Saturday, January 26, 2019

Magic is afoot on the Florida Trail

Wise Man rejoicing on the trail!
This Florida Trail is something else. Since I have last updated, we have trekked through Long Leaf Pine savannas, swooshing through Saw Palmettos sometimes as tall as small trees, stepping carefully over their prostrate trunks that crawl like tree roots across the trail. We have walked roughly 30 miles of road and once back in the woods, welcomed the reappearance of Red Oak and Maple leaves reminding us of home, and the spikey seed capsules of Sweet Gum littering the boardwalks that we walked across the swampier parts of the trail through Tosohatchee Wildlife Management Area and Little Big Econ State Forest. Small hills have begun to appear - I mean small - and the trail is well defined. But what I absolutely must highlight in this post is not the plants, but the people that we have encountered as we transitioned from the wilderness into the Orlando Metro Area.

Us with Trucker Bob during our long road walk through Deseret Ranch
Let's begin on a nearly 30 mile road-walk down busy roadways to start and then endless empty roads where the wind blew strong and cold and even the cows weren't to be seen. We set out from Jane Green Campsite, prepared to walk nearly 25 miles to the next campsite on Taylor Creek Loop. We had slept cold the night before as temps had dropped down to the low 40's and day was slow to warm. We passed fields that had been treated with biowaste, therefore the creeks we passed were all contaminated. The miles felt dark and long. Sometime in the afternoon, we decided we would try and get ourselves into the town of Cocoa which was a number of miles away, where we could get a room for the night. I stuck out my thumb and the few cars that passed over what felt like a very long time, sped right on by. We were just about to give up hope and keep on walking when a pick-up truck pulled over. A young man leaned out the passenger side window. "You trying to get off this roadwalk too?" He said.

Turns out this was a fellow hiker, Sunshine, who was hitching a ride up the trail from a ranch worker. Even though this ranch worker was heading the other direction, he gave a ride all the way into town where we were able to get a room at the Budget Inn. As soon as we started to warm up we began to wonder just how we might get back to our spot on the trail. Just then a text message came in from Trucker Bob. Before we knew it he had arranged to come pick us up in the morning and drive us back to the trail. But the magic didn't end there...when he appeared in the morning he offered to slackpack us the rest of our road miles into Tosohatchee. Oh sweet lordy, what a gift! We took him up on his offer without a second's hesitation. Thank you, Desert Ranch Worker, Sunshine, and Trucker Bob - sometimes it takes a village to get you down a roadwalk!

Sandra Friend, Wise Man, myself, and John Keatley
Just a day later, we had the great fortune of spending some time with Florida Trail experts, Sandra Friend and her husband John Keatley. These two wrote the guidebook that has helped to carry us down this trail. Sandra has also penned a number of other books highlighting the history of the trail, the botanical beauties to be found throughout the state, and its many trails to take you there. She is Florida Trail extraordinaire and recently received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Florida Trail Association. She and John are two of the founders of the Florida Trail Alliance, the organization largely responsible for all the magic that we have been enjoying along this trail. What a treat to sit and talk trail, plants, and writing with these two. She has got my wheels turning for a plant guide to the Florida Trail. Hmmm...who knows what could be next in the Botanical Hiker series? Thank you, Sandra and John for your company and for sharing your wealth of experience with us!

Visiting with Aunt Kathy and George in Sanford
As we entered into the Orlando Metro area amidst a slew of stores, traffic lights, cars and the like, we were thankful to be welcomed in by my dear family, Aunt Kathy and her husband George. I had not seen these two sweet souls in many years and what better time for a reunion! And let me tell you, these two knew how to cater to two weary, very hungry, hikers. We stayed with them for two lovely nights, feasting, laughing, sharing memories and new stories. The food - oh the food - Aunt Kathy you are quite the cook! And George, so are you, those blueberry pancakes, wow!! Then as if they had not already done enough, they helped us to slackpack yet some more miles as we walked what we have now come to term the Publix Trail. I kid you not, there is a Publix about every 2 miles through the Orlando section of the trail. But who needs Publix, when Aunt Kathy packs you a lunch and healthy snacks? Thank you both so very much for welcoming us into your home and taking such good care of us!

