Orlando Sentinel |
Dec 28, 2020 at 8:30 AM
At long last, the seemingly never-ending year of 2020 has come to a close and many have high hopes that 2021 yields better times ahead.
This year has provided its fair share of ups and downs, but as the Central Florida Explorer, I’m grateful for all the wonderful socially distanced adventures I’ve been able to experience.
I’ve kayaked to see dolphins, manatees and bioluminescence up close. Floridian attractions from St. Augustine’s Fountain of Youth to Lakeland’s Safari Wilderness have supplied novel experiences to try. 2020 brought me the chance to delve into the Sunshine State’s mountain biking community and brought 32 nights of camping.
By Patrick Connolly
Dec 24, 2020 at 5:00 AM
There are things I’ve done this year that weren’t even on my radar previously such as exploring caves and participating in alpaca yoga . But there were also goals I set out to accomplish in 2020 , so let’s see how I fared before setting new ones.
Did I accomplish my 2020 goals?
Even amid a year that’s hardly felt normal by any stretch of the imagination, I was able to achieve several of the tasks I wanted to check off my list.
Chris Stevens takes in the sunset at Hopkins Prairie in Ocala National Forest after hiking a section of the Florida Trail. (Patrick Connolly / Orlando Sentinel)
By Patrick Connolly
Mar 20, 2020 at 5:01 AM
In March, I finally managed to backpack a 23-mile stretch of the 1,500-mile Florida Trail from Juniper Springs to Salt Springs with an overnight stop at Hopkins Prairie. I also took a small section hike in Chuluota Wilderness Area and crossed paths with the trail in White Springs and along the Cross Florida Greenway.
I set out to visit more Florida state parks this year and accomplished that during visits to Blue Spring, Maclay Gardens, Silver Springs, Bahia Honda, Wekiwa Springs, Hontoon Island, Fanning Springs, Manatee Springs, Big Shoals, Topsail Hill Preserve and more. I hope 2021 brings even more state park daytrips and camping.
The SpaceX Crew-1 capsule with astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, Soichi Noguchi and Shannon Walker is launched from Kennedy Space Center on Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020. (Patrick Connolly/Orlando Sentinel)
I fulfilled my goal of watching a rocket launch; 2020 actually brought three chances for that (and a fourth by chance). My first launch was a special one when I photographed Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken — the first astronauts shot into orbit aboard an American rocket in nearly a decade — as they headed for the stars in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule.
I also witnessed a Falcon 9 launch of satellites and the latest time humans were launched into space from U.S. soil aboard the SpaceX Crew-1 capsule. Most recently, I accidentally watched a launch twinkling in the sky from Orlando when I happened to see it one night.
By Patrick Connolly
Jan 21, 2020 at 6:00 AM
I took a deeper look at the state’s environmental issues while participating in trash cleanups and learning more about sea turtles and manatees .
There were two goals where I fell short.
In February, I ran the Gasparilla 8k for the second time and finished in 38:41, but I didn’t work further toward my intention of running my first half marathon. My relationship with running is a bit hot and cold, so maybe I’ll return to this one eventually.
I also didn’t have a chance to commute to work by bike more often because the newsroom has been operating remotely since mid-March. However, I did put plenty of miles on my new-to-me mountain bike in the second half of this year.
New year, new goals
While I’m proud of the milestones accomplished in 2020 and satisfied with the many adventures I embarked on, a new year provides a perfect opportunity for setting new objectives.
Kayaks loaded with gear for camping are parked along the banks of the Suwannee River near White Springs. (Patrick Connolly/Orlando Sentinel)
1. Embark on a kayak camping adventure
Like many others, I doubled down on buying outdoor recreation equipment during 2020 to help in achieving more socially distanced adventures. One of my big purchases came in the form of a Perception Access 11.5 kayak, which I’ve taken for paddles on Lake Ivanhoe, Juniper Run, Crystal River, Wacissa River, Blue Spring, Silver River, Mosquito Lagoon and more.
While the daytrips have been satisfying on their own, I would take joy in loading up a tent and provisions for a multiday camping excursion on one of Florida’s scenic waterways. The Wacissa River, Suwannee River and Econlockhatchee River all come to mind as kayak camping destinations.
