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Water lily fronds, huddled together on the water's surface, part with a gentle nudge from Dan Riefler's canoe during his frequent trips to Blue Cypress Lake. And Spanish moss dangles from the gnarled limbs of the stately cypress trees that border the lake and provide ample shade.

"You don't even have to paddle in the sunshine," Riefler, age 49, says. "And they have birds galore there."

Just a few weeks ago, an adult male limpkin -- a large wading bird -- let Riefler float to within a canoe's-length and watch in awe as it opened a clam with its curved bill and fed the contents to a hungry chick. And the scenery includes more than just flora and fauna. The lake is now closed to development, but a few old stilt houses remain, as does Riefler's dream home. "There's a tree house there," he says. "Some hermit lives in it. A tree house over the water in cypress trees -- man, that's cool."

Even cooler, he says, is watching the day begin and end from the cradle of a canoe. "It's a wonderful place to watch the sunset," he says. He's also watched the moon rise. "Boy, that's a mystical experience, being alone and abandoned on a dark lake," he says. "If you go on weekdays, it's like you're the only person who's ever been there before."

He's not, of course, but the illusion is an easy one to maintain. Whenever he camps out on the lake, a nearby bait store is the only hint of civilization -- unless, of course, there are other campers around. About a two-hour drive north from Fort Lauderdale, Blue Cypress Lake is located in northwest Indian River County, and it's one of the canoe-paddling trips and hikes Riefer will discuss during the next meeting of the Florida Trail Association August 13.

The statewide organization's primary purpose is to maintain a 1300-mile footpath called the Florida Trail, which stretches from Tamiami Trail in the Everglades to the Panhandle. The 160-member Broward County chapter, called the Happy Hoofers, looks after section two of the trail, a 60-mile stretch that snakes through the Everglades from I-75 (Alligator Alley) north to Lake Okeechobee.

But group members don't just stick to their namesake trail. At the meeting, they'll talk about their exploits in such far-flung places as the Amazon River basin and Dominica, a pristine Caribbean island.

While exotic trips are enchanting, perhaps more interesting -- especially to recent Florida transplants -- is Riefler's digest of information on local getaways. By "local" he means any place within a couple of hours or 150 miles of Broward County -- "something that can be done on a two-day overnight," he says.

The Hickory Hammock Trail at the north end of Lake Okeechobee "is a wonderful hike and camp-out," he reveals. "The Dupuis Preserve, south of Indiantown, about 85 miles from [Fort Lauderdale, to the north], is a popular weekend outing. The Loxahatchee River is very famous around the country for its beauty, and it's in Jupiter. The south fork of the St. Lucie River [west of Jupiter] has a wonderful three-mile canoe-paddle to an isolated campsite, and also a one-mile-loop hiking trail along the river."

There's just one hitch when it comes to locating such secluded getaways. "With most of these trips, you almost need somebody to tell you where to go, otherwise all you see is a patch of woods," Riefler says. "Going with the group lets you discover a place, but then you can go alone."

Association dues are $25 per year, but membership isn't required to tag along on outings.

And whatever trip you choose, Riefer says, "It's a very satisfying weekend. You come home Sunday evening and say, 'Gosh, it's hard to believe I did that in just two days.'"

-- John Ferri

The Florida Trail Association's next meeting takes place Thursday, August 13, at 7:30 p.m. at Fern Forest Nature Center, 201 Lyons Rd. S., Pompano Beach. Admission is free. Call 954-564-6833.

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John Ferri

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