Us singing some tunes for Joan

Just as we exited the Orlando Metro area, we got visited by another trail angel, Joan Jarvis, who has been active in the trail community for decades and is a wealth of not only knowledge but kindness. What a generous sweet soul, authentic in every way. With Joan, we shared tales, laughter, botanical tricks of the trade and just good time together. She did insist we play some music for her though! This was just fine with us as Wise Man wondered if his fingers would still work after the trail and it's not as easy to sing on the trail as one would think! Thank you, Joan for being you! While spending some time with Joan, we also learned quite a bit about the miles ahead from Cache 22, a Triple Crown hiker, chipping away at yet another and doing some miles of the Florida Trail. He gets his trail name due to his stocking a major cache along the Hat Creek Rim of the Pacific Crest Trail. Thank you Cache 22 for all the tips!

Us with Billy Goat
Just when you would think our time with this trail community couldn't get any better, we just so happened to have the opportunity to drop in for legendary hiker, Billy Goat's, birthday! He is 80 years old and has hiked a whopping 50,000 miles and counting (he made sure to tell me that he's not done yet!) Talk about tales to tell - this man sure has them - having hiked the Pacific Crest Trail more times than we could keep track of as well as a number of other trails and countless mountain peaks throughout the country and in South America. Every year, the Florida Trail Alliance brings hikers and volunteers together to honor Billy Goat. His birthday has become a sort of annual Florida trail reunion and celebration.

Ari Hirschman and Grey Beard at Billy Goat Days
There at Billy Goat Days we had the chance to meet up with the friends that we have made along the trail as well as make some new friends as well. We even got to meet up with trail experts, Chuck Norris and Tigger, also founders of the Florida Trail Alliance, whom we met way back in Moore Haven and helped us with a water drop. Finally we could thank Ari Hirschman and Chris Bell in person for their many water caches in the southern part of the trail. Also, we spent some time chatting with yet another trail superstar, Grey Beard. He holds the record for the oldest man to have hiked the Appalachian Trail. He, too, is presently hiking the Florida Trail.

Reuniting with Blissful at Billy Goat Days
But not only did we find our Florida Trail friends here, but some faces from trails past. I spotted this lady from across the pavilion and recognized her right away. Meet Lauralee Bliss, or Blissful as I know her. I met her on my very first thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail back in 2007. She was out hiking with her son, Paul Bunyon (trail name of course), who was only 16 yrs old at the time. She remembered me as Micro, a trail name I had earned because I was always click-clacking away on a little word processor I was carrying on the trail - not much has changed that way I guess! She has since hiked the AT a second time and hiked the Florida Trail, and has published two books about these experiences. Check them out at: I know I will be picking them up! I also met up with familiar hiker faces from the Mountains to Sea Trail, Singing Sister, Timber Doodle, and Mr. Blister and remembered the song that Singing Sister sang to me on the trail to me!

What a special gathering this was for us, to meet so many members of the community, so many of which extended help further up the trail. Remarkable.
At the entrance to Alexander Springs - first magnitude springs within Ocala National Forest
So we are now over 400 miles along our journey along this magical trail. We have walked our way into Ocala National Forest, where the first miles of the Florida Trail were built. Just as the people faces have, the plant faces are becoming more familiar while new ones continue to delight us. Service has been slim to none, so my apologies for the delay in the posts, but we will get the next one out to as soon as possible!

