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Lessons for the Artful Hiker

Learning how to get more out of a walk on Southwest Florida's wild side.

Left to right: Anne Reed, of CREW Land and Water Trust; Gulfshore Life senior writer Jennifer Reed; and volunteer naturalist Janet Bunch enter an oak hammock at the CREW Marsh Trails.

Stephen Hayford

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My childhood was entwined with trails. Our Cape Cod neighborhood was situated across the street from conservation land, a holly reservation with a dirt road leading to a pond and countless paths snaking into the woods. My brothers and I generally favored one to the right of the road, the hilly one that felt furthest from civilization. In late summer, though, we headed straight to the sunny passes where wild grapes grew, clutching empty bags and anticipating homemade jelly.

For family vacations, we drove north, to the White Mountains of New Hampshire or the Green Mountains of Vermont. We kids always picked the steepest and windiest of trails for the mysteries that might lie around the corner or beyond the rim, and for the panoramic reward at the top. Those still are the trails I choose whenever I venture into territories with terrain.  

Purple blossoms sit atop the prickly stems of a thistle. 

Florida hiking is not the same. The paths are too flat, too wide, and, often, too short and civilized for the feeling of adventure I long for in the woods. I wanted to round a bend and see a valley; I wanted to scale rocks and hop brooks; I wanted the satisfaction of a summit.

But as my reporting more recently has taken me into Florida’s wilderness,  I realize that I hadn’t come to love our region’s hiking because I didn’t understand the land. Northern hiking is brash—the level and terrain changes unmistakable, the seasonal shifts stark, the flora and fauna easy to spot because of the trees’ relative sparsity. Hiking in Southwest Florida is all about subtleties—elevation measured in inches rather than feet, seasons nuanced rather than overt; plant life so abundant that one must stop and peer at detail lest its density blur into a hazy green curtain.

I wanted to learn from experienced guides. And so, one February morning finds me at the head of the CREW Marsh Trails with volunteer naturalist Janet Bunch and CREW communications strategist Anne Reed (no relation to the writer). My friend, photojournalist Stephen Hayford, joins us, too, to document our finds. 

Anne, a Michigan transplant, relates to my plight. “It’s hard to get outside in Southwest Florida. This seems like an oxymoron—that’s why people come here, right?” she says. But if you’re not a beach person, she continues, there’s only so much sand you can take; if your idea of romping doesn’t include boardwalk or pavement, you’ve got to do a little research to find the trailheads (see sidebar for suggestions).

I’d never visited CREW, but I knew I’d found the right place. In just minutes, we’d lost sight of the parking lot, the sound of the traffic and the sense of ever-racing time.

Janet, the naturalist, is a 5-foot-tall spitfire of a woman who eschews the banality of her planned community in favor of escapades in the woods.

“Just be still and look,” she instructs, and following her own guidance, stops to peer at a perfectly woven spider web. It’s like the queen’s jewelry box tipped over, she says, the dewdrops sparkling like diamonds. “Look at all of the spider webs in here. It’s an embarrassment of riches.”

Numerous varieties of dragonflies and other insects inhabit the trails.

I’m not particularly good at being still, but I would quickly learn that the secret to appreciating a Southwest Florida hike is to walk more slowly, stop more frequently and observe more like a child, fresh-eyed and imaginative.

We stop to examine a swath of land recently burned as part of CREW’s forestry management. I love the imagery of this scene: death and renewal, tender green sprouts emerging from charcoal-colored ash. In a few more weeks, Anne anticipates, the rain lilies—joyful, pastel-colored flowers—will bloom; they generally appear six weeks after a burn.

The path veers west. Palmettos flank both sides, songbirds chirp overhead, and we feel the sun drying the dew and warming our cheeks—until Anne abruptly alerts us to a shift.

“Did you just feel the temperature change?” she asks. I’d been too busy chatting to notice, but I stop to consider. Yes, it had dropped; just slightly, like refrigerated air lingering after the door is shut. We’d crossed a threshold a few yards back, Anne explains, from pinewood flat to oak hammock. The vegetation had changed, and the soil, too, a little more compact and less sandy. “Where we were before was higher and drier,” Anne says.

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