"The Lakeland Ledger, Published Saturday, September 14, 2002
Getaway to Nature: Along With Exercise, Van Fleet Trail Offers Abundance of Wildlife, Plants; Tom Palmer
The Withlacoochee River hits a barrier where Polk County meets Lake County. The barrier opens in three places and the blackwater stream pushes through on its way westward to the Gulf of Mexico.
Sometimes you can hear baby alligators grunting from the protection of the tangle of pickerel weed, primrose willow and other aquatic plants.
The alligators and the rush of the river are audible because this is the middle of the Green Swamp, miles from urban noises, 12.6 miles to be exact.
That's what the distance marker on the pavement of the Van Fleet Trail says. The marker measures the distance from Polk City, the trail's southern beginning for hikers, bicyclists, rollerbladers and horseback riders.
The pavement lies on the river barrier, a berm completed in 1925 to support a railroad bed. The long-abandoned set of tracks was built by the former Seaboard Air Line for a route that went from Coleman in Sumter County to West Palm Beach.
Today, 29.2 miles of that abandoned rail line have been converted into the Gen. James A. Van Fleet Trail State Park, named after the World War II military leader who was a Polk County native.
In June, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton named it a National Recreation Trail.
A Ledger reporter rode a bicycle the length of the trail over a recent two-day period.
At either end of the trail, whether you're in Polk City next to the State Road 33 overpass or in the unincorporated Sumter County community of Mabel next to the State Road 50 overpass, it is not quiet.
Tractor trailers' diesel engines seem even louder from the nearby overpasses, shooting sound waves down the trail.
One way to escape the noise is to head down the trail.
Some trail riders disappear quickly toward the trail's vanishing point.
Preston Hall of Lakeland is unloading his bicycle just after dawn for just such a quick ride.
His goal is exercise.
""I come out here at least once a week,"" he said.
Hall likes to ride in the early morning because it's cooler, less humid and he has more opportunities to see wildlife.
""I saw my first bobcat a couple of weeks ago,"" he said.
Farther down the trail, Oscar Pimentel of Polk City is returning from his regular weekday exercise ride.
He said he has been riding on advice from his doctor after a quadruple bypass operation.
But there are long stretches with no encounters between trail users, at least on a recent weekday.
As the highway noise dulls, other sounds replace it.
A red-shouldered hawk calls from somewhere among a forest of maple, bay, pine and cherry on one side of the trail.
On the other side of the trail, a ribbon of underbrush gives way to a pasture below the trail.
A bobwhite calls.
For the moment the cattle in the pasture are intent on grazing and say nothing.
Not far down the trail, a subdivision with its own airstrip appears on the right.
A little farther, unpaved ranch roads cross the trail.
The vegetation changes at irregular intervals.
In some places there are pastures, then there's a strand of wax myrtles, slash pine and water oak, then there's more pasture or open pine woods or a cypress swamp or a marsh or a stand of sweet gum.
Wet areas predominate.
This is, after all, the Green Swamp, a place that collects and holds water even in the places that are not swampy.
Some bicyclists disparagingly refer to the trail as the ""Van Flat.""
It certainly appears flat, in the sense that it is not hilly.
But the trail's seeming flatness is an illusion.
The Polk City trailhead sits about 135 feet above sea level.
By the time the trail crosses the Withlacoochee River swamp, the elevation has dropped to 105 feet. The trail elevation rises again to 113 feet north of the river, but drops to 103 feet at Bay Lake Road, the next trailhead near an area known as Bayroot Slough.
By the time the trail ends in Mabel, it is about 95 feet, a drop of 40 feet from Polk City.
Whatever the trail's elevation, it is usually higher than any of the surrounding countryside.
That is, except when it crosses a place in Lake County called Carter's Island, a small hill that rises to 130 feet.
Here the railroad line was cut through sand and rock that rises 8 to 10 feet above the trail.
There are oaks and sandhills here instead of cypress and standing water.
There has been some talk of trying to set up a primitive campground here.
Carter's Island is one of those sights that adds interest to a trailside view that generally seems to change in predictable and not very interesting ways.
A CLOSER LOOK
But if the general view is unexciting, the micro-views can be fascinating.
You may look down and see an oval-shaped hole a few inches wide with its main occupant, a gopher tortoise, peering out tentatively.
The hump of land upon which the trail sits is ideal for gopher tortoises, who look for high and dry living spaces.
Many congregate in the relatively dry section of the trail around the Green Pond Road trailhead, a quiet area, whose serenity is broken only by the occasional roar of farm equipment or a crowing rooster.
Sometimes you should look up.
On one side of the trail in a maple tree hangs a respectable-sized hornet nest, not a common sight around here.
Flying just above the trees, a trio of Eastern kingbirds are migrating south.
Far higher a red-shouldered hawk circles in the thermals.
All types of wildlife live along the trail, though it will take repeated visits to see many of them, said Mike McCarthy, the trail's ranger.
""The more you come, the more you'll see,"" he said.
Wildlife surveys so far have turned up 102 species of birds, 60 species of butterflies, 11 species of reptiles and amphibians and nine species of mammals.
In addition, biologists have identified 159 species of plants along the trail.
Those plants can grow in interesting combinations.
At the edge of the Withlacoochee floodplain, a giant red maple tree supports an impressive collection of bromeliads and resurrection ferns.
In Bayroot Slough, a colorful swamp-dwelling prothonotary warbler gleans insects from tree branches.
Sometimes it's better to focus in the distance to see interesting things.
South of the river a family of raccoons 100 yards away quickly crosses the trail, disappearing quickly into the undergrowth.
In another place, about three miles south of the northern end of the trail, a low pasture stretches off the west, interrupted by cypress domes.
Spots of color -- yellows and pinks -- dot the field, evidence of polygala and meadow beauty that stand out against the plainer colors of the grasses.
Then there's movement and three white-tailed deer appear from hiding in the tall grass and disappear again behind a cypress dome.
A few barn swallows, darker blue than the sky through which they move, zip quickly southward.
In another field south of Bay Lake, wild turkey move through the grass, only their featherless heads visible.
More birds appear at another trail crossing, one that's aerial instead of terrestrial.
Eighty-one black vultures, one wearing the telltale yellow wing tag of a biological research project, sit atop the giant metal frameworks of the electric transmission line.
They finally begin soaring as the day warms, joined by a pair of turkey vultures. All eventually disappearing as black dots against the sky, creating their own invisible trail.
At the north end of the trail, people appear again.
Jim and Peggy Coleman, who just moved to Clermont in nearby Lake County in July, are new converts.
""We're going to be using it,"" Jim Coleman said.
McCarthy, the ranger, said the Colemans aren't the only new people discovering the trail.
He said estimated trail use has grown to about 35,000 visitors a year, up 1,000 or so from a year ago.
Although use is growing, it is still considerably less than urban trails, such as the 34-mile Pinellas Trail, which attracts 90,000 users a month.
But most of the people who visit the Van Fleet Trail don't travel far, which means staring at the rippling Withlacoochee River can still seem like a fairly solitary experience.
But then a bullfrog or a Carolina wren break the silence and you realize you're never really alone on this trail.
Tom Palmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7535."