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Posts Tagged ‘Ocala National Forest’

bobcat tracks ocala national forest

We came to the forest to run the dogs. Many days of hard driving down the East Coast had made them edgy, so we left the wild road of I-95 at Ormond Beach and slipped down through the land of the pine and the scrub until we entered the Ocala National Forest.

Eyes peeled for these little sand roads that cut off into the scrub and pine, we knew it would just be a matter of time before the hounds and German shepherd were racing as wild beasts of the field once again.

We found just such a road, and though I had never driven on such sand and dolomite before, I eased my way into this bit of preserved Florida Wilderness. The dogs were loosed. No one would care. Locals run their dogs on these roads every day, and it would be good for me to stretch my legs as well.

So the dogs tore down the road. My eyes were peeled for wildlife, but the general rule is one doesn’t typically see much wildlife when a pack of dogs is frolicking about. These were once the haunts of the Florida black wolf, a melanistic form that ran the swamps and pine and palmetto scrub and was extirpated from the peninsula to protect growing cattle interests. It had to have been a hardy creature to put up with all that disgusting heat and worminess of such a land.

But even with it gone, most wildlife would have retained some instinctive fear of large canids, which would be reinforced with the advance of coyotes deeper and deeper into the Southland.

So I went to look for a bit of wildness, but I guessed I would see nothing. Where Poet the whippet ran down one sandhill, I thought I glanced at some bobcat tracks. I told myself that I’d merely mistaken whippet racks for those of a large cat. I was getting rusty as a naturalist anyway, and my brain was likely to make me see things that simply were not there.

We ran the dogs up and down the road. Whooping and shouting like foxhunters calling to their hounds on a distant ridge in West Virginia on a starry December night.

And it was as we turned that Jenna spied the tracks, her eyes flew wide.

“What kind of tracks are those?”

“Bobcat.”

And they certainly were. The cat that had left them had to have been a fairly large tom, and judging by the ATV tracks that skirted down the road around them, he had been there that morning, crossing from one set of palmetto scrub to another.

My eyes followed the bobcat tracks on the dolomite and sand road. I spied turkey tracks coming the opposite direction. The two species had crossed paths, though they did not meet in the road.  There was no sign of a struggle in the tracks.

I guessed the bobcat had gone out across the road to go do a bit of turkey stalking. Maybe he’d jumped this turkey, which was also a fair-sized tom, and it had realized that it needed to cross the road, where no fanged and clawed beasts were lurking.

bobcat and turkey tracks ocala national forest

This part of Florida is still essentially wild. The national forest merely keeps it way by the law, but all around there is wooded country.  The people who live in the little towns around the forest choose to live in Florida’s subtropical rusticity. This is not Miami or Orlando.  This is a wild country. Signs along the road warn you of bears crossing the highway, and yes, I would have loved to have seen a Florida black bear.

I didn’t though, but it was enough romance for me to know that they were there, loping around the scrub and pines with the big flocks of wild turkeys and stalking bobcats.

Florida does not draw attention to its wilderness. It advertises its beaches, its urban scenes, and its amusement parks.

But wild places still exist. They just must be encountered, usually with the help of someone with local knowledge.

And yes, I urge travelers to take the jay-off of I-95 and take the country road into the Ocala National Forest. The kids might want to see the cartoon princesses, but you can show them a real enchanted forest.

If I had seen such a place when I first traveled to Florida as a kid, I think I would have such a different impression of the place. I certainly have one now.

Yes, it’s the land of urban sprawl and wild real estate speculation, but it is also a land of bears and bobcats and swaying palmettos in the March breeze.

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