The battered pickup slalomed down a muddy rut, became briefly airborne, then landed with a bone-bruising thud. Park ranger Marcus Campion winced and gunned it clear. "Sorry 'bout that," he said.
"No problema," I said, hoping I sounded more gung ho than I felt. Actually I was glad he had a heavy foot; the backcountry's no place for a timid driver, particularly after a hard rain. We moshed along for another mile or so, crashing through tangled undergrowth and fording swollen streams. Suddenly the foliage parted and we came to a wide vista of wildflowers, palmettos, and wiregrass, a vast jade carpet, shimmering in the sun. It was that rarest and most fascinating of Florida ecosystems, the dry prairie.
In the parched distance, lone scrubby oaks stood against the sky, each one a tiny oasis. Cumulus puffies schooled overhead, great lazy jellyfish dispensing intervals of shade.
The old truck shuddered to a stop. Campion surveyed his domain, and spoke from the heart. "Magnificent, isn't it?"
We were in Duette, a park somewhere between Sarasota and Bartow, deep in the low, lonesome hinterlands of west central Florida-in other words, in the middle of nowhere. My tour was courtesy of the Manatee County Conservation Lands Management Division. Since that day I've returned many times, to wander its rutted roads and winding footpaths alone. Duette never disappoints; it's loaded with wildlife and great scenery. But what really I like about it is that hardly anybody else goes there. Much of the time, save for a small staff of rangers, it's deserted-which is fine by me.
Maybe it's selfish, but sometimes I want The Great Outdoors all to myself. I'm tired of the same crowded campgrounds, the same scenic overlooks. Give me some overlooked scenics, where the trails are empty, and the wilderness is truly wild. It's important, and a comfort to the spirit, to know such places exist, however isolated and remote.
And if they happen to be nearby, better still. I'm pleased to report that even here, in a part of the country hell-bent on becoming one big suburb, vestiges of the wild frontier can still be found.
Just a short drive from downtown Sarasota are vast tracts of wilderness where you can hike for hours, maybe all day, and not see another soul. Public parks that the public, for whatever reason, mainly chooses to ignore.
But if you visit one, be ready to rough it. As the late author/environmentalist Edward Abbey said about the Colorado desert, way back in the 1960s: "Enter at your own risk. Carry water. Avoid the noonday sun. Try to ignore the vultures. Pray frequently."
The T. Mabry Carlton Reserve
The Carlton Reserve is big, covering more than 24,000 acres. There are the usual public amenities, some picnic tables, a restroom, a pavilion and a canoe launch. About a third of the park is wetland; the rest is mostly pineland and hammocks.
The Reserve has made the headlines more than once in recent years. In 2001, a prescribed burn got out of control, resulting in the loss of one home-an event that galvanized the Sarasota County Department of Environmental Services and brought about significant changes in the way such burns are conducted. Then last year a motion-activated camera captured several images of a Florida panther, one of the world's most elusive and endangered creatures. Its presence was both a welcome surprise and an indication, to some, that the park was on the mend.
At Carlton, you can drink your fill of what Thoreau called "the tonic of wildness," the deep spiritual refreshment one feels in the presence of nature. Backcountry trails meander through hammocks and flatwoods, skirting the ever-changing perimeters of thousands of seasonal ponds. The Myakka River flows smoothly and lethargically along the park's western border, its glassy surface rarely broken, except at Rocky Ford.
Wildlife is abundant, particularly white-tailed deer, and the possibility-however remote-that a panther might be lurking out there, too, is bound to keep your senses honed.
The T. Mabry Carlton Reserve is open seven days a week, from 8 a.m. until sunset. Take I-75 south of Sarasota, then go north on Jacaranda Boulevard and east on Border Road. Free admission. (941) 486-2547.
Compared to parks like Duette and the Carlton Reserve, Rye Wilderness is tiny, only 365 acres-which makes it just big enough to lose oneself in, without actually getting lost. Interlacing trails run along both sides of the river, each named for a natural feature, or a plant or animal you might encounter. The Sand Pine Scrub Trail winds among dense stands of palmettos and ottoman-sized rosemary bushes and into a grove of sand pines. The trees are unusually old, and many are on the verge of toppling, held only by a handful of straining, shallow roots. Others, downed by prior storms, molder quietly on sponge-like, crunchy carpets of pale green lichen. A good prescribed burn would probably work wonders here, but the manpower needed to tend it is in short supply, so for now it's not going to happen.
Nearby, the upper Manatee River flows between sandy white bluffs, one side typically high and steep, the other noticeably less so. It's a topography geologists call "flashy," not for aesthetic reasons, but because it's indicative of a monsoon-like rainy season, accompanied by frequent flashfloods.
Across the river, the Armadillo, Gopher Tortoise, and Grey Fox Trails wander and intertwine. To the north, a creek winds deep into the woods, gathering in intensity until it empties into the Manatee River. All the trails are pleasant and well maintained, but on a hot day none are so inviting as the creekbed, which is firm, accommodating and clean.
Nothing beats wading in a creek on a hot summer afternoon, feeling the sugary grains molding to your feet, the cool water on your shins and ankles. The little brook at Rye Wilderness, while far too shallow for swimming, is unparalleled for wading. To find it, take the Sand Pine Scrub Trail, listen carefully, and follow the sound.
Rye Wilderness is open from 8 a.m. until dusk, seven days a week. From I-75 take S.R. 64 east for two miles, then go north on Rye Road. Cross the bridge over the Manatee River. The entrance to the park is on the right. Free admission. (941) 776-0900.
