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 Toothy Reptile
Oak Hill Camp