Keeping Score: Wrong turn, right way

  • A view of the Loxahatchee from an overlook that juts off the Florida National Scenic Trail in Dickinson State Park. Contributed photo

Saturday, February 27, 2016


Good morning!

Not long ago in Florida, state representative Patrick Rooney Jr. (of the NFL Rooneys) introduced a bill to put golf courses in state parks. It would be called the “Jack Nicklaus Golf Trail” in honor of the golfing legend who lives in Palm Beach County. 

To appease nature lovers, the bill stipulated that the courses “would need to be built in an environmentally sensitive manner” and oxymoronically added:  “…. but may also include a hotel.”

Think of a Holiday Inn next to Lake Wyola, or a Marriott in the Erving State Forest.

Golf is big in Florida, a $13.8 billion industry according to the Tampa Bay Times. Governor Rick Scott says his state is the No. 1 golfing destination in the world, and Rooney’s bill was intended to help Scott’s administration cash in on the sport.   

What supporters of the land grab failed to realize, however, is that millions of tourists and residents prefer birdwatching, hiking and kayaking to addressing a golf ball — “Helloooo Ball!” as Ed Norton said on “The Honeymooners.”

The reaction to Rooney’s House Bill 1239 was swift and furious. Newspaper editorials and environmentalists condemned the proposal and both versions — House and Senate — were withdrawn from consideration.

Floridians spoke very clearly over the past several days,” said Rooney, who is president of the Palm Beach Kennel Club. “I hope this decision allays some of their fears.”

Nature lovers will always be fearful with a governor like Scott, who doesn’t care if chain saws, logging trucks and all-terrain vehicles disrupt the parks’ tranquility.

It’s why the Northeast Everglades Trail Association organizes hiking, biking and equestrian outings like Sunday’s 13-mile Greenway Adventure. Quite simply they’re saying, “Once you know about our trails, you’ll fight to keep them.”

Last year I was reading the Sunday paper in Dickinson State Park when runners, hikers and horseback riders all emerged from the palmetto bushes like Robin Hood’s merry band.

How long this year’s would takes depended on if it was by foot, hoof or mountain bike — guys and gals on Specialized FatBoys and Stumpjumpers that could handle the deep sugar sand and ubiquitous mud puddles.

A year ago I broke my right arm. Health care being what it is today, no one would look at it outside the ER and so I flew north and got help from doctors Wayne Gavryck, Tom Echeverria and Doug Weiss. Echeverria told me no jogging for two months. He sent me to the Body Shoppe for physical therapy and referred me to Dr. Jack Wixted at the UMass Medical Center in Worcester. Wixted said, “When a caveman broke his arm he sat in the cave, and two months later he was out hunting lions.”

That was about it, but in two months I was out of shape. To celebrate my comeback I marked Sunday’s Greenway Adventure on the calendar and was awake before the alarm clock sounded at 5:30 a.m.

I tossed on a t-shirt and shorts and laced up an old pair of New Balance running shoes. I’d paid a park worker named Tim to meet me at the finish at 7 a.m. and drive me to the starting point at Riverbend Park in Jupiter.

He picked me up in his boss’s mud-spattered late model Jeep that had a canvas top and zipped-up plastic windows. He reminded me of Billy Martin, the Yankees manager, with his small build and sharp facial features. He lit up a Marlboro and started talking. “I trap my own hogs,” he said of the wild pigs that forage the park. “I’ll cut their nuts off and feed ‘em grain for a few weeks. I don’t want (to eat) a hog that’s been eating dead buzzards and stuff.”

We drove down Indiantown Road and up over I-95 and the Florida Turnpike to the 660-acre park that’s a connecting hub to the Florida trail system. The race packet included a blue cotton t-shirt, brochure and trail map. I foolishly tossed the map in the trash, stuffed the brochure in my back pocket and put the t-shirt over what I was already wearing.

It was a casual affair. Nobody was stretching or doing warmup sprints. We were a ragtag bunch and hikers were carving walking sticks out of the branches they’d plucked from the underbrush.

