Last fall, I was in the thick of research for Five Star Trails Orlando when I discovered that Black Bear Wilderness Area in Sanford had, and continued to be, closed to the public while construction was going on. My call to county offices resulted in an offer to allow me to hike the closed preserve, but no promise on when it would reopen. Without an opening date, I had to pass over it for consideration for the book.
Fast-forward a year, and I’m making plans to meet my friend Paul, who hiked many of the Five Star Trails with me, along with John. Between the two of them, they pounded out the big miles with me for this book, keeping me company on the longest of the treks. I just received a box of books from Menasha Ridge Press and wanted to make sure Paul had one as a thank you. Plus, he didn’t get to hike Black Bear Wilderness as we’d planned last fall, so he was all for it.
Starting off from the trailhead, we crossed bog bridges over a mushy area with a flowing stream before the trail ascended a berm it would stay atop for most of the hike. An Eagle Scout had added benches every tenth of a mile. Despite the deep shade, we could catch glimpses of the marshes along the river around us, and started to hear and see songbirds and raptors. A big splash in the water meant a turtle or alligator. I came across a musk turtle on the trail, identical to the one I’d rescued off the road on the way in to the trailhead. “He got ahead of us!”
The trail opened up into an unexpected scene: the water treatment plant, the reason for the closure, and a crew pouring gravel into the wetlands to build a road to it. Strange indeed, after the fact. Red-winged blackbirds flitted between alligator flag as we crossed a broad boardwalk into a cypress swamp and ascended a riverside berm with a view of the St. Johns River. A “Trail” sign invited us to continue along this berm paralleling the river north. Ibis fluttered and squawked among the cypress knees. We found the end of the trail, and started back the way we came, stopping to watch pairs of cardinals, flickers, and other small but noisy songbirds in the trees.
I think John saw it first. “A barred owl! Over there!” Sure enough. We peeked from behind natural blinds of palm fronds for several perspectives on this grand bird, which didn’t hoot until we moved away. The construction workers in the distance answered. They’d left for lunch by the time we reached the gravel crossing again.
As we walked beneath the palms, I heard another splash in roughly the same place. This time, I took a closer look. “An alligator!” Turns out there were two, neither even two feet long. They took turns sliding into the water and crawling back on land again. A moment later, I watched a red-shouldered hawk rise from the marshes on the right side of the berm as a green ribbon snake raced across the path in front of me and dove for the water on the other side, away from the hawk.
“Dang, wish I could have put this hike in the book,” I said. “It’s great for wildlife!”
With lunchtime approaching, we got back to the car and made plans to head for a local restaurant. I put my camera bag in the trunk. Just as John pulled out of the trailhead gate, I saw the three bears. “Stop! Oh, I don’t have my camera!” I shot a couple of iPhone photos quickly. John got out of the car, opened the trunk, and got my camera to me quickly. From inside the car, we watched the bears – mama and two large cubs – look around curiously but keep their distance before vanishing into the woods we’d just left. I couldn’t imagine a better ending to our inaugural visit to Black Bear Wilderness Area.