Friday, April 24, 2009

Florida State Parks: Oscar Scherer

A man named Oscar Scherer invented a leather-dyeing process in the 1870’s, and when his daughter passed away in 1955 she deeded the family’s southwest Florida ranch to the state. Today, Oscar Scherer State Park sits three miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, encompassing the ranch property along with adjacent land acquired by the state.

Since I’m recommending Oscar Scherer as a place to visit, it probably seems strange for me to mention that much of it is covered by what I consider Florida’s least appealing kind of terrain: pine flatwoods and scrubby flatwoods. Indistinguishable to the untrained eye, each of these environments is flat as a pool table. Each has pale grass, and each has brush that looks like it belongs in the desert. Trees are so scattered in most flatwoods that you can forget about walking in the shade.

So how does Oscar Scherer make my list? Well, I have always loved seeing wild animals in their natural habitat, and this is an excellent place to do that. It is incredibly easy to spot species ranging from whitetail deer to gopher tortoise to indigo snake while walking through the flatwoods.

This park will always be known as a birdwatcher’s paradise. Bald eagles nest here in winter and sandhill cranes wander the fields. So many varieties of songbirds reside here that the early morning hours sound like a wild symphony when their voices converge.

On a trip earlier this month, my friend Denise took this picture of a pileated woodpecker getting ready to dig his lunch out of an oak:

However, the king of Oscar Scherer’s birds is the scrub jay, a handsome variety rarely seen elsewhere but commonly seen here. My manager at my last job once took a picture of his twelve-year-old son standing on a trail at Oscar Scherer with one of them sitting on his head.

And if you tend to get caught up in how the land looks, there are environments here other than flatwoods. For example, there is the dense, shady hardwood forest that follows South Creek’s gently wending route across the park.

When it comes to recreational opportunities, South Creek offers up fine fishing and paddling. Because it empties into the Gulf of Mexico not far away, it is heavily influenced by the tides and allows fisherman to reel in both freshwater and saltwater species. The park rents canoes for $5 per hour or $25 per day.

15 miles of trails for hiking and biking lace through Oscar Scherer. The flatness makes the hiking easy, but the sandy soil makes the biking a challenge and mountain bikes are recommended.

At the end of the park road is a small lake, with a beach, that’s good for swimming and snorkeling. Not far from that is an informative nature center and a playground the kids are sure to love.

And finally, stretched out along South Creeks’s southern bank in a long narrow loop, is a campground that is often cited as one of Florida’s best for families. Some of the sites are on the small side, but they more than make up for it with the high level of privacy they provide – a gift from the thick foliage of the riverside forest. A playground sits inside the loop near its eastern end.

We camped at Oscar Scherer with some friends in January 2007, and the highlight of that trip will forever be known as Raccoon Theater. Sitting in front of the campfire in a semi-circle, we heard rustling in the underbrush for several minutes, until a pair of raccoons came into view and walked right up to the other side of the fire like they wanted to join us – which they did as soon as they realized they weren’t going to get shooed. Raccoons are known for swiping food, and these were no exception: here’s one of them dining on one of our hot dog buns.

After the coons pilfered our buns, we tossed them marshmallows and smokies, which they gobbled down without a care in the world. Apparently that pair told their friends about our generosity, because the next night we were joined by six or seven of them and the whole scene played out again.

When you’re down this way, Oscar Scherer is a good place to experience Florida in its natural state.

Note: Other than the picture of the raccoon, all of the photographs on this post were taken by Denise (see above for the link to her blog).

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