Guests wandering through Edward Medard Park early Saturday morning may have paused in confusion when they heard a horn bugle ringing out through the woods, quickly followed by a string of shouts and the clash of swords meeting wooden shields.
For a moment they may have shared the bewilderment of Claire Randall upon traveling back through time via the standing stones Craigh na Dun. But unlike Randall, visitors at Medard didn’t accidentally travel back to the past. Instead, the past came to 2018.
A partnership between park rangers at Medard and Wyrd Brothers Production — a volunteer historical re-enactment group that focuses on the Viking age era — led to the inaugural “Hiking with a Viking” event. The 2018-2019 Hillsborough County Hiking Spree is underway and Medard decided to offer a historic twist on the event by teaming up with the Viking enthusiasts that have called the park home for the past several years.
“As they were planning this year’s hiking spree they asked if we would be interested in partnering for the event,” Michelle Phillips, co-leader of the group, said. “We wanted to make it a fundraiser for the park as a way to give back so we made it $5 a person. They’ve been great and so wonderful to us. This is our home. We are here nearly every Saturday training and we’re just so happy to be able to give back.”
The public interest took everyone by surprise. They raised the group limit to 45 and still had to turn people away. The group, comprised of an even mix of children and adults, met at pavilion five at 9 a.m. Saturday morning where they were escorted by Park Ranger James to the Singing Bluffs Trail.
While James shared the history of the park and discussed conservation practices two men emerged from the underbrush donned in tunics and carrying staffs and swords. Group leader Brent Feagans, aka Jarl Erik the Blood Axe, and Tyler Donaway, aka Thord Alfgaerdhsson, led the motley crew through the woods pairing historic anecdotes with environmental tales from Ranger James.
Attendees were told they would simply have a Viking guide discuss their lifestyle. Instead, they were transported into a reenactment experience featuring hidden archers, Viking fishermen, a berserker, epic battles and more.
“During the final battle, they were shocked, they froze right where they were,” Feagans said. “We had them surrounded by action. They took my cue and I told (Ranger) James to get them out of there. He acted his way out and they followed him while staring in amazement. They were awe inspired and giggling as they left the battle scene.”
Feagans said the majority of the group stuck around for another half an hour talking to the Vikings and learning about everything from battle techniques to farming and weaving practices. They had endless questions and Feagans said if even one word that was uttered that day caused someone to head to Google to do some further research, he would consider it a success.
Faithful Medard visitors have come to anticipate the antics of the group, which frequently hosts viking fitness training sessions on Saturday mornings. Comprised of nearly 60 members, the group is led by Feagans, who has been involved in history based reenactment groups for more than 20 years including Renaissance and medieval festivals and a pirate troupe.
Though the sparing sessions are by far one of the most popular events by the group, Feagans said they have attracted members by the diverse skill set they routinely practice.
The group delves into the rich and evolving research surrounding the time period and learn about everything from battle practices to shipbuilding and clothing. Some members come just to learn about one specific thing, but once they get to know the group they fall in love with the Viking family.
Michelle Valentonis’ family began coming to the group when her son became interested. As the years have passed he has grown up, but their dedication hasn’t wavered. She said he is arranging his college plans around being able to study close enough so he can continue to be involved with the group.
“It’s a big family, it really is a community,” Valentonis said. “That’s the beauty of the group. It isn’t for any one type of person. It’s a family friendly group and everyone is welcome here. Our members bring their kids with them. We had a 19-month old at a Renaissance festival. We really support each other and even if my son stopped coming we still would. We love it.”
Throughout the walk, the group aimed to impart some lasting knowledge of the lifestyle the Scandinavians used to live as well as to dispute some common misconceptions like the myth that Vikings wore horn hats or that they were a barbaric, hostile and savage people.
The popularity of the Vikings TV series has led to a massive resurgence of interest across the world. New research continues to pour out and the group will delve ever deeper into the Viking world. Feagans said the park is already in talks with the group of offering another series of hikes in the new year.
“Hopefully they’ll get out of their house and get outside more and visit the other parks that have hiking,” Feagans said. “Or come to Medard. It offers a lot of interesting things, fishing, 18-hole frisbee golf, groups like us, really anything you could think of. There are an abundance of outdoor activities in the Tampa Bay area, Hillsborough County and surrounding counties and it will go away if people don’t use it. I also hope the hike sparked interest in someone that attended. That they’ll go home and keep learning.”