J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is located on Sanibel Island, just across the bridge from Ft Myers in southwest Florida. I took my first trip to the refuge in February of 2012. I arrived at the parking lot at 5 AM and since the entrance to Wildlife Drive didn’t open til seven I parked the car, bypassed the gate and started walking the single lane gravel that circles the preserve, keeping an eye out for alligators in the dark. Remembering this advice from Edward Abbey, one of my favorite authors, a flashlight is not the best way to maneuver through the darkness if you’re worried about spotting what might alarm you. Your eyes will only only be accustomed to that bright swath of light at your feet and you’ll be blind to anything outside of that narrow beam. It’s better to let your eyes adjust to all your surroundings. So I slid my headlamp into a pocket and let my eyes slowly adjust, welcoming the eventual sunrise. This is the best time of the day, you’re all alone on the trails and in short time the eerie silence is broken by the calls of the awakening wildlife. I spotted my first nest about a mile or so into the hike and spent the next couple of hours photographing Osprey flying back and forth with nesting material and food for their offspring. I was so consumed with these birds, the largest hawks, and the many other subjects I found along the path, the last thing on my mind was the direction I was traveling. There was a particularly active nest just about at the end of the road where I ran into another photographer. We started up some small talk as we both kept an eye out for a bird returning to the nest with a fish for the family. As he started packing up, seeing I was without transportation, he offered me a ride back to the parking lot. I figured I was very close to the end of the loop at this point so I declined, choosing instead to continue my hike and look for other photo ops. “Are you sure ?”, he asked. Yup, I’m fine. So I started walking, and walking, sure that I would see the parking lot around the next bend. That is, until the gravel road ended abruptly and I found myself on the edge of a highway with no idea where I was. As it turned out, I wasn’t on the Indigo Loop Trail which would have led me back to the parking lot. Instead, I had walked the 4.25 mile road that cuts through the preserve. Maybe I should have used my headlamp when I started out after all.
Using my best judgement I took a left and carried on for another mile, still thinking I had to be close to the parking lot. Finally, there it was, a sign, ENTRANCE TO DING DARLING NWR 3 MILES ! The good news ? I finally knew where I was. The bad news ? I had three more miles of walking the edge of a highway with camera and tripod slung over my shoulder in the 90 degree Florida sunshine.