I’m always amused by the pictures of hikers taking casual rambles through Florida’s massive trail systems. These hikers appear to be enjoying a carefree walk in the woods and I envy their apparent nonchalance. I wish I could muster the type of enthusiasm that would have me racing to lace up my hiking boots and hit the trail. Mr. B. will attest to my tiptoeing (or zipping) through clumps of dead leaves, or to my mule-like balking at any bend or stretch that isn’t either paved or composed of white sand.
I remind myself that a year ago I would only venture pavement or boardwalk. Small advances have a way of turning into the backsliding of retreat, but there is also a rare “je m’en foutisme” that has me taking the lead (while secretly on high alert).
A steamy day had me suggesting a ride on the glass-bottomed boats at Silver Springs. I have a season pass and I’ve only been there twice. “Is there a concert today?” Mr. B. asked. When I answered in the negative, Mr. B. vetoed the idea. I understood this. He grew up in rural Virginia and he feels most at home trekking through woods. Sometimes I think he was born in the wrong century. He’d have made one hell of a pioneer and I could easily imagine him leading off the wagon train, slashing through underbrush and brushing off a rattlesnake bite as a minor inconvenience.
Mr. B. seems to have found himself a gal pal who is as urban as can be and whose first question about kayaking is “Where do you use the restroom?” and “Is there a Coke machine?” Nevertheless, when Mr. B. suggested visiting Silver River State Park, I put on two coats of Rouge d’Armani lipstick and jumped in the car.
Silver River State Park is part of the much larger Ocala National Forest. The entrance is located just around the corner from Silver Springs and the park shares the Silver River with the Springs. I’d seen pictures of the river on various blogs and I was keen to get a look at it, even if I am light years away from wanting to plop my patootie down in a plastic shell and paddle my way through lily pads.
A ranger handed us a map that showed two main hiking trails, a Cracker village (closed), and a playground area. You had your choice of swamp or river trail. I realized I would be good for one trail only and agreed to take the river trail even though my first choice was the swamp trail. Either way, it was a hot day and both trails appeared to have ample shade. The other trail would still be there for another day.
We set off on the river trail with me in the lead. An experienced hiker would find the river trail kiddie stuff, which means it was almost too advanced for me. A sign offered advice and encouragement about encountering the black bear. I read it with the aplomb of a journeyman and then we hiked to the river. We sat at the launch on the river, watching canoes, kayaks, and pontoon boats make their way downstream. The river was lush with subtropical vegetation and presumably alligators as well.
Mr. B. pulled out the map and mentioned a “river loop” that apparently let you walk next to the river. This trail had no signage and it looked to be a grass road that ran to the side of the boat launch. The river trail had been a fifteen-minute hike and Mr. B. saw no reason not to do the loop as well.
I did. There wasn’t any shade, and the grassy composition of the loop made it too advanced for me. Not only, it wasn’t marked as the loop, so what would happen if it wasn’t the loop at all but a random road that plunged into the Ocala National Forest and ended up, 607 acres later, in Deland?
Mr. B. helpfully pointed out that marked or not, it had to be the loop. The legend showed no other road or trail, so through the process of keen deduction, the road was the loop. Off we went.
It was immediately too hot for me. Unlike the river trail, which benefited from a nearly complete tree cover, the loop was out there in bald sunlight. Sweat began to run under my hat and into my eyes and my skin sizzled and took on that whitish-pink color of heat exhaustion. I was leading, and at what I imagine was probably the halfway point I stopped to holler back to Mr. B. that I was too overheated to continue. As I turned my head to the left, I noticed I had breached some territory. Three feet ahead of me was a snake.
Here is where my regular readers will be expecting me to say that I shrieked loudly and ran off in terror. This would be a perfectly acceptable conclusion based on my ophidiophobia, but it did not occur. Instead, I stood still and casually announced, “Don’t come up here. There’s a snake.” At that moment, I felt just as proud of myself as I would if someone offered me a juicy advance for my first book*.
The snake was yellow with brown stripes. I misidentified it as a ribbon snake (it was a yellow rat snake) and it had stopped when it saw me and now it lay partially across the path and partially concealed in the bordering grass. I looked at it and it at me, neither moving, and then I took its picture as it slowly crawled across the road. It hadn’t retreated when it saw me, so had I been three paces quicker I’d have stepped right on it.
There are indeed snakes in the grass.
After we watched the snake slide across the path, we continued walking until I could take the heat no longer. After a minor battle in which Mr. B. (correctly) insisted that to continue would require less time than to reverse, I reversed and stomped back the way we came, fanning myself with my hat. Anyone who saw this display would know I was not a Southern belle and would correctly suspect that I was dangerously short of feminine wiles. Plus, I stride as if I’m from Manhattan.
At the head of the loop we ran into a woman who explained that her husband had refused to come hiking in the park; as she told this she feigned exasperation. By way of covertly siding with her reluctant and absent husband, I gave her a trail update. “There’s no shade and we ran into a snake.”
We hiked back to the parking lot and then I zipped into the restroom, eager to run cold water on my wrists. The water was warm. Mr. B. went to have a look at the Cracker village while I sat in the car with the air conditioning on full blast. After waiting for ten minutes, I took out my cell phone and called him to say that I needed to get the car moving to receive full advantage of the freon load.
“There’s a brontosaurus here,” he said. The line crackled with that special annoying static you get on cell phones, and from which Mr. B.’s cell phone in particular suffers.
“I’ll be right there,” I said. Huh?
We met at the entrance to the village, where Mr. B. explained that my brontosaurus was his gopher tortoise. I took pictures of the tortoise and then admired some chickens in a coop. This was a pleasant end to the day and we drove home discussing the ongoing likelihood of my taking ten steps backwards for every step forward.
*To be titled “The Box of Fruit I Promised You,” featuring my true-life adventures in coming to terms with the Sunshine State, its wildlife, vegetation, people, and mullet dip.
Reassuring trail markers.
My kind of trail.
Is this what would be called a “stand” of palm?
And so grows my collection of alligator warning signs. I have learned that the absence of a sign does not mean the absence of the gator.
We spoke to a pair of German students from the University of Florida who had just returned from a three-hour paddle on the Silver River. They differed on the size of the alligators encountered but not on the number: “Lots!” Eventually they agreed that there had been “three major” gators and a good number of minor ones.
My type of boat.
The river loop. Go ahead and tell me I’m a wuss.
I am hypervigilant about scanning the trail ahead of and beneath me, and yet I didn’t see this snake until I stopped. I was close enough to see its red eyes and I backed up to take this picture. Please double-click if you would like to see the eyes as clearly as I did.