Into the woods, if you dare

Florida is full of dark woods, decayed groves and anonymous lakes, all easy places to "lose" unwanted company forever. It seems like the place we most often hear associated with strange vanishings, however, is the Ocala National Forest. Track the strange doings inside the 440,000-acre southernmost national forest, centered about 40 miles north of Orlando; it's easy to get the impression that this magnet for campers, hikers and other crazy nature warriors is the dry-land version of the Bermuda Triangle. (When you see this idea on a Fox special, remember, you read it here first.) Even when driving through the area in a speeding car you can feel that this is a vortex.

An off-duty cop is arrested for molesting a teen-age boy. Rabid wild animals menace campers. A boater starts driving recklessly, then mysteriously jumps ship and flees into the swamps. The head and lower arms of a young woman are found in a camping area several months after the rest of her body was discovered. Two little boys vanish from their campsite. A mysterious creature is said to lumber through the woods, huge as Bigfoot and just as smelly, called the Florida Skunk Ape. Hunting dogs, experts at finding things, go missing. A body is found buried under a concrete slab. A 22-year-old, 515-pound errand boy for a drug ring lures a dealer to an ambush. A brother and sister go camping, the brother is murdered, the sister is raped. An old man is murdered and found by hunters. A man masquerading as pro wrestler Diamond Dallas Page is arrested in a bar in the forest for drug possession. A 78-year-old Alzheimer's patient toddles off and never comes back. Coyotes have colonized the area. A Navy plane crashes during a training exercise. A bear attacks a woman who is cutting meat on her front porch. An endangered species of deadly spider finds this to be one of its only two homes. Not to mention a pulp-destroying Asian beetle. Most recently, the body of Kayla McKean is discovered.

An online search of just the past five years showed all this stuff happened within the Ocala National Forest, whose acreage, not coincidentally, is home to 11 ghost towns. (Walt Disney's parents used to live in one of them, called Kismet.) Not every story had a tragic ending: The camping boys and the 3-year-old were found alive and well, the Navy pilot was uninjured, and the front-porch butcher's dog fended off the bear. Still, who needs bears and severed heads, no matter where you are?

It's probably true that in an area this size and this remote a lot of bizarre things will happen, given the sheer volume of secluded land and wandering hikers. But, like the Bermuda Triangle, if you can avoid it, why go smack into it? Numerous stories involved campers wandering away from their camp sites and getting lost in the woods, a tragedy that could last forever if it weren't for police and forest rangers. We tried to reach the Ocala National Forest ranger station using a number given to us by the Visitors Center, but the line was always busy or was disconnected. We assume the ranger station has disappeared.

Camping can be a great experience, mainly when it's done at sites with that ever-important ingredient: lots and lots of other people nearby. It might not be the forest itself but people's insistence on wandering off alone into it that makes Ocala seem like a great black hole in the center of the state. Or it could be some freak evil energy that gets trapped inside all that dense pine canopy. (After all, it's right on the verge of Gainesville, and didn't Danny Rolling spend a lot of time in the woods?) Even the movies can tell you, from "Halloween" to "Deliverance," the big mistake is always ending up alone in the middle of the woods.


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