I almost let camping season in Florida get away from me.
Last year, I took my oldest for his first overnight in a tent, which turned into a smashing success. He’s been talking about going back ever since, and I did a poor job of making a new trip happen. I can make a lot of excuses – among others, Payne’s Prairie, where we went last year, got jacked up by Hurricane Irma – but those are all excuses. The probability of us going on a trip this year went down with each passing weekend.
But my boy, he is tenacious. At one point he and my wife played a wishing game – I think throwing coins into a fountain – and he told her he wished for more adventures.
My heart went *bloop* because, well, I also wish for more adventures, and when my boy is wants to head down the path I want to take him down … I want to be a follow-through kind of Dad. This pushed me to start researching dates, places, and weather. Payne’s Prairie was an option again, but the recent hurricane flooded the area and caused limited site availability. Other somewhat local state parks and designations did not have any campsite availability, either. So after poking around, I settled on a primitive, un-reservable campsite in the Ocala National Forest called Hopkin’s Prairie.
The word “prairie” deserves some discussion here – the word has been used twice now. When I hear the word “prairie,” I conjure up a mental image of the Great Plains of the American Mid-West – miles of grassland almost never punctured by trees or, for that matter, features of any kind. In Florida, “prairie” still means grassland, but the scale is different. Here, the grasslands in question are formed by low-lying seasonal marshes that flood in the rainy season and can’t support stands of trees. The major ones, like Payne’s Prairie, can look like they go on forever when you stand in them, but for most of them you can see the forest pick up on the other side.
Hopkin’s Prairie is one of these low-lying areas in the Ocala National Forest, set in a sea of Florida scrub interspersed by islands of longleaf pine. The campsite is seasonal, only open from early November through June 1. The primary reason for the seasonality is as much about bugs as heat, too. Any time you hear the phrase “low-lying marsh,” feel free to substitute the words “mosquito factory.” The area is all-the-way primitive – no running water, only a moldering toilet, and the 22 campsites are not electrified – so the end of April is starting to risk yucky weather.
I worried about the campsite being full, but didn’t need to – we left on Saturday morning and when we arrived at around 1pm we saw only one tent. After circling through the campground, we selected site #21, all the way over on a spur of trees sticking out into the grass. These campsites sport enough room to pull my truck right up into the site – for most of the rest of the weekend, we used the tailgate instead of the picnic table. We also used the truck as our bear canister – Ocala National Forest has an active black bear population, and the park staff does not play around. Signs are everywhere, and all trash receptacles are bear proof. They threatened serious fines if we did not store food in a safe place, and I believed them. Other than mealtime, all food stayed in the cab of the truck.
We came in, pitched our tent, set out our chairs, and piled back in the truck to pay for our night and for a 30 minute or so drive to the closest Winn Dixie for supplies. This is one of Noah’s favorite parts about camping – the rules kind of come off about food. We eat Pop Tarts for breakfast, and cookies for snacks. I didn’t intend to light a campfire, and I hadn’t brought a stove, so we chose food we didn’t need to cook – peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, nuts, popcorn, the aforementioned cookies and Pop Tarts. My son is six, and uses a booster in the back seat of anything he rides in. This drive was on rural Forest Service roads, so I let him sit in the front seat on the way over to the store – I enjoyed the confusion on his face when I told him to come sit up front. An ear-to-ear smile replaced the confusion, though, and stayed put for a long drive.
First order of business when we got back to camp was our first little excursion on foot. The Florida Trail crosses through the area right near site #21, so we walked over to the sign and turned south. Our first hike needed to be short, to warm our bodies up to the idea. Noah has gotten into the bad habit of complaining about walking too far – the kid can run wide open for hours on the playground, but after 15 minutes hiking he’s ready to turn around and head back. The trick is to push him past the boredom, and I need him to learn the skill because hiking for only an hour or so at a time won’t do. Our first section only represented one mile – a half mile out and a half mile back. The trees formed a tunnel for the whole distance, and I loved how he asked questions – what is the red stuff right here, what does this mean, why does this look like something silly? He’d crouch down with an intense look on his face, or swerve over for a closer view of something on a tree. As I praised him for his scientific and explorational approach, we heard a curious buzz getting louder as walked. The noise reached a peak as I passed a tree and turned to find … a honey tree! Bees everywhere. Winnie the Pooh occupied our thoughts for some time.
Back at camp, we killed a little time and ate an early dinner of peanut butter and jelly and popcorn before we set out on the longer walk of the day. This time, when we got to the Florida Trail, we turned north, and followed the sandy path as it skirts around Hopkin’s Prairie. The sun was going down, and the scrub jays flitted around and screamed at each other. The warm day – mid 80s – gave way to a pleasant evening. Noah tried to do the thing where he wanted to turn around in the first mile, but I kept pushing him on and pushing him on … and then we got to a fallen tree. The log fell propped between two other trees and extended out to near the edge of the grass. The boy asked if he could walk on the log, and I said yes in about two seconds. He balanced with his hiking stick and walked all the way to the end and back, twice.
I never heard another word about going back. When I asked him later why he liked this hike so much, he told me because he got to walk on a log.
The section headed back to camp could not have been more perfect – right around sunset, with a massive full moon rising in front of us. We got our chairs and set up underneath the bat house set up on the edge of the prairie, and we watched the sun set. Florida sunsets are beautiful things, and this one was extra glorious, as though reminding me why I go outside, and why I take my kids.