The event was coordinated by the Loxahatchee Chapter of the FTA, and a volunteer said to look for white and orange trailmarkers blazed onto trees and fence posts. “When do we hit the restrooms?” someone asked.

A volunteer named Fern Finnerty was the “sweeper,” the conductor in the caboose who rounded up stragglers. “Last year I lost one naturalist who went chasing after a butterfly,”  she said. “She just had to have that butterfly.”
The runners didn’t wait for a starting gun, we simply followed the hikers through an underpass and were on our way— all two of us— a hospital pharmacist named Dave and myself. He said the shortage of runners was probably because of another race that weekend.

We were at a standstill on a trail that paralleled a four lane highway, unsure which way to turn. Neither of us could read the map. “I heard someone say to take a left near the McDonald’s,” said Dave. What he’d heard, I later surmised, was to take a right when the McDonald’s was on the left. Fortunately a Fish & Wildlife cop saw us and parked his pickup in the grassy median. He walked over, looked at the map  and pointed us in the right direction.

Dave’s knee was bothering him and he decided to wait for the hikers. I took off alone, holding an orange and looking for trail markings on farmroads bordered by scrub pine and palmetto bushes. A volunteer was waiting in a shady grove. He was leaning against his white pickup truck and he handed me bottled water.

“Watch your step,” he cautioned of the  slippery slope down to the Hobe Groves Canal. It was a brook, actually, with clean flowing water that felt good. On the other side a photographer clicked a few pictures and raised his camera. “I think you’re the first runner,” he said.

“I’m the only runner,” I replied.

A four-foot long red snake — a corn snake, actually —  that was camouflaged by dry pine needles lay still with its head slightly raised and gave me the right of way.

A sign said I was crossing into the park, where much of the trail network is composed of undulating fire roads. Florida’s winter has been affected by a wet weather pattern. Storms have dumped inches of rainfall, and at every dip in the road was enough water to be called lakes by Florida real estate agents.

I gave up trying to run along the ridges and walked through the ankle-high muddy water filled with floating pine cones. I’d missed a turn and was on the cycling and horseback trail, an error deduced while standing next to a horse trough. “No sponging,” a sign said.

The hikers were ahead of me crossing Kitching Creek Bridge South the same time I was on Kitching Creek Bridge North. They were probably already at the pavilion eating their chicken burritos from Burrito Brothers. 

Trudging through a knee-deep puddle I could see Fern and her exhausted stragglers. “You missed the turn,” said hiker Scott Lunsford, who was holding a pair of walking sticks that looked like ski poles.

“Yeah ... And somewhere back there I lost my runner’s high.”

We hiked together for a mile. He said the Loxahatchee Chapter of the FTA has about 225 volunteers. “We maintain and groom the trails, but this year it’s been too wet to mow.”

Lunsford has yet to walk the entire Florida National Scenic Trail. The trek begins (or ends, depending) in Big Cypress Swamp near the Tamiami Trail and crisscrosses the state northward for 1,300 miles to Fort Pickens. “It ends on the furthest you can be on the beach in Florida, then connects with the Alabama Trail.”

I was back jogging when someone’s voice snapped me out of my trance. “Sir! Sir!” she was yelling. I turned and saw a young woman in a skimpy two-piece swimsuit. She was running barefoot and was waving at me.
Had I died and gone to heaven?

“Could you take our picture? We’re in the river and I want to be in the picture!”

Sure, I said, and we walked to an overhang on the Loxahatchee River where her friends were kayaking. “What, do you all go to Jupiter High School?” I asked.

She stared at me wide-eyed and exclaimed, “We’re in our 30s. That’s awesome!”

She scampered down to the river. “That’s Chip. He thinks we go to Jupiter High School!”

“Hi Chip! Thanks Chip!”

I clicked away on Kelsey’s iPhone, using photo bursts to capture images of the group in their orange kayaks on the smooth black water. They waved and smiled and saluted me with their beer cans.

They were young and happy and on the Lohatchee, and as for myself, two out of three wasn’t bad.


Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley.