Hiking the Florida Panhandle


It's not an adventure until somebody screws up...

Bear Creek - December 10, 2006

I went hiking with my sister, Nelda, again this weekend. Sunday morning we went to the Bear Creek Educational Forest, a tract within the Lake Talquin State Forest. Mom and the kids stayed home, doing secretive holiday stuff that required my absence. I had hiked the trail about three years ago, and wanted to see it again.

Saturday night we had a sibling Christmas party at the house. Three of my four sisters were there with their boyfriends/husbands. My oldest sister brought most of the food. I supplied the Christmas cheer: wine and t'killya. Another sister brought a large amount of beer. I sampled all the food, and all the alcohol. The combination was working on my stomach Sunday morning, plus I had the beginnings of a cold, courtesy of my children. I forced down a bagel sandwich on the theory that it would help soak up the toxic spill. It probably would have been more successful without the ham and cheese. A half-litre of water, three advil and a sudafed rounded out the attempted cure. It was Van Morrison in the CD player on the way to the trailhead that really got me into the hiking mood though.

And I will stroll the merry way
And jump the hedges first
And I will drink the clear
Clean water for to quench my thirst

Nelda called to say she was having some trouble finding the trailhead. The directions I gave her the night before were not very good. "Three miles from Hwy 20" turned into more like eight miles from Hwy 20. She got it sorted, though, and was there when I pulled up. Her sufferings from the party turned out to be worse than my own, but she was ready to hike. Instead of sugar she was carrying water in her day pack this time, and didn't have it loaded up as much. A 3-day pack is one of the items on her Christmas list.

Bear Creek, for those who don't know, is located on Hwy 267 on the west end of Lake Talquin. Take Hwy 20 out of Tallahassee, pass the Talquin dam, and go another two or three miles. There's a gas station on the right on the corner of Hwy 20 and Dempsey Barron Rd, aka Hwy 267. Take Hwy 267 north for about eight miles, and the entrance is on the right. On the way you will pass a sign pointing down Cook Landing Rd to the Lake Talquin SF Lines Tract. Keep going. Bear Creek is just past the road to Wallwood Boy Scout Camp. (Ah, the memories.)

The forest isn't large, only 492 acres, but it's very pretty. Beech trees are scattered throughout, and give it lots of nice fall color this time of year. It's namesake, Bear Creek, passes through the northern edge of the property. Three smaller creeks flow down to it in steep-sided ravines. The ravines provide a few nice climbs along the trail (by Florida standards, of course).

The trailhead is nicely developed. A rail fence marks off the parking area. There's an information hut, bathrooms, a large house that provides classroom space for educational activities, a couple of picnic tables next to a grill, and a kiosk by the trail that has a large aerial photo of the tract with the trails marked on it.

There are three trails in the tract. The Living Forest trail is a short paved trail leading down to an observation deck, and the start of the other two trails. The trail is lined with posts containing speakers that play a recording about some aspect of forestry if you push a button. There are also small signs next to different trees giving their common names: Sparkleberry, Laurel Oak, Pignut Hickory, American Beech, Southern Magnolia, etc. Very educational. I'm pretty sure that the "mallorn tree" we saw last week at Ft Braden was an American Beech.

The observation deck looks out over a pond formed by damming up a creek. It's called Beaver Dam on the map, but I'm pretty sure beavers don't build roads over their dams. Maybe it was a beaver dam once upon a time, but was adopted for human use. The Ravine Trail is a 1.8 mile loop around the pond/creek, while Bear Creek trail makes a wider 2.4 mile loop towards the east boundary of the tract. We chose to hit the latter first, and see how we felt after we finished it.

We followed the road across the dam with me leading the way, and kept following the road uphill past the turn we were supposed to make onto the trail. When I noticed there were no orange blazes, we doubled back and found the trail again. Bear Creek is marked with orange blazes, the Ravine trail is blue-blazed, and the Living Forest trail has green blazes.

We had a number of starts and stops in the early going, trying to get comfortable. I had to stop at one point and shed my jacket. The wind was blowing cold at the trailhead, but it didn't take me long to warm up once we were walking. Pretty soon we came a little spur trail that loops around the ravine head of a feeder creek, and crosses back over to the main trail at Pittman Dam. I hadn't taken the spur on my previous hike here three years ago, so we took it this time. It gave some really nice views down into the ravine 40-50 feet below. (Hey, it's Florida. We take what we can get, and appreciate it all the more.)

The trail continued along the little feeder creek until it reached the swampy valley cut by Bear Creek, where it turned back towards the west. Not far from the turn is a white blaze trail to a "primitive" campsite. The trail climbs up out of the creek valley into a piney sandhill area. I had camped there on a little overnight trip with my daughter three years ago, and wanted to show it to Nelda. When I was there before, it had a picnic table and a fire ring. They've done some work on it since then, installing three long benches around the fire ring, putting up a charcoal grill, and mowing the grass in a wide circle around the campsite. The only thing missing was a bathroom and showers. It would be a great spot for taking a large group of kids backpacking.

We sat there for a few minutes, talking, eating a snack and drinking water. Up in the sky a buzzard glided around in a circle. Nelda called up to him, "We're not dead yet!" and he flew off. About ten minutes later he came back with a bunch of friends. I guess he wasn't convinced. Besides the buzzards, we had seen (and heard) a large number of smaller birds. I couldn't identify all of them, but there were a couple of blue jays, and several red-bellied woodpeckers. Other wildlife sightings included a squirrel, a snake bird, a couple of ducks (mallards?), and an egret. We also saw fresh deer tracks that followed the trail around the first half of the loop, but never caught up with the guy who made them.

Leaving the campsite, we got back on the trail and continued around the loop. The next little feeder creek cuts across the path. Someone has laid a few sapling trunks across it to make it easier to cross. We tiptoed over the logs and the mud on the other side, and kept going. It was a quick stroll back to the beginning of the trail.

Still feeling frisky, we decided to do the Ravine Trail too. The first half mile or so we followed the east bank of the pond, stopping occasionally to read little signposts by the trail that described different species of trees and shrubs. There was flame azaela, mountain laurel, rhododendron, and some I'm not familiar with, like hornbeam and muscle tree.

The Ravine trail features a few steep climbs at the southwest end of the trail. Not Appalachian steep, or even Torreya steep, but enough to stretch out the thigh muscles a little. On the west side, it goes down to the level of the creek, and winds its way back to the Beaver Dam. The creek that feeds the pond is very pretty: clear water winding along between moss-grown banks. The pond itself is covered with green algae, and has a lot of lily pads floating on the surface. It's passed through the dam by means of a pump that pushes the water through a large pipe.

When we got to the end of the trail, I still felt like I could go another five miles. I had made some adjustments in my pack fit during the week that worked out very well. My hips didn't feel bruised and tender like they did last week. My legs weren't hurting either. I did feel a little pain in my feet going back up the paved trail to the trailhead though. I could have done without that. I don't know how people stand the road walks on the FT.

All in all, it was a nice jaunt that left me feeling better at the end than I felt at the beginning. On the way home, Van Morrison on the CD player: "Did ye get healed?" To which I replied, "Yeah, pretty much, thanks."

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