Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Walk to the Prairie

A couple weekends ago I went for a walk on the Bolen Bluff trail in Payne's Prairie Preserve State Park with my friends Gabe and Amanda, their kids, and Gabe's mom. We were looking for wild horses.

Where's Waldo?

There were three -- two dark, one white -- and they grazed in the forest alongside the trail. Then they crossed the path about thirty feet in front of us. It was pretty cool! The horses were shaggy and mostly ignored us, although one was acting pretty sketchy. I think she was young.

I don't know how many wild horses are on the Payne's Prairie. The prairie used to be managed as a cattle ranch, so there are still old dikes, and evidently these are the descendants of cracker horses.

After a mile or so, the trail leaves the hammock and enters the prairie; it follows an old dike. The view is beautiful, especially at the end of the day. Another half-mile or so down the trail there's a low observation tower. You can stand on it and look for marsh hawks, bison, and other prairie wildlife.

Unfortunately, we had to turn around as soon as we reached the prairie, because the park closes at sunset, and the rangers can be very strict about enforcing it. They'll lock your car in the parking lot and call the sheriff's office to come get you. Which means you get a ticket for trespassing. Of course, by the time we dragged the kids out of the woods, a ranger was waiting for us. She was not happy. I don't think she has kids (or friends with kids?), or maybe she would have been a little more understanding. Or maybe she was just hungry or something.

Here's what the Florida State Parks Web site has to say about the Bolen Bluff trail. It's much more poetic than my description:

"The 2.6 mile roundtrip trail is named after a family of pioneer settlers who lived on the south rim or bluff of Paynes Prairie. The trail leads to a wildlife viewing deck after it passes beneath the shady canopy of a hardwood forest dominated by large oaks -- the most impressive of which are southern live oak. Other species of oaks as well as sweetgum, hickory, palm, magnolia and holly trees flourish along the trail. In Florida, communities of broad-leaved evergreens or hardwood-dominated forests are called "hammocks." This name probably originated from early native Americans that inhabited the region. Hammocks grow on high well-drained soils and thus provide an ideal habitat for a large diversity of animal species including Virginia white-tailed deer, wild turkey, bobcat, gray fox, barred owl and raccoon.

Located halfway along the loop-trail is an open, grassy knoll-- Bolen Bluff. The bluff affords the visitor a scenic vista of the low-lying freshwater marsh, wet prairie and open water of Alachua Lake. From the bluff a 0.5-mile spur-trail heads out onto the prairie basin along an old earthen dike. During the 1920-30's, the Camp family constructed an extensive system of dikes and canals into the vast wetland to reduce the flooding and thus create drier conditions for cattle ranching. In 1970 the Camp Ranch was sold to the State of Florida establishing the first state preserve in the Florida Park System.

Today upland areas once cleared for agriculture and cattle grazing are slowly returning to their previous hammock state.

The trailhead is accessed off of US 441 south of Gainesville. Open daily 8 a.m. to sunset. Foot and bike traffic."

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