Monday, December 31, 2018

Emerging from the Black Lagoon

The trail through Big Cypress National Preserve
The beginning of the Florida Trail proved to be truly trial by swamp! I am talkin' shoe-sucking, calf-deep, limestone-cratered swamp. Big Cypress National Preserve was all that we hoped it would be and more, given its unexpected otherworldly beauty. But before I dive into that, let me start you off at the beginning.

Us at the Florida Trail southern terminus at Oasis Visitor Center, Ochopee.

Us with Kurt at the southern terminus of Florida Trail
We hit the trail on December 21st in strong winds that gusted at 30 mph. Thanks to Scott's long-time friend Kurt Aibel, we had much laughter the night before our journey and a ride to the trailhead in the Everglades swamps. The sun shone bright, so the winds were welcome and we made good time even as we clawed periodically through overgrown high grasses and straddled fallen trees. Wax Myrtle, a medicinal shrub whose root bark is both astringent and warming when simmered in a tea, was a regular inhabitant trailside, its bare branches lined with frosty blue berries. At times the trail opened up, revealing wide meadows dotted with Cabbage Palm and tall skinny Slash Pines. I met my first new plant of the trail on this day, a pretty purple gal named Glades Lobelia. We camped that evening at Ten-Mile Camp, all the prairie around us illuminated by the light of the full moon.

Wax Myrtle (Myrica cerifera)

Glade Lobelia (Lobelia glandulosa)
On our second day, our pace was slowed due to our having to navigate many a burned-out forest. Fire naturally sweeps through this habitat and so trees that had been blazed the previous year to mark our way had were now charred black. Thanks to the Guthook app, which provided our GPS location of the Florida Trail even without cell signal, we were able to bushwhack our own path through a landscape that was ever-changing. At one moment we would be whisking through open prairie and the next, picking our way through heaps of blonde grasses that hid blackened fallen Palm trunks and craters in the limestone rock that laid beneath the thin soil, ever searching for the next blaze. Suddenly we would find ourselves in a strand of Cypress trees with white trunks broad at the base but skinny and straggly as they spread their branches, and then just like that, we would return to the prairie. And on this day we met crossed paths many a time with Florida's state wildflower: Tickseed.

Tickseed (Coreopsis)
These first two days were mostly dry, so dry in fact, that we almost resorted to what we have come to term the "Green Lagoon", near our second night's stay at Thirteen Mile Campsite. We wandered a way up the trail and found a collection of tall Cypress trees clustered together in a dome-like shape - we have learned that in the center of these there is often water to be found - and indeed spotted an oasis, however it was just as green as the Alligator Flag and Duck Potato plants that surrounded it and it bubbled like a hot cauldron. Just as we were eyeing our surroundings for gators, a single broad lobster-like claw pierced its filmy surface. We looked about us and saw enormous dead craw-dad bodies laying about. Nonetheless we filled our bottles and just minutes later, gleefully dumped them out, when we spied a puddle of water in a tire track on a swamp buggy road instead. Puddle water never tasted so good! 

a much smaller craw-dad than the one we saw!
The third day our waterless woes vanished when we reached the swamps. It began with crossing flooded swamp buggy roads and soon transformed into a trail that was more water than earth, as we weaved our way between scratchy Cypress trees. Overhead the sun shone bright and below us the waters were surprisingly clear, so much that we could see the fern-like leaves of the aquatic plants and the tiny slivers of fish swimming about in a frenzy as our feet plunged in, spreading a mud cloud in their wake. In the wet soil surrounding the stream that was the trail, we spotted a single Ten-Petaled Sabatia, bright pink against the dark soil and many gleaming yellow Horned Bladderworts.

Ten-Petaled Sabatia (Sabatia dodecandra)

Horned Bladderwort (Utricularia cornuta)
We ended this day's hike in knee-deep water as far as the eye could see, out of which arose yet more Cypress trees. Taking shelter on a little wooded island, we ducked beneath the thick vegetation, walked a tunnel of green, and emerged in a clearing for Oak Hill Campsite. There we called it a day early, spending the afternoon peering up at the branches of a Live Oak tree adorned in air plants. 