The Little Manatee River State Recreation Area Loop Trail
Although the Little Manatee River State Recreation Area encompasses about 1,600 acres, most of its many trails are reserved for equestrian use. Foot traffic is not allowed-possibly because a hiker can spook a horse, and cause injury to a rider. (One wonders, however, why the trails are permanently off limits to the tax-paying public, even on days when there are no horses in the park.)
Amenities include picnic tables, restrooms, camping, and a canoe launch. The Little Manatee River is considered an "Outstanding Florida Water," and features almost 40 unpolluted miles of exquisite natural scenery. For footloose bipeds there's a 6.5-mile loop trail, just around the corner on U.S. 301. Before hiking it, you must first register at the park office.
Maintained by the Florida Trail Association, the loop trail parallels the river for about three miles, then doubles back, winding through scrubs and hammocks and floodplain swamps. Like Rye Wilderness, the topography here is sandy and uneven from centuries of flashfloods and drenching rains. It's a hike that's easy to underestimate, so bring plenty of water.
The Little Manatee River State Recreation Area is open from 8 a.m. until sunset, seven days a week. From Sarasota, take I-75 north to Exit 229, head east on Moccasin Wallow Road to U.S. 301, then north five miles to Lightfoot Road. Turn west and follow the signs to the park. Check in at the office and get directions to the trail, which is just north of the park on U.S. 301. Admission is $3.25. (813) 671-5005.
Emerson Point Park
"Backcountry" is a vague term, meaning different things to different people. Of all the parks on our list, Emerson Point is by far the most popular and accessible, especially on weekends, when the road running through it is jammed with cars. So why is it included here?
The narrow spit of land known today as Emerson Point forms a brief barrier between Terra Ceia Bay and the mouth of the Manatee River. It's bordered on both sides by a band of mangroves, a zone of vegetation as much a thicket as it is a forest, thin and broken in some places, wide and dense in others. Although teeming with wildlife, mangrove ecosystems are alien, unforgiving worlds to us humans. The gnarled and ancient formations at Emerson Point are so inhospitable and spooky that few ever venture there, or linger very long.
From the air, the park is a study in positive and negative space, yin and yang, the dark, ragged outline of the spit contrasting sharply with the featureless shallows that surround it. On the bay side, the treeline is porous and meandering, forming a succession of bayous and tiny, hidden coves. The mangroves here are among the largest and oldest in central Florida. You can view them from several nature trails, but the best way is by wading the shallows, preferably at low tide. There are numerous access points, including a canoe launch and some wooden docks equipped with stairs.
This mangrove forest is little changed from the days when native people of the "Safety Harbor culture" built the ceremonial temple mound near what's now the park entrance. Today, the town of Palmetto may be just down the street, but inside the mangroves, your sense of isolation is so profound, so absolute, you might as well be on the moon.
A word of warning: If you do go wading, watch your step. Mangrove muck, consisting mostly of dead leaves and bacteria, can be slimy, odorous, and often deep. Finding yourself stuck in it, with no one around to pull you out, is no picnic.
Emerson Point Park is open from 8 a.m. until sunset, seven days a week. From U.S. 41 in downtown Palmetto, turn west on 10th Street and follow the signs. Free admission. (941) 742-5923.
Duette may be little known, but at 25,000 acres, it's hardly little. There are public amenities, but only a few: some rusty grills and weathered picnic tables, a small ranger station, and, in one corner of the park, a primitive campground. The rest is pure, unadulterated wilderness, scenic, wild, and free.
Wildflowers blanket the roadsides; long-stemmed yellow coreopsis, rose pink Meadow Beauty, tiny club-like clusters of "Frog Fruit" and white "Hat Pins" on foot-long slender stalks. Crested caracaras patrol the prairie skies. White- tailed deer are plentiful, as are turkeys, gopher tortoises, and quail. Less common, but still not unusual, are sightings of burrowing owls, scrub jays, and sandhill cranes. Bears-even Florida panthers-reportedly have been glimpsed as well, although the reports remain unconfirmed. In terms of ecosystems, it's remarkably diverse, a hodge-podge of habitats, some unchanged for eons, others cleared again and again to make way for cattle or turpentine or some other rural enterprise. There are uplands, scrublands, pasture lands, pine plantations, prairies both wet and dry, flatwoods, oak hammocks, freshwater marshes, seasonal ponds, and the creeks and swamps that mark the headwaters of the Manatee River.
The park is cross-hatched with vehicle, horse and foot trails. You'll need four-wheel drive to see it all; and even then, many of the roads are rough as washboards, more fit for horseshoes or hiking boots than anything with wheels.
According to Duette's manager, Danny Smith, "The two most important things we do here are prescribed burns and controlling invasive plants." Thanks in part to its rural setting, prescribed burns are a regular occurrence; so regular, in fact, that since the start of 2003 Smith and his men have torched almost a quarter of the park. While the concept of preserving the backcountry by burning it down may seem paradoxical, they've already seen a dramatic increase in native species and biodiversity. Still, it's a good idea to call before visiting, to see when and where the fires are scheduled.
Duette Park is located 19 miles east of Parrish. Take U.S. 301 to S.R. 62, then turn right on Rawls Road. It's open to the public Thursday through Sunday, from 8 a.m. until sunset. Admission is $3, plus tax. (941) 776-2295.
All of these parks can handle a lot more visitors before they're compromised-or so I hope. So I don't feel too guilty about issuing this open invitation. They may not seem to have much in common with Edward Abbey's Colorado desert, but wilderness is wilderness-in a way-and his genial challenge, to embark on a journey of self-discovery, is as relevant to us as it was back then:
"Here you may find the elemental freedom to breathe deep of unpoisoned air, to experiment with solitude and stillness...
"Come on in. The earth, like the sun, like the air, belongs to everyone-and to no one."