Sunday, February 28, 2010

Manatee Springs, Florida: Pigs

Even the locals confirm that north Florida is more like southern Alabama and Georgia than the Florida we northerners think about when we think about heading south in the winter time.  That view was confirmed when we turned off highway 98 to drive down a dirt road where we were directed by a sign that said "Camp firewood for sale."  Actually, we were directed by a lanky local with a lopsided grin and stubble on his chin who was painting the sign. "Just take the wood you need," he said, in a twangy accent we had never heard before. "The deal is on a sign, and there's a box for your money.  It's the honor system."  Then, as we started to drive down where he had pointed, he called after us, "Just watch out for my dog!"

We passed several dilapidated house trailers back among the trees before we reached his gate.  We were a bit apprehensive about opening it, wondering whether the dog inside was a pit bull or a doberman, but the wood we saw stacked inside was a powerful incentive.  We hadn't had a decent campfire since we got to Florida.  The wood we had bought at the camp stores and even a Publix (the main grocery chain here) was so green that it wouldn't burn, and it had been so cold that there was no sitting outside in the evening without a fire.  We cautiously opened the gate, quickly carried our rack of wood out to the van, put our money in the box, and closed the gate behind us.  When we got back to the highway we thanked our guide for the wood.  "Did you close my gate good?" he asked.  "I've got a puppy in there and don't want it to get out." We assured him that we had, and drove on to the campground.

Manatee Springs is a beautiful state park on the Suhwannee River. It is named for warm springs, one of them over 65 feet deep, fed by a system of underwater limestone caves. Divers in full regalia were just entering one of the algae covered springs when we arrived, making interesting patterns on the surface of the water and undisturbed by the small alligator on the far bank.  We walked along the boardwalks that led back into the swamp and out to the river, getting some nice images (we hope) and watching a few manatees, which were unphotographable from our perspective, but interesting nonetheless. Walking along the paths back toward the parking lot, we were curious about the holes that someone or something had dug all along both sides of the path.  The were about six inches deep and covered the ground adjacent to the path.

So that night we cooked our dinner over, and sat eating it around, our first good campfire.  After eating, we were huddled around the fire (it was still cold--it snowed in northern Florida that night) when we heard three loud snorts and the sound of something running down the trail in front of our camp. Moments later we heard rustling in the bushes behind our camp. "That sounds like something big," Angie said.  I thought it might be the herd of small deer that was hanging around the campground, so I went to the van to get a flashlight. Angie had just carried a large pot of water into the van to heat for doing dishes, when something charged into the campsite, heading for the spot where we had been eating dinner a few minutes before. I shone the light in that direction and saw a large sow followed by a young pig rooting about by our camp chairs. I tried to chase them away by banging on pots (it works with bears), but that had no effect, so I grabbed the big stick that we had been poking the fire with, while Angie scuffled in the dark van for her camera. (Dig the picture.)  Oops, no picture. Just as Angie emerged from the van with her G10, I chased the pigs off the site, having to give the little one a whack with the stick to get it to leave.

I read recently that there are feral pigs in every state in the continental US, with California having the most. In some regions, such as the Smoky Mountains, they are doing serious damage to the environment.  (We had had our camp invaded by pigs once long ago in California.  That time one managed to get Angie's breakfast. She thought that was pretty serious.)

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