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

Clewiston Campsite to Moore Haven RV Resort/Marina---February 21st

When I awoke, I was greeted by a spectacular sunrise over Lake Okeechobee, the sunlight through the mist creating an array of pink, orange, red and gold in the sky and coloring the water's surface. Back on the trail around 8, about the time the morning mist burned off, and reaching Clewiston by 10.
Clewiston is by far the largest town on the Lake Okeechobee West section of the Florida Trail offering all major services. Walking down the main street (US 27) past fast food joints and traffic lights, we finally came to a supermarket where I intended to resupply. Eating a pint of strawberry ice cream on a bench in the cool, air conditioned space inside, just beyond the sliding doors, was a real treat. Especially, as the day was heating up rapidly outside.
Clewiston was Rich's jumping off point. He planned to stay in a hotel and get a lift back to the Lake Harbour post office to pick up his drop-box the next day. We shook hands, thanked each other for the conversation and wished each other the best. One might think it possible for us to meet again, but that's not what happens often on the trail. I'm travelling at a faster pace than him and he plans to take time off with some friends once he gets to Orlando.
I guess the one bad thing about Clewiston was the smell. A dirty-diapers-like stink was certainly noticeable near the market and, though fainter, the breeze brought the foul odor to the nostrils while I was up on the dike leaving town. Spanky, a former A.T. hiker we met at the store, told us that the smell came from a poultry farm or something to that effect.
The rest of my hiking time along the dike that day was spent bird-watching, marvelling at what appeared to be a hurricane damaged forest stripped of leaves and branches, photographing a wayward turtle and waving to a handful of passing cyclists.
Once on the outskirts of Moore Haven, I discovered that the lock was closed to foot traffic as a matter of national security on the very off chance that some crazed Jihadi warrior disguised as a Florida Trail thru-hiker, carrying a backpack full of TNT instead of trail mix and granola bars, tried to blow himself up along with the lock, emptying the waters of this great lake onto the people of South Florida. Sounds a little far-fetched to me, but better safe than sorry, eh? Then again, an old Greek axiom states, "Nothing to Excess".
Two miles of road-walking detour later I found myself on the other side of the lock at the entrance to Moore Haven RV Resort and Marina. At the fee station, where I paid my $10 for camping, I met the new owner, a friendly woman in her fifties with a classic southern drawl. Hearing about my thru-hiking status, my trip along the Pacific Crest the previous summer, and my eleven years living and teaching in the Czech Republic, the next two hours were spent in conversation as she peppered me with questions and related her own tales of interesting people she had met since taking over management of the place.
I suppose the chat could have continued, but it was starting to get dark and I needed to set up my tent. Besides, a performance of some local musicians was to take place in the evening at 7.
By the time I got myself situated, the pickin' and singin' had already started. Unfortunately, I still had to hit the showers. Ahhhh...the cool water washing over me to clean of the day's dirt and sweat. How utterly refreshing!
Freshly showered and wearing a change of clothes, I entered the "music hall" and took a seat on the left side near the wall. Fourteen musicians were seated in chairs up at the front with instruments ranging from acoustic guitar, bass, and mandolin to keyboards and harmonica. Each person in the group took his or her turn up front, selecting a song and providing the vocals. Even a couple of women from the audience were invited to come up and sing. At intermission, all-you can-eat bowls of Bluebell Ice Cream and cups of root beer floats could be had for a dollar. It goes without saying that I had both. All in all the country and folk concert lasted from 7 to 10 and a good time was had by everyone present. I was by far the youngest one there as most of those assembled were retirees in their sixties and seventies. Spoke a while with a retired couple from northern Georgia who lived near the Appalachian Trail, then back in my tent I finished another chapter of The Deerslayer.

