When I last reported it was Thanksgiving and I spent the day with Claire and daughter Anna and her husband Nathaniel and the girls, and their family in Land O Lakes. It was a real treat for me to be able to see them and sit down to a table with food and loved ones. Thanksgiving was a real highlight of the trip.
The next day Claire and Anna took me back to the trailhead and sang, “I’ll be home for Christmas” as I began hiking down the trail. It was very touching and the song stuck in my head for the next 3 weeks.
I worked my way South through Inverness and Ridge Manor to the beginning of Green Swamp West and East. This is a preserve with a very diverse area and lots of challenging hiking. There were woods, cypress swamps, and a day long sand trail. Added to the difficulty was the destruction done to the trail by wild hogs. They root around in the woods and on the trail looking for edible roots and leave a very difficult hiking trail. See pic. We were to find this problem for the next several hundred miles.
The second day in Green Swamp I called Jon, my son-in-law’s brother. He had offered to help if I needed anything and as it happened my headlight went bad and my back-up light needed new batteries. By the time I finished my list I needed 6-8 items. Jon drove down from Land O Lakes that afternoon but couldn’t get in the preserve because of locked gates. We hiked at dusk the three miles from our campsite and finally connected with him. In addition to my list items he brought us hot pizza and cold beer.
An unbelievable treat! The caretaker allowed Jon inside and we ate our treat on his picnic table. When we finished he offered to take us the 3 miles back to our campsite. We loaded up in his 4-wheel drive mule and blazed through the black woods to our tents. We were tired but had our supplies and a special dinner we won’t soon forgot. Jon, you’re the man!
After three days of hiking we left Green Swamp behind. We picked up the Kissimmee River and would follow it through Kicco, Kissimmee Prairie Preserve, Three Lakes WMA and eventually to Lake Okeechobee. These areas are all about preserving the wilderness but most importantly about protecting the Kissimmee and the watershed that surrounds it. It’s a highly regulated part of the Florida Trail and each section had its own beauty and challenges. We waded through thousands of acres of palmetto bushes (the prairie) and lots of knee-deep water. After finishing Three Lakes (my least favorite section) we arrived at the resort called River Ranch. The Kicco trailhead starts here and runs south for about 80 miles. The first day wasn’t bad but after that we were in knee to waist deep water every day. At the end of the third day we were within sight of the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park and surprised to see a park ranger approaching on a 4 wheeler from a faint side trail. He advised that there was deep water between the park and us and we couldn’t make it with our packs. He offered to send out a swamp buggy to help. It arrived shortly and was specially designed to take tourists through the swamps sitting high and dry on a vehicle with 5-foot tires. We loaded our packs on the buggy and he took them through to the ranger station. Being sticklers for the FT rules that say you must “hike” the trail, we hiked (almost swam) the remaining ½ mile. We didn’t mind the chest deep water because we knew we had a hot shower and dry packs waiting at our campsite. At this point we were only 50 miles from the Western route around Lake Okeechobee.
Ed decided to stay at the park and take an extra day off to try and heal up from a minor fall a few days before. Pressed to finish by 12-22, I left alone at daylight the next morning with a renewed resolve to finish by my deadline. I really wanted to be home by Christmas and was still faced with the unknown time it would take to cross Big Cypress Swamp at the end of the trail. My goal that day was Oak Creek camp, a 23 mile hike. It was almost dark when I knew I was within about 1 mile of the campsite. Imagine my surprise when the orange blazes led me directly into another cypress swamp. Unfortunately the approach was not well marked and when I hit the swamp there were no orange blazes to be found. I was in knee-deep water with signs of alligators everywhere the reeds met the swamp. I systematically walked back and forth trying not to lose my point of reference and my focus. As dark closed in I cried out for God to help me. Immediately I saw an old ladder stand left by a hunter. My first thought was to climb the stand and spend the night in the stand. At least I would be dry and out of reach of the gators. I climbed about half way up the stand and decided to shine my light one more time through the swamp. The height helped me spot a hint of orange blaze in the distance to my left. I climbed down and made my way over to the tree. Then I was able to line up other blazes and quickly went through the swamp in about 10 minutes. When I climbed out I decided not to turn around and shine my light into the swamp. I really didn’t want to know what was out there. I found camp and pretty much collapsed for the night. The next morning I had just enough water for breakfast. I decided instead of walking back to the swamp for water I would just do without for the next 6 miles where the data book indicated there was water. I muttered under my breath, “Lord, just one bottle of water”. I looked up and saw a light approaching in the dark morning. It was a hunter going to his tree stand and he had one extra bottle of water, which he kindly gave me. So, not only did God save me in the swamp he sustained me with the water. Thank you Lord.
