Posted: 11:30 am Sunday, March 26th, 2017
By Ann Kelly
You know what happens when I started typing in “Florida parks” and “black bears?” I find the Black Bear Scenic Byway for my new Ann-Venture through the Ocala National Forest. The Byway is 60 miles worth of incredible scenery and home to the largest population of black bears in our state. It’s also a great chance to do some off roading (and NOT in a Honda HRV) to experience what is called “The Big Scrub.” Oh yes, I did get to see some of it. It’s an area without much water, and the sand pine forest had adapted, and still survives and thrives. The sand dunes are interesting. I noticed that unlike the sand around here, it had a slight tinge of red. Close enough for a little of that Georgia clay influence? Maybe, but these lands have evolved over thousands of years and gave me a look at an ecosystem not to be forgotten.
From my home to the entrance to the forest it was a 140 mile trek. But leaving early on a still-cool Saturday morning made for an easy ride. Stop one was at a simple canoe launch but with some lovely views…and a very primitive potty. When in Rome….but no, no bears. To be honest, I never did see a single one, but I also did not head out on the trails. For that I’d prefer to have a more experienced hiker along so that will have to wait for another time. But as Annie, one of the campground managers told me, since it’s spring it’s usually time for baby bears to be born and if you do happen to come upon a bear make sure they see you first. Make some noise, clap your hands and chances are they’ll just head the other way. Oh, and a warning I sure didn’t need to hear twice – to never approach a bear. They may try to swat you away and that is going to hurt. But I’m sure for the many campers in the forest they’ve seen plenty. I will most definitely give it another try but I was in no way disappointed by not seeing any. I was treated to some great views and a little more education along the way.
There were two unforgettable stops. The first was Salt Springs that stays a cool 72 degrees all year long and is a blend of mix and freshwater that is crystal clear and perfect for some snorkeling. I saw the fissures that Annie also told me go down at least 60 feet and no, are not for diving. Way too dangerous. But the Spring is the winter home to many manatees that are mainly found outside the swimming area. Like any area with cool water, the Spring gets very busy in the summer months. For my visit early in the morning there were a few swimmers and a couple of boats. Next trip, I’ll go in for some underwater shots for you.
Then something totally unexpected – a dam! The Rodman Reservoir is big, about 9,500 acres and just south of Palatka in the forest right off 19. When I pulled in, there plenty of people fishing on both sides of the spillway, up top and along the banks of the Cross Florida Barge Canal. One woman told me it’s a great place for blue gill, bass and really big catfish. They were fishing right in the dangerously turbulent waters but apparently the fish like it there. The dam is actually called the Kirkpatrick Dam and was built right across the Ocklawaha River. What I noticed along the banks of the river was a tremendous amount of driftwood, mainly large logs that have drifted downstream. There’s warning signs for boaters to watch out for them of course. They do clean things up with what is called a “drawdown” every few years. You can find out more about that here, but this is something you don’t want to miss.
There are plenty of recreation areas, campgrounds, trails, ATV rentals and more than I could ever cover in one day. In total there are more than 600 lakes, rivers and springs. But that just means a return trip to swim the Salt Spring, visit the Pioneer Settlement and spend the night in the Ocala National Forest. Take a ride north on 75 and head east on 40 and make the turn on 19. It’s worth the trip and a fine Ann-Venture.