Florida Caverns: A Refuge for All Seasons

We pulled into Florida Caverns State Park at dusk, checked in at the gate and drove a couple more miles to the campground. Great, we need to set up camp in the dark. I turned on my flashlight and guided Herb as he backed the trailer close to the hookups. Now it was dark, very dark.  There were few lights or campfires in the area. After all, it was a Wednesday in December, with temperatures expected to dip into the forties that night.  The distant sound of dogs barking added to my apprehension.

Fortunately, we brought an extra light which Herb attached to the side of the trailer. He could see well enough to unhitch and level the Viking. We were tired after six hours of driving from Orlando to Marianna, located in the Florida panhandle. Our mission: experience the only caves which exist in Florida.

That’s right, there are caves in Florida. Millions of years ago Florida was submerged under saltwater. During that time shells, corals, and sediments accumulated on the sea floor. As the sea retreated, all of these materials hardened into limestone. Groundwater eventually dissolved crevices in the rock and shazaam! Caves were born.

Our first night in the park was eventful. Herb stepped in dog poop in the dark. By the way, it wasn’t Buddy’s. Later, I forgot to turn on the overhead stove fan when I cooked dinner and set off the smoke alarm. Buddy responded with a panic attack and tried to run out the open trailer door. After everything calmed down, and Herb left his shoes outside, we relaxed in our warm trailer with a hot meal.

The next morning Herb gave Buddy some anti-anxiety medication, and made him comfortable inside the trailer. We met a guide at the mouth of the caverns for a tour.

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During the tour we learned the Civilian Conservation Corps enlarged the passageways during the 1930’s. Known as the Gopher Gang, these young men worked for a dollar a day to dig out trails and chisel tunnels through solid limestone. They also wired the caves with electricity.  Without light, none of the calcite formations would be visible.

 

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It takes one hundred years for one cubic inch of calcite to develop. These stalagmites formed from water dripping year after year in the same place on the cave floor.

Colored lighting in several of the rooms created unique special effects.

 

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The Christmas Room

 

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The “Heart” of the Cave

The temperature inside the caverns is a constant sixty-eight degrees. With fifty degree temperatures outside, we enjoyed the warmth the rooms provided. In the summer, tourists visit to take refuge from the heat. However, during the summer rainy season, some passageways are flooded. The caverns do contain animal life. Bats flew over our heads. Blind crayfish scurried about in pools of water near our feet. After five p.m. a guide leads flashlight tours. When the lights are off, the rooms appear like they did to early explorers.

Herb and I have traveled all over the country to experience areas with different elevations and climate. Now we know we can drive six hours and feel like we are in the foothills of Appalachia.IMG_2021

When Britain ruled Florida between 1763 and 1783, this area was called West Florida and extended all the way to the Mississippi River. The Apalachicola River, located east of Marianna, divided East and West Florida. The river still marks the division between Eastern and Central Time zones. Florida Caverns is on Central Time.

The park is located in a temperate hardwood forest. Unlike most of Florida, this area is far enough north, and high enough up (two hundred feet above sea level) for the plants and animals to expect chilly winters. The forest experiences four distinct seasons and many of the trees lose their leaves in winter. We enjoyed seeing the fall colors as we hiked through groves of beech and maple trees.

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We stayed at the campground for five nights. As the weekend approached more campers arrived. A special note: Unlike other Florida State park we’ve visited, the shower house has central heating, which we appreciated on these cold December mornings. The campground also features sewage hookups at each campsite.

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Buddy in his “exercise pen”.

Florida Caverns, a refuge for all seasons, and an experience to remember.

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Trailers, Trash, and the Black Bears of Wekiva

Wekiva State Park is only a thirty minute drive from our home in Orlando. Although we’ve canoed the beautiful Wekiva River, we hesitated to reserve a campsite because of the park’s reputation as a black bear habitat. Part of our concern involved our beagle, Buddy. When we discovered dogs are permitted on the trails, we decided to go after all. If it was very dangerous, surely the park wouldn’t allow pets.

A friendly ranger greeted us at the entrance. “Be aware, the bears are very active right now.” My husband, Herb, nodded his head and we continued to the campground to set up camp. “What does that mean?” I asked. “Are bears roaming through the campground?” Herb didn’t answer.

After we parked our trailer, my husband drove less than a mile to the nearest Publix to buy firewood. I walked Buddy around the campground, and met a lady on the road with her pet.

“Hey, what’s going on with the bears around here?” I asked.