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Little Tent on the Prairie

This post was written on January 12th, but not posted until today due to service - I will be sure to post another update asap. We have presently hiked through Forever Florida and begun the Orlando portion of the trail...
Bot walking prairie
We are over one quarter of the way through our 1,100 trek along this stunning if at times, arduous, Florida Trail. This past week we traveled through the heart of the Kissimmee prairie lands, a place blanketed with tall grasses and patched with Live Oak and Palm hammocks, inhabited by herds of cattle, yipping coyotes, and wild boar, and speckled with wildflowers galore. Our entry into them was by deep sand roads and rugged footpaths that coated us in more dirt than I ever thought possible…and given the number of trails that I have hiked that is saying a lot.

Just a few of the many cows with whom we crossed paths

Wise Man loving the Live Oak and Palm Hammocks
Walking a nearly 20 mile hypnotizing road-walk, we left the town of Okeechobee behind, met the Kissimmee river and finally stumbled through sandy woods, setting up camp beneath the outstretched branches of a Live Oak. Here we spotted our first wild boar – a mama with two youngin’s – and then banged on a tin mug to scare them off from our camp as they rooted in the sandy soil and grasses surrounding us. Typically they are of no harm to people, but it is a little unnerving when they are right outside your tent door.

A wild boar track in the sand road in Kissimmee Prairie

Chandler Slough Cypress strand
The next morning we wandered into a Cypress strand in the dark waters of Chandler Slough – the first that we have encountered since the swamps of Big Cypress. Although we did get our feet wet, this place was enchanting and I spied the first large patches of large-leaved Wood Sorrel that we have seen yet along our trek- these here have deep purple flowers, very different than we have up north. The leaves are edible and have a lemony zing.

Wood Sorrel (Oxalis violacea)
On day three we had the pleasure of meandering through a maze of Cabbage Palms in a newly cut tract from Micco Landing. Not only was the shade a dream to start off in during the early morning hours but the trail was filled with low-hanging wild oranges from orange trees now gone wild. We couldn’t help but slip a few in our pack and we sampled each one throughout the day – one of many was bearable to actually eat as they grow more and more sour without cultivation.

Wise Man diving into the orange tree, picking out only the best!
We spent the day walking beside grassy farmfields in the hot sun and welcomed the shade of the Oak hammocks, the trees of which were laced with Spanish Moss. Beautiful as it was, by day three we were already craving the luxuries that we had encountered along Lake Okeechobee. Thankfully, Florida Trail trail angel, Mike Gormley came to our rescue with two orange sodas and snacks from the Cracker General Store. He was already in the area caching water for us thirsty hikers. Better yet, we got to sit and talk trail with Mike until the sun was nearly setting. Thank you, Mike! What an incredible service you offer to the hikers and you lifted our spirits more than you know!!
Mike Gormley, Wise Man, and Bot

Finally we re-entered known turf that we had walked last March, hiking through some of most beautiful scenery we have encountered yet. Live Oak trees had littered their edible acorns upon the forest floor. Above our heads we admired the Wild Pine epiphytes and Resurrection Fern that call these tree’s wide- spreading branches home and stopped for awhile beside a pond surrounded by Beautyberry shrubs bearing ripe edible fruit. At our feet was a virtual carpet of Sundews – a carnivorous plant – which look as if they surely must be from another planet.

Beautyberry (Callicarpa Americana)

Sundew (Drosera sp.)
Hitting the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve, the botanicals continued to abound and repeatedly we had to stop to admire the Candyweed, Bachelor Buttons, and Long-leaved Violets dotting the grasses. Saint John’s Wort and Musky Mint were also on the scene.

Candyweed (Polygala lutea) - called Candy Weed for a reason, give its roots a sniff!

Bachelor Button (Polygala nana)

Long Leaf Violet (Viola lanceolata)
Later in the day we crossed the green abyss of Duck Slough and then walked the much dreaded Military Road – a miles long stretch of sand road with nothing in sight. Thankfully we enjoyed the reprieve that evening of a campsite with a pitcher pump and the more stars in the sky than we would ever see up north amidst the light pollution. Kissimmee Prairie Preserve is known for its absence of light and its profusion of stars as well as its vast prairies of Saw Palmetto which we encountered the following day.

