There remains a missing link in the Florida Wildlife Corridor between Osceola and Ocala National Forests. The Florida Trail makes a tenuous connection between the forests. On the way to Osceola, a branch of the FT also loops north to penetrate the southern portion of Camp Blanding, a critical waypoint for wildlife attempting to traverse the divide between Ocala and Osceola.
A nearly impenetrable palmetto curtain lines both sides of the road until we reach the main gate for the 73,000-acre Florida Army National Guard training center. Camp Blanding serves as a training base for thousands of National Guard, Active Army, and Army Reserves from throughout the country. The camp’s barracks and other facilities are centered on Kingsley Lake, a circular lake that airplane pilots, viewing the lake from the air, dubbed “Silver Dollar Lake” as the sun reflected off the round body of water.
I ask Jim Hughes, on duty at the training center’s Camp Blanding Museum, “What’s the origin of such a perfectly shaped lake?”
“It’s a sinkhole,” he says.
Kingsley Lake, two-miles in diameter, has a gradually sloping bottom characteristic of when sandy soils collapse into a hole. From the shore, the lake bottom slopes uniformly to about 20 feet at the rate of one foot per 50 feet, then slopes more gradually to 30 feet, before dropping off to a hole 85 feet deep. While geologists think the lake is now sealed off from the Floridan Aquifer that underlies the region, the water has an outlet in the North Fork of Black Creek that spills out of the lake to converge with the South Fork and form Black Creek that continues east to the St. Johns River.
Knowing nothing about Camp Blanding, we wander through the museum housed in former World War II barracks, learning that the camp was established in 1939. Hughes, well versed in the history of the camp, provides an overview. “At the time, the Florida National Guard training center was at Camp Foster on the St. Johns River south of Jacksonville,” he says. “However, the U.S. Navy wanted to establish a naval air station at that location. So a swap was negotiated in which a new camp was established on 30,000 acres in Clay County, here on Kingsley Lake.”
The camp was named for Lt. General Albert H. Blanding, a Florida native who commanded the 2ndFlorida Infantry during the Mexican Border Service against General Francisco (Pancho) Villa in 1916-17 and, during World War I, commanded the 53rdBrigade, 27thDivision. He later served as chief of the National Guard Bureau until retirement in 1940. In that same year, Camp Blanding was leased to the U.S. Army as an active-duty training center. The Army brought in the same company that had built New York City’s Empire State Building to construct the camp buildings in three months, which they nearly accomplished, with solders finishing up. During World War II, soldiers were inducted and trained here for infantry replacement and later separation at the end of the war; close to a million soldiers received training between 1940 and ‘45. German prisoners of war were also kept here until repatriated after the war. At its peak, Camp Blanding occupied 150,000 acres and, with its more than 10,000 buildings and facilities, was the 4thlargest city in Florida at the time. After the war, most buildings were removed and the original 30,000 acres were returned to the state of Florida. Later the federal government deeded additional acres to the state for use as a National Guard training center.
Today, despite the training activities at the camp, much of the acreage remains in a natural state. The camp lies in the historic range of perhaps 100 plant and animal species listed as critical, including the red-cockaded woodpecker, indigo snake, and gopher tortoise. The Florida black bear frequents the Black Creek drainage. Recognizing the natural resources of the military camp, an island within the surrounding farming and residential lands, the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission designated the reservation a wildlife management area.
Leaving Camp Blanding, we head east and stop at the Bayard Conservation Area on the west shore of the St. Johns River. This 10,000-acre area, centered on a 4,600-acre tract purchased from the Hall family, protects a variety of habitat—river bottom hardwoods, pine flatwoods, sandhill communities affording shelter to gopher tortoise, indigo snake, white-tailed deer, bald eagle, turkey, and numerous woodland birds.
A rare wildflower resides here, Bartram’s Ixia (Calydorea coelestina), the common name given for father and son naturalists, John and William Bartram. As a young man, William, later a noted botanist and explorer, accompanied his father on an exploration of Florida in 1765-66 when the two first noted the flower; William documented the plant, including a drawing of the delicate blue blossom.
At Bayard’s J. P. Hall, Sr. Tract, we choose a trail leading into pine flatwoods, across a narrow boardwalk bridging a wetland, through saw palmetto, to an observation tower a mile away. After climbing the flight of stairs, we have a view among tall straight pines and down onto the ubiquitous palmetto and wire grass below.
As a young man, conservationist John Muir encountered the palmetto for the first time upon entering Florida on a thousand-mile walk from his home in Indianapolis to the Gulf of Mexico in 1867. “But the grandest discovery of this great wild day was the palmetto,” he says,
I caught sight of the first palmetto in a grassy place, standing almost alone. …whether rocking and rustling in the wind or poised thoughtful and calm in the sunshine, it has a power of expression not excelled by any plant high or low that I have met in my whole walk thus far.
On our casual return walk in late afternoon, the wind comes off the nearby river and sings through the longleaf pines overhead and rustles the palmetto curtain on either side of the trail.