From Black Water Swamps to White Sandy Beaches

From Black Water Swamps to White Sandy Beaches

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Miami International Airport to Oasis Visitor Center---February 14th

After completing the Pacific Crest Trail on October 21st, 2010 one of my main thoughts was "it'll be a while before I do anything like this again". I was drained both mentally and physically, the 2,663 trail miles having whittled my 185 pound frame down to a very thin 140. At Halloween my brother joked that I really didn't need a costume, I could just go as a skeleton. Certainly a period of recovery was in order, a time to reconnect to the "real world".
The first fortnight was the most difficult as a feeling of weakness completely overwhelmed me. This was hard for me to understand because I had felt so strong on the trail. Perhaps I had run out of adrenalin and my body had gone into shut down mode. Several more weeks passed and I began to feel gradually stronger especially as I was still wolfing down food at a rate that only a hungry hiker can appreciate. As a result, I was regaining a fair portion of the weight I had lost.
It was during the Christmas holiday that one of my friends from Florida wrote that I should check out the National Scenic Trail in his state. I don't know the exact reason why, but the idea intrigued me even though up to that time I had never ever heard of the Florida National Scenic Trail. A little research on the Internet and suddenly that idea was becoming a plan. No doubt I missed the challenges of the trail, so I decided on an adventure that was longer in both time and distance than the Pacific Crest. If I was going out to the east coast to hike I might as well include the Appalachian Trail as a part of the experience. This combined with the trail in Florida would exceed 3,200 miles and would most certainly take more time than the three and a half months it took me to finish the Pacific Crest Trail. Over the next few weeks I ordered the maps and data book for the Florida Trail, paid my membership fee, arranged for the permits that would allow me to pass through the Seminole Indian Reservation and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, and bought a few items of gear that I thought I would need for these particular trails. In addition, I got the Thru-hiker Companion and Data Book for the Appalachian trail figuring that the planning for our nation's oldest national trail could be done while I was in the back country of the Sunshine State.
So it was that in the late evening of February 13th I found myself boarding the overnight flight from San Diego to Miami, on the way to "hit another trail" much sooner than I could ever have foreseen. Early the next morning as the plane descended for its final approach into Miami International, I gazed out the window at the landscape of South Florida. It certainly wouldn't be long now before I'd be out there in it, my excitement and nervousness building. There was only one problem I had to worry about: How do I get from the airport to the Loop Road? No public transportation is available.
I had thought Alligator Alley Express was my best option as the FTA website stated that the company offered a service between Miami and Naples with the Oasis Visitors Center being one of the drop off places. However, in attempting to contact them a few days before my flight I only got a message that the phone number was no longer in service suggesting in my mind that they were out of business. At the airport information desk, the employee directed me toward a mini-van operation that transported people around the greater Miami area, but the confusion among those working at the pick-up point over exactly where I wanted to go coupled with the $500 suggested price left me shaking my head and laughing at the ridiculous situation I was in. The trail head was only 45 miles east with no apparent means to get there. "Hell, I'm a long distance hiker," I thought. I'll take the city bus to the edge of town and, if need be, walk the rest of the way.
The $5 bus ride to the western edge of the city was uneventful and the walk past Florida International University out to the Tamiami Trail (Highway 41) was pleasant enough, the temperature being relatively mild in the wintertime. I tried hitching for an hour, but there were three factors working against me. First of all, there isn't much room along the highway for a car to safely pull over to give somebody a ride. Secondly, in the winter there are many homeless people in the area, so locals are averse to picking up complete strangers, especially those with a pack on their back. Finally, what traffic there actually was was very light and I suppose the chances of catching a ride diminish with a low number of cars.
I believe I covered more than fifteen miles striding along the shoulder of 41. As the sun dipped below the western horizon I slipped onto a short, dirt side road that led to a transmitter tower and hurriedly set up my tent next to some tall marsh grasses. A fortuitous spot indeed seeing as how much of the area on either side of the Tamiami is covered with water. Not quite the way I had pictured my first day, but except for the acute loneliness I felt inside my tent that evening, all else was fine.
Hoofing it another five miles the next morning, I reached Everglades Safari, one of several establishments in the region offering air boat tours of the swamp. I stopped by to inquire about getting a ride to the ranger station. The people I spoke to, learning of my predicament, were eager to help and on my behalf spoke to a tour operator out of Ft. Lauderdale whose group was currently out in the middle of their swamp tour. He informed me that the next stop on their trip was only a half mile from the ranger station, all I had to do was take the front passenger seat and keep quiet so he could do his presentation as the group's guide. Agreed!
While I was waiting for the group to return, I sat in the shade and did some wildlife watching. Wasn't it a thrill to see a four-foot alligator emerge from underneath the lily pads and take up a nice sunny place on a grassy bank in front of me. "Now this," I thought, "is Florida.", as my face broke into a broad smile. It was only an hour later after a short drive and walk that I was standing in front of the doors of the Oasis Visitors Center.