She kept a tight grip on her dog. “Last week a bear approached the campground dumpster. The rangers killed it.”

I sighed. “Oh, that’s too bad.” It seemed like I should feel sorry for the bear. After all it was probably just looking for food. I walked over to the dumpster to judge its location in relation to our campsite.  It was not a pretty sight. Have you ever seen a pretty dumpster?

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As you can see both dumpsters have secure latches on the side to deter bears.  It does look like a bear tried to raise the lid off the top.

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I read the rules on the sign. Between the hours of 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. the dumpster is closed. I wondered if the ranger padlocked the opening to keep people from bringing their trash. Then I realized someone must have left their garbage outside the dumpster when it was “closed.” Talk about ringing the dinner bell for the bears. “Come and get it bears, I’m going to make it easy for you. And hopefully, you won’t eat me!”

I was very glad the dumpster wasn’t close to our campsite.

When Herb returned with the firewood, I told him everything I’d learned about the dumpster. He stayed outside with Buddy and I went in the trailer to make dinner. Later, while we were relaxing around the campfire, Herb casually mentioned that a neighbor came by with some news. Earlier that day, two pygmy rattlesnakes were crawling right where we were sitting.

I immediately lifted my feet off the ground. “This place has more wildlife than anywhere else we’ve camped so far. And we’re practically in our own backyard!”

I’m happy to report that we didn’t encounter any bears or snakes during the four wonderful days we camped at Wekiva.

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We did meet a wild turkey!

After we returned home, I researched a few facts about the Florida black bear.  Forty years ago they were endangered, with a population of only three hundred.  Today there are estimated to be 4,350, and they are no longer considered threatened. This fact surprised me. I thought the development of Florida’s urban areas would have the opposite effect. During the era of the black bear’s decline it was legal to hunt them. Now they can only be hunted during specific times designated by the Florida Wildlife Commission. In 2016 an authorized bear hunt lasted two days. During that time 306 bears were killed. Bears are more likely to be seen in forested wetlands, but can be found anywhere in Florida.

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Camping with the Long Key Crabs

Almost one year ago I wrote a post entitled Being.  I shared the value of doing nothing during a trip to the Florida Keys.  Last week my husband and I revisited Long Key State Park with our Viking  trailer for five nights of camping and relaxation on the shores of the Atlantic.

Sure it’s August. Sure it’s hot. It’s hot everywhere in Florida, so folks might as well camp near the water where they can get wet. The word must have gotten out about the constant sea breeze which cools the campground like a giant fan, because the park was full most nights. In fact we felt fortunate to reserve a site.

As in the past, our first day was blessed with a refreshing tropical breeze. We were surprised the second day when the tropical breeze turned into a tropical storm. The rain bands lasted eight hours.  We hunkered down in the trailer, read our books, and played numerous rounds of the card game, Lost Cities. Whenever the rain let up a little, we ventured out to walk our dog…one of the joys of traveling with a pet.

The remainder of the week was dry with a light wind. We enjoyed swimming, kayaking, and a couple of short hikes. With the exception of a day trip to Bahai Honda, we spent most of our time in our camp chairs, just being still and soaking up the beauty of the place.  What is it about the sea that refreshes a person’s spirit?

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One night  when I was preparing dinner our dog Buddy, barked at something. I stepped out of the trailer to see a large crab scurry into its burrow at the edge of our campsite. The crab was at least six inches across. It was grey in color and one claw was larger than the other.

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After that happened I paid closer attention whenever I walked to the campground trash bin with a bag of garbage. I noticed several crabs along the side of the road and dozens of burrows in between each campsite. Later I learned these shy creatures are called blue land crabs, and rank the largest in size of Florida’s semi-terrestrial crabs.  They spend most of their adult lives on or near the beach, but return to the sea to breed.  Blue land crabs burrow several feet underground to allow moisture to seep inside their tunnels.

I found the crabs were more active in the cooler parts of the day, around dusk and dawn.  Primarily vegetarians, blue land crabs eat tender leaves, fruits, and berries.  I felt like I’d really accomplished something when I managed to snap a photo of one with a blue shell before it skittered sideways into its underground home.

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I researched some additional interesting facts about these animals. Their reproductive activity occurs during the full moon of summer. Uh-oh, there might have been some hanky-panky going on at Long Key because the moon was practically full!

