Yesterday was our first (and possibly last) ride on the Lake Apopka Loop trail. We started at the North Shore Trailhead and rode the 7.5 miles to the Historic Pumphouse. The trail is not paved, but hardpacked limestone and gravel. My 700x35 Vitorria Hypers (no tread) handled the trail fine, but it is not road bike territory. There are almost no facilities, and almost no people, so be prepared. There is no shade from the sun, so bring extra water and extra sunscreen.
But this ride is all about the nature (it's not called the North Shore Restoration Area for nothing), so bring a camera, after our ride, I'd suggest a video camera mounted to the handlebars. The birding statistics are insane, something like 330 species of birds in a 50 mile area. The alligators are doing just fine as well, there were 4 that we saw that were over 10 feet long sunning themselves. These were the largest alligators I've seen in the wild, so big that my mind registered them as a movie prop, because surely I can't be riding a bike 15 feet away from a 12 foot gator, right? The gators under 10 feet didn't get counted, there were just too many, several 6-8 footers in the water and out, and a "school" of 2 footers still believing in safety in numbers for protection.
Then we get to the animals I can't positively ID, because the encounter was so short. Animal number 1 appeared to be a stray dog, 50-75 pound was my guess from the size. I moved myself between the dog and my wife, and since we were riding into a headwind, I hoped we'd be too close for it to plan before it realized we were there. But the gravel made enough noise that we were heard, and the animal looked at us and fled into the woods. It was not a dog, dogs don't move like that, it was a cat, a sable colored cat with a tail as long as it's body, and there's only one kind of cat like that in Florida-panther. I've never seen a panther in the wild, the encounter was very brief, and there was no time for a photo, but dogs don't move like that, and dog tails don't move like that. Animal number 2 was an even more brief encounter about 1/4 mile from the first. This animal was about 50% of the size of the first, again definitely not a dog. The shortness of the tail on the second animal would let me be easily convinced it was a bobcat, but my wife is more convinced it was a juvenile panther. So, we have seen either our first and second panther, our first panther and first bobcat, or our animal ID skills are not to be trusted.
If you want to ride the Lake Apopka Loop, here's a checklist:
Tires at least 32mm wide
1.5 times the water you think you need
The wits to be in very close proximity to dangerous wildlife
The ability to enjoy being in very close proximity to dangerous wildlife (wife says with firearms if necessary)
The mentality of "Pack it in, pack it out", this area has suffered terribly at the hands of man for the last 100 years, now is not the time to drop your cliff bar wrapper.