Scott in more shallow swamp

Myself hanging in the shallow swamp
Our fourth day was by far the most strenuous as well as the most magical. We began the morning with a wade in the Black Lagoon, some of the deepest water on the trail – and believe me, that water is cold when the sun has just risen! Then sloshed, for miles through water that varied between ankle deep to high calf. The cratered limestone continued. At times it seemed as if every other step would land us in a hole and we struggled to wrestle our feet from the mud. We were keen to keep an eye out for water moccasins and alligators which we had been extensively warned, lurked in these waters. Nonetheless, we were also careful to remember that despite our trials, we had never been graced with such beauty all around and just when would we be again? Did I mention the bouquets of Quill Plant adorning every Cypress tree? And the Purple Bladderworts peeking from the waters?

Purple Bladderwort (Utricularia purpurea)

Quill Plant (Tillandsia fasciculata)
After the water, came the miles of mud which neither of us did care much for, hence why there are no pictures, and by Christmas Eve, we had emerged from the swamps of Cypress!

muddy crocs and festive socks after the swamp walking (and Sandra Friend's amazing trail guide!)
We took the holiday off with Scott's Uncle Jim who found us walking under an overpass near I-75, wet but happy. He whisked us away to Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, where we kicked up our feet on his balcony overlooking the ocean, dined on fresh veggies galore - Uncle Jim knows how to cook! - shared stories and laughter and simply enjoyed being together. It was a lovely Christmas. We all then set our sights on the trail on the 26th and reluctantly said our goodbyes. Uncle Jim, you expressed that you wished you were joining us for some miles - you are welcome anytime! 

Us with Uncle Jim

Since the swamps, we have spent the night in a chickee hut - a traditional Seminole style home with a thatched roof at a lil place called Billie Swamp Safari...

Chickee Hut at Billie Swamp Safari
Seen the biggest, fattest, alligators I have ever seen in my life, one after another just sunbathing alongside a slough on the trail...

Gator along the canal
And walked endless miles of sandy gravel road beside canals and atop levees and camped with more mosquitoes than I thought possible...Thank you Ari and Chris Bell for those water caches!! I don’t know what we would have done without them!

the long white sandy gravel roads along the levees that go on for miles and miles
We have now begun our long walk around the western side of Lake Okeechobee and are spending a much needed night in the town of Clewiston. Thank you to Julio at John Stretch Park for starting our Okeechobee experience off on such a high note with a gift of  two Sprites and even a Corona to enjoy at camp that evening! 

Florida Trail, you are truly another world.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Big Cypress, here we come!

The eve of our Florida Trail thru-hike is finally upon us...tomorrow morning we will hoist our backpacks and tug on our hiking shoes and step into the swamps of Big Cypress National Preserve...well kind of. From what we have learned from Captain Blue, a hiker that is a few days ahead of us, as well as some official folks at the preserve's visitor center, the terrain is much drier than usual. Unless today's storm makes a big impact, likely the waters will be no more than calf deep and the first day's miles should be completely dry. All the better to see the Cottonmouths! I wonder what the infamous Skunk Ape thinks of these rather dry conditions?

We couldn't help ourselves from taking a sneak peak at the Everglades while we were making preparations for the hike in Sarasota this past week. Although tempted, we didn't steal a glance at the trailhead, but we did visit the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters just down the road in the lil' town of Ochopee. Just before we left, we learned from our friend, Robert, who knows everything there is to know about sasquatch that the Skunk Ape was a close relative and was said to inhabit the very wilds through which we would be walking. Therefore when we learned this informational center was near to the trail, we thought we had better educate ourselves. And to think we were only wary of the panthers, gators, and snakes we have a whole new creature for which to look! It was worth our while though, as we got a Skunk Ape Field Guide, and learned that they are particularly fond of lima beans...we will be sure to keep a few in our pocket to appease the Everglades beast if we encounter him.

But really in all seriousness...we are beyond excited to start our journey tomorrow. Our foray into Big Cypress earlier in the week has only further ignited our inner sparks to hike this trail. I have been rereading portions of John Muir's journals, A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf, and would like to close this post with some feelings of his that deeply resound with our own:

But in Florida came the greatest change of all, for here grows the palmetto, and here blow the winds so strangely toned by them. These palms and these winds severed the last strands of the cord that united me with home. Now I was a stranger, indeed. I was delighted, astonished, confounded, and gazed in wonderment blank and overwhelming as if I had fallen upon another star.

Thank you for following us on our journey...we will share an update as soon as we can!