Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Love on the Suwannee

View of the Suwannee River from its white banks
It is quite the thing to celebrate Valentine's Day along the Suwannee River, a land filled with magnificently large Live Oak trees veiled in lacy Spanish Moss, Saw Palmettos that spread like wide green fans and air that smells like damp soil and fresh greens. The banks of the Suwannee are the whitest sand I have ever seen and soft like silk, they call it sugar sand here. For over thirty miles we walked along the river's shore, graced with such beauty it felt as if it were just for us.

Sitting at the base of a giant Live Oak tree
Wise Man wondering just how long this Live Oak has stood here
But that doesn't mean that these miles were without their trials. Deep sinkholes dot the wooded landscape just beyond the river's edge and regularly fill with water due to flood waters and the fact that the Suwannee regularly carves new paths through these lowlands. High waters had just receded just a week ago and so we were left with what one might call sinkhole puddles in their wake. Luckily we were able to maneuver around them, slicing up our legs on those saw-toothed palmettos as we crashed through their fronds and ripping through vines of Catbrier. It was either go around or wade right on through, which we could see might involve waters up to our necks. Creeks too, were still swollen, especially Mill Creek, which meandered down the trail's path like a swamp.

Flooded trail at a sinkhole along the Suwannee. Those blazes are normally eye level!
Flooded trail at Mill Creek along the Suwannee
However on our first day we were lucky enough to have a new friend to help show us the ropes through these watery woods. A new friend of the canine kind! Yes, it seems we may make a few of these sorts of friends along this leg of the trail.

Baxter the trail dog
We met Baxter along a dirt road just past Suwannee Springs and he couldn't have shown up at a better time as we were feeling the absence of Amos who had joined us just the day before. Baxter followed us all the way to Holton Creek River Camp, about nine miles by trail. As we would stand hemming and hawing over a route, Baxter would already be crashing through the forest bounding through the vegetation, suddenly appearing on the other side of the ford. We would follow suit, with a wee less agility. Baxter thankfully had an owner which we evidenced upon reading the tag on his collar. We gave him a call after Baxter's first couple miles with us and learned that he does this all the time, sometimes he even swims the Suwannee to go play with the campers at the music park. We were instructed just to let him come along if we didn't mind and he would pick him up at the campground when he got off of work. We were thrilled to have this sweet dog with us for the day. Perhaps you too will get to hike with Baxter someday!

Holton Creek River Camp with Baxter
Oh and speaking of Holton Creek River Camp- what a dream this place is! We enjoyed the security of this screened-in shelter for the night, complete with electricity and an overhead fan. Hot showers and a flushing toilet were just down the way...and all of this for free. Yep, that's right, not a cent. The caretaker, Scott who will be overseeing the place for the next couple of years, was nice as could be and kept the place sparkling. It was a pleasure getting to know you, Scott, thank you for the lovely accommodations and keep on rockin' that trailer life!

Cheesy bagels and Chickweed anyone? 

Pasta alfredo with Violet leaves and Chickweed
The Suwannee not only supplied us with beauty, canine companionship, and shelter but food too! The cool weather greens here were abundant and it was easy to gather a ziplock of fresh food for lunches and dinners. Chickweed lined portions of the trail like a soft blanket, their tiny flowers hidden amongst their fleshy leaves, and Violets shone their blue faces brightly, each with a rosette of heart shaped leaves at their base. Every hiker needs their greens and guess what... you don't have to wait until town to get 'em!

Withlacoochee River
Oh and speaking of matters related to the heart...a very special event occurred along these river banks, specifically where the Withlacoochee runs into the Suwannee in Madison County. My love, the man who shares not only my heart but my tent and all my sweat and stink...which lemme tell you is no small feat...my love who has not only summited mountains by my side but now trudged through swamps rife with water moccasins...my love who tells me to sing my heart out and makes my heart sing...proposed. And I said yes with full heart and soul and with still 4 more miles to go to Cooper's Bluff campsite.

Wise Man's proposal to me scrawled in the sand

Yes, the banks of the Suwannee will now forever be imprinted upon my heart and soul as the place where I held my love's hand in mine and felt not the beginning, but the continuance of so many steps  and adventures to come in our future. We are truly graced in this life. And I told him...if we are going to get married, we just may need to get a dog. And the next day we were off to the  church!

