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Cataloguing the tracks mandog made while visiting Lake George, Florida.

November 16, 2018

dog coco swamp
Coco in the swamps of Florida

First Hike | Morning Mycelium Hunt As we drove through the shaded oak hammocks towards our lodge, The Runaway Bay, I noticed two opposing trailheads marked by signs stating them to be the Lake George Conservation Area. I filed that piece of information in the back of my mind as we continued on towards our lake-side hideout. A man was seen blowing leaves off the deck and then, without noticing us, disappeared behind one of the lodges.

The appearances of the site looked like that of a rustic bait shop with a couple of rooms for lodging and an attached arcade. Music was playing from inside the game room and between it and the guest quarters was the magnificent Lake George, shimmering brightly, but also covered in frothy, white-capped waves. Florida had a cold front come through and the winds were sharp. Lake George is the second largest lake in Florida, behind Lake Okeechobee and is known for its bass fishing. It is fed by the surrounding rivers, notably the St Johns and also the system of connected springs.

The leaf blower went off and we found ourselves getting to know the very nice lodge host. As we were talking about the local area, he made mention of the fact that there wasn’t a whole lot of anything in the nearby vicinity. I agreed to this, but noted those two trailheads. I said when there’s a place that has nothing around, its typically where I find all that I came for. Exploring trails and hoping to catch sight of some new wildlife was our main focus for visiting. The terrain surrounding Lake George was similar to my local stomping grounds, but the conservation areas ended up having less floor scrub, which meant I could actually go off trail and venture through the trees. The host was big into mushrooms, growing new cultures from spores, and said with the recent cold weather they have been exploding all over in the woods.

I took this bit of info and realized the potential we had for going on a mushroom hunt on our first daybreak hike. It was the wisest of choices as we had never dedicated ourselves to this before and once I learned where to look, we found them all over!

I began to catalogue all the different varieties, noting their different states of growth, habitats, shading techniques, etc. and I came to the conclusion that they were mostly congregated along the wooded areas that had pine cover and along the morning sun side of the trees. Beneath the pine needles, a dampness could linger, but when the rising sun rays reached this, it caused a steamy hot bath on the surface. It seemed that the mushrooms started small, skinny and nearly white, then turned to brown-orange and thickened at the top. As they turned purple, the base of the stalk widened and the caps glistened from the morning dew. They became tacky with a gloss-like residue, like they were painted with drippy wax. Others were yellow-orange, and looked like discs of porous wood. Some were like plates growing along the trunks of fallen trees, white with concentric brownish-red rings descending down towards its center.

With the sun barely peaking through the day-break hours, I thought my arms and legs were going to freeze off due to the cold. I kept my arms rolled up inside the alpaca poncho and moved about slowly. There wasn’t much by way of wildlife, but I did see a lot of doe, hog and raccoon tracks in the sandy parts of the trails. In one of the bushes around the fixed campsite, I found a couple large plops of what I believe to be bear scat. It was quite pungent and seedy. Coco and the vultures determined it was tasty.

We wandered through the woods for hours, Coco venturing off and returning quickly. After being off trail, making our own path through the woods, we found ourselves randomly back onto the path that had initially lead us in. We started our way back along it. In a sudden bout of craziness, Coco came charging down the path at me, circling low and tight to the ground like a greyhound would turn its way along a racetrack. He went tearing off again, leaping from one side to the other. I have to chuckle at his amusement of being so free and wild.

We came back out to the open meadow where I had parked the truck and by now the sun was warming the area nicely. He took the chance to lazily lay in the tall grasses, listening to the sounds as I snacked, leaning on the warm metal of the truck. Black shadows would streak over the green grasses, tracing the paths of the white-tipped wings from the Black vultures circling up above us.

As the sun began to climb, so too did the breezes. The wind made its way through the trees like a loud, sliding rustle. You could hear it in the distance gaining speed over the lake and as it met the tree line, then grew in its disturbance like that of a speeding vehicle passing down a highway road. It exited the trees and met us with full force, brushing its crisp, coolness across our already cold noses.

The whoosh of their wings taking flight is loud enough to make me glance over my shoulder, hoping no predators were advancing...

There was nothing driving us away from these beautiful, quiet lands. Even the breeze, stiff and present as it was, kept us there, tethered to the seclusion. Perhaps it was a desire for the still hot coffee in the room that became incentive enough for me to get us back into the truck and moving, but so much more of me wanted to just stay there.