Okeechobee Sunrise
Hurricane Damaged Trees
Ninja Turtle

Moore Haven RV Resort/Marina to Indian Prairie Campsite---February 22nd

This morning the camp and marina were blanketed in fog, which didn't burn off until 9:30. I had some errands to run in town, picking up a package containing my levagaiters at the post office then doing a bit more resupply at U Save, so I didn't get back on the trail until 10:30.
I was simply pushing it all day trying to get to camp. Long stretches of dike with views and landscape similar to those of the last two days and a bit of time walking on a bike/pedestrian path next to SR 78. With the sun beating down on my head all day, I can't wait to be on a path among trees again.
So far the weather pattern in South Florida goes something like this: In the early morning there is mist, which burns off as the sun rises revealing a clear and cloudless sky. Soon, the first clouds start to form, building up throughout the day, but none threatening rain. They drift across the heavens pushed by a gentle breeze or light wind. Towards evening or in the early hours of night as it cools down, things clear up, the entire process repeating itself the next day.
The sun lay low in the west as I entered camp. I managed to set up my tent beneath the palm fronds and crawl inside before the mosquitoes got too bad. When night fell, the crickets started putting out a good volume of noise. I fell asleep while listening to their distinctive chirping.

Indian Prairie Camp

Indian Prairie Campsite to S-65E Lock---February 23rd

At night I heard the noise of lowing cattle and the too close for comfort grumble of a gator. How far does an alligator stray from its watery home when the sun is down? I have no idea. The palm fronds did a good job of keeping the dew off the tent, so I was actually able to pack it up dry, a rare occurrence on this trip. This morning along the trail it was the millipede march as dozens of the multi-legged creatures were crossing from one side of the path to the other. Banks of mist drifting with the wind kept things relatively cool. Sometimes I was walking in thick fog while at others the sun shone through revealing a beautiful azure sky.
Later in the day I passed Buckhead Ridge, which was separated from the trail by a canal that made the waters of Lake Okeechobee accessible. It looked like a little country Venice with water ways for streets, a few small boats motoring towards the lake's open waters perhaps heading out to a favorite fishing spot. From the bridge over the Kissimmee River I caught a glimpse of the vast expanse of blue representing the nation's largest freshwater lake. It's about the only view of its kind on the Florida Trail's Western Route of Lake Okeechobee. On the other side of the bridge, I stopped by Okee-Tantie Recreation Area, picking up some snack items to supplement what will be pretty limited supplies for the next week or so. Bought a USA Today to catch up on the news I've missed during the last ten days.
Finally, it was time to turn away from Okeechobee and make the long trek along the levee following the course of the Kissimmee. By this time the day had turned hot and humid, so I took a long respite at a water control structure, sitting on a palate on the shady side of a utility shed reading from the pages of my book. As soon as the heat of the day had passed I made the short walk to the S-65E Lock and spillway. Camping under an oak at the junction, I looked up at the branches draped with Spanish Moss and wondered whether they would keep me dry or drench me. One observation I did make today is that almost everybody in these parts has a big pickup truck pulling a boat trailer since that is about the only kind of vehicle I saw on the roads.

