Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Observations of a Florida Trail Hike – The Beginning

The Florida Trail is quickly becoming an interesting trail to traverse during the winter months when other trails are besieged by frigid temps and snowy conditions. One is transported to a land of plentiful sunshine and warm temps reminiscent of summer wanders. Prime time to begin the Florida Trail is December and January. But despite the seemingly flat terrain on elevation profiles, there are multiple challenges one endures.

The Beginning

The southern terminus for the trail is the Oasis Visitor Center in the Big Cypress National Preserve.
Overseen by the National Park Service, it has a visitor center complex with friendly rangers (unfortunately the one we spoke to did NOT have up to day info for us on trail conditions and claimed the tent sites had tables and fire pits which none do in the swamp area), restrooms, a little walkway that shows off their alligator, a nice big plaque to get the proverbial first day picture taken, and a log book to sign in with excitement for that first day. They also allow you to park there.

The first two days in the swamp area were fairly dry and interesting. We saw vast prairies that reminded me of Africa. Of course
there was the issue of trying to get used to overloaded backpacks that still made the going rather slow.

Another thing one has to learn how to do is find water in the swamp. Especially when the area where you are walking is dry (and there are no streams). We quickly became acquainted with what is known as a Cypress Dome – a curved stand of tall like trees that jut out above the land. In the middle of that configuration of trees is usually a water source. We found one such source for our first night after trudging through muddy cypress stands to find the water in the middle of the dome. On the second day water become even scarcer and for the first time I used the directions for the dome in my guidebook and managed to stumble upon the water (and wow, did I thank God for that find!). Swamp water unfortunately does not taste good at all (despite what the ranger told us). It has a distinctly weird
Water Source in a Cypress Dome
vegetative taste that I quickly hated. All water, of course, should be treated.

We did not end up doing our projected miles as the terrain slowed us down, and slowed us even further once we actually reached water. After a particular fenceline, you are then wading in water for miles on end with only small areas to rest or camp. It is a slow, arduous process, and in this area mud quickly fills your shoes, hides obstacles (like Cypress roots and limestone holes) so that it is hard to keep your footing. I was forever stopping and scraping mud out of my shoes that accumulated inside and made the bottoms of my feet hurt. On the small blotches of land

The Black Lagoon
where you can camp, you have until the sun sets (by 5:45) to get everything done camp wise before mosquitoes come to visit. One night, surrounded by water all on sides, we were on our own island in the middle of nowhere it seemed. It was like being in a foreign world, to say the least. I took stock of my shoes to find the unending mud and water was breaking my shoes apart. Thankfully I was using an older pair which I planned to get rid of once I reached civilization, and it’s a good thing to plan on.

In the water the best we could do was 7/10 mile an hour. It was a slow achingly long process. But at last we cleared the swamp to rest at a literal rest area on Alligator Alley before continuing on.

What I learned:

Know how to get your water in those interesting Cypress Domes! It’s the only place out there until
Swamp Camping
you reach the deep water.

Do not plan any high miles. Take your time sloshing your way through. If you are in a wet year, monitor the swamp depths and come prepared with dry bags for your gear. (I happened to hike it in a dry year – Dec 2016, so the deepest part at the Black Lagoon was only knee deep. But it can get waist deep or higher sometimes).

Know your shoe will get destroyed there, so plan to have shoes waiting for you farther up the trail

Use hiking poles in the swamp

Try to dry out your feet as much as you can. I found blister blockers from Band-Aid to stay on even when wet. Try to get the mud out of your shoes to prevent strain on your foot muscles. Take plenty of socks. I also washed the mud out my shoes when I could (as the mud can make them weigh a lot).

Yes there are sand fleas out there as well as mosquitoes. Protect yourself with Deet or the equivalent. 
We did not see gators or snakes on this section, but we did see other wildlife like deer and a bobcat.

I found the Guthook Florida Trail app to be very useful. But the trail is also fairly well blazed or one can simply follow the track of water.

If you are in hunting season, wear blaze orange for the first part of the trail. Hunters are out there, believe it or not, and ride around in swamp vehicles.

Know that the swamp WILL end and you will have plenty of interesting memories and pictures to share!

Resources:


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