On the drive out, I saw fifty buzzards gathered on a separate side trail. I stopped the truck and went investigating. Knowing it was a carcass, I left the howling, enthused canine inside the vehicle. Sure enough, it was the skin and skeletal remains of a white-tailed deer. I snapped a few photos as the vultures crashed from limb to limb in the trees above. The whoosh of their wings taking flight is loud enough to make me glance over my shoulder, hoping no predators were advancing towards this late in its stages kill. Knowing the FWC has never documented CWD (chronic wasting disease) in Florida's White-tailed deer, I grabbed a nice bone for the pup to enjoy.

Back at the Runaway hideout, the lake was rippled with successions of waves. Extending out from the shore are a series of stumpy, wooden posts marking the route boaters must take to reach the marina beside our compound. Atop every single one of these stumps sits an Anhinga, perched and coiled up. Bracing themselves from the cold wind. They were barely distinguishable as animals and not extensions of the pilings themselves. I counted off thirty-six Anhingas atop the available resting places. A shrimper came charging in full speed through the narrow waterway. The sun was certainly high enough to start warming things up, but it could not reconcile for what the persistent winds did to cool everything back down into a subdued, chilled state.

A hand-painted sign posted on a tree states that Silver Glen Run is six miles to our West and as I look out over the water in that direction. Appearing beneath the suns reflective haze appears to be a line of rough, breaking waves. It reminds me of the “marching elephants” I see along the deep water edge in the coastal waters off Jupiter. I can only imagine the depths of this cold felt out here in the rough, exposed areas of Florida’s second largest lake.

The dog, still amused by investigating every new square inch of territory moves around the yard, guarding his bone and watching towards the street. As I sit and eat my lunch in the only warm spot beneath the sun, he comes near to again lazily stretch out along the fading brown boards of the dock.

Bluesy, sawing rhythms play along as slide guitar music serenades the isolated, wind-swept hideout I have chosen for our latest adventure. I decide to take advantage of what “warm” sunlight hours there were and remain outside. Despite every part of me wanting to flee from this chilling cold and get beneath a pile of blankets, I remain in a fixed state with that amazing lake secured as a backdrop to the day. With it being winter time in Florida, that means the daylight is lost at six o’clock, so we mustn’t retire early or else we might find ourselves with those adventurous, explorative desires in the dead of night. Which can be certainly be entertained should we so want to, but without much local knowledge of the area, we wouldn’t want to risk the event of an unexpected encounter with large predators.

It should be said -- By no means is this dog stealthy. He's a bash his way in, bash his way out type animal, but is thrilled by every second of it.

Second Hike | Turkey Shoot

Today we chose the opposing, Northern trail portion of the Lake George Conservation Area. We drove down the dirt road a bit, until finding a sign marker for the trail system and parked in a big open meadow. Hiking in through soft, wispy grasses, the terrain turned quickly to pine flatwoods with a white, sandy logging road as our trail system. From there we moved into a hardwood hammock and had a steady flowing stream to cross. I found a log in the woods to use as a crossing method and Coco, despite crossing it three or four times already, decided he wanted to go one more time using my route. He balanced across on the log behind me as I jumped through the wooded brush and got back onto the trail. There were lots of doe tracks in the sand, a few hog marks, bit of raccoon, but we never did find any buck tracks.

I was still as bundled up as I was the day before with an alpaca parka on but this time I brought some extra coffee along with in a thermos. It served well to keep the brain alert and focussed, as like our hike before, we were started in the early morning hours.

We came into a beautiful, secluded, covered oak area with Spanish moss hanging off all the limbs. We crossed the swampy barrier by way of a fallen tree to reach the heart of this amazing wooded space. In every direction giant oaks twisted out from the boggy bottom and along their fern covered limbs hung the tendrils of that light-colored moss. Deep in its center, we called upon the trees to provide us with a meditation space. I burned sage and palo santo as I connected with this native area. These oaks easily dating themselves back past the times of Seminoles. I'm sure their presence was as equally revered as they were for me. Making sure to extinguish all lit items into the cool, dark earth we left our newfound ceremonial space.

There is something to be said for the adaptability of hardwood swamp fauna. To exist in that state of submersion is like the submittal to mother gaia, allowing her cool waters to surround you. Forcing the recognition that you will either learn to adapt, thus growing in your ability to survive or fall short and be restricted to a life of constriction; an if this, then that type of existence. But the swamp is primordial in its existence. It carries with it the historical imprint of all species' willingness and ability to persevere. And look, still here after all these millennia! What will we be able to say for ourselves after the choices we have made are left to interpretation...