Buckhead Ridge

S-65E Lock to Chandler East Camp---February 24th

Listened to the drip, drip, drip of water droplets falling from the ends of Spanish Moss onto my tarptent as I summoned the will to get up this morning. Occasionally the rustling of a dry oak leaf was also heard as it drifted down through the branches and settled on the tent's exterior. At the start it was road walk mostly, which made me question the footpath's designation as a national scenic trail. For me as a hiker, trail and road are not synonymous. Eventually I got into pasture land, dodging pies and chips---not the kind that tame a hiker's hunger! A minimal time was spent in oak, pine and palm toward the end of the hiking day, which finished rather early at 13:00, making me feel quite restless. Chandler Camp was the planned stop for the day, but with all the remaining daylight I felt I should still be out hiking. The camp itself was the best yet, located in the center of some stately oaks with the Kissimmee River not far away. After pitching my tent I headed to its banks to collect drinking water, soak my feet and wash off.
When I returned to my tent, I noticed a daypack hanging from a post at the edge of camp. Thinking it strange that I hadn't seen it when I first arrived, I went over to investigate. I shuffled through the contents of its outer pockets finding only papers, a pen and some shotgun shells. Then, opening the main zipper, I found an assortment of trail bars, which I certainly looked forward to eating. However, to my surprise, the water bottles at the bottom were still quite cold as if they'd just been removed from an ice chest or cooler. Up to that moment I had assumed that the pack had been left by someone days or possibly weeks before. Obviously somebody had passed through here and left it while I'd been down at the river and was surely going to return before day's end. Sure enough, about an hour later, a young man with some hunting dogs came by, shouldered his pack and headed off on the path that led to the road. I'm definitely glad he hadn't stumbled along at the precise moment I was rifling through his bag and got the wrong impression. That would have been terribly awkward! :-) Anyway, he left none the wiser.
Three animal encounters today---two good and one scared the bejeebers out of me. On the road walk I saw two deer, a doe and a fawn still sporting its camouflage spots, cross the pavement ahead of me. They both turned to look at me before casually continuing into the field of grass which lined that side of CR 599.
Shortly after entering the forested section of today's hike I surprised a couple of raccoons. The mum loped off, but the baby quickly ran and climbed the nearest tree, which, as luck would have it, was not that tall, so I was able to take a number of pictures. Cute little rascal! When the photo shoot had ended, I wandered down the path a bit and waited for it to climb down. It wasn't long before it left the safety of the trees and happily shuffled along the forest floor in the general direction of my hiding spot. Suddenly, its animal senses alerted, it froze in mid-stride and slowly turning its head, spied me half hidden behind a palmetto. Then, WHOOSH, like a rocket he scampered back to the tree, zipped up the trunk and ended up on the same branch he'd been on before. I thought it rather humorous, but not wanting to keep it too long parted from its mother, decided it was high time to go and leave them in peace.
Perhaps as cosmic payback for playing games with the young raccoon, my next meeting with an animal was not so fun. While looking ahead for an orange blaze, the next thing I knew there was movement at my feet and when I looked down I saw a snake, its upper body raised and its mouth open. It had me jumping like a jack rabbit with a full pack on. Lucky I wasn't bitten. Whew! A big sigh of relief. Now at a safe distance I could see it had a very distinctive triangular dark yellow head. Its body was also dark yellow with black markings resembling offset stripes running the length of its body. I'm no herpetologist, so I can't tell you what kind of snake it was. I can tell you that it blended well into the fallen oak leaves and palm detritus. As it slithered into the undergrowth I could imagine it hissing, "Geez, watch where you're going!" For the next hour or two I proceeded much more cautiously, every twig looking like a snake. Even cow pies took on the shape of coiled serpents.
Well, it was an enjoyable evening I had in camp. Sitting at the picnic table I managed to finish The Deerslayer. When I checked the camp register that was stored in a post box I saw the last entry written by two thru-hikers on January 26th. "We may be the last thru-hikers to pass here this season," it read. I'm happy to report that they weren't. :-)