Everglades Safari Park

Oasis Visitors Center to Seven Mile Camp---February 15th

Entering the visitors center I headed for the counter to register for my hike through Big Cypress National Preserve. I told the ranger there about my plans to hike the eight miles south to the loop road where the southern terminus of the Florida Trail is located. With a look of deep concern she said, "Oh honey, you don't want to do that." Somewhat taken aback by her statement, I asked her what I was missing. She proceeded to tell me that an experienced hiker suffering from extreme dehydration had had to be airlifted out of that area just a few days before. "It's nothing but eight miles of deep mud," she said. The other ranger wandered over at just about this time to confirm what she had been telling me. Though a little daunted, I still felt I had to try, but taking the story to heart I made sure all of my Platypus bladders were full before taking my first steps south.
After crossing the 41 and passing the brown highway sign directing cars to the visitors center, I was indeed on a very muddy track through grassland with cypress trees not too distant. Unfortunately, what was one easily followed path suddenly became several paths that diverged into the cypress stand and much to my dismay I was unable to see an orange blaze to guide me further. Some little comfort was the fact that a day hiker I came across was having the same trouble as me. We chose the path that appeared to be the most well-travelled until we reached a stretch of calf-deep water. It was the end of the line for the day hiker, but as an intrepid thru-hiker I removed the compass from my pack and holding it firmly in my hand started bushwhacking a coarse due south.
The water didn't last long, but once on firmer ground again the undergrowth was getting rather thick, which made progress slow and difficult. After an hour and a half of imagining myself as some great explorer, I began to think better of continuing. Drinkable water was not an issue at that moment, but if I had gone further, I'm sure it would have become one. The only drinkable water was to be found in the center of the cypress domes and in this totally unfamiliar landscape, I wasn't sure where they were. So, reversing direction, compass pointed north, I made my way back towards the Oasis Visitors Center emerging from the trees about 100 feet left of the place I had entered, turned back from my true goal of the Loop Road, but with increased confidence in my compass ability.
The picnic area just west of the visitors center had some nice tables shaded by the nearby trees. Sitting there in the late afternoon, I checked my maps while snacking on granola bars and worrying about what would happen if I lost the trail while passing north. Before returning to the trail I took advantage of a hose and spigot to wash off some mud from my shoes and top off my water supply.
The early evening was sunny and warm with a gentle cooling breeze, nearly ideal conditions for a lovely stroll. The orange blazed trail was quite easy to pick up as it led north along the edge of the airstrip. Nice walking through pinewood, palmetto, palm and cypress with very little mud and no unavoidable water. The wildlife was mainly small birds flitting around in the bushes, but a hawk, perhaps disturbed by my presence, took up shrieking at me from the treetops. What I liked the most was the wonderful array of bromeliads clinging here and there to the trunks and branches of the cypress trees, a good number of them sporting large orangish blooms.
I didn't quite reach Seven Mile Camp before it began to get dark, so I wound up pitching my tent in a small clearing a few yards off the trail. As the dim light of dusk gave way to the darkness of night, the air was filled with shrieks and hoots and what I'd later learn to be the guttural growls of alligators. Lying in my tent listening to such a cacophony, I eventually drifted off to sleep.

