January 25, 2022

Hiking at Owen Illinois Park (Gainesville/Alachua)

There are several Alachua county parks surrounding the 5,800-acre Newnan’s Lake (just outside of Gainesville). One of those parks, Owen Illinois Park, is located off the East side of the lake on Highway 234, in between Highway 20 and Highway 26, about 15 minutes east of Gainesville in North Florida. This park is very secluded from the city and features a great 3.4 mile round loop trail through the old-growth, lakefront forest.

Several beautiful old trees live in the park - this is an Oak that is over a hundred years old.

Owen Illinois Park is one of two parks that provide public boating access to Newnan’s Lake. Newnan’s Lake has been popular for years with Gainesville area residents for kayaking, fishing, and spending time at the lakefront. This sprawling park provides access to well-maintained, almost-new bathrooms, a playground, a pavilion, several picnic tables with elevated grills, and dual concrete boat ramps that are split by a metal floating dock. There are several parking spaces for boat trailers (and birthday parties!) under huge, shady trees.

Owen Illinois Park is a little further out from the city of Gainesville and is surrounded by several forests, so the sounds of traffic are far away and it’s even quieter when you get on the trail. The trail is mostly flat in elevation, looping through low-lands of cypress by the lake and into pine habitat. When we went hiking, a few sections of the trail were submerged in water. Half of the trail is a little bit more rocky, like a horse trail, but is still easy to hike.

This trail is not accessible for all people, but the rest of the park’s facilities have been built with all people in mind. There are sidewalks leading to the restroom facilities, playground, and to the Pavilion. There's also not a great lake view while you were on the trail: it's a couple hundred feet away when you are in the cypress low-lands section.

One of the fun activities on the trail I always enjoy is tracking animals and looking for signs of their activity. This park is full of recent animal activity - there’s lots of deer tracks and we tracked several pairs of does and fawns across the park’s trail. Remember that in North Florida, there’s wildlife like bears in our woods, and Owen Illinois Park would be a prime spot to see a larger predator: Always keep your eyes out for snakes, alligators, and the other animals you might encounter while hiking in the wild.

The nicest overall feature of the park is the peaceful lakefront grounds and the sun filtering through the Cypress swamp. If you happen to visit the park in the late afternoon, because you were on the east side of the lake you can watch the sunset over the water to the West through the cypress trees as you end your visit.

Definitely include Owen Illinois Park on your bucket list for North Florida - it’s a true gem of natural Florida.

Check out photos of the 3.4-mile trail and lakefront park:

The trail map at the trailhead shows the related parks and forests surrounding Newnan’s Lake.

This little guy greeted us at the trailhead. What kind of spider is this?

Most of the Northside of the trail is like this - broad, even, and well-maintained.

Fields of these little lichens were scattered in the damp areas of the forest.

This plant was so vibrant - not sure what this is - do you know?

A feather was found on the trail.

A deer track! We found several tracks that day that were very fresh.

A flooded section of the trail.

A small creek where we had to jump the bank to cross.

The peaceful lakefront grounds where you can picnic or just relax.

The well-maintained playground area and pavilion under the shady Oaks.

The boat ramp has good concrete and a gentle slope.

The sun setting over the water was so pretty!

January 24, 2022

Thank you love (a poem)

 A poem I wrote for people who love a writer in their life:

The poem text:

Let us take a moment to thank our spouses -
Our partners, our loves; the sweet sparkles of our lives -
Thank you for the support, for the draft reads,
For being our beta audiences through tough, unfinished, and hard-to-read texts.
You believed in our ability to write before many of us believed in ourselves, breathing life into our creative dream.

A writing craft is like a house:
A strong, beautiful house isn’t built without a solid foundation,
A foundation built with love, patience, and faith in our vision;
A writer spins and dances and creates a home.
Writing is an ancient art, the need to create inseparable from the essence of being human.

My forever gratitude for your gift of love.


January 8, 2022

Sensory Room at Watford Football Club (soccer)

There's an exciting new viewing area at the Watford Football Club Vicarage Road Stadium in Watford, England, a small-sized football (soccer) sports arena that first opened in 1922 and has capacity for 22,200 fans.

The "Sensory Room" at Watford Football Club is a specifically designed stadium viewing room for children with autism and their families. There are only two of their kind (Arsenal FC opened a smaller sensory room in 2017) among football club stadiums around the world. The Sensory Room was installed in 2019 to provide a special place for these kids and their families that helps to buffer the loud sports arena environment that can often be overwhelming or debilitating to people with this condition.

The room is available for booking by any child and their family or caregiver with a doctor's note. The special room’s design is already winning several awards for its accessible design and forward-thinkingness in inclusive practices.