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A female blue land crab produces anywhere from 300,000 to 700,000 eggs in one spawning season.  She carries them under her body to release them into the sea. However, most crab larva are eaten by fish and very few survive. It’s unlawful to harvest any blue land crabs in Florida between July 1 and October 31. And of course hunting or capturing wildlife is against the rules in state parks. I have no idea what blue land crabs taste like, but some people consider them a delicacy.

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Female blue land crabs can vary in color from blue to white.

For the record, in mid-October Long Key State Park campground will be closed due to beach renovation for one year.  On our day trip to Bahai Honda we saw some beachside campsites.

Maybe we’ll move our “do nothing” location further south until Long Key reopens.

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Nature’s Classroom at Faver-Dykes State Park

Camping during the Florida summer is not for wimps. Our trip to Faver-Dykes State Park challenged us in ways we have never been challenged before. Located in a remote area fifteen miles outside Saint Augustine, the park is known for being “off the beaten track.” We pulled our Viking trailer over the bumpy dirt road to the entrance of a small campground. As the campsite was not level, my husband, Herb made several attempts before he successfully parked our trailer in the soft sand. Soon a park vehicle stopped nearby and a ranger stepped out to welcome us. The ranger took an interest in our dog, Buddy, the best beagle ever.

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Early the next morning we decided to hike the 2.6 mile Hiram-Faver Trail. Guess what? The trail was named in honor of Hiram Faver, who donated the land to the state for a park. Go figure!  On our way to the trailhead we walked by the park office. The friendly ranger who  welcomed us yesterday came out of the office to say hello. He asked where we were headed. I told him the Hiram-Faver trail. “Oh,” he said, “you better watch out for ticks out there.”

“We’re prepared, ” I boasted. I wore long sleeves and long pants and tucked my pantlegs into my socks. I also sprayed my legs with bug spray. The ranger focused his attention on Buddy. “I always put a tick collar on my dog. Then the ticks never bother him.” Suddenly I realized that Mr. Ranger was more concerned about Buddy than we were.

“Buddy is on special medication to prevent ticks from harming him,” Herb responded. At the time I wondered, how bad can it be out there?

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We began hiking with Buddy in the lead. July is hot in Florida. Herb and I kid each other that real Floridians can handle the heat. But we forget that we aren’t real Floridians. We’re actually transplanted Buckeyes from Ohio, and Buddy hails from North Carolina.

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As we approached Pellicer Creek, we felt a delightful cool breeze off the water. We saw a bench and sat down to enjoy our granola bars and bottled water. Buddy had a drink, too, and relaxed in the grassy area at our feet.

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I took out my cell phone to take pictures.  I noticed I had phone service. (Something not always available at the campsite.)  Herb looked across the river and spotted a cell tower. What luck! We had a great time sitting on the bench, texting pictures and checking our email. I even posted a couple of photos on Facebook.

After about twenty minutes, I noticed something crawling on the front of my shirt. “A tick!” I yelled. Herb rushed over and brushed it off. Then I spotted a tick on his pants. I brushed it off him. “Let’s get out of here.”

We hiked back toward the campsite. I still wasn’t very worried. So we saw two ticks. Big deal. We’re only a mile from the campsite. All will be well.

When we reached the campsite, we sat on the ground with Buddy and examined his belly. I lost count of the numerous ticks attached to his legs and stomach. I felt terrible. What did I do to my dog?

I grabbed the tweezers from the first aid kit and Herb and I combed through his fur with our fingers. It wasn’t easy to remove the ticks from Buddy’s skin. They were small, brown, shiny, and wanted to stay put. When I pulled the first tick out I didn’t know what to do with it. It latched on to the tweezers and wouldn’t let go. Then it started to crawl onto my hand. Yikes!

Finally I got the idea of dropping the live tick in a cup of water. It worked. I removed at least thirty ticks from Buddy. We covered the cup with a second smaller inverted cup to keep the ticks from crawling out. If possible, we wanted to keep them out of our campsite. We wrapped the tick filled cup in a plastic bag and dropped it in the nearest garbage can. Hopefully they didn’t escape.

Buddy was a trooper. He didn’t complain, and relished all the attention. Ticks are strange. Unlike other pests, you don’t feel it when they dig in to your skin. No sting, no itch. Unless you check yourself and your family from front to back and head to toe, you don’t know you have them.  I know, I removed three from my ankles.

Hikers beware! July is peak season for ticks in Florida. Nature has many lessons to teach, but we will not attend the July session of the school of ticks again.