Bromeliad Bloom
Cypress Stand
The Journey Begins
The Northern Route

Seven Mile Camp to Oak Hill Camp---February 16th

I awoke this morning to the caw of crows and the hammer of woodpeckers. The tarptent was soaked with dew, the result of the lower nighttime temps, high humidity and condensation, the morning sky a light blue and nearly cloudless. Continuing much as it had the previous evening, the path snaked its way through pine, palmetto, palm and cypress. Not long into the hike I met a couple who had overnighted at Seven Mile Camp and were now returning to the Oasis Visitors Center. They seemed surprised to see me, even more so when I told them about my plans for thru-hiking. Concerned about the availability of water, they offered me a liter of their water saying they had carried extra from the trail head the day before and wouldn't need it walking in the cool of the morning on their return journey. I readily accepted even though I still had plenty of water myself. Wishing me luck on my trek, they continued south while I headed in the opposite direction.
Passing Seven Mile Camp and Ten Mile Camp while it was still rather early, I soon came to a scenic area where the trail skirts a large sawgrass field. No questioning the reason for this semi-circular sweep of the path. If it ran straight through the field, it would soon be overgrown, not to mention the fact that hikers travelling past would be cut to ribbons. After all, the plant is called SAWgrass.
Shortly after one o'clock I arrived at Thirteen Mile Camp and took a relaxing hour-long break reading and hydrating in the shade of some squat palms. The day may have been considered hot by some if not for the cooling effects of a light wind. On the way to this rest spot I had found some sunglasses lying discarded in the dry grass next to the trail. Quite thankful for this because my pair had been broken (cracked down the center) during my bus ride to the edge of Miami. Now I was once more in possession of a pair that would protect my eyes from the glare of the midday sun.
When breaktime was over, I took a look at the camp register. Inside were names and messages from other 2011 thru-hikers, most of whom were at least a month ahead of me seeing as how the peak of thru-hiking season really kicks off around January 1st. The most recent entry was one signed by Rich Mayfield, who was attempting the Eastern Continental Trail from Key West to Canada. Just a day ahead I thought I'd stand a good chance of catching up to him. Another hiker had included directions to the nearest cypress dome where fresh water could be found---a quarter mile north on the trail turning left onto a swamp buggy road and then bushwhacking into the center of the dome on the right. "Look out for the alligator that will be eying you!", it warned. Ha, Ha. "What a humourous entry in the log", I thought.
Grabbing my gravity filter and tin cup I went in search of water. Following the directions I was soon standing amidst the little cypress trees (many no taller than myself) and grasses that form the outer edge of the dome. As I walked further towards the center, the cypress trees became bigger, growing closer together and patches of sawgrass appeared. Continuing on, I got the feeling that everything was closing in around me. Then suddenly, it all opened up to reveal a shallow, muddy pool with lush aquatic plants and reeds ringed by the largest of the cypress trees. A two foot gator, startled by my appearance, scrambled into the water on the opposite side of the pool. "Well, so much for that", I said to myself. Finding a place where I could skim off some relatively clean water with my tin cup, I began to fill the dirty bag of my filter. It was then that I noticed a five foot alligator resting by the side of the pool partially hidden by the plants. It was only 12-15 yards away and was indeed giving me the eyeball. I stood up quickly and looked around the area to see if there were any more surprises. Not spying any, I engaged in a brief staredown with the toothy reptile before slowly bending down again to fill the dirty bag with water. I suppose it felt the whole process was a bit time-consuming or maybe that I was a tad too close in proximity. Becoming ever so slightly agitated, it let out a few threatening growls similar to those I had heard the night before. Protecting its territory or perhaps the little freshwater that remained during the height of the dry season, I couldn't blame it for being a little grumpy. With bag now full, I quietly backed away and left the pool to its permanent residents.
Back at camp it took about 15 minutes for the gravity filter to process about four liters of water. Definitely not the best water I've tasted---I called it "alligator piss" in lieu of my experience---but adequate enough to stave off the thirst.
The next five miles the trail went from dry to wet to thick mud and finally to a short stretch of calf-deep water before reaching Oak Hill Camp. A few feet higher than the surrounding land, the camp provides a safe haven in the midst of the swampy waters, oak trees and palms forming a jungle-like canopy over the tent sites. In the early evening there was a lot of animal noise, especially with the squirrels chasing each other along the branches of the oaks and down the trunks into the bushes. At dusk I was serenaded by a chorus of crickets while reading another chapter of The Deerslayer by headlamp. Data Book says that deep water awaits tomorrow. Gulp!