As we go, I like to stop at noticeable junctures and take pictures or leave trail markers, taking the time to review my steps up until that point. It helps me frame our route thus far and can recall those steps while on our way back out and things are opposite.

The slash pines started to open up and we encountered a few knockdown, controlled burn areas in the midst. We started to veer off trail more and more as it was becoming very water-logged in some parts. Periodically checking the GPS to determine which routes would take us closest to the lake, we were then out of trail entirely. If we wanted to make it to the waters edge, we would now have to blazen our own trail. We begun to cut out way through the cabbage swamp using natural tells for navigation. We stuck to the higher parts as much as they were available, as the cypress knees indicated we were approaching the fringes of submerged ground. Coming as close as 200 feet to the lake front, we could see the line of trees ending and clear blue skies atop lake water filling in from there on.

It was cool to literally bushwhack our way through and actually find what we were looking for, but as I imagined, the lake was lined by watery marshes which we would not be able to stand upon. Returning back, we played atop a large cypress tree that had fallen, using its giant, resting trunk as climbing grounds. Its uprooted base must have been fifteen feet tall, as it was now perpendicular to the ground with the rest of the tree laying on its side.

On the return route, exhaustion started to set in and I could also feel the onset of mental fatigue. There are noticeable changes in the thoughts I have, where they become more survival, recalling past moments in which I have met this level of tiredness and how I responded to them. The scenarios I start to imagine in my wandering mind seem as if they are triggered by fight or flight stimuli. We had water, daylight, no time constraints, nourishment and had suffered no serious injuries despite clunking my head on a tree trunk and coco slipping off one in attempt at climbing up it.

I hadn't anticipated going this far in. Though, I never do when I find myself at that point of exhaustion having pushed myself to an unexpected amount of trail coverage. I'm amazed at coco's stamina as he is able to run, jump, leap, chase and take many more steps than I as he is often side stepping into the bush and back at full speeds.

I had to take a twenty minute reprieve in the shade between two long walks that were both out in exposed sun. I snacked a little and coco foraged, but showed no obvious signs of being unable or uninterested in continuing. I laid on the cool grass atop sandy soil along the trails' edge. I let my eyes rest, but coco never stops watching. He is always alert, always looking. Even with his head resting on his paws, his number one job is to look ahead and I suppose sense if any danger or excitement is headed our way. What a valiant trail mate he is, and so in touch with his surroundings.

Finding all my inlaid trail markers, every turn was accounted for and we were back over the stream and on into the meadow. Coco seemed relieved to be reunited with the truck and laid down beside it. Success he must have thought! I also thought it was a great feat, accomplishing a guesstimated 12 kilometers in 4.5 hours time.

As I watched the sun make its sinking path towards the distant horizon, the colors began to paint the sky.

Once back at the Runaway, it was same routine as before: coco went to the deck to recuperate and I, famished, went to the kitchen to prepare a lunch. We lounged in the golden rays and watched as the lake stood still. It was quite a different site without the blasting winds. Today was much calmer, warmer and visibility extended all the way across the six miles to the opposite shore.

As I watched the sun make its sinking path towards the distant horizon, the colors began to paint the sky. I didn’t want this to be my last night. It was too magical here; The serenest of skies, the placid of lakes with the most abundance of water fowl.

We sat at the docks edge, extending ourselves as far out into the orangish reflecting waters as we could. Today it looked as if you could roll a marble across its surface.

A few anhingas hopped down from their perches and swam around. One was eating a fish on the dock when we had first walked over and the great blue herons stalked the marshy shorelines. Despite today being much warmer, there was still a very clear indicator when the sun began to make its descent as the air almost cooled by the minute. Even once below the horizon, the skies hung onto their orangish, then fire-red hues until twilight took over and their colors faded from existence.

We enjoyed the final night, playing pool with the hosts and chatting about our travels before they parted ways. There is a blanketing calmness to this area. By no means is it dull or uneventful, but rather the seemingly mundane existence just seemed to excite and I found peace in all the varying degrees of natural preservations of this area. [ E N D ] To highlight our time here, I made a visual tale of our Lake George swamp tromp. I hope you enjoy and a very good possibility we will be back to do more exploring.

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