With the recent rash of fatal alligator attacks, I’ve had quite a few folks talk to me this past week about their fears of the outdoors. For years, I’ve heard that alligators have been one of the top reasons that out-of-state visitors and new residents (who wouldn’t think twice of hiking in black bear country in the Smokies or grizzly bear territory in the Rockies) get freaked out about hiking in Florida. Will you see wildlife here? Most certainly. Alligators? Almost a given. Find a body of water, and there’s bound to be one in it. I’ve nearly stumbled across alligators several times while hiking. But every time, the critter (no matter its size) turned tail and ran. A recent exception was down in Shark Valley in Everglades National Park. They’ll lay right along the road. Use common sense. Don’t approach or touch a wild animal. Back off. When I hike, a wooden hiking stick is my trusty companion, just in case.
One of my more interesting hikes in recent years was when I was working on 50 Hikes in South Florida. I checked in with the Friends of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and noted on their website that a trail was in the works for the refuge, which up to that point had no public access. Biologist Larry Richardson and John Staursky, the Friends president, invited me out for a tour. I brought the measuring wheel, as I fully intended to write this one up for the book. As planned, the two loops of the Leslie Duncan Memorial Trail would provide either an easy walk or a rough swamp tromp through prime Florida panther habitat, looping around a radio tower close to I-75. It was rougher and wetter than I expected. Larry took the wheel, as we were wading knee deep in places.
About halfway through the trek he got an emergency call and we had to pick up the pace. A motorist called to report a panther struck by a car on SR 29. We met up with a fellow who used a telemetry device to determine what panthers with collars were in the immediate area. And we spent a couple of hours riding back and forth along that particular section of highway, checking on the telemetry, Larry getting out of the truck to bushwhack into the woods, hoping to find a sign of a panther that had dragged itself off the road. No such luck. Or perhaps it was good luck: we had no way of knowing if the phone call was bogus.
Six months later, as I turned in my manuscript, I checked with the refuge. The trails still weren’t open to the public due to some permitting issues for building the gravel parking pad.
I dropped my descriptions from the book. Last summer, I checked in again, and found them open: a new place for the public to explore, and appreciate, the wilderness that our wild inhabitants thrive in. Will you see a panther? Probably not. I’ve only seen one in my travels, and that was from a car. But you’ll appreciate how it feels to be amid the grasslands and forests where panthers prowl, and you’ll come away a little wiser and more alert to what’s around you as you hike.
Take a Hike! The Leslie M. Duncan Memorial Trail at the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge is off SR 29 just north of I-75, one exit east of Naples. Drive north from the off-ramp and you’ll find the entrance immediately on the left. The 1/3 mile loop is tame enough to take the kids on: hard-packed limestone that’s wheelchair accessible with assistance. The 1-1/3 mile trail drops off the tame loop and kicks you into the vast wet pine-palm flatwoods, where you’ll wade (except in the dry season) through wilderness terrain.