Pine, Palmetto, Palm and Cypress
The Sawgrass Field
Path through Small Cypress
The Pool
The Toothy Reptile
Oak Hill Camp

Oak Hill Camp to Nobles Homesite---February 17th

Unlike yesterday, the tent was dry this morning thanks to the foliage overhead. The Data Book showed that the "Black Lagoon", the deepest water in Big Cypress, was a mere tenth of a mile north of Oak Hill Camp. Having taken a moment to summon up my courage, I strode determinedly out of camp and sure enough was soon in knee deep water, surrounded by cypress stands. Needless to say, this was hiking as I had never experienced it before and it seemed as if all my senses were heightened. Not wanting to get lost in the swamp, I proceeded cautiously, seeking out the orange blazes which led me from tree to tree deeper into this unique watery wilderness. The fact is that the water didn't last for long, only half a mile (more or less) before being replaced by mud, which at times was the consistency of wet cement. Tromp. Squish. Slurp. Had to make sure my shoes were tied tight or they would have been sucked right off my feet. I'd much rather have been back in the water because it was easier to walk through. At some point in this mud-bound world I came across a debris field---abandoned clothing, tents, sleeping bags, a couple of packs, a walkie-talkie
and the most curious item, a hiking staff decorated with emblems from at least 30 state or national parks standing upright in the mud along the trail. My mind, working furiously, couldn't help but pose some unanswered questions. Why would people abandon there equipment like this? Had they got into trouble? Were they airlifted out? Did these people make it? As a solo hiker, I had an eerie feeling as I stood there trying to make sense of it all. Alas, this mystery was to remain unsolved.
The trail was a mixed bag the rest of the morning into the early afternoon; sometimes mud, sometimes almost dry, and two other times with calf-deep water. More than once I found myself in the middle of a sea of brown, knee-high grass with cypress domes rising in all directions in the distance. At one point I was being followed by two hawks, their wings outstretched, floating on the air currents fifty feet above me. At least they weren't vultures! Ha. I think they were simply waiting for some nervous rodent to break cover upon my passing so they could swoop down and enjoy an easy meal.
On the final approach to Ivy Camp there was a lovely strand of palms running about 300 meters from north to south off to the right. Much like Oak Hill, Ivy Camp offered a shady area for tents or at this time of day a good place for a lunch break. A cypress dome was also close, a short trail leading from the back of the camp through the trees to the pool. No gators to deal with this time, but water quality was still questionable.
Not long after leaving Ivy Camp I was finally out of the mud. It was a relief to be hiking normally again, but I'd be lying if I said I was happy to be saying goodbye to Big Cypress National Preserve. The truth is that despite the difficulty I thoroughly enjoyed my time there because of the uniqueness of the experience. I mean how often does one have the chance to walk through cypress swamps and share drinking holes with gators? :-) Not often, I'd imagine. For this reason I'd heartily recommend the trek through the preserve to anyone seeking a little adventure.
Anyway, continuing on from this sentimental reflection, the trail had now merged with a swamp buggy road which led to I-75 (Alligator Alley). Passing through a fence, I followed the access road east to the highway rest stop. When I reached the picnic shelters, I dropped my pack and dug out a few granola bars from my food bag. Snack time! One elderly gentleman, either braver or more inquisitive than others at the tables, asked what I had been doing. I don't think he expected my response to be, "Walking through the swamp." He was even more astounded when I told him that this was just the beginning and that I planned to walk the whole of Florida on the National Scenic Trail. Still, a smile was on his lips as he wished me good luck. The other people within earshot could only offer sidewards glances, not sure what to think about such absurdities.
Question time over, I went to the bathroom to wash the mud off my legs and rinse out my socks in the sink. The last thing I did was fill the platypus bladder up with water from the drinking fountain. Although it was cool, it had the distinctive taste of sulphur and in this respect was worse than the "alligator piss" from the cypress domes. Phooey!
The remainder of the day was spent walking Nobles Road looking for wildlife along the canal, which paralleled it on the left. Gators were a common sight and getting a photo of them sunning themselves on the bank wasn't a problem. However, the birds and turtles were a different story. They simply flew away or vanished beneath the green water as I drew near. White ibis, blue heron, wood stork... there was quite a variety.
The camp for the night was just a grassy area at Nobles Homesite. I'm not sure why there was a historic icon next to it on the FTA maps because from my vantage point there was certainly nothing to see except my eyelids as they closed upon another day.