Baby Raccoon
Chandler East Camp

Chandler East Camp to Hickory Hammock Camp---February 25th

Mosquitoes were whining outside my tent this morning much as they had at dusk yesterday. They're really not that bothersome because not long after the sun rises they disappear and remain hidden for the rest of the day. Where they go during the daylight hours is a mystery to me. Who cares really, as long as they're gone.
Today's journey started with the traverse of a morning meadow minefield and in order to successfully navigate it I had to employ what I'll call the "bovine bowel biscuit ballet". Tiptoe, tiptoe, tiptoe...leap, land and twirl. Thankfully I passed through the grassy gauntlet with relatively little foreign matter on the bottom of my shoes. Walking in cattle country truly poses unique challenges!
Beyond the pasture was a sign informing hikers that the Chandler Slough was closed and directing us to a reroute on NW 144, which, looking at the map, was simply an extenuation of Lofton Road. I was frustrated at having to continue on another road until I reached the spot where the reroute again joined the trail. There on a wooden sign next to the stile was an explanation of why Florida Trail officials felt the closure was neccessary. Waist Deep Water. Muck bottom. A possible problem with chomping gators. Guess the roadwalk wasn't that bad after all. Ha.
When an orange blaze directed me over another stile off of US 98, I climbed over, walked 50 meters down the trail, dropped my pack between some bushes off to the side and then returned to the highway. The Kracker Store was a little over a mile away in Basinger and I needed to get enough food for a five-day resupply. The walk took more time than I thought it would under the hot Florida sun. I had to improvise a bit to fill the menu, but in general the store had enough of the hiker staples like peanut butter, pop tarts and tortillas. Bringing a basketful of goods to the check-out, the shop assisstant asked if I was a Florida Trail thru-hiker. When I answered in the affirmative he told me to go grab a free soda. Thank you very kindly, sir. Don't mind if I do. The can was empty before I stepped off the front porch.
Back where I dropped my pack, I took some time to rest a few minutes, snacking on some food I had bought while packing the rest away. There was a short stint of oak, palmetto and, ever so briefly, cypress that eventually led back to US 98. Just before the fence crossing a long, thin black snake lay in the path, twitching its tail rapidly on the leaf litter as a warning. Touching it with my trekking pole, it darted away.
It was an unpleasant two-hour slog walking along the uneven side of US 98, feet never finding anywhere flat to tread as the ground angled from the asphalt into the ditch on both sides of the road. I didn't want to walk up on the pavement as there was no hard shoulder to speak of and I was afraid of being hit by a passing car. To make matters worse, there was little to no shade along the highway. What a relief it was to finally cross the Istopago Canal and make the turn into the shady reaches of Hickory Hammock.
After one more hour, hiking under arching branches and palm fronds, I was in camp. My feet throbbing as a result of pounding the pavement, my shoulders stiff from carrying a heavy load, the pump water smelling of rotten eggs and not tasting much better, I was dirty, smelly and beat, yet, as on other days, completely satisfied. The skeeters set in again at dusk, but try as they might, they couldn't penetrate my tent's mesh defenses. Time to start another book. Last of the Mohicans this time.

Closure of Chandler Slough
Beyond the Stile
The Arching Branches

Hickory Hammock Camp to Fort Kissimmee Camp---February 26th

I thought it was the pitter-patter of light rain on the tent in the wee hours of the morning, but it turned out to be the drip from Spanish Moss laden with droplets from the mist. Heading out of camp, I was soon in a section of trail surrounded by palms, liana and vines, which made me feel as if I were on some subtropical island. Where's my machete?
When I arrived at the equestrian campground, the place was packed. Groups of people, either sitting in folding chairs or standing, were shooting the bull in front of great huge tents. Surprised by the number of people, I asked what the reason was for such a large gathering.
Hunting season for small game had opened was the reply. Now came a question for me, had I seen any wild pigs or turkey on the trail. Couldn't really say that I had and now I understood why. They were probably holed up in the deepest parts of the undergrowth hoping not to be plugged. My orange hiking shirt was well-chosen for the Florida Trail not only to match the color of the blazes but to protect me from some itchy trigger fingers as well. I felt safer wearing it that day. Hunters in general though are good folk and seem to enjoy the social benefits of the activity, sharing chat time with friends out in the woods. It's fishermen that I don't understand, sitting around for hours, waiting for a fish with a brain the size of a pea to sink its jaw into a hook with a worm attached. Although, to be fair, I suppose a fisherman would have a hard time understanding a thru-hiker.
Anyway, before I left I asked for an assessment of the water quality of the well water. The caretaker said it contained traces of sulphur (hence the awful taste) but he'd been drinking it for years with no ill effects. Kindly, one of the hunting groups gave me a few bottles of spring water. The well water I pumped into the Platypus bladder as a reserve.
Moving onward, I continued to enjoy the shady path until it kicked me out at a fence line. On the hiker side there was grass. Past the barbed-wire and NO TRESPASSING signs there were trees. As the day grew hotter I wished I were on the other side of that fence. I know that "the grass is always greener" is not always true, but there was no doubt it was shadier. After a time I got to High Rise Bridge, where, wouldn't you know, some teens were out fishing. Walking the raised boardwalk, I saw a lot of green and brown Anole lizards dashing about. There were many other wooden walkways between there and Mosquito Hammock, but at this time of year the ground beneath them was mostly dry.

