The nervous gobble of a wild turkey greeted me as I emerged from the tent. Breaking cover, it flew across my field of vision to the high grasses at the far side of the pond. Leaving camp as the orange glow of the coming sunrise lit the eastern horizon, I was back in open woodland again a small part of which had fallen victim to a recent blaze, the distinct smell of ash hanging heavily in the air.
The silence of the morning hours was broken now and then by the sound of a plane droning overhead, a car racing down a gravel road, or the yipping of dogs. The engine noise of both plane and car disappeared, but the sounds of the hounds seemed to be growing closer. Before I knew it, two beagles were on my heels following me into Farles Prairie Picnic Area, where I got water from a reliable pump. The pups looked a little thin, so I can only hope they have someone looking after them. While I was filling the water bladders, they ran off down the road.
Farles Prairie is an area of open grassland dotted with ponds (mostly dry at this time of year) and larger shallow lakes ringed with a variety of marsh grasses. It gets shadier the closer you get to Juniper Springs. There's a lovely break spot at the north end of the marsh boardwalk that would have made a great campsite if the timing had been right.
The Florida Trail passes right across the entrance road to Juniper Springs. The attendant at the fee station was very kind not to charge me. "Since you're hiking the trail," she said, "I'll let you in for free." Thanks! The springs were basically built up like a big swimming pool by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. A mill house was constructed about the same time at the outlet, the flow of water powering the wheel and providing a little hydroelectric energy for the camp. I went for a refreshing dip and dove repeatedly into the deepest waters of the spring from the platform above it. Climbing out of the pool, I wandered over to the picnic area to dry off in the sun. While sitting at the table, I wrote some messages about my hike on the backs of the postcards I had bought at the rec area store. As soon as I reach a post office, I'll send them off.
Before continuing my trek, I was so lucky I did the boardwalk nature trail. At the end of the walk is Fern Hammock Springs, one of the prettiest sights of the entire trip. Large pools filled with dark eel grasses punctuated by rings of clear water with white sand that rises and falls as water rushes from the ground beneath it. Truly extraordinary. Don't miss it! This is such a beautiful area that I would have liked to have gone on the Juniper Run, which is a canoe trip down Juniper Creek to the shores of Lake George. Unfortunately, it was already mid-afternoon and the trip is a minimum of four hours. Oh well, maybe next time.
Back on trail, it's fairly exposed to the sun because this area of the Ocala was ravaged by fire some years ago. The palmetto and scrub brush have rebounded, but the trees are like a phalanx of so many blackened spears. Towards the end of the hiking day, the land began to resemble that at Farles Prairie; small ponds and a dried savannah of reeds and marsh grass. I'm in a good camp at Hidden Pond, tent tucked away under some small oaks. Water is readily available and there are logs to sit on. A thru-hiker really couldn't ask for more.
The Force of Water
Fern Hammock Spring