The Black Lagoon
Sucking Mud
Entering the Dome
Deeper in the Dome
Center of the Dome
Palm Hammock and Cypress Dome
Bromeliad Beauty
Gator along Nobles Road Canal

Nobles Homesite to Deerfence L3 Canal---February 18th

There was a full moon last night, but it was unusually silent. I can only attribute the lack of noise to the fact that I was no longer in the middle of the swamp and there might not be as much animal life around here. One thing there was plenty of ---ants! During the night an ant colony ate a few dozen minute holes in the bottom of my tent and set up shop in the right corner. I had to shake out my gear piece by piece to get rid of them all. Luckily, I escaped with only a small number of bites because the few I got really packed a punch. Ouch! I suppose, like me, the ants found the inside of my tent a warm and dry place to escape the morning dew, which had absolutely drenched the outside. Had to pack it away sopping wet.
It was a nice walk on a grassy track through scattered pines to the west feeder canal, but that's when civilization encroached. Passing cars kicking up dust on the dirt road marked the beginning of the two-hour trek down West Boundary Road, which leads to the Ah-Tha-Thi-Ki Museum housing a history of the Seminole people. It appeared to me as if the Seminoles, a once proud nation, are now serving the breakfast tables of America with citrus, for as I passed along the canals and ditches there was grove after grove of oranges and grapefruit. Another three hours on the shoulder of CR 833 revealed the other mainstays of the South Florida economy---cane fields and cattle ranches. At this time of year some of the fields were being burned, so in the distance I could see plumes of gray and white smoke rising up like a mushroom cloud to meet the sky.
To combat the loneliness of the road I travel, a good deal of time was taken up thinking of friends, family and loved ones. Singing songs also boosted my spirits and helped the time go by.
Another two hours spent along the Deerfence Canal and it was time to think about finding a camp for the night. At the Junction of the Deerfence and the L3 a big construction project was taking place. A couple of canal workers greeted me with a cold bottle of water and some wildlife stories. One of them went to his truck and returned with an 8x10 photo he'd printed off the Internet. It pictured a gigantic gator running across a road with a full-sized wild boar stuffed in its jaws. If I had the misfortune of coming across such a behemoth, I wouldn't stand a chance. For some reason, as they were issuing their dire warnings, I began to feel like Dorothy in the forest of Oz. "Gators and panthers and bears. Oh my! Gators and panthers and bears. Oh my! Follow the orange-blazed road. Follow the orange-blazed road. Follow follow follow follow follow the orange-blazed road." Ha. I figured that since I'd made it past Big Cypress, I'd stand a pretty good chance of surviving along the canals. With that in mind, I found a nice little spot in a turn out just off the road and settled down for the night.