Image from: https://www.experia.co.uk/blog/watford-fc-sensory-room/

What’s really important about this Sensory Room is that Watford is making a statement about financial and space management that prioritizes mental and emotional health in professional sports. It’s a statement of inclusivity and choosing people over profits. In the prime arena real estate the Sensory Room occupies, most arenas would stall another bar or premium viewing box. You can see in the image below that the Sensory Room occupies prime viewing space that could provide hundreds of more seats to gain revenue from:

Image from: https://www.watfordfc.com/news/club/club-statement-covid-19

Watford’s Sensory Room features several supportive attributes including easy entry points to the stadium so the children don’t have to experience the crowds and turnstiles, a calming down area in the rear of the Sensory Room with special lights, water tubes, calming projections, and comfort seating like bean bags; emotion-coded non-verbal labels to communicate family needs and emotional states easily with staff, and provides complete isolation from the surrounding bright lights and loud noises of the arena. The team’s happy yellow and black mascot, Harry the Hornet, makes regular visits to say hi to the children and their families in the Sensory Room.

Image from: https://www.watfordfc.com/news/club/club-statement-covid-19
So if you like to watch football (soccer), consider supporting Watford’s forward-thinking club that makes inclusive decisions in their stadium planning.
And if you’re a manager at a sports venue, consider making positive changes at your sports or public facility for people with different abilities. Create opportunities and remove barriers so that all people can enjoy your venue.
You can see more of Watford's Sensory Room in the below video:


January 3, 2022

Hiking at Alfred A. Ring Park of Gainesville

If you’re looking for some peace and quiet, or simply a beautiful natural place to hike, then you have to visit Alfred A. Ring Park of Gainesville. This 21-acre park was Gainesville‘s very first nature preserve and the land was given to the city in memory of Alfred Ring. In addition to the excellent hiking trail that meanders along a creek in a densely forested ravine, there is also a children’s playground, clean restroom facilities, and a mid-size pavilion with several picnic tables. Ring park features a series of boardwalks that elevate you over the ravine and makes the entire hiking trail accessible for most people. There is also a beautiful wildflower garden dedicated to Emily Ring, Alfred’s wife, with butterfly plants, a fish pond, and several places to sit and reflect quietly in the woods.

Gainesville has many natural areas to explore when compared to other cities. It’s clear that when you visit this special city that there was extra planning put into protecting the green spaces. The primary watershed flowing from North to South through the city is called Hogtown Creek. The creek flows through Ring park above and below ground in some places and is mostly untouched - allowing animals to flourish right in the heart of the city. Hogtown creek ends in Paynes Prairie, a huge park that provides habitat and filters water to the aquifer, just as the Everglades does.

Parking for Ring Park is just off of the Elks Lodge facility located on 16th Street, on the north side of the preserve. There is no parking at the south trailhead, but there is pedestrian access. The first thing you see when you enter Ring park from the North entrance is a bridge over the crystal-clear waters of Glen Springs creek. Looking down from the bridge, there are tons of huge elephant ear plants and other beautiful plants living in a little microclimate that almost looks tropical. The trails throughout the entire park are very well-maintained. Many times we have hiked the park a day or two after a bad storm (to see the elevated water levels) and the park caretakers have already been out to chainsaw fallen trees and repair any damage to the trails.

The entire hiking trail is an out-and-back trail at a little over two miles in length and it does include some steep areas and elevation changes. The view of Hogtown Creek flowing through the park is really unmatched: it’s so peaceful just to be there, breathe the fresh air, and clear your mind with the white noise of the flowing creek. The only downside of the park is the inevitable trash that flows into the river from the surrounding city – cups, bottles, plastics: even this beautiful environment is littered with garbage just like the rest of our planet. One of the neat aspects of this waterway is the clear in-flow of Glen Springs merging with the dark-tannic Hogtown water, which you can view the contrast at an elevated platform located towards the North start of the trail.

We frequently see deer in the park which roam freely throughout the Hogtown Creek Greenway (and through the entire city from North to South). Gainesville is also known for its really cool mushrooms – and if you go hiking at Alfred Ring park while it’s a little damp in the forest, you will see more species of mushrooms than you ever knew existed in so many colors and shapes. There are also lots of little creatures to spy like amphibians and fish. Many times we will also hear owls hooting in the distance through the dense forest (during the day) and see other large birds nesting high in the tree canopy.

Thoughts of the city are quickly drowned out once you’re by the peaceful Hogtown Creek waters. This gem of a park along Hogtown Creek should definitely be a stop on your hiking list if you’re in the North Florida area. You won’t be disappointed by this hike.

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