Duck Slough

Wise Man walking the long Military Road

Saw Palmetto - an effective adaptogen
Miles of sand road which was hard on the feet, as well as a prescribed burn that we came all too close too on this next day made our miles tough, covering our bodies in dirt and soot and my feet in blisters.
Approaching the prescribed burn which we hoped would not halt us in our tracks

You can imagine our joy at meeting up with our trail pal and dear friend, Star Left. If you’ve been reading my blog, you have seen her name pop up a number of times on both the Long Path and on the Finger Lakes Trail where we met. She and her husband, Ed, and son, Andrew were in a town about 90 minutes away for a wedding this past weekend. She thought it a fine idea to come meet us on the trail with goodies and then bring us back to her hotel for a shower and dinner out. My God…the Hampton Inn has probably never seen towels so black…sorry about that. Time spent with friends and a clean-up amidst a stretch of miles in which we thought for over two weeks we wouldn’t see a shower or laundry was beyond words. Thank you so much Star Left, Ed, and Andrew for being our trail angels!!!

Andrew, Star Left, and Bot
The prairie lands have continued and into Forever Florida we go, which from what we hear has lions, tigers, and panthers…behind fences! It is a privately-owned preserve and really this is all we know of it, so hopefully they won’t be roaming around our camp like the boar! And to tell you the truth, we know little about the environment and trail conditions we will be walking into on the coming miles…we are sure more adventure to come!

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Lake Okeechobee - Hiking the Big "O"!

Wise Man at start of Florida Trail on western edge of Lake Okeechobee
Well, well Lake Okeechobee, you were good to us, providing easy paved path for most of our hike and views of your watery expanses filled with marsh grasses, birds of every color, and of course them gators! For the last 5 days we have walked around the western edge of Lake Okeechobee, covering roughly 60 miles. Despite it's name, Lake Okeechobee is considered Florida's Inland Sea, covering 730 square miles. It's name derives from the Native American words "oki" which means "water", and "chubi" which means "big". And that it is. Although we often walked beside the rim canal which was formed when the dike was created to protect the surrounding communities from flooding, this canal regularly connected with the larger lake itself, which then almost convinced us we were walking oceanside.

Lake Okeechobee near town of Okeechobee
Opposite the lake we walked beside gradually changing scenery from the idyllic settings of small towns, each home with a its own waterway and dock between its neighboring home, sugarcane fields, which were gorgeous in the setting sun, cow pastures big and small and the way the cows lift their gaze to stare at us as we passed, I imagined we were as exciting to them as they were to us. Oh and back to those birds - so many of them - if I knew my birds better, I would tell you what they were!

A cow wading and watching us from the other side of the trail

Sunset over the sugarcane fields

Birds showing Wise Man the way - also an example of the trail when not paved, a sandy gravel road dotted with seashells

Our days continued to be nearly as hot as they were the week before and our nights nearly as mosquito-filled. But we've got 'em figured out! Rise early at 6:00 am, get out of camp sometime after 7:00 am, which is when the mosquitoes go back to sleep, then get to the evening's camp by 5:00 pm, to be certain to be finished cooking and inside our tent by 6:00 pm. Then hope you don't have to pee. But thankfully, we had a cooler night last night and it does seem as long as our temps drop, which they are predicted to do today, the squeeters should be lesser. And then there were the miles of roadwalk when we had a detour off the dike. However, despite these challenges we had some luxuries. Nearly every day we entered into a small town - Clewiston, Moore Haven, Lakeport, and Buckhead Ridge - where we were able to take a rest in the shade of a building and enjoy a cold drink. 