Chelsey and Chris Stevens hike a section of the Florida Trail in Ocala National Forest on Saturday, Mar 14, 2020. (Patrick Connolly / Orlando Sentinel)
2. Explore more Floridian backpacking opportunities
For me, 2020 will be remembered as the year I made my return to backpacking. I strapped on my pack for a hike on the Florida Trail, plus several backcountry overnights in Georgia during two different trips. I remembered the pleasure found in having all of the essentials stowed on my shoulders while taking in nature.
Hopefully, 2021 will bring more chances to explore more sections of the Florida Trail and other primitive camping opportunities. Showers and plumbing are in short supply while backpacking in the wilderness, but serenity and natural sights are plentiful.
Patrick Connolly rides his mountain bike at Orlando Mountain Bike Park. (Gerald Leong / Orlando Sentinel)
3. Fine-tune my mountain bike skills on new trails
This year is the one in which I finally bought my own mountain bike to explore off-road routes all over Central Florida. Mountain biking is something I’ve always enjoyed but have seldom had access to without the right kind of setup.
My Giant Stance 1 has taken me to the Santos trails near Ocala, Graham Swamp on Palm Coast, Mount Dora’s trails, some of Tallahassee’s offerings and plenty of quick visits to Orlando Mountain Bike Park. I’ve cut my teeth on small features and easy trails before challenging myself with harder jumps and features.
In 2021, my aim is to explore new trails and improve my skills at Alafia River State Park, Loyce Harpe Park, Grapefruit Trails, Chuck Lennon Park and Balm Boyette Scrub Preserve.
Central Florida Explorer Patrick Connolly enjoys time in his hammock at Wekiwa Springs State Park. (Patrick Connolly/Orlando Sentinel)
4. Discover new parks and trails in Central Florida
I recently found myself frustrated while searching Google for parks in Orlando. The assumption is that in Central Florida, “parks” means theme parks. While I enjoy visits to Disney and Universal, I’m much more interested in spending a day in the sun at one of the region’s many green spaces.
Whether they’re national parks, state parks, county parks or city parks, I’m hoping to visit some of these yet unseen spaces in the greater Orlando area. In fact, I’ll be exploring lots more of them soon for a recurring feature on area parks and trails. Stay tuned.
A bumblebee works on pollinating at Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive. (Patrick Connolly/Orlando Sentinel)
5. Broaden my knowledge about flora and fauna, plus environmental issues
I’ve never been an excellent birder or identifier of plant life. I’ve gotten better since moving to the Sunshine State. I embarked on a mushroom hunt with mycologist Jon Martin to learn more about Floridian fungi. I know how to pick out an ibis, an egret, an anhinga and a swallow-tailed kite, plus one or two varieties of hawks. I’m familiar with identifying longleaf pines, oak trees, saw palmettos and cypress trees.
Still, I find myself frustrated when I can’t put my finger on what something is. To remedy this, my goal is to learn about more bird, insect, plant and animal species that Florida home. I’d also like to know more about different types of environments such as pine scrub and wetlands. Knowing about issues that plague Florida’s environment, such as problems facing the Floridan Aquifer and state’s waterways.
Litter is picked up near the Haulover Canal during a "Trash Bash" cleanup at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. (Patrick Connolly/Orlando Sentinel)
6. Give back to the state I’m proud to call home
At this point, I have no hesitation in saying I’m proud to call Florida my home. After nearly three years, I’ve seen more of this state than I ever knew existed and have been blown away time and time again by its biodiversity.
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It saddens me to see litter in some places where I hike, paddle and camp. Inspired by the example of my fellow explorers, Sunshine State Seekers Chelsey and Chris Stevens (who picked up around 700 pounds of trash in Florida in one year), I intend to keep picking up carelessly discarded items on my own treks.
On several occasions, I’ve pitched in with maintenance at Orlando Mountain Bike Park, but this may be the year I help with Florida Trail work. I also hope to learn more ways I can help Florida’s waters and make environmentally conscious personal decisions.
Do you have suggestions for my next destination or just want to get in touch? Find me on Twitter @PConnPie , Instagram @pconnpie or send me an email: email@example.com .