En route to the Midway Baptist Church
 Oh just kidding. But we really did follow our engagement with a hike to the church, the Midway Baptist Church that sits along the beginning of a very long road-walk. A 52 mile roadwalk. Thanks to Matt and Devin Thompson, we were able to take a sweet night's break after just 10 of those road miles, beneath the cover of their picnic pavilion. These two, their family, and members of their congregation could not have been more welcoming. Thank you so very much for sharing your space and your kindness! I would also like to thank the thoughtful folks who stopped along that long stretch of road bearing "liquid gold!" aka ice cold water and a handful of snacks. It is these small acts of generosity that can lift a person up when they need it most! We have been graced along this trail in so many, many ways.

A kiss to seal the engagement! Happy Valentine's Day y'all!
And now Valentine's Day may be passed but I see no reason to not continue spreading the love as we carry on down this trail. I know that which we have received thus far from others has been contagious and so perhaps we can give little of the same back to those we meet. Thank y'all for sharing in our story and here's to the winding Aucilla River to come!

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Along the Suwannee River

Trail through Camp Blanding

This Florida trail is truly unique...a patchwork of swamp sloshing, road rambling, and meandering trail, and along its corridor so many helpful souls. We trekked through Camp Blanding where we spied more Spanish Moss than we had see since the prairie section and took a long walk along the Palatka Lake Butler Trail, enjoying its grassy terrain amidst the Long Leaf Pine timberlands and Cypress swamps and were pleased to find a welcoming town at its terminus in Lake Butler. We set up camp for the night outside of City Hall, thanks to Sara and Amy, and took care of all our resupply needs. This set us up perfectly for a walk through yet more Long Leaf Pines in Lake Butler Forest and in Olustee Experimental Forest. Through this section we had the help of two Florida Trail advocates - Janie Hamilton and Billy Luper.

Meeting Janie Hamilton outside of Keystone Heights
Billy Luper of White Springs bestowing upon us trail magic at the Fastway near Osceola National Forest

While night-hiking towards Cow Creek Camp we met Janie at a road-crossing. Janie is the section leader for this area and a long-time volunteer with the trail. She filled us in on what was to come and sent us on our way with Florida Trail memorabilia and well wishes. Just a few days later, when we decided to treat ourselves to a motel in Lake City, she kindly connected us with Billy Luper, trail volunteer and avid hiker. Billy oh so generously helped us with a ride back to the trail the next morning! Thank you Janie and Billy!

Trail through the Osceola National Forest

Oh Osceola, how do I describe thee...you were spongy and muddy with waters high and cold but you were also thick with Saw Palmetto, Long Leaf Pine, sunken Cypress trees and dotted with Saint John's Wort and Candy Weed. The Okeefenokee Swamp literally connects with Osceola - something we did not realize until we took a good long look at a larger map while on break - its waters draining into this national forest. So to say it is wet trail walking through here is an understatement. But the air smelled sweet like licorice from the abundant pine pollen that coated all the waters and our crocs in yellow dust. We became one with these waters and woods as we squished through carpets of moss, sunk ankle deep in its rich mud, and waded through knee-deep water when bridges led us directly into them as if we were walking the plank.

Wise Man getting ready to walk off the plank and into a now very wide stream crossing on the trail

Shin deep in Osceola mud
Walking, er' wading the trail

Saint John's Wort (Hypericum reductum) - Saint John's Wort is renowned for its depression alleviating properties as well as its ability to heal tissue and reduce nerve pain. However it is uncertain as to whether or not this species possesses such properties. Most often Hypericum perforatum or Hypericum punctatum are species that are used medicinally. 

As much as we got a thrill out of Osceola's obstacle course we were relieved to again hit road as we trekked towards White Springs. We were about to jump onto a new section of trail near Randy Madison Shelter until we were luckily forewarned by a farmer toting the biggest bail of hay I've ever seen in a very tiny pick-up truck that we had better only head into those woods if we liked to swim. We like swimmin' just fine but not with our backpacks on, so road-walking it was. The Suwannee was at flood stage just a couple of weeks ago, over 65 feet high, and has since dropped but not by much. So we have been researching our upcoming miles carefully. Wise Man unfortunately purchased our Florida Trail kits on a budget site - floaties and rafts not included.

