A Morning Spent with Nature - Brooker Creek Preserve
I leave the education center after an offer of bug spray - "Mosquitoes hate me," I tell the two young adults in the modern wood and glass building. One gave me a map and let me know that a lot of the trails are under water because of our daily afternoon thunderstorms. For about five seconds I wish I had remembered that warning on the preserve's website. The trails are passable, they tell me, if I don't mind sloshing through ankle-deep water in some places. I look down at my purple and yellow Sauconys. I do mind.
I start off down a boardwalk similar to the 600 foot one leading in from the parking lot. This one traverses Brooker Creek itself, offering gorgeous views of the vegetation that grows within and immediately around the creek. I'm surprised to see how fast the current flows through. The tannic water cascades around cypress knees and branches that reach up from the depths of the creek, the water tumbling into eddys and vees and sweeping leaves downstream. Before the boardwalk becomes a sand trail, before creek gives way to dry oak hammock, a bottomland swamp emerges filled with downed trees and dragonflies. To stand in silence here is to witness the hum of paper-thin wings and the far-off cry of birds in the trees.
From the Ed Center Trail, I hang a right onto the Wilderness Trail. This portion of the trail is part oak hammock - along the first part - with a sandy graded path. Oaks give way to pine flatwoods filled with stands of tall longleaf pines surrounded by seas of chest-high saw palmetto. This is the Florida we see so often in the interior portions of the state. I wander along the path and imagine pioneers slashing their way through, looking for fresh water and adequate homesteads. A quarter mile down the trail, I pass the intersection with the Flatwoods Trail heading to the left. I see water ahead on my trail but forge on. Others before me have made trails around the standing water, weaving between pine trunks and around palmetto bushes. I try to keep an eye on the ground for snakes (I almost stepped on a 5 foot Eastern diamondback a few years ago at Honeymoon Island.) and one eye on the low-hanging branches for spiders. I wish for a moment I were a chameleon.
It doesn't take long for me to realize I have three choices on this trail - get wet, trail blaze, or turn around. Getting my Sauconys isn't an option. As I'm alone and have yet to encounter another hiker, trail blazing isn't an option either. So I backtrack to the Flatwoods Trail. Unfortunately, this one is also under water. By this point in the preserve, the trails are rutted ATV paths. I pick my way along the edges of the water most of the time. Sometimes the hump between the tire ruts is dry enough to walk on. I use saplings and the fan-like leaves of the palmetto to keep my balance, but despite being wet, the ground is not soft or slippery. I stop a few times to photograph flowers and feel frustration at the flooding. I can't look around as much as I want to with my eyes downcast on alert for snakes. I pass a couple of dry natural ditches - stream beds - and frustration eases. Flooding is natural here. This watershed developed over thousands of years to ease heavy rainfall and filter that rain into our aquifer.
Halfway down this trail, I find the Blackwater Cut-off Trail to my right and take that. I know I'll find standing water here as well. This trail is even more densely wooded. I'm still imagining the Indians and pioneers who called areas like this home. How they must have created trails and the wildlife they must have encountered. I've only seen a handful of insects and birds though occasionally I hear a rustle of leaves in the underbrush. The wild turkey and deer are no where near the trails today. As expected, I once again encounter flooded trails and turn back the way I came. A beetle of some sort follows me back. I hear the air-thumping of its wings though I don't see it even when I stop and look.
Back on the Flatwoods Trail, the path climbs back into oak hammock just before meeting the Ed Center Trail again. The creek, swamps and oaks are my favorite of the ecosystems in Brooker Creek Preserve. The canopy of the oaks prevents grasses and underbrush from growing. All around me are great expanses of leaf-littered ground dotted with the twisting trunks and branches of live oak trees. Whereas the wind plays across pines and palmettos like the sound of tires on asphalt, here the leaves and branches crackle. The trail loops back to the swamp and creek upstream from where I started my hike, a looping two miles earlier. I stand on the boardwalk and watch the creek meander beneath me carrying its rain water and nutrients to Lake Tarpon. Despite the current, trees and sunlight reflect off the surface of the creek. A dragonfly flits by, turns back to me and hovers feet away before it dives to rest on a partially exposed log. With a deep breath, I step back from the railing and walk off to the parking lot.
About Brooker Creek Nature Preserve
The preserve comprises 8,500 acres in northeastern Pinellas county. The Brooker Creek watershed is fed by 13 natural streams and creeks which are usually only wet in the rainy season. The 13 water channels begin 8 miles north/northeast of Brooker Creek and eventually become Brooker Creek which empties into Lake Tarpon, Pinellas county's largest lake. Brooker Creek is the only natural waterway that feeds Lake Tarpon. Ecologically, the Preserve has four distinct ecosystems within it - forested wetlands, oak hammocks, pine flatwoods, and cypress domes and swamps. These various ecosystems support wildlife such as wild turkey, white-tail deer, otter, gopher tortoise, bobcat, and coyote, as well as a variety plants, birds, and insects which are found nowhere else in the county. The Preserve is free for all visitors though donations are accepted.