A Day in the Life of the Florida Wildlife Expedition
One-thousand miles-- that's how far the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition is kayaking, cycling and walking. This week, they're crossing the Ocala National Forest. I recently hiked just nine of those miles, and walked away several blisters and a new appreciation for what they're doing.
It's dawn at Hopkins Prairie, a primitive campground deep in the Ocala forest. I unzip my tent and head through the morning fog to see what Rick Smith is up to.
"Oops, I've got a boil over here," says Smith, the group's quartermaster. He's towed in a trailer filled with supplies, and now is manning the Coleman stove, boiling water for hot oatmeal and coffee.
"It's going to be hot today, 91 degrees. Break a record," he says. "This is a modified primitive campsite with fire rings, picnic tables. And you're right, this is a notch above other places where there's nothing but the woods. That has its own advantages, though. Some places we've been, you don't hear any sounds of man. And when you want to get out in nature, sometimes the last thing you want to hear is the sound of man."
I'm walking down a path that's leading from the Hopkins Prairie campground down to a small lake that's shrouded in fog. It's about 7 in the morning. the sun is a dull yellow orb that's just rising above the fog here. And down by the lake, Carlton Ward Junior is snapping away, taking it all in with his lens.
"Good morning, Carlton. So, you're the early riser around here?" I ask.
"[Fellow expedition member Elam Stolzfus] often beats me out with the video camera. But I try not to miss a sunrise, if I can help it," he says. " It's very rewarding, but very frustrating at the same time. Because in order to capture the essence of these places, it takes more than the few hours we have passing through. So I am getting a few good photographs. I'm also getting a pretty long list of places I want to revisit."
We start our hike - the first leg is nine miles along the Florida National Scenic Trail. The trail will run the entire length of the state when it's completed. It's quite the change from earlier in the expedition, when members had to blaze their own trail through swamps and private ranches.
We're greeted by a pair of sandhill cranes in the forest.
We walk around a dry lake bed, and then low hills carpeted in longleaf pines. Even though these are hills only by Florida standards - I'm a desk jockey, and my legs are starting to squawk. I let out a sigh of relief when expedition member Elam Stoltzfus stops to check out a pygmy rattlesnake.
"Actually, it's very pretty," he tells the group. "It's goldish-looking. It's got other little spots on the back, see that?"
After a blessed break for a lunch of crackers and bananas, we're off again.
By this time, I barely notice the sandhill cranes flying overhead. The heat has soaked my shirt to the bone, and I just want to get off my feet. After nine long miles, the end - at least for me - is in sight.
It's about 3 o'clock. We've reached the half-way point of the trip, and we come across the first paved road in hours. A wagon with some much-needed food and chicken and snacks has stopped and half the people are about ready to go home. And the rest of the expedition is going to do another nine miles to get to their next stop, called Grassy Pond. Others - like me - who's feet are turning to goo, are going to call it a day.
I end up driving to that night's campground. The expedition walked another several miles until dinner - and then hiked another four miles by the light of the moon to reach the next campground.
"The moonlight was pretty bright and intense, and when we first started out it was coming through the trees at an angle at a beautiful spot, " says expedition member Mallory Lykes Dimmitt. " And right when we started to get tired, we started descending down to this lake, and started passing through some really large trees. And it was very cool at night, just to be with these big trees at night were pretty silent, and we just enjoyed it."
I come away with a few calluses - and a new respect - for the four people who have hiked, biked and kayaked some 700 hundred miles so far. And as fireflies lit up the night, the members retired to their tents - ready to do it again the next day.