View from trail atop dike, looking at Lakeport

We also have been surprised to run into a number of Florida Trail folks out here! Firstly, we crossed paths with Tigger and Chuck Norris - I wish we had taken your picture! - in the town of Moore Haven. Turns out we all thought Café 27 was the best place to have lunch. Tigger and Chuck Norris spotted us in our gear and struck up a conversation. Tigger and Chuck Norris are founding members of the Florida Trail Hikers Alliance and have hiked numerous long-distance trails. In fact, both of them were out thru-hiking the AT in 2007, the same year that I did my 1,000 miles. I believe I even remember seeing their names in the trail journals and hikers saying, "There's a guy out here that looks just like Chuck Norris!" Tigger is presently working on completing the Florida Trail for the first time and Chuck Norris is working on his third and fourth as her support, hiking portions when he can. After we enjoyed lunch together, they were so kind as to drop us a jug of water at our next campsite and the next morning, greet us with yet another icy cold bottle of water. Thank you for the trail magic, Tigger and Chuck Norris!

Trucker Bob, Bot and Wise Man - our chance meeting - he had passed us while we were road-walking across a bridge heading for Okee-tantie
Then yesterday as we made our way into Okee-tantie park, Trucker Bob, who I was acquainted with through Facebook, pulled up alongside us and almost got us to hop in and travel back to the terminus of the trail for the annual Florida Trail Kick-Off event. This is a gathering at Trail Lakes Campground (home to the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters) for the year's thru-hikers, giving them a grand send-off. We sure were tempted, Trucker Bob and kind-of kicked ourselves later for not taking your offer! But we could not bear the thought of seeing the beginning of the trail again and what a good groove we are in - northward bound! Trucker Bob has hiked over 500 miles of the Florida Trail and has also visited nearly every county in the country - literally - 77% of them. We look forward to seeing you up the trail, Trucker Bob!

View from camp (not the illegal one) - Liberty Point Campsite
We also had some trail magic of an very unexpected kind and honestly hope that we do not need it again anytime soon. See, there was this one night we were camped kinda-sorta illegally at Fisheating Creek Ramp. There was a no camping sign and all, but word on the trail was to give the local sheriff a call, explain our circumstances that we couldn't make it to the next campsite, and they would look the other way. Well...we called the local sheriff who didn't seem to know a whole lot about that little ramp and explained it wasn't his jurisdiction. We shrugged our shoulders and settled in for the night. About 8:00 pm we had high beams shining on our tent. Wiseman hastily got dressed and popped out from the tent, only to be told in an official sounding voice, "Stay where you are." Turns out that boat ramp is the Florida Wildlife Commission's turf. Thankfully, once the officer could see we were truly hikers and ran our licenses for outstanding warrants which came up clean, he was nice as could be. He did indeed issue us official warnings but he also shared with us that he wished he were out doing a hike like ours and that he admired us for doing it...most importantly he let us stay the night. So thank you Florida Wildlife Commission officer, for being so very cool.

Spanish Needles (Bidens alba) - speckled the grass to either side of the trail atop the dike
And along the way, there were, even amidst the paved walkways and grassy paths, the botanical stars. Spanish Needles (Bidens alba), was a regular on the scene. Considered a common weed, Bidens has an edible flower as well as leaves. Flowers can be eaten raw and leaves can be cooked and eaten as a green. I recently learned that Bidens makes an excellent poultice for bug bites and stings...wish we had known that sooner! I think we may be using this from here on our instead of our Benedryl ointment. It has also been used to treat malaria, snakebites, and as a general antimicrobial.

Pulsey (Richardia sp.) - these seem to dapple the grass wherever we are
Pulsey (Richardia sp.) was another regular sight along our stroll. Also known as Florida Snow because of the way it can blanket a grassy area, these little beauties opened only during the day, and closed tight at night as if taking a snooze. Pulsey is also considered a medicinal but mostly for its emetic hopefully not one that we will be needing along this journey.

Bot and Wise Man 
So now it's a day of rest in the town of Okeechobee and tomorrow we venture towards the prairie lands, where we will leave all traces of civilization behind and walk wilderness path between the Saw Palmetto and beneath the Live Oaks spreading their branches wide. Thank you for following our journey, will tune back in soon as we can!