 

Our Paynes Prairie Camp Out

Mother’s Day weekend we hitched up the trailer and headed out for Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. The cast included the usual characters, my husband Herb, our dog Buddy, and myself.  Paynes Prairie is a 22,000 acre wilderness in between the little town of Micanopy and the big town of Gainesville. The Preserve was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1974 due to its rich wildlife habitat. On the way to the campground we sighted a beautiful deer.

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IMG_9243The three of us worked as a team and followed  our procedures for setting up camp. Buddy supervised from inside his crate. Herb performed most of the physical work.  I walked around looking important with my clipboard and pen. My job entailed checking off each task as Herb completed it. At this point we still need to consult written directions for hitching and unhitching the trailer, but the process is taking less time.  This was our third trip.  Click on the link to read about our first and second trips.

IMG_9203There are many trails at Paynes Prairie. Most do not allow pets. On Friday afternoon we walked the Lake Trail with Buddy. I think dogs are permitted on the Lake Trail because it’s boring. We walked for quite awhile without seeing any wildlife until Buddy located and started to eat the remains of a dead bat. Herb is an expert at fishing things out of Buddy’s mouth. Whew! I can get along without that kind of excitement.

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On Saturday morning we decided to hike the La Chua Trail and leave Buddy in the trailer. We knew he would be comfortable (and safe) with the windows open and a fan turned on. The trailhead is located on the north side of the park near Gainesville. We followed a long boardwalk around a huge sinkhole. At the end of the boardwalk a grassy path began. We were warned to “enter at our own risk.” Soon we saw a large pond teeming with alligators.

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The months of May and June are mating season for gators. Is this big guy trying to show off for the ladies?

I’ve never seen gators so active. At least fifty thrashed about in the water. Some lifted their heads high as they choked down wiggly fish. But we couldn’t stare at the center of the pond for long.  We had to stay alert, because every now and then another big one would crawl onto the shore not too far from where we stood.

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Look out!

Suddenly I understood why pets are prohibited on the La Chua Trail!  Although Herb and I were fascinated by the “gators on parade,” we moved on.  Gradually the wetland plants changed to tall weeds and grasses.

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What looked like small pine trees, were actually giant thistles.

Fifty-seven percent of the state of Florida is currently in some degree of drought.  Dry conditions were very evident in the campground making it necessary for the rangers to ban campfires. On the hike we saw scores of dead fish in the mud where a pond used to be. Vultures flew in for a meal.

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After seeing (and smelling) this scene, I wondered what might happen to the gators if more ponds disappear. Then I realized gators don’t need a lot of water. This one seemed content in a few inches.

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Paynes Prairie is home to over 271 species of birds of all sizes from large herons, to small red winged blackbirds. Maybe when the fish population runs out, the gators will eat more birds. Large alligators have more options. They eat little gators.

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The trail ended at an observation tower. From the platform Herb and I saw wild horses and bison grazing on the prairie as they did hundreds of years ago.  (I highly recommend binoculars if you hike this trail.) In 1985 the Friends of Paynes Prairie purchased a few Spanish horses from a local ranch. The horses have free roam within the confines of the prairie and fend for themselves. Another “living link” to the past is the American bison. We were surprised to learn bison are native to Florida.  Hunted to extinction in this area, bison were reintroduced to Paynes Prairie in 1975. The park acquired a group of ten bison from a refuge in Oklahoma. Now the herd numbers fifty. Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park is a wild place and represents the best of the “Real Florida.”

 

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Florida Manatees: Long Journey up a Slippery Slope

I grab my cell phone and trek down the path to the water’s edge. The dense forest blocks any warmth from the morning sun.  Although I’m dressed in the heaviest clothing I own, I still shiver in the forty-degree temperatures. What would inspire this thin-blooded Floridian to drive for an hour and brave such cold?

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I reach the lookout platform and gaze into the crystal blue water.  Fat gray shapes lie deep beneath the surface.  I hear a snort as one rises for a breath of air. What appeared to be a boulder is actually a living thing.  My eyes adjust as the swirling water becomes smooth again.  Soon I recognize many similar shapes, and stare in unbelief as scores of manatees migrate into Blue Springs to escape the colder water of the nearby St John’s River.  I realize I have something in common with these gentle giants. We both want to be warm.

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Manatees cannot tolerate water temperatures below sixty-five. So they do what any tropical animal would do, seek warmth in order to live. How do these marine mammals know the water is a constant seventy-three degrees at Blue Springs? How do they communicate this news to each other? I’m amazed whenever I see God’s natural provision for this unique animal.