The campsite at Mosquito Hammock was pretty overgrown and it seemed like it had been abandoned by regular travellers. When I pulled in and sat down at the old picnic table, I looked down and saw that my shirt and shorts were covered with burrs. Spent a good deal of time picking them all out before enjoying a lunch break. After the meal there was more fence line walking before reaching Avon Park Air Force Range. I stopped at the south kiosk to register and sign the liability forms, but there were none to be had. It didn't appear that restocking the forms was a top priority of Air Force personnel.

Avon Park was one of my favorite places on the Florida Trail. I had a wonderful time strolling through the oak hammocks. At one point a large number of bees started buzzing past my head. When I looked around, I saw that they were flying toward their hive in the hollow of an oak tree trunk not far from the trail. Above me in the branches of the hammocks I saw brown owls and different species of hawk, and yes, down on the ground I saw my first wild turkeys. Just before Hicks Slough, I looked up and there were all these oranges dotting the sky in the upper reaches of the canopy. Confused at first, I thought I was seeing things, maybe something wrong with my eyes. As I soon discovered, these wild trees grow much taller than there domesticated relatives, so I had to jump up and use my trekking pole to knock down a couple of the lower ones. Once at Hicks Slough, I cut them into quarters with my pocket knife. Taking a bite, the juice simply exploded and ran down my chin. They were absolutely delicious! Later on I found a couple of tangerine trees, again collecting a few of the lower ones to eat when I got to camp. My last bird sighting of the day was a bunch of buzzards circling near the Kissimmee and resting on the dead branches of an oak. I almost expected them to break into song like they used to at America Sings in Disneyland (Yes, that dates me. The ride no longer exists.).

Kissimmee Camp is a bit more developed than others along the trail. I set up my tent near a picnic pavilion, a boat ramp is 200 yards away, and I'll most assuredly avail myself of the solar shower. There are a few other vehicles here, their owners most likely out boating/fishing on the river, but it looks like I'll be the only one who'll be staying the night.