Back at camp, we spent only a few minutes outside before we got into the tent to avoid the bugs. Warm tents tend to be stuffy, but stuffiness is better than being mauled by bugs, and we played cards to pass the time. Go Fish with a six-year old in a tent, that’s a Saturday night, right there. I slept well, which I attribute to my weight loss. The little sleeping pads I use aren’t designed for people as enormous as I used to be. The stuffiness went away, too – the temperatures got down into the 50s, and while I fell asleep on top of my bag, I crawled in at some point in the night.
The next morning, we woke up and ate our traditional outdoors breakfast of Pop Tarts and granola, and broke camp. One thing I am always amazed by is how eager kids are to help with the chores of setting up and breaking camp. I fall into the trap of viewing these chores as work and judging them as bad, rather than viewing the time as another step of the process and holding as much value as any other. Noah, on the other hand, wants only to help and to learn how to do everything – fold up the chairs, take down and roll up the tent, etc. Letting him help with the important jobs, and giving him some of his own jobs to do, is the way I teach him responsibility and respect for process and things. This work with him is one of my favorite parts, and my favorite side effect is that soon he’ll be good enough at these tasks to cut my workload down a rather lot.
Sunday morning, after we packed up and said good-bye to Hopkins Prairie, we made our way to the trailhead for The Yearling Trail in the National Forest. The Yearling is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel written in the late ‘30s and set in this area of Central Florida. At the time, of course, the Forest Service didn’t exist; Central Florida represented only endless scrub in a hot and unforgiving part of the world. The real-life experiences of author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who moved down to the area from New York and fell in love, inspired the book. The area we would walk through is the specific area where she set the novel and where she lived – an Academy Award-winning film made of the story filmed on location here, too. So … we looked forward to this hike.
Turns out, I had no idea what to expect, and the geography fascinated me from the beginning. Earlier, I mentioned a sea of scrub punctuated by islands of trees, which is the language the locals used for the layout. The scrub is a dense tangle of shrubs and short trees appearing to go on forever. Our trail tunneled through this mess with a claustrophobic vibe – I said to Noah we would be in trouble if we encountered a bear because the tangle of vines and vegetation on either side is all but impenetrable. The trees don’t grow tall so shade comes at a premium, and the overhead sun is brutal.
This unique landscape is broken up by islands of longleaf pine, which is a different ecosystem in every way. These trees evolved in areas that experience burns due to lightning strikes, and so are tolerant of fire. The fires burn away the understory, so the stands of pine are open underneath. You can see a long way under the canopy, which is a weird feeling in contrast to the closed-in nature of the scrub. The Forest Service uses prescribed burns to maintain this ecosystem, and the effect of openness is compounded by juxtaposing against the thickness of the approach.
The Yearling Trail is a lollipop loop, with an approach of a bit less than a mile before you begin a loop in a stand of trees called Pat’s Island. The loop can be six miles total, or a cutoff shortens the total miles to four. Noah felt strong following the success of the night before, and insisted we would do all six miles. I let him hold on to this fantasy for a few miles, and by the time we finished the four mile option we were both toast.
We got to the trailhead right at 8am, and the morning was still cool enough we began encountering wildlife in the first few minutes. A corn snake crossed the path, a rabbit let us approach way too close, and the scrub jays made a ruckus in the way scrub jays do. Then, once we got into the forest, we chased red-headed woodpeckers, zebra swallowtails and Eastern swallowtails, and more scrub jays – so many scrub jays. The trail wound through the trees, in and out of small hammocks of live oak or other not-pine ecosystem. Small-ish vestiges of the old farms remained, including a cattle dip that seemed to come out of nowhere in the middle of the forest. The way the vines and moss covered the concrete structure gave an Indiana Jones feel to the whole adventure.
We made our way through the cutoff, stopping to take a look at the sinkhole that provided water for the residents of the area, and then headed back. The day turned hot by the time we made our way out of Pat’s Island, and the truck couldn’t appear soon enough. Two days of hiking and camping wore the little guy out – which, of course, is kind of the point – and then we came home from another successful trip.
The outdoor adventure part of this trip was great for me. The longleaf pine forest is a new ecosystem to explore, which is a particular thrill for me, but the two stand-out things about this trip are less about outdoor adventure and more about parenting and fatherhood.
First – my six year old is the one who made this happen, with help from his mother. My day-to-day busy-ness occupies too much of my attention. My job is going through a stressful spell, and I’m focused on shedding these final pounds to reach my goal of losing 100. I’m writing a lot, which consumes my time and energy, and Florida camping isn’t the same as the Ozark Mountains I am used to … which are all excuses for not going, and conspire to keep me in the house.
That is bad, and I needed my six-year old to remind me.
Second – this is the first time we’ve done something like this where my youngest, who is three, had a real awareness of what was happening. I hated to leave him at home, but he isn’t ready, for a lot of reasons. He will be, though, and soon – and he is watching. He sees us go, and he is aware of how happy and content we seem when we come home. He knows he is missing an adventure, and he wants in.
I love priming my kids for adventure.
I asked him, when I take him “next year” – everything is “next year,” including things he wants to do tomorrow – whether he wanted Noah to come, too. He said Daddy AND Noah. My dream of camping and hiking and backpacking and outdoor adventure with my boys is in motion, and I needed my oldest to remind me. When those two are old enough to hike a lot of miles carrying a pack, watch out.
The Woodall Boys, all three of us, will be on the loose in the world.