After four years of intentionally avoiding Juniper Prairie Wilderness, not wanting to be devastated by the loss of beauty spots from the 2009 fires – particularly Hidden Pond – a wildfire nudged me in this direction again. I’d grown up with the Ocala National Forest at my doorstep, the Big Scrub the place I’d see bears along the road and scrub-jays in the trees. Hearing that the fires had started with campers in the wilderness area, everything I’d been told led to one conclusion: Hidden Pond was a campsite no more.
Our plans had been to hike Hopkins Prairie, but nature kept us at bay. First, soaking rains on the days we’d planned to camp there. Then, a fire that swept across the Florida Trail and consumed 10 homes near the prairie. Finally, as we hiked with friends the day before our final hike for “Five Star Trails Gainesville and Ocala,” they told us that another fire had hit Hopkins Prairie, wiping out blazes and markers they’d just put in to replace the ones lost the month before. That was enough to set us on a course into the Juniper Prairie Wilderness.
Seeing crispy trees on Pat’s Island, all these years later, did nothing to cheer me up. When we got to a ridge where the charcoal-smeared oaks sprouted new young leaves, it helped, a little. So did the scrub-jays that came out to greet us, staying wary but close enough to watch. Up and down over the scrub ridges, the prairies were as beautiful as I remembered them. But my heart sank each time we found another oak hammock burnt to a crisp, and towering burned sand pines.
Reaching Hidden Pond, we were dazzled by its beauty. Although the water is way down, it’s still an oasis in the scrub. Circling the pond, I was incredulous: the oak hammock was pristine. No crispy branches here. No burn. Wherever the 2009 fire started, with a campfire that wasn’t properly extinguished, it was most certainly not here.
Finding Hidden Pond as beautiful as it has always been was the delight of the day and the cap to our 9-month project of canvassing trails throughout this region. It brightened my perspective on the way back, where the sizzled oaks didn’t grab my attention as strongly as the sweeping prairie views.