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.
The Journey Begins
The Northern Route