Hurricanes and fires have kept me off of one of my favorite hikes on the Florida Trail, the Juniper Prairie Wilderness, for many years.
I’d get ready to go out there and something would happen that I knew would wreck my memories of my first hikes there, so I wouldn’t go.
When my friend Bob suggested it as a destination for a hike last week, I said, let’s do it! We started at Hopkins Prairie trailhead and hiked south to where we’d left my car at Juniper Springs.
Hopkins was as beautiful as I remembered, with places to peep out of the trees and across the prairie. The Big Sink was gorgeous, too; it was another crisp cold morning. And then we got to the northern boundary of the wilderness.
I wasn’t prepared for the sense of loss. Between hurricane damage in 2004-2005 and the fire that went berserk through the wilderness in 2007, the landscape has changed drastically.
I was heartbroken to find Marker 7 along the Yearling Trail (which shares the Florida Trail) … and no dogwood.
The grand old Florida dogwood that stood here, that was mentioned by the settlers in their journals … that I took pictures of for “50 Hikes in North Florida” … gone without a trace, burned out of existence.
It was painful. The nearby campsite was obliterated, too.
But forests change. For the painful parts of walking through miles of charred sticks in the midst of young scrub, there were joyful parts too.
In these places, the oak hammock survived the firestorm, and prairies gleamed golden in the morning sun. We encountered a pond where two otters were fishing, and we stood and watched them for a long time.
Hidden Pond was more of an oasis than ever, a bright spot in a landscape reshaped by fire, and here a family of Florida scrub-jays came out to greet us, as did a couple of backpackers camping in the cool shade of the oaks.
Although the wilderness isn’t as gloriously beautiful as it once was, it’s still wild, with views that weren’t there before.
You can see for miles from atop some of the ridges. You can see the cabbage palms and cypress trees outlining Juniper Run in the distance. Wet prairies and dry remain rimmed by saw palmetto, home to ducks, herons, and coots.
We saw bear scat. And all too soon, the hike was behind us.