West Boundary Road

Deerfence L3 Canal to Palm Tree Camp---February 19th

Surprise, surprise---the tent was wet again this morning. This is becoming somewhat of a recurring theme. Witnessed a beautiful sunrise with the first rays of morning light filtering through tall grass near my campsite. Allowed the sun a bit of extra time to dry off the tent before packing up and getting a start to the day. Shade is at a premium along the dikes. You might find a lone tree or two, but for the most part its just one long exposed stretch. Your best chance at getting out of the direct sunlight is sitting in the shadow of a pump house which you pass all too infrequently. My sun hat, sunglasses, bandanna and long-sleeve Under Armour Heat Gear shirt did a good job of protecting me from sunburn. Thank goodness for the breeze blowing most of the day keeping it tolerably pleasant
Even though the dikes are only raised seven to ten feet above the surrounding land, standing on top of them gives you a commanding view all around because they're higher than any other natural feature in the South Florida landscape. You can literally see for miles. The only disadvantage in this is that on a long, straight stretch along the canal it can seem as if you're not making any progress whatsoever, one orange grove, cane field or cattle ranch looking pretty much like the next.
I passed a person in a small tent on the dike at about nine this morning. I suppose I was a little dazed as I haven't seen anyone out on the trail since day one. Confused as well at someone still being in their tent at that hour. Should have stopped to ask if he was hiking the trail too, but I didn't. At times as a solo hiker I think I get into the habit of not talking, focused more on the miles ahead of me or the nature that surrounds me. One thing I can say is that the folks passing on the white gravel road below sure were friendly, waves and smiles as they drove by.
Not a long day by any means as I was setting up camp in a flat area just down from the dike by early afternoon. There were a couple of small palm trees but being next to a small ditch were in the wrong position to offer any respite from the sun. I went back up and over the dike to get water from the canal. Not the greatest source of H2O, but what else was I going to do? Put it through my gravity filter and hoped for the best. Did a bit of laundry by hand and, seeing as I was miles from nowhere, stripped down and had a nice field bath. With all the camp chores done, I had the chance to read a few more chapters from The Deerslayer. James Fenimore Cooper is one of my favourite american authors and Hawkeye (Natty Bumpo) is one of my favourite characters in literature.

Canal Sunrise
Along the Dike

Palm Tree Camp to Clewiston Campsite---February 20th

The morning mists left my tent soaked yet again. As they began to dissipate with the strength of the rising sun, I saw a lone figure shaking out a rain fly on top of the dike about 300 meters distant. Keeping an eye in that direction, I eventually noticed someone walking my way while I was breaking camp. A few minutes later I met Rich Mayfield, the person I passed along the L3 canal yesterday and whose register entry I had read at Thirteen Mile Camp several days before.
Like me, he was also from California---Laguna Hills. Ex-Navy and fairly well travelled, this was his first long trail. Talking helped pass the time as we travelled through farmland on our way to the southern shores of Lake Okeechobee. We swapped stories of our experiences on the trail, in the military and overseas. I didn't envy his long road walk up the highway from Key West, which had thrashed his feet, forcing him off the trail for a couple of days. However, having spent many years abroad, I did appreciate talking with someone who had also spent time outside the United States. I believe it gives a person a broader view of the world as a whole.
Lake Harbour, a small community to the south of the lake, offered no market that we could find for any type of resupply and the post office has very limited hours. Rich has a problem there because he sent himself a drop-box, but will have to wait until Tuesday to get it. He forgot that tomorrow is President's Day.
After taking a snack break in John Stretch Park, where some kindly RVers gave us cold drinking water to top off our water containers, we climbed up the side of Herbert Hoover Dike. The view did not present the vast waters of Lake Okeechobee as we had expected, but rather, the ring canal and extensive grasses and swampland, which I have to admit was something of a letdown, the reality not matching the image I had created in my mind.
Two hours later we arrived at Clewiston Campsite, which had palms and a strangler fig to camp under and a shaded picnic table at which to sit. We both squeezed our tents in close to the fig's trunk, so hopefully the overhanging limbs will keep the moisture off. Nothing else to do but take it easy for the remainder of the day. A pair of falcons feeding fish to their chicks in a nearby aerie held my attention while Rich was fascinated by a spider making short work of a mosquito in his tent. Our real life Animal Planet. :-)

View from Herbert Hoover Dike