By Nan Mattingly, CREW Trust volunteer
Every family has its own holiday traditions. Traditions are sometimes inherited and sometimes created. However you acquire them, your family traditions are always meaningful, and they often lead to treasured family experiences.
When I was young, my father encouraged me and my siblings to enjoy the outdoors. He taught us to ice skate, to play baseball and other sports, and to explore nature. My mother loved to create feasts on special days using favorite family recipes. (She almost incited an insurrection the year she put oysters in the turkey dressing.)
Somehow, we managed to unite these two family traditions, gorging ourselves on mother’s many dishes and then, instead of lounging around and digesting, following up the big meal with a family hike. When my parents retired and moved to Delaware, they bought a small house nestled in a mostly pine wood forest. You could smell and feel the salty air coming from the Atlantic Ocean mingling with the fresh pine scent.
Then our holiday hikes became even more special. The chilly winter temperatures, so close to the Atlantic, encouraged us to walk briskly. It was a time not only to walk off all that food but also to catch up on family news. I can remember spotting various birds, plants and trees, especially gorgeous holly trees that obligingly produced red berries for us at the end of the year and added to the festivity of the occasion. By the time my parents moved to Delaware, all their children were adults and scattered across several states. The holidays at the end of the year provided us with the chance to gather and enjoy mom’s cooking as well as renew our relationships with each other.
These hikes became a sacred family tradition. No excuses – we all participated, except my mother. I guess she was too worn out from days of planning, shopping and cooking.
Now two of my siblings and I live in this area. We have continued the family tradition of hiking on holidays. It reminds me of so many years that we gathered and enjoyed the outdoors together. It’s a tradition that I recommend – and the CREW trails offer your family the perfect chance to establish your own outdoor traditions on the holidays.
Hiking in southwest Florida, in the temperate winter months is a joy. You can create your own family holiday hiking tradition on the CREW trails. We have four unique trail systems, one located in Lee County (CREW Flint Pen Strand) and three in Collier County (CREW Marsh Trails and CREW Cypress Dome, both located on Corkscrew Road, and CREW Bird Rookery Swamp on Immokalee Road).
At CREW Marsh Trails, you can hike to an observation tower that overlooks a 5,000-acre sawgrass marsh, a breathtaking sight, and you can see all the way to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary across the vast marsh. At Cypress Dome, you can enjoy the unique habitat of a cypress dome, wading in cool shallow water to the center of the shadowy forest of tall cypress trees. Flint Pen Strand offers multiple trails through pine forests as well as seasonal lakes on the east side that attract a myriad of wading birds at this time of year. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot a bald eagle that resides close to the lakes flying overhead. It’s a magnificent sight.
Bird Rookery Swamp offers yet another kind of experience. There’s a boardwalk that winds through the cypress trees, leading to a wide elevated trail that once accommodated narrow gauge trains to haul the mighty cypress trees out to sawmills. Logging at Bird Rookery Swamp ended in the 1950s, so the cypress trees you see now are second-growth trees that rapidly grew to restore the forest. Hurricane Irma in 2017 uprooted many of the red maples but you’ll see that they have returned in force. At this time of year, the cypress trees are dropping their needles, but the maples are showing off their beautiful red leaves, just in time for the holidays.
All four of the CREW trail systems are open from dawn to dusk. Trails are clearly marked, and a trail map is available at information kiosks at the trailheads. Bring the family dog (not recommended at Bird Rookery Swamp) – on a leash – and be sure to clean up after him or her. There’s no entrance fee, but donations are much appreciated and are put to good use maintaining the trails and supporting educational programs.
COVID-19 has stressed us all this year. The fresh air and vivid greenery all around you on our trails can help your family to de-stress. Please heed recommended practices on the trails, especially socially distancing. But don’t worry – there’s plenty of room for us all to enjoy the outdoors safely.