Over  the past forty years  the population of Florida manatees has rebounded. On March 30, 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service changed their status from endangered to threatened. It is  estimated that 6,620 manatees live throughout the coastal waters and rivers of Florida. In the 1970s only a few hundred existed.*

Florida organizations like the Save the Manatee Club have worked for decades to raise public awareness about the plight of the manatees. One might think the change of status is cause for celebration. Quite the opposite. According to club director, Patrick Rose,   the federal government’s decision is premature and will undermine the manatee’s long- term survival.

As I take a closer look at those manatees swimming near the viewing platform, I can’t help but notice the scars on their skin from collisions with watercraft.  These incidents happened while the animal was considered endangered and where speed limits for boaters were posted.  What can we expect if protections are weakened?

The lives of these gentle giants hang in a delicate balance. A two thousand pound manatee has no natural predators.  Alligators move out of their way by staying close to the riverbank.  The only thing manatees need to fear is man. As Florida increases residential development, people and wildlife contend over limited natural resources.  Man always has the last word.

As a crowd gathers on the viewing platform, one child excitedly points to a manatee mother swimming with her calf.  I snap a photo of the pair and feel grateful for the individuals who continue to value the preservation of a species still so dependent on the protection of man.  What will the future hold for the manatee? The answer is up to us.

*Susan Salisbury, Palm Beach Post (April 2, 2017)

River of Inspiration

Moving metaphor below,

without one thought you flow

over stone

and I see

life’s not hard like land at all

but a living river of possibility

whatever you might be.

A River Poem is displayed on a plaque above the Hillsborough River. The author is anonymous.  From this spot people can see rapids as they bubble around outcroppings of Suwannee Limestone.  I love the depth of meaning in the poem’s simplicity. Life’s not hard for a river. It creates beauty in the process of overcoming obstacles.

The Hillsborough River flows through Hillsborough State Park on its course to the Gulf of Mexico. Recently Herb and I walked the River Rapids Trail with our dog, Buddy. The scenery is quite beautiful.

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The path meanders along the river bank through forests of ancient cypress trees. The tree pictured below is estimated to be four hundred years old.

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Although its base is hollow, the tree is still alive.  Some scientists think the stumpy looking knees around a Cypress tree serve as anchors in soft muddy soil. The knees also carry oxygen to the roots. I’ve heard the taller the knees, the higher the water has risen around the tree. The base of this tree is probably underwater during the rainy season.

On our walk I noticed a significant amount of poison ivy on both sides of the trail.

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Doesn’t it look pretty? These leaves of green terrify me! I’m very allergic to this wicked weed and suffer for weeks if the oil gets  on my skin. So not only did I need to keep my eyes on the path, I needed to make sure our dog wasn’t walking through it. So far so good. Whew!

Unfortunately, I was so focused on watching my feet, I missed something. Herb sighted a bobcat running across the path ahead. I think I’d like to see a bobcat, but on second thought I might get scared and try to escape by running through poison ivy. Out of the frying pan and into the fire!

Back to the peaceful river… further down the path we noticed a couple kayaking.

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As they paddled closer, instead of looking calm and relaxed, they seemed anxious. They had good reason to be.

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The river provides a wonderful habitat for alligators. I photographed this fine specimen basking in the sun on the opposite bank. Once I saw the gator, I realized I was not brave enough to kayak or canoe here. I could appreciate the river better from where I was standing. As long as I wasn’t standing in poison ivy, of course.

Since we were camping at Hillsborough State Park, we had another day to explore. We visited Fort Foster. This historic site is a replica of the original fort which was built to  house supplies for  U.S. soldiers during the Second Seminole War, 1835-1842.

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The fort also protected the only bridge in the area that crossed the Hillsborough River. One thing the government didn’t consider, the bridge also made it easier for the Seminoles to cross the river from their camps on the opposite bank.  A few skirmishes happened here, but more casualties occurred from insect related diseases.

Inside the stockade fence, the fort contained a canon, an officers quarters, an infirmary, and a supply building.

The fort could not accommodate the 305 soldiers assigned to the post. Most of them camped outside the fence in palmetto sheds. During the summer of 1836 the fort was abandoned due to unhealthy living conditions. The troops returned in October, to guard the supplies kept at the fort. Eventually the Seminoles were pushed further south to the Everglades.

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The Hillsborough River… an inspiration for poets, a habitat for plants and animals, and a source of history. Like the poem states… “a living river of possibility.”