The Long Trail

A man stopped his red Ford pickup beside me as I was pumping air in the tires. I had my head down trying to get the bike setup quickly so I would had a good two or so hours on the long canal trail at Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, before I pedaled back with the orange sun fading beyond the everglades. “Pardon. How far does that trail go?” he asked.

His wife sat in the passenger seat, both windows rolled down.”It goes a good ways,” I said. “I think it goes out 11 miles, and ends, then you’ve got to pedal back. The furthest I’ve gone is about 5.5 out.”

“It goes that far? You see much wildlife?” he asked. “White-tailed deer, a few rabbits, and lots of birds,” I told him. The man said he’ll have to bring his bike out here. That he just moved to the area, and him and his wife were checking out the park for the first time.

I love long trails, where the miles unfold under your mountain bike tires and before you realize it, you’re a long way from house or building or anyone else, except maybe another lone explorer once and a while. This trip I only saw a Red-shouldered Hawk, a Downy Woodpecker couple, a group of Woodstorks flying low, but no white-tailed deer this time.The deer usually come out in early morning and late afternoon at Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge in cooler weather, and it’s probably too hot for them to be moving about during the day.

As I was driving home along the park access road, I thought of an encounter with a black bear on another long trail. I used to drive out past the lake my friend once called Blue Sinkhole in Ocala National Forest. I don’t remember exactly how far the lake was, but it was at least 12 miles out on Jeep trails. Driving along slowly in four-wheel-high I’d try to sip my coffee without spilling too much, and Sandy the hound would watch the trail, lowering down and bracing for the big dips and the rocks. I’d pull off the Jeep trail and unload the bike. Me and Sandy the hound would spend our Saturday mornings biking out on this 15-mile sugary-sand loop.

I locked the brakes that one morning when I heard loud movement in the woods and moving towards us. A white-tailed running in the forest can make a lot of noise, but this was not a deer. I looked back and Sandy was by my ankles, her nose up and staring into the woods. I grabbed her collar, and when I looked up, there he was, walking out and across the trail not more than twenty feet from us. He was heavy, strong, his shoulders and back a tan-blonde from the sun. The black bear is currently Florida’s largest terrestrial mammal with an average male weight of 300 pounds and a few have grown above 500 pounds. The female usually is smaller and weighs on average 200 pounds. This was a large bear. He slowed but didn’t stop and looked over at us. Then he kept on his path across the trail and into the trees.

I tried to catch my breath. Sandy kept staring at the path into the woods. I thought about how we were 25 miles from blacktop, and another 10 from the Jeep trail, at the end of two of the long trails. If you looked at an aerial photo zoomed out, we’d be right in the middle of all this green and light brown, with no asphalt or roofs for a long distance.

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