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  • Writer's pictureChris Toepker

Ocala Recces

It is fortunate to live so near to open wilds. Now that relocation has happened, and routines are getting regular, I’m happy to report I’ve discovered the local National Forest: Ocala.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been taking small jaunts from south to north, along the National Florida Scenic Trail. It is glorious!

My goal is to get a bit familiar with the area, then do an Ultra throughout. Since the goal is to match Hong Kong Four Trails Ultra Challenge rules, it must be self-supported. This allows for things like stops along the way, making use of facilities and even stores. However, you don’t have a crew to take care of things for you.

These recce outings seem only prudent. For simple safety, I need to know my exits and how to get off the trail if something should go wrong. I also need to know where I can re-supply myself so that I can minimize weight. I’ve gotten quite used to a 10-pound (4.5kg), so figuring out what that 10 needs to specifically contain – needs practice.

I started at Clearwater Lake, the birthplace of the Florida Trail, and ran up to Alexander Springs. It is a very interesting run, initially going through tall, spindly scrub pines. The canopy doesn’t touch, and the trees are quite far apart. All together it creates an overwhelming sense of space. Tree trunks mark the distance, but in all directions you can see blue sky as the background. Looking up, the sky is equally always available. So different from Washington!

Interestingly, whenever there is more groundwater, the vegetation changes pretty drastically. The pines give way to low palms, which must allow taller growth the more water there is because you can always tell when you’re coming to a pond, crossing a watershed, or slow moving stream bed. In the median water areas, more deciduous trees take over, with a thick layer of leaves underfoot. Still, the sand remains!

As you approach Alexander Springs, the trail takes you along the watershed and there are wooden boardwalks across the marshy terrain. Thank goodness! By the looks of it, you’d need knee boots or hip waders to wallow along through there.

Alexander Springs make a good re-supply. At a minimum, there is water. There is also a store, but the hours aren’t great – only open during the day, and closed on holidays. When it gets super hot, it might even be wise to take a quick wade in the cool waters. We shall see!

Heading out from there, towards Buck Lake, the trail is decidedly back to pine and deciduous forest. It also gets some hills. Well, what Florida calls hills. Indeed, there are many tree tunnels, which is a welcome relief from the sun. It's also easy to see where the fire swept through many years ago, because the pines are all small and densely packed, not yet their more mature slender selves. Indeed, along the edge of the trail are wide expanses of low cover. There's a couple spots where the trail ventures across it, and I can easily imagine the weight of the sun that is coming in just a few months! Even so, the scariest hazard for me is that this section of the trail crosses a couple major roads. I can’t imagine that drivers are paying much attention, because while I do sometimes see hikers, mostly it is motor sports folks. Therefore, when crossing the country highways, I feel the need to really be guard. I’m sure I’m a surprise to folks cruising along at speed!

As the trail approaches Buck Lake, there is a loop trail which means you can take either the southern or northern Florida Trail exit. The Southern portion is much marshier and even at this time of year has large ankle (at least) pools of water across the entire path. I can only imagine that later in the year, with daily showers, it will get worse! So, if you’re like me take the northern path, hit the group campground, and then re-trace steps back to mainline Florida trail. Sadly, the Buck Lake camping area is not well suited for re-supply. There is a boil notice, which means the well is not good for straight drinking. I will either have to carry the purifier pump or look into one of those safety straws. Since this spot is around 17 miles (27km) from Clearwater, and 7 miles from Alexander Springs, I’m not entirely convinced I should switch the weight from water itself to the replenishing pump.

So far the route is challenging, but not in any of the ways I’m used to! It’s flat, so that should make it easier. However, it is all sand. Indeed, I recall reading online something like: when settlers came to Florida they found a slow moving sheet of water that covered the entire southern portion of the state. Indeed. One can easily imagine that you’re walking on the remains of the once-mighty Appalachians. If only the grains could tell tales!

The sand makes for reasonable cushion on these tired joints, but is terrible for traction. It really does take a lot more effort to get forward progress and slows the pace. Also, because these have been checking things out (so far), I’ve stopped to take a lot of photos, further slowing the pace!

Wanna’ see even more photos? See the more regular, daily training advice and logs?

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