Phyllis stopped short and put a hand out in front of me, whispered “Look!” My eyes tried to focus on the dark shape in front of us. Cow, I thought, but it was too small. Then it turned. Boar! It looked square at us before galloping off into the forest.
Ten minutes later, she stopped me again and pointed down the trail. A large Florida black bear sashayed along the broad forest road ahead of us. After it slipped into the palm fronds to the left of the trail, I listened for a splash. It never came. A broad canal paralleled us, and certainly the bear had to cross it. Or perhaps it climbed a tree? I suggested we start talking, loudly. We made our presence known as we walked past the point where the bear had been. It might have been watching us, but at least it knew we were there.
That’s the best way to see a bear: far ahead of you on the trail, walking away from you. Unlike the experience John and I had a couple of years ago, this was the perfect bear encounter in the woods.
[What to do if you encounter a bear in the woods]
A boar and a bear. Not bad for the first half hour of four hours of hiking in the St. Johns River floodplain.
It’s called Black Bear Wilderness Area for a reason. This is the fourth bear I’ve seen while hiking here. Encompassing 1,600 acres along the St. Johns River in Sanford, it’s part of the Seminole County Natural Lands program. While technically not a wilderness, since it was logged and ranched and farmed over the past century, it’s somewhere you’d better not go bushwhacking off-trail, as it would be very hard to find your way out. A mosaic of open wetlands, floodplain forest, oak hammocks, and palm hammocks, it can only be traversed because of a system of levees built a long time ago.
Some of the levees are broad enough you can imagine the narrow-gauge railways that ran down them to collect the cypress logs that the loggers wrestled out of the swamps. Some are so narrow and steep you have to wonder why they were built. To create fields to farm? To impound pools of water next to the St. Johns River? The landscape offers few clues.
Last month, John and I took my sister and her kids out to Black Bear Wilderness for a walk to the St. Johns River. The preserve had been closed for an extended period, and we learned it had just reopened a few days before, unveiling a shiny new series of boardwalks and a 7.1-mile hiking loop, according to the new map and signage. On a hot summer’s day, we opted for the original route out to the river and back.
Yesterday, my friend Phyllis wanted a wilderness adventure before she headed back to her urban home, so I suggested Black Bear, since I wanted to do the new loop. We left early, but not early enough. It was already 84*F when we reached the trailhead. It had rained the night before, so palm fronds dripped and resurrection fern glistened in the dense riverine forest.
Having a sense of place, I thought it best to walk the loop clockwise, counter to the mileage markers posted by Seminole County. That way, we’d get the “deep in the woods” section, which wouldn’t have a breeze, behind us first. Beyond the halfway point, breezes off the river would help with the summer heat. It turned out to be the right choice, since the breezes stayed with us for the last few miles of hiking.
Starting the loop by making a left at the junction, we discovered that the trail rose up on a tall, narrow berm and perched there, between the cabbage palms. Trail crews had removed some of them to make way for hikers. It was easy walking, the height providing views down into the dense oak and palm hammock below.
We were lulled into thinking the hike would be easy, especially when the footpath became a broad forest road where we had our wildlife encounters. Reaching a clearing with a single bench – the only one we found along the loop until it came back around to the original trail – it wasn’t obvious where the trail went. With a little poking around, we found it, and scrambled up to the top of the levee.
With years of walking in water management areas, I think of levees as flat-topped, and broad. I think of tramways as flat-topped, and narrow. This levee was neither. Scarcely a foot wide in some places, the trail dodged palm fronds and slipped between trees. Roots grasped the earth fiercely, and we picked our way across them. The closer we drew towards the St. Johns River – we could see wide open spaces between the trees – the more difficult the terrain became. “I haven’t done this much root-hopping since the AT!” I said.
Like the Appalachian Trail, the narrow levees pit you against gravity as the trail slips downslope in places. It wouldn’t be an issue if you had sand, soft peat, or midden material underfoot. But these ridges are mostly muck. Try walking at a 45-degree angle on slick mud. My hiking stick kept me from slipping off more than once. Phyllis took the plunge one time, slipping again as she stood back up.
A series of new boardwalks connect these old levees. I was surprised to see no trace of how they’d been built, they were so remote from the trailhead. All of them spanned marshes, many dense with largeflower hibiscus in bloom. Slick with the rain that showered upon us as we approached the river, the boardwalks were as slippery as the mud. Our pace slowed considerably.
Near Boardwalk 7, we heard voices, and responded. Two fishermen were enjoying a cove in the river along the trail. They’d wondered how we got where we were and when I told them we’d walked nearly 5 miles already, they were surprised. I gave them directions to the trailhead. All of the boardwalks are numbered, and there are markers every half mile along the trail.
I kept watching for the old end point, where John and I and our friend Paul hiked to and found the “End of Trail” sign, and no way to cross the break in the levee. Eventually, I spotted it, at Boardwalk 3. Now I was in familiar territory, and I knew the next stretch would be rough, narrow and rooty. We made it through with only a couple of slips and no tumbles.
Leaving the river and coming up along the boardwalk through the alligator flag, I could see a large something on the railing up ahead. Phyllis hung back as I walked close enough to get a few shots. The raptor flew off on our approach. It wasn’t one I was familar with, and looking it up, discovered it was a merlin, a type of falcon. It flew into a cypress tree and fussed at us from above. The railing afforded it a good fishing spot along the canal.
I’d told Phyllis we were done with the roots and mud, but not so. I promptly slipped on a slick surface. Fortunately, this levee is very broad, so falling off of it is not an issue. Watching your step is, as there are many fire ant nests along this stretch, especially between the roots of trees. We saw none anywhere else along the loop.
Finishing up, I clocked 7.4 miles on the GPS, to be verified once I download the track and put together the information for hiking the loop. It was a fascinating and beautiful hike, but certainly a tricky one. Take a hiking stick and prepare to slip and slide after a rain. It’s an adventure!