like Lettuce Lake, which has boardwalks and paved trails. ...
You get to our preserves, and you can encounter anything. And you really have to be prepared. You get out on a sunny day, even in the winter, it’s a little bit hot out. You’re in a preserve. That trail might turn soft and sandy. If you don’t have water and you’re on the far end of a five- or six-mile loop … you better know where you are, better be prepared. We try to encourage people to prepare properly for the bigger stuff.
What kind of wildlife can you see?
I know Blackwater Creek Preserve and the Lower Green Swamp are really close and connected to the Florida Wildlife Corridor. ... A lot of times they’re going to encounter lots of birds of prey, songbirds. There’s obviously snakes out there. If you’re out in a wet area during the early part of hiking season, you might encounter some mosquitoes. I (say) that’s the Florida state bird. … Some parks you go through … we’ve got wild hogs out there. They’re going to stay away from you.
What is a favorite hike?
I love Blackwater Creek (Nature) Preserve. You go toward the sunset and it’s just spectacular out there. There’s this one spot where there’s a large tree kind of by itself in a very large open area. And the sun will set just behind the tree, where you can take a picture of the sun setting and not have it glaring in your camera. But as the sun sets, you can see the birds flying around. There’s a lot of hawks and ospreys out there, and eagles. ... You feel like you’re nowhere near Tampa.
How did you start the Spree?
I just relied on things that I had experienced. I grew up with a hiking spree myself as a kid up in Ohio. It’s now the oldest running one. They’ve been doing it since the ’60s. … They have about 12,000 people that participate a year, so we have some catching up to do. But, I said, hey, we should try something like that. It’s a great way to let people know what’s out there, and that’s what they really needed. And so it all came together.
You explored the wilderness early on, you say.
An uncle would take us hiking up in the Akron area, through the Cuyahoga Valley, and we did the Spree. So after we started the Spree down here, I had the chance to go back home for a holiday, and I took our first-year badge and patch. … And I gave it to him … (and) said, "You used to take us out. You gave us our first hiking sticks. You took us on the first hiking spree. Now, I get to do my own. Here’s our first-year badge I’m giving to you.'' He really appreciated it. It was a really neat moment.
You received the Rising Star award from the Florida Recreation and Parks Association. What was that for?
It’s basically, they nominated me by submitting just kind of a combination of all the different things we’ve done in community involvement. One of the great groups we’ve been able to partner (with) in the past and hope to continue is called Outdoor Afro. It’s a great organization that I met through Meetup, where they organize out of. It’s a group of people of African descent who haven’t traditionally felt invited to go out hiking. ...
We got in contact, and I said, “Hey, I’ve got this Hiking Spree. It’s free. Here’s a list of trails where you can go. Here’s some dates where I’m hosting a guided hike. … You’re welcome to join us.” And that brought that community in, and they started participating in our annual camp-out that we do.
And you say a muddy hike is a hit with the kids who go to nature adventure camp in Upper Tampa Bay Park.
We found a beautiful place to slide in the mud that’s just become legendary. ...
I was able to take some of our county preserves staff and conservation staff on a drier version of what the kids call the "mud hike.'' And they were just amazed. "You do this with kids?'' I’m like, "Oh, yeah, and it’s usually much, much worse.''
Do you hike on vacation, and what’s a favorite place?
When I was living up in North Carolina – I’ve been back a few times – there’s a region… near the town of Brevard, the Pisgah National Forest. … This is where me and my old border collie used to do guide work. We’d have 40 people on the trial. And she’d just watch everybody, come back (and) “count” the hikers, go back to the front. But we’d spend 2 ½ days just hiking 10 to 20 miles a day, visiting these gorgeous waterfalls and going swimming.