Duval Audubon Society offers many outings to novice birders, and I soon found myself using their meet-ups to scope out parks and forests I’d never visited. I mainly wanted to know, was it safe? What if I went alone?
But most places we went weren’t scary at all. Although a few were isolated, these were new-growth forests – once-developed land being returned to a natural state.
Restoring a forest takes decades. First to grow are young, skinny pines. Then the ground spikes with palmetto and pine needles. Because there is little understory in which to hide, birds and wildlife are scarce. I soon discover that new-growth forests are rarely good for birding.
Old growth forests and pristine beaches attract more birds, animals, and homo sapiens. I am finding that there are always visitors on the best birding trails – and many of these also carry scopes and binoculars. Birders typically greet one another, and often point out other sites of interest. In an emergency, help is rarely far away.
One gentleman I met suggested Bulow Plantation Ruins Historic State Park in Flagler Beach. He had land adjacent to it, and 200 species of birds were living on it.
So one day, I head to Bulow.
But the park is a let-down. The ruins aren’t particularly inspiring, and the path around them is short and filled with new-growth forest. The understory has just been cleared with a controlled burn, leaving the earth black and the trees scorched.
“I drove ninety minutes for this?”
I look at a brochure. It mentions a hiking trail, but doesn’t indicate where it begins. I walk the perimeter of the park, but only find false starts – short trails going nowhere.
I ask some passers-by, and they tell me that there is a small parking lot on the road in. The trail starts there.
I find the lot, but there are towering piles of dirt next to it. It reads as a construction site. I get out of the car, but don’t see a trail map (its been blocked by a pick-up).
“Oh well,” I shrug, “most trails form a loop. I’m sure I can handle it.”
I also know that, in Florida State Parks, each trailhead is clearly marked with a map, and there are maps at each junction. No problem.
But this trail is different. It is unkept. There are logs to climb over. Some areas have flooded and require a hop-skip through sticky mud. There are slippery mini-bridges crossing mucky rivulets. Hikers are scarce and birds seem just as reticent.
The birding is a bust, but I find myself enjoying the challenge that this trail offers – but it seems to go on forever.
I look up at the sky. It must be 3:30. It’s winter and, before long, the sun will set.
I pull the brochure from my pocket. It mentions an offshoot trail that goes to Bulow Creek State Park, a dozen miles away. Uh oh. Am I on that?
I remember my phone. I never bring it, but this time I did. I Google Bulow Plantation trail thinking, “I can’t be the first one to get lost.”
After several minutes, I come across a blog-post. It describes a fork in the trail that sounds familiar. One direction goes back to the parking lot. The other, indeed, to Bulow Creek. And my phone goes dead.
The forest takes on an amber tone as I backtrack through mud; crawl over logs. “No need to panic.”
I remember hiking in Oklahoma. “Was it ten years ago? Twelve?” Getting lost was inevitable. “Just part of hiking.”
I reassure myself as I plod through bramble. “Have you found the bones of hikers past? Eventually you’ll get somewhere.”
I find the fork in the trail. At least I think it is.
I trod on. And on. And on. The air is getting colder, but I’m sweating.
I’m not sure if I’m going the right way, but commit to the path ahead. Eventually, I’ll arrive somewhere – the parking lot, the ruins, a highway, or even Bulow State Creek Park, if I’ve gotten turned around again.
I come across disturbed ground. It looks like someone has come through and eagerly tossed the mud with a shovel. Feral hogs. Now I’m a little scared. I saw a group of peccaries once. They sliced, punctured, killed an intruder – a hog from a different group. It took only moments.
Can I stay safe if I have to huddle down for the night? I have no supplies. It was supposed to be a short walk. Maybe three miles? [Twice that actually.]
It’s dusk now, and this rough trail is already getting harder to see. Fallen leaves, broken branches, tree bark, and darkening sky blend one into another. My mind flashes to a sign at the trailhead: All visitors must be off the trail by sunset.
Then I hear voices. A man and his son. They are talking about turning around. I walk faster. I see them. They’re resting on bicycles.
“Hello,” I greet them. “Do you know? Is this the path back to the parking lot?”
“Just keep going straight,” nods the man.
I sigh and grin. “I got on the wrong path. It feels like I’ve been walking forever.”
“It feels like we’ve been biking forever!” says the boy.
“It’s not far,” says the man. “We’ve only been biking maybe 45 minutes.”
We say our good-byes, and they pedal homeward.
“Only 45 minutes – by bike.”
I finally reach the parking lot. When I started, the lot was full. Now there is one car left.
A pick-up truck drives slowly down the road. It’s coming my way.
“We were watching for you,” says the man. The boy waves from the passenger seat. “Is this the right lot, or do you need a ride to the other one?”
“Thank you. This is it,” I tap the top of the car. Smile and wave a thank you.
I feel so appreciative knowing help was close by.
I drive home — in the dark. Feed the animals. Scoop the litter box. Walk the dog. Clean up the kitchen. Settle into bed.
But I can’t sleep.
“I’m stronger than I thought.”
I’m smiling. Bouncing my foot. Reliving the day.
“I walked how many miles? The trail loop. Plus another two? Another four? How far is that? Seven-and-a-half; nine-and-a-half? I got lost. But I stayed calm. Thought clearly. Drove all the way home and got everything done.”
I find myself staring into blackness. Remember to close my eyes. I take a few deep breaths. The night swallows. “Stronger than I think. I’m stronger than I think.” And the chant dissolves.
When no birds were found, I photographed fungi.