Sunday, June 21, 2015

30 Days in June: Day 20, Prairie Creek Preserve

Prairie Creek Preserve
My visit to Prairie Creek was probably the prettiest hike I've had so far on my farewell tour. It started with a turn off of the busy highway and down a narrow tree-lined road. From the grass parking area at Witness Tree Junction, I walked across the Gainesville-Hawthorne bike trail (a popular Rails to Trails route), under the big oaks and to the trailhead. I decided to walk along the Susan Wright (White) Trail. The trails in this preserve are named after local conservationists, some of whom, as I mentioned previously, are also memorialized at John Mahon Park.

Gainesville-Hawthorne Bike Trail
I was struck by how lush and green this trail was. The path through the tall pines was carpeted with soft green grass sparkling with dew. Thick beds of ferns and grasses lined the path on either side and Towhees sang "drink your teeeeea" from the bushes. Patches of pink and orange and white wildflowers made it prettier still--wet loving flowers like Bog Buttons, Orange Milkwort and Meadowbeauty.

Soft Green Path

Drink Your Teeeeeeea

Pale Meadowbeauty (Rhexia mariana)

Orange Milkwort and Bog Buttons (Polygala lutea and Lachnocaulon sp.)

The path led me over the boardwalk through the wet flatwoods. The flatwoods are dry right now, but on other trips, leopard frogs would be a common sight, croaking and hopping away as I neared. White blossoms on the ground alerted me to the flowering Loblolly Bay. Sometimes I am concentrating so much on looking for little things on the ground that I forget to look up!


Pale Meadowbeauty (Rhexia mariana)

Loblolly Bay (Gordonia lasianthus)
Back on the path again, I passed large swaths of Vanilla Leaf, just getting ready to bloom, and Liatris that will be ready in the fall. It is going to be a pretty wildflower season this year! Black, Spicebush and Giant Swallowtails floated by, lured in by the blooming Carolina Redroot Flowers.

Vanilla Leaf (Carphephorus odoratissimus)

Black Swallowtail
The path led me into dark, swampy woods, over a narrow walkway. When there is water below I always feel like I'm going to lose my balance and fall in. But it was dry today and I trotted over, as sure footed as a mountain goat.

Narrow Walk through Dry Swamp
The dark woods opened onto recently burned flatwoods. I could see the patchwork of green from the Palmettos and little grass tufts, but it was otherwise pretty bare. The browns, blacks and orange tones were a stark contrast to the rich greens I had just come from. But I know that this stage will not last long and that the woods will green up as soon as it rains. And the fall wildflowers will thrive with the open space and nutrients from burned plant matter. The drumming of woodpeckers and the cries of Red Shouldered Hawks resonated through the quiet pines.

Recently Burned Flatwoods
Past the pines I came to a Cypress Swamp full of bullfrogs hollering "Jug o'Rum" and leaping with loud "kerplops". Though I was 20-30 feet from the water, as I moved along I could see frantic frogs flying every which way to escape the predator (me). I spooked a Little Blue Heron that  circled away to the other side of the swamp, squawking indignantly the whole time. They always sound irritated.

Frog Swamp
The trail led away from the swamp and back through burned sandhill to a junction of two paths. I couldn't decide which way I wanted to go. Straight ahead looked like it had some high grass and I was wearing shorts. I had a clothing tragedy last week. My very favorite hiking pants finally gave up the ghost. I only have jeans for long pants right now and it is far too hot for them, so shorts are the only option. I will have to deal with this soon to protect myself from ticks and scratchy grass. Anyway, this limits my trail options for now. I decided to turn off of the White Trail and headed the opposite of the yellow arrow to what I thought would be a good way, but it led me to a private road. I looked at my map and couldn't figure out where this road had come from. I wasn't lost by any means, but I couldn't quite figure out where to go next, and it was getting hot, so I turned back before I made it to the actual Prairie Creek.

Big Decisions
As wonderful as these natural areas that I have been visiting are, more often than not, I am the only person or just one of very few there. This is good and bad. It's good because I get all the beautiful sights and sounds to myself, unbothered. It's bad because there's no one there but me if I have a problem. As much as I do like to hike by myself, I am a bit of a scaredy cat and worrier.  I don't have a good sense of direction and there are occasions when I start to freak myself out, too, such as when I start to wonder if the birds in the bushes are making a lot of noise because a bear or wild hog is around the corner. And some parks just have a creepy vibe. It would be nice to have someone who would call for help if I run into a snake or twist my ankle falling off of the narrow boardwalk, or reorient me if I get lost. On the other hand, things happen and there's really no sense worrying about it. As our adventure loving friend, Lynn, once said to us, "wouldn't it be embarrassing to not die of anything?"

Rattlebox (Lugwigia maritima)

Skullcap (Scutellaria sp.)

Carolina Redroot (Lachnanthes caroliniana) and Visitor
Back along the boardwalk, I heard Common Yellowthroats and Brown Headed Nuthatches as I walked back to the car. The kiosk at the trailhead explains that Prairie Creek is conservation land acquired with Florida Forever funds because it was determined that it had important ecological significance. I'm thankful for the dedicated people who worked hard to preserve this beautiful place. I left feeling tired and happy, but had that dashed a short while later when I watched someone in a car in the lane next to me open the door and pour a bag of trash out on the road. They did this at 3 different lights and it was so deliberately crappy and seemed in direct opposition to people who try to preserve the beautiful things in our world that I despaired for the rest of the morning. It is an uphill battle.

Worth Preserving

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