After another day of hiking I arrived at the East-West junction of the route around Lake Okeechobee. I had already decided to take the Western route and started after a short side trip to get supplies. The trail around the lake is primarily a hike on top of the dike built years ago to hold back the lake. The Western section was undergoing some repairs on sections of the dike so the 50 miles around the lake was a maze of dike walks and reroutes on adjacent roads and highways to get around it. Finally reached the East-West junction at the South end where the trail becomes one again. Then headed south for a two-½ day road walk to reach the beginning of Big Cypress Swamp.
Big Cypress Swamp covers more than a million acres in the Western Everglades. It is a complex mosaic of ecosystems funneling a sheet flow of rainwater southwest through cypress strands and saw grass prairies towards the mangrove forest of the Ten Thousand islands along the Gulf of Mexico. A rainforest – like environment, it has an average rainfall of 60 inches each year and of course thick humidity. Throw in the home to the Florida panther as well as alligators and snakes make it a very interesting environment. The 37-mile stretch of Florida Trail that goes through it is always under water, from ankle to waste deep. The trail itself is blazed but in many places they have faded off or in my experience some burns wiped out some of them. Traversing it requires a compass, good map reading, planning, a lot of stamina and a little luck, The mud on the bottom tries to suck off your boots and the pace is very slow. The middle 10 miles are particularly difficult with water levels going well above the knees through “The Black Lagoon” section. The campsites are nothing more than a little spit of dry land usually only big enough for one or two tents. It took me 3 and ½ days to traverse 37 miles. The only way I could get a picture was to hang my pack on a cypress stump to get it out of the water. This section was by far the most challenging of the entire 1100 miles on the Florida Trail. In fact I think it’s the most challenging section of any trail I’ve every hiked anywhere. I was very weary when I finally emerged from the swamp. No breaks, there was knee-deep water, mud and rocks the entire way. See the picture of the new FT Southern Terminus plaque at the Oasis Visitor Center.
The swamp litterly comes within a few hundred yards of the building. It was a relief to finally get out. All I could think of was getting on a plane and flying home. I found a driver who took me to Miami airport. I was able to book a flight on the way and almost went from the swamp to the plane. If you’re wondering, I was able to clean up a bit and change clothes.
The entire Florida Trail hike was a positive experience for me, even the very difficult sections like the Big Cypress. I was able to test the limits of my endurance and even of my resolve. I loved the beauty and solitude of the trail and came away with a renewed love of the outdoors. Before I left I was very apprehensive about how people I came across would react to an old guy with a pack who looked pretty much like a bum, especially with the violence we see in the world today. Honestly, I did not meet one single person who was not nice to me, and many more who offered help to me. I came away with a renewed faith in my fellow man, one that is kind and caring and even willing to help and get involved with a stranger. I think this was a gift (and a lesson) to me because I had really expected to have problems along the way.
I’m thankful for the many people along the trail who offered help and did help in small and some very big ways. I’m especially thankfully for my friends and family who supported me both financially and with their prayers. I deeply appreciate this and Claire and I are truly grateful for the funds that were raised for Hosanna House.
Usually I end with one trail thought, however this time I have several.
knows what the
~ Robert Frost
Happiness makes up in height
for what it lacks in length.
~ Robert Frost
Beauty is the mark God sets on virtue.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
The best portion of a man’s life,
his little, nameless,
unremembered acts of
kindness and love.
The world is too much with us;
Late and soon, getting and spending,
We lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours.
Nature never did betray the
heart that loved her.
I only went out for a walk, and finally
concluded to stay out till sundown, for
going out, I found, was really going in.
~ John Muir