On a brilliant, end-of-summer day, sunshine illuminated the foliage obscuring 82-year-old Jim Kern’s waterfront St. Augustine property. The modest house peeked through the trees, less a noticeable landmark and more a strange hiccup of white breaking through emerald splashes of palm leaves at the elbow of a narrow dirt road.
Kern, a longtime photographer and renowned hiker, enjoyed his secluded home and the natural silence surrounding it. He knew everything about the land, the creatures foraging the undergrowth, the water lapping the dock of his guest house and the elaborate spider webs outside his windows. He understood the ebbing marsh tide, sensed Florida’s subtle changing seasons and recognized each species of bird flitting through the tree canopies.
But every day, as Kern walked his property or canoed through its surrounding waters, he found himself contemplating a particularly irritating problem. A problem so large, in fact, Kern was absolutely certain he had to solve it for fear he couldn’t rest.
“You can live your life in one of two states,” he said, staring out his study window. “You can be bored or you can be anxious. I’m always anxious, you see, because there’s always a big project I need to complete.”
Kern could trace the problem on a map with his index finger. The Florida Trail, a congressionally designated National Scenic Trail beginning near the everglades system in Big Cypress National Preserve and spanning onto the Gulf Islands National Seashore, was missing more than 300 miles of hiking paths.
As the founder of the Florida Trail Association and the literal trail-blazer of the Florida Trail, Kern viewed the gaps as enormous loose ends clouding more than a half-century of work.
“I see the goal. I don’t know how in the world I’m going to get there, but there it is,” Kern said. “I’m going to get those last 300 miles.”
Kern’s interest in wildlife and photography started in childhood, but his love affair with Florida’s temperamental weather and exotic landscape wasn’t forged until a seven-month Navy stint placed him in Pensacola.
Post-military, the naive and determined 20-something moved to Miami with $600 in his wallet and dreams bigger than he could afford.
“I thought, ‘OK, now I’m going to be a wildlife photographer,’ ” Kern said. “I always start out with an idea and I don’t know anything about it, but I learn as I go along.”
When it became apparent Kern couldn’t make a living as a wildlife photographer, he juggled odd jobs until he settled as a real estate broker. The here-and-there sales funded Kern’s travels and film equipment as his journey to odd corners of the world unfolded.
But it was on a family vacation in North Carolina where Kern birthed one of his biggest ideas, a project that would combine his experience as a photographer, businessman and wildlife enthusiast.
“On this vacation, I became quite bored and I asked my brother if he would like to hike with me,” Kern said.
The two siblings set out on a 40-mile trek through a portion of the Appalachian Trail, entirely novice and unprepared. The walk concluded when the brothers stumbled to their destination point nearly two days later, hungry, tired and soggy.
Rich, Kern’s younger brother, would tell his family for years afterward that “at no point was I happy to be there.”
But with the hike, Kern had just discovered a passion rivaling his love of photography.
“And that’s how it all began, with a hike,” Kern said. “When I came back to Florida, I decided to dramatize a rather long hike.”
And so he did just that, hiking a total of 160 miles from the 40 Mile Bend on the Tamiami Trail all the way to Highlands Hammock State Park, near Seabring. It only took Kern 12 days to complete the journey and garner public interest in creating a statewide trail system.
“Once I got volunteers involved, it started to grow like mad,” Kern said. “Soon there were hundreds of helpers, then thousands. Everyone would go out and lay out the trail from aerial photographs, then tape it off and clear the way.”
A few, short years after Kern established the Florida Trail Association, the United States Department of the Interior recommended the Florida Trail be designated as one of 11 National Scenic Trails. In 1983, the 98th U.S. Congress added the Florida Trail to the National Trail Systems Act of 1968 with the USDA Forest Service in Florida overseeing the trail’s administration.
The FTA, responsible for volunteer organization and developing and maintaining all of the Florida Trail, will celebrate its 50th anniversary this year.
And while that’s certainly what Kern considers an accomplishment, there’s still that one enormous, 300-mile problem plaguing him.
“It’s something only Congress can fix.”
At the top of the 60-foot watchtower behind his house, Kern peered through binoculars at a lone wood stork. The platform dwarfed the surrounding trees, offering a spectacular view of the private land Kern calls home. The wood stork didn’t notice his observer and dozed lazily among shady tree boughs.
Kern will be the first to tell you that private land is only private so long as the government doesn’t need to expand a highway or place a railroad or new water line.
“It’s an enormous power the state has to take property and it’s very controversial,” Kern said. “But public support can be garnered for a new highway. It’s built and life goes on.”
Garnering public support to surrender private land for a trail system isn’t quite as easy. That’s where the gaps come in, the source of Kern’s absolute frustration.
“The trail is laid out as much as possible on public land,” he said. “But private property owners have to give us permission.”
Timber companies, ranch owners and sometimes the random stingy John Doe don’t always want give land up for the Florida Trail. Even when they do agree with partial good will, they can easily change their minds.
“Last year we lost miles. A timber company put their property up for sale after letting us go through for so many years,” Kern said. “We lost 56 miles of trail.”
In 1968, Congress noticed this was a problem for the Appalachian Trail and provided funding and eminent domain language through the Natural Trail System Act. More than 30 years later, more than 2,500 separate parcels of land were acquired and the trail was finally whole.
“It’s the largest acquisition in the history of park service,” Kern said. “That trail is complete from end-to-end, safe for all time.”
But only the Appalachian Trail has this protection. The remaining 10 National Scenic Trails, including the Florida Trail, are subject to private land owners giving or denying land rights.
“That’s why I’m going to become a squeaky wheel. I’m going to make enough noise,” Kern said. “I’m going to get a million names and addresses of hikers throughout America and we’re going to start to squeal.”
Kern’s goal is to raise enough awareness about the trail gaps that Congress repeats the protection it offered for the Appalachian Trail. He said he hopes his regional nonprofit, Friends of the Florida Trail, can be the assertive push necessary to get the ball rolling. His national nonprofit, Hiking Trails for America, represents the rest of the trail.
Kern said the biggest issue is a lack of public awareness. But he believes he can rally enough community support to prod Congress into action once again.
Besides, he added, it’s human nature to want to be with nature — not a highway, not a water line, but nature.
“I think it’s in our genes to find a certain quality in life, a certain something, to be in nature,” Kern said. “It’s all we did for 200,000 years. It makes sense we ought to get some satisfaction between walking and peace of mind, spirituality and all of those things that come along with hiking.”
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