The Fence Line Divide

The Boardwalk

Oak Hammocks

Trail in Avon Park


Hunting Season near Cattle Country

Avon Park Kiosk

Fort Kissimmee Camp to Kicco WMA Camp---February 27th

Some fine walking this morning along the banks of the Kissimmee, the sun highlighting the wispy vapour rising off the river. The main camping area happened to be a quarter of a mile down a side road from the boat ramp. All kinds of pickups and RVs were parked just off the trail and tents the size of small hotels were standing in the back of each campsite. Nobody was awake at this hour, the only noise coming from a barking dog as I silently slipped by. The trail was a little bit wetter than it had been on previous days especially when crossing Gum Branch and passing Tick Island Slough, but it was quite apparent that the water levels were low compared to other times of the year. I loved the black water of the slough, which perfectly reflected the brilliant blue sky and the cypress trees growing around its edge. However, I wasn't too thrilled with the name---Tick Island. Assuming the name had to be earned by providing a welcome habitat to the blood-sucking, disease-spreading insect, I checked my arms and legs regularly to make sure there were no creepy crawlies trying to attach themselves to my flesh.
In addition to the slough, there were some absolutely magnificent oaks along the trail that impressed me as well. Massive trunks supporting branches so long that they seem to be defying all we know about the laws of gravity. Spanish Moss growing so plentifully, it was as if some branches had been hung with curtains. Here it was that I had my second raccoon sighting, the masked creature ambling across the trail in front of me.
Kicco Road was no fun, exposed to the sun as I was, the white sand and rock reflecting the heat up into my face. The only real positive was that the walking was quick, so I didn't have to spend too much time baking like a rotisserie chicken before I was back under the welcome branches of the oaks. There must be a fair amount of free range cattle in this area because heifer hoodoos and steer strafing were a prominent feature on or near the trail.
By 3:30 in the afternoon I entered the Kicco Wildlife Management Area game station. Nobody was manning the check point, so I had the place to myself. I "showered" and washed the dust out of my socks at the game dressing table. Stepping on the scale, it read 180 pounds. No big weight loss, maybe just a few pounds which is a good thing. I figured since I wasn't doing the 30 mile days like I did on the PCT and therefore not burning as many calories, maintaining my body weight wouldn't be such a problem.
As beautiful as the oak trees are, I miss the mountains and grand, sweeping vistas of the Sierras. I haven't seen anyone all day and consequently haven't spoken a word. Those reading this journal should try it sometime. It's harder than you think. Anyway, it's time for me to go and set up camp.

Gum Branch
Tick Island Slough

Kicco WMA Camp to Parker Hammocks Camp---February 28th

From 7 in the morning until noon the Florida National Scenic Trail turned into the Florida National Sometimes Scenic Roadwalk. Dirt road to paved country road to state highway back to dirt road and then to plowed fence line. Not quite what I'd call getting away from it all. The two things worth seeing were the beautiful horses in the paddocks near the River Ranch Resort and the Kissimmee River no longer confined behind the walls of the levees, spreading out to form a wonderful wetland for all types of migratory birds. The thing I could definitely have done without was the hundreds of cars and semi-trucks barreling past me as I walked along the grassy incline of SR 60. On the bright side, it made the dirt road beyond it seem like bliss because at least the traffic was gone. Another bright note was the fact that in the powdery dust near the road's edge I came across what I believe could only have been panther tracks. I know my chances of seeing one of these elusive creatures is slim to none, so seeing evidence of one was a delight.
In the afternoon, I was back on trail walking through seas of grass and palmetto, jumping from hammock to hammock. My favorite hammock is the one formed of dense stands of sable palm, (a tall thin palm, which is Florida's state tree) interspersed with giant oaks. I think I prefer the palm hammock because it reminds me somewhat of a jungle with deep pockets of shade. I feel like I'm in the tropics. It was in one of these hammocks that I stumbled upon a wild grapefruit tree, the fruit of which provided a juicy snack at break time especially since my water supply was running low.
For anyone doing this section of trail, the blue-blaze to Lake Jackson Observation Tower is a must. An amazing view, lots of birdlife---coots, white ibis, great herons, a variety of ducks---and a nice cooling breeze at the top of the tower to take away the heat. I remained there for some time taking it all in. I even considered stopping for the day and setting up camp, it really was that nice. At the base of the tower was a flat spot for pitching a tent and a picnic table was handy, but unfortunately, you have to be in a designated area to stay the night. Playing by the rules, I pushed on to Parker Hammocks.
The canal connecting Lake Manon to Lake Jackson, a short distance from camp, is the only source of water and not a particularly good one. Well, beggars can't be choosers. Besides, I was terribly thirsty, my Under Armour T-shirt soaked with sweat. As a general rule, the thirstier you are, the tastier the water is. It surely was in this case.
Earlier in the day I had seen an armadillo scurrying through the undergrowth. As I slowly drifted off to sleep I could hear another one snuffling around in the woods near my tent. At least I hoped it was an armadillo making that noise. :-)

Horse near River Ranch Resort
Broad Swath of the Kissimmee
Grassland and Sunny Skies
Path through Palm Hammock
White Ibis
Lake Jackson
Parker Slough
Boardwalk near Bull Creek