Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Visit to the Bradwell Unit of the Apalachicola National Forest

Tallahassee area residents in the late twentieth century were bound to be familiar with this sight along state road 20. Just across the Ochlockonee River in Liberty County there was a long, sheet metal fence on the south side of the highway. You couldn't help but notice the fence because not a single square inch of it had escaped decoration by a vandal's paintbrush. This was the fence for the Bradwell Game Farm.

In 1996 the United States Forest Service acquired the land, and now it's the Bradwell Unit of the Apalachicola National Forest. The entrance road has been designated National Forest Road 190 and is open to vehicles, but the rest of the old hunting roads are restricted to foot traffic. Even in season hunting is only allowed on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. So a Tuesday in January seemed like a good time for a visit.

I drove 1-1/2 miles to the end of the entrance road, FR 190. FR 190 is a dirt road that's in excellent shape close to SR 20, but is more challenging to drive on by the time you get to the south end next to the Ochlockonee River. If you're in a truck you probably don't need to worry about it unless the weather has been wet. In which case most of the Bradwell Unit will probably be under water, and the condition of the entrance road will have ceased to be an issue.

Anyway, I was able to weave my way around the pot-holes and make it to the river. On my previous visit to the area there had been an old car near the end of the road. I found out later that previous visitors had dubbed this the "Bonnie and Clyde car." On this visit, it was gone. It wasn't exactly a natural wonder, but it had given the area character. I was sorry to see it go. Why couldn't the omnipresent beer containers been taken instead?

I had a wildlife management area map of the unit. This seemed to show that I could walk about a mile and a half in an upstream direction along the river, make a left turn onto another path, make the first left after that just before Pittman Creek, and then follow that path back to the entrance road a short distance from where I was parked. It looked like a loop of more than three but not quite four miles. This was the plan.

Stepping over a barrier took me onto the path up the river. Wide and smooth, this was clearly an old road. There were occasional fallen branches to go over or around, but nothing more difficult to negotiate. The Ochlockonee river was on the right on the other side of an old fence. Some pieces of sheet metal still clung to this fence, but the graffiti artists had never made it this far back into the woods.

Only 0.3 miles up the path brought me to Pittman Creek. It was a small, quiet body of water that didn't even seem to be flowing. Apparently the culverts through which the creek flowed under the path had been replaced at some time in the past; the old culverts were still lying in the woods on the near side of the creek. The crossing itself looked like a good candidate for a washout during a good storm, but it was passable that day. Beyond Pittman Creek the river turned away from the road, and there was woods on both sides.

0.4 miles brought me to a side road to the left that wasn't on the map. This was more evidence that you should never trust your life to a map--and much less to a free, wildlife management area map. Approaching 0.5 miles there was a side road to the right that was on the map. This led a few hundred feet down to the river, where you could see the Rock Bluff Scenic Area on the opposite bank.

Returning to the main road, another 0.1 miles brought me to a sharp corner in the fenceline. The road was now going more of less north. Along this stretch the river had deposited sand and bent over the fenceposts when it was at flood stage; it was remarkable that the fence was standing at all. Approaching 0.8 miles the road crossed a small creek that didn't appear on the map, and past 0.9 miles there was another unmapped side road to the left. On the second mile the road and the river began to come together again. In fact, around 1.4 miles the river was starting to undercut the road. The fence had already fallen into the river on this stretch. The road here will be entirely gone in a few years, but for now you have a great view of the river at this point. Houses are visible on the east bank, and looking upstream you can see the SR 20 bridge.

The road and the river angled apart again, and at 1.6 miles I found the left turn I was looking for. This old road took me almost directly away from the river and into the woods. At about 1.9 miles there was an old road to the left, and you could see a largish body of water straight ahead. This had to be Pittman Creek, although it was hard to reconcile this with the small stream nearer the river. I made the left turn and found myself walking more or less south, with what was apparently Pittman Creek on my right and the woods on my left. I passed an old wooden pen, possibly left over from the game farm days. The going was rougher here, with more brush and fallen trees to wrestle with.

Just past two miles the old road became almost entirely overgrown. Beyond the brush, you could see water over the trail. Bushwhacking and wading in failing light, or turn around? I knew for sure that I could get back to the car before dark by retracing my steps, so that's what I did.

I'll have to go back and finish the loop sometime, possibly during a drier period. Other than the loop there are miles of path in the Unit, and that doesn't even count the paths that didn't make it onto the Wildlife Management Area map. It's a good place to walk, but fallen limbs and stretches of poor footing might make it less enjoyable for runners. If there are any hills on the Unit then I haven't found them yet.

The entrance to the Bradwell Unit is on the south side of SR 20, approximately 0.2 miles east of the intersection of SR 267 and SR 20. There are parking areas nearer to the highway if the entrance road makes you nervous.