Before my family came down from Alabama to visit me last semester, my dad read the web reviews (which mentioned alligators), weighed the options, made a decision, and plugged the coordinates into the GPS. We were excited for a day of hiking around Bear Lake in Blackwater State Park.
We chose the six-mile loop hike, but it could have easily been made four miles so you can tailor it to meet your time restraints. Take my advice and do the whole six miles so you can visit the old grist mill and water wheel at the trailhead. The only reason my family took half a day to clock six miles is because we stopped a lot to eat, peered for a long time into the murky swamp for alligators, sifted through underbrush for lizards too speedy for us, and--because it was still ninety degrees on the last weekend of October here in Pensacola--we walked slower in the shade.
Blackwater State Forest is speckled with pines so spindly and sparse they reminded me of the vast forests of aspen in the meadows of Colorado where we hike as a family. And while there were still green trees instead of magnificent fall colors, we did sight some stunning red leaves beside the trail which we were dumb enough to touch. Turned out, they were red poison sumac leaves. Warning: the red leaves are pretty to look at but painful to touch. Take one look at my hands and my brother’s face covered in swollen welts and learn.
By the time lunch rolled around, my little sister assumed the responsibility of finding the perfect location for our picnic lunch, and she settled on a dock jutting out over a still portion of the lake that looked suspiciously like the perfect nook for a lazy alligator. We sat on that dock licking Cheetos cheese from our fingers without caring that those same fingers had stroked rough tree bark, dangled into the fish-inhabited water, and rustled through leaves in search of lizards.
Despite our careful attention to detail and stealthy footfalls through the forest (aided by thick laces of dropped pine needles on the trail), we didn’t see any alligators, but we did run across a herd of white-tailed deer. We just saw their tails disappearing into the underbrush, but that counts, right? I’m surprised the deer let us come as close as we did because we must’ve sounded like corn kernels in hot oil the way we stepped on acorns that popped between our feet and the boardwalk trail.
By the end of the hike, we were hot, sticky, and tired, but it was a good kind of tired. It wasn’t mental exhaustion like I felt after midterms. It felt renewing to use my legs, breathe the dry pine air, and trade the salty ocean smell for an earthy pungent layer of a thick ground cover of leaf matter. At the end of the hike, we dangled our feet into Bear Lake. The water felt cold, like the leftover water in a cooler of melted ice. I pulled back initially, but they told me it would get better, and it did. It felt positively glorious.
We hunted fish under the dock while sprawling on our bellies dangling fingers, toes, and stale popcorn on the surface of the water. My little sister noticed signs forbidding fishing from the docks, and piped up innocently, “If we catch a fish with our hands, does that count as fishing?”
While we never did catch any fish with our fingers, they did nibble on a few of our thumbs and pinkie toes, but I think they just mistook them for popcorn treats. Feeding the fish was my favorite part of the hike, so when I go again, I’ll pick a cooler weekend, avoid touching red poison sumac leaves and bring more stale popcorn. Lots more stale popcorn.0