Thursday, February 17, 2011

All Around Us

Last February I wrote about how rare it is for people to take time to notice, much less appreciate, how pretty the sky is. The point was that if people simply would take the time, they would feel less stress and feel more like they are on vacation, even when they are at home.

Well, lately I have been thinking of how true that is not only when it comes to the sky, but when it comes to the natural world as a whole. Which is too bad, because nature’s landscape is all around us -- more than 90 percent of the U.S. is undeveloped even when farms and roads are counted as developed land.

Far-flung national parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite get all the publicity, but they are only a fraction of our public lands. Everywhere you look, other properties under many different jurisdictions are waiting to be explored. Even city parks fit the bill, from small oak-shaded parcels all the way up to the likes of LA’s 700-acre Deukmejian Wilderness Park -- which contains two canyons plus four miles of hiking trails with a combined 2,400 feet of elevation change. Another good example of an “urban wilderness” is Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, which has scenic bridle paths and 13 miles of mostly undeveloped shoreline on Long Island Sound.

I reside in America’s 14th largest media market, less than 25 miles from downtown Tampa, yet there are three sizeable preserves within a 15-minute drive of my front door. Each of them is owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, a governmental entity that was formed to protect water resources in order to meet the needs of residents and businesses. Fortunately, in the process of doing that it creates preserves where people can recreate.

Since New Year’s I have been spending a lot of time enjoying cool temperatures in these preserves, and this is what has gotten me thinking about the fact that so many people are not aware of them. The pictures above were taken at Brooker Creek Headwaters Preserve and Cypress Creek Preserve, respectively, while the one below was taken at Conner Preserve:

Conner opened to the public only about a year ago. On my first hike there, I started encountering deer soon after daybreak and managed to see eleven before the morning was over. I failed to get any pictures of the two bucks, but did capture this shot of a pair of does:

These places all make for productive wildlife-viewing. In Brooker Creek Headwaters I saw several kestrels, which are America’s smallest birds of prey. In Cypress Creek I startled a flock of turkeys that Sarah would have called “ginormous,” and when all those huge birds suddenly took flight, the beating of their wings echoed like a coordinated fury.

The preserves are free to use and have no roads…unless you count the miles of unpaved Jeep roads that serve as hiking trails. At entry points to the preserves, gates block vehicles from entering but pedestrian access is granted by walk-through openings in the fence. While I prefer to experience things on foot, most of the “road trails” are open to mountain bikes and horses in addition to hikers. Sarah has brought her bike and accompanied me on some of my visits to Cypress Creek:

Taking your kids into the woods is a good way not only to get some “quality time” with them, but to cultivate their love of the outdoors and ensure that they don’t need TV and video games to have fun. One time Sarah and I buried about half an ounce of “treasure” in a very particular spot, and we intend to dig it back up in the future. On another occasion she picked up an open pine cone, started finding shells to stuff into it, and named the creation “Mr. Pine Cone Head,” which I assume is a tribute to the Mr. Potato Head she played with when she was younger.

Wherever you are and wherever you go, be sure to take in everything that nature offers. Feel the wind as it blows through your hair. Notice how fragrant the trees are in the morning and how green they are in the afternoon. Look twice at that dragonfly buzzing around, because you might discover that it’s actually a hummingbird.

And by all means, be sure to visit those places that everyone seems to overlook. Go to Google and search for county parks or city parks in your area to see what they have to offer beyond the playgrounds. Do the same for state parks and state forests, and do the same for whatever entity manages the water supply -- because after I learned first-hand what a good job the Southwest Florida Water Management District does with its preserves, I did some research and learned that many similar agencies across America do the same.

Finally, if you are going to be in West Central Florida and want to check out any of my water district’s properties, you can find information about all of them -- not just the ones I named -- by going here. Enjoy!