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Thursday, February 17, 2022

Hiking Buster Island Trail in Lake Kissimmee State Park

The weather here in the Lake Wales area is warm -- highs in the 80F's -- but very windy, which is influencing our choices of outdoor activities.  Because today was forecast to be the most windy of upcoming days, we decided that a hike would be the most enjoyable activity.  Our research suggested we would enjoy the Buster Island Trail in Lake Kissimmee State Park, nearby.

Lake Kissimmee State Park has 12 distinct natural communities that hold over 30 listed species of animals and plants, including delicate mosses, butterfly orchids, sawgrass, cutthroat grass, fetterbush and gallberry with expansive, colorful fields of lotus and pickerelweed.  The pine and scrubby flatwoods found in the park are host to longleaf pines, scrub oaks, Florida scrub jays, Sherman fox squirrels, gopher tortoises, white-tailed deer, turkeys, bobcats and the gray fox. The park hosts over 200 species of birds, including bald eagles, snail kites, sandhill cranes and crested caracara.

Europeans arrived in Florida in the 1500s but their presence was not felt until the 1800s with the Third Seminole War, after which the area was widely used for timber and turpentine operations.  During the Civil War, the area was used for raising cattle that were shipped to the Confederate Army or traded with Cuba for supplies. After the war, cattle became the main industry and this continues today.

In 1969, Florida purchased 5,030 acres of land from the William Zipperer estate for the park, which was opened to the public in August 1977.

The trail circles Buster Island, which is indeed an island.  It is surrounded by three lakes – Lake Kissimmee, Lake Rosalie, and Tiger Lake – and the waterways that connect them.

The trail is just under 7 miles long, winding through open prairie and shady woodland.  We started our hike with great anticipation:

The trail has a soft, sandy surface and was easy to walk, subject to staying alert for stray roots and pine cones:

Kathy loves the baby long-leaf pines, and she found another one to cuddle soon after we started the hike:

The woods here are young, and it appeared that the land was fully logged before it was sold to the State of Florida.  The dominant trees varied by area.  Where long-leaf pines dominated, they seemed in some places to have been planted deliberately in regular rows, and in others to have sprouted naturally:

The Park boasts a Totem Hunt, which invites hikers to locate 16 totems scattered across the Park's five trails.  We were given a flyer when we arrived that offered a trail log to fill out to report our totem discoveries.  Naturally, this proved irresistible to Kathy, so she kept her eagle eyes out for totems along the way.  Perhaps a mile and a half into our hike, she found the first totem -- a turtle!

Real animals were just as interesting to track as totem animals.  Along the back side of our trail, we came upon a track of an animal that seemed about the size of a raccoon, with tracks similar to a raccoon's; but raccoons aren't listed on identified animal species in the park, and nothing else, possibly with the exception of an opposum, might have made the tracks:

This is winter, so there aren't many flowers blossoming, but we nevertheless spotted five or six pretty wildflowers on our hike, including these delicate flowers that resembled lavender or clover:

From the small to the gigantic, we hiked among huge, old live oaks that made us look small -- Kathy, in turn --

-- and David:

Halfway around the trail, it was time for lunch, and we found a primitive campsite -- with a PICNIC TABLE! -- on which to rest and eat our peanut butter and peach amaretto preserve sandwiches:

Poking around the campsite, David found what he swore was a large antler from some animal we couldn't identify:

The Park is subject to periodic prescribed  burns.  In one spot, a sign stated that a prescribed burn had last been administered in December 2019.  It was remarkable how much understory had grown back since then,  It was healthy and green.  In areas with no evidence of burns, there was more dry prairie or sawtooth grass.  In yet other areas, it seemed clear that significant wildfire had burned, and killed, many trees.  One area was reduced to prairie and bushes and a host of dead snags.  This fellow was a dramatic casualty, but has been preserved as a post for a trail blaze:

Before we started our hike, David had flushed a large hawk that was harvesting Spanish Moss from a live oak near the kayak launch he was walking over to inspect.  So, as we hiked, we were alert to signs of raptors such as hawks, osprey -- or even the eagles the Park reports that it harbors.  We saw none.  However, we spotted this huge nest in a long-leaf pine, which was built by either a very large hawk or an eagle.  We didn't spot the occupants, however.

This tree somehow survived having its insides burned out by that devastating wildfire we saw evidence of in the surrounding area:

About 4 miles into the hike, Kathy spotted another Totem -- this time, a bobcat:

Kathy was also good at spotting unique flora.  She pointed this one out, and it appears to be like a ladyslipper or small orchid:

To our happy surprise, around Mile 6 Kathy spotted her third Totem -- a cute little otter!

By now, our joints were starting to feel the hike because the level, hard sand offered little variation to our feet, ankles, knees and hips.  The heat had been a factor, too, although plentiful shade along the last half of our hike, and a fresh breeze, saved us from too much heat.  It felt pretty good to sit in the air conditioned Jeep as we returned to our campground, looking forward to a refreshing shower and an amiable game of Bingo with other campground visitors.  Cheers!

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