I’m happy to have Terri Mashour guest posting today about a fitness hike she led at Newnans Lake Conservation Area, near Gainesville. Read on to hear about her encounter with a water moccasin, an unfortunate split in her hiking group and (I never knew this) how the land management staff uses horses to assist in prescribed burns.
Terri owns Gainesville Ecotours, a company that offers interpretive and informative hikes in some of Alachua County’s most interesting parks and preserves. Before running her own show, she worked in land management for over six years, specializing in prescribed forest burns, among other things.
Newnans Lake Conservation Area is owned and managed by the St. Johns River Water Management District and is located in Alachua County, just outside of Gainesville, Florida. It is 6,500 acres found in three disjunct parcels with around 16 miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian multi-use trails divided amongst the three. Mostly mesic flatwoods habitat with some sandhills, the northern most tract, Hatchet Creek, has some floodplain systems via Bee Creek, Little Hatchet Creek, Hatchet Creek, and Gum Root Swamp that allow for some beautiful hiking minutes from Gainesville. That was the setting for our hike on this adventurous day.
The hike started out with a brief meeting with the on-site resident for the Rotary Club outparcel. Mr. Sullivan noted that there was a Florida black bear sighting at the entrance the week before. Checking for any food-related care packages, I’m sure! OK, as a veteran of the woods, but a relatively new hiking guide, I could handle that: talk loud and keep a good look out. The group of five – four long time Gainesville residents/friends and me, the fearless guide set out on the main hiking trail at the Newnans Lake Hatchet Creek entrance on the north side of SR 26, five miles east of the Gainesville Airport.
The beginning of the white trail is a grassed raised road bed under some xeric (fancy ecology term for dry habitat) flatwoods full of shady oaks. It then takes a 90 degree turn to the north for a long, straight sunny path. Not so scenic, but a good warm up and it leads to the first wooden foot bridge. Over Bee Creek, this bridge allowed us to see running water and get a glimpse back into the floodplain of the creek, which was shady and grassed and fun to cross. Hikers must note the seasonal temper of Bee Creek: In the rainy season the creek floods and the footbridge does not even stretch long enough to cross with dry feet. Crossing during wet times at your own risk.
We took a left onto the red trail into a large swath of old slash pine mesic (fancy ecology term for middle of the road water level: sometimes wet, sometimes dry) flatwoods, complete with saw palmetto and gallberry (it’s due for another prescribed burn, preferably in summer season). I noted some dead trees, killed during the winter 2010 prescribed burn conducted by horseback. Burning by horseback provides the ability to get into long unburned woods, thick with palmettos and banana spiders, safely and allow managers to burn larger acreages quickly. However, horses can go so fast, they can sometimes put too much fire on the ground allowing for pockets of vegetation to burn too hot. If the winds are too slow, the fire can burn the roots too long, if the fuels are too high, the flames can reach the needles and scorch the photosynthetic source, if the weather has been to dry, stress and fire can combine for disaster. Alas, tree mortality is natural as are pockets of open space and that’s what is represented on the red trail.
Once past the mesic flatwoods, we took a left and crossed Hatchet Creek on a long, wooden driving bridge. A peaceful floodplain forested setting, we admired the moving water and its rusty tannin color and sandy bottom.
The conversation was light and easy and we took note of the yellow trail going to the right and how we wanted the white trail to the left. We kept going. All of a sudden, the yellow trail markings ended. I was a bit stunned as I have driven this trail many times while working. As the guide, I had to make a decision quick. “Well, we haven’t seen our white trail cut off, let’s continue on…without the blazes…” Everyone agreed.
We continued a few minutes until not only the trail markings were gone, but the trail itself dead ended into an old fire line. Hmmm. This can’t be right! Then things started happening quickly. I thought we should turn back, one of the veteran hikers thought we should take a right on the fireline, someone else disagreed with him. The wife said, “No way, we should listen to our guide.” The veteran said, “Let’s try it, it will be fun!” I said, “You might be right, but since this is not even a road, but a fireline, I’m fairly certain this isn’t the way.” And my famous last words were, “But if you want to try it you could…” And, all of the sudden, he was off! He really took the fireline! Then the partner of the other couple said she would go too and she was off! I stood in shock for a moment. They took my offer! They took an unknown trail. Now we were lost AND separated! The doom and gloom set in immediately and my heart was racing – so much for being in control of my group
The remaining hikers backtracked while I tried to figure out what had just happened. We joked nervously about the situation. The partners were split – no way the wife of 40 years was going with her husband – these situations had resulted in hours extra in the woods before! (Funny how none of the couples had stayed together.) We would have to beat them back, I said, and say we saw a bear. We kept hiking.
Just as I started to calm down someone said gently, “Watch out!” And something that looked like a stick moving caught my eye. A 5-foot water moccasin, cotton mouth, slithery snake whatever you want to call it, moved in front of me! We were all startled and stopped to catch our breath while I filmed. See there – we definitely took the better path? A snake! A snake! This was getting too exciting for me!
About a minute later we reached the white trail. We had simply missed it in our jovial conversation, it blended in with the white lichen, and the white blaze was not really pointing in the best direction for us oncoming hikers (those were my expert guide excuses anyway). We got out the map and examined where our former group members were headed and again the dread set in. I immediately realized they were going in the complete opposite direction from our trailhead and were going a long ways out of the way paralleling Bee Creek.
I dropped my pack and took off running after them. I was yelling. The two that had stayed with me were yelling and the scene was a complete disaster! Lost, split up, snake, and now running after our wayward group members…and now no one with a guide!
Alas, I caught up to them as they were already hiking back toward me. They had reached the end of the trail and admitted that they had gone the wrong way. They too had had funny conversation at the split up, “We’re right, we’ll definitely tell them we saw a bear,” and on and on. No matter who was right and who was wrong, we were together! And my adrenaline was pumping.
We caught up to our other two group members and walked the few minutes back onto the trail and took our turn to the white trail. We happily hiked over three wooden bridges that cross the braiding, meandering Hatchet Creek and stopped to admire some white wild azaleas. We made it back safely to the trailhead and studied the kiosk trail map upon our return. We took a We-Survived-our-Hike photo at the trailhead.
So, that was our adventure! We burned calories on our fitness hike, we enjoyed nature, we got lost, saw wildlife, and we survived to live another day. It was the best of hikes, it was the worst of hikes, but now I know the definition of adventure! It is a mixture of going into the unknown, taking a chance where you are unsure the outcome, feeling a bit of fear, but working through it, and coming out on top. Adventure, turns out, is scary! But so much fun! It was one of the best hikes of my life because of the mistake. As a guide, I wish I could say that I had not missed our turn, but I am so glad we did. Together we experienced a real adventure and I am thankful to have met these four pleasant, funny, and brave Gainesville hikers. I hope to spend time with them again, if they’ll have me!