Judith's White Springs Bed and Breakfast - perfect for two weary hikers!

Judith, Mark, Wise Man, myself, Jeanne and Kathy

In town we found shelter at the White Springs Bed and Breakfast owned by Miss Judith. This sweet woman opens her doors wide to hikers and provided us with a lovely room, laundry and a delicious breakfast in the morning. Here we met members of the Suwanne Bicycle Association, Kathy and Mark and Event Director, Biking Jeanne. Turns out Jeanne had been following our blog since we started and so what fun it was to elaborate on our journey thus far and to hear her tales of biking adventures as well. These three made breakfast special and it was hard to rise from our seats to get moving again.

Amos the traveler

But before leaving White Springs, we made yet another friend...of the canine kind. Meet Amos. Ever hear that song Amos Moses by Jerry Reed? It has been our theme song out here on the trail and we thought it a fitting name for this pooch who followed us out of town. We did everything we could to shrug him off after he trailed us from the Dollar General. We stopped in the Post Office and the convenience store, thinking surely he would forget about us and be on his way but both times he waited patiently for us outside. We stopped in the outfitters on the edge of town to see if he knew of anyone missing a dog or if he knew him to be a resident dog in town. He felt he was a discarded hunting dog that hadn't done his job well. We knew we had a long day of roadwalks ahead of us due to the Suwannee's high waters and did not want Amos to be in danger on the roads. As we made our way out of town we chatted with a ranger, hoping he could take Amos somewhere safe. He simply congratulated us on our adoption. And so we continued out of town with Amos happily following behind. When the roads got busy and Amos didn't seem to understand that he should be on the other side of the white line, we pulled out our bear rope and fashioned a leash for him along with a cloth Nike strap we found on the ground which made a good collar when tied in a knot.

Amos road-walking - he sure liked those cool culverts filled with water!

We worried about just how we were going to care for a dog on the trail or how we could possibly get him somewhere safe. When we hit quiet roads, we took him off the leash hoping he would turn and head back to White Springs. But he just trotted along and when we stopped to break, he did too. We passed farms with dogs and wondered if this one or that one might be a good home but each time the dogs seemed too aggressive while Amos just wagged his tail. Over fifteen miles later, as we grew closer to Suwannee Springs, Amos was still with us. I called a veterinary hospital in Live Oak and was chatting with them about our options which basically consisted of taking him to a shelter. Just then an off-road buggy came bouncing down the road with two clean-cut looking country boys at the helm. They complimented us on Amos and Wise Man asked if they would like to take him home. After explaining our situation they said, they would hate to see him walking all that way and so happily received him. We shed a tear upon having to part with our new friend but it seemed a happy ending.

Amos heading off to his new home

Now after a night camped beneath the stars at Suwannee Music Park, we are taking a zero with one of Scott's good friends from the biz, Bobby Barth. These two were texting and what d'ya know, Bobby lived just around the way! You may know Bobby from his many years with Axe or Blackfoot. He has so graciously spontaneously invited these weary hikers into his home where we are enjoying some R&R.

Wise Man and Bobby Barth - these two toured together in Louisiana Hoodoo Krewe (members of Blackfoot)

Tomorrow we finally get to walk alongside the rushing waters of the Suwannee that regularly carve an unpredicted path through this land. But like this river, our days on this trail have proved to be equally unpredictable and it is our task to go with the flow. Here's to what's to come!

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Edible and Medicinal Botanicals of the Florida Trail

Wise Man traversing around flooded road in Plum Creek Timberlands - we were not always so lucky to walk around, instead having to wade right on thru!

We are over 500 miles in and nearly half way through our hike on this exceptionally beautiful and challenging trail. Since I last posted we have traversed Ocala National Forest traveling through Long Leaf Pine forests filled with blonde grasses and heaps of golden sand, evidence of the pocket gophers that call this land home. Here we also walked tunnels of Scrub forest, home to the Scrub Jay, a threatened species that resides amidst the Wild Rosemary and scrubby Oaks. In the Plum Creek Timberlands we slogged down miles of flooded forest road where the road and the cypress swamps were often indiscernable from each other. After wading through a thigh-high roadside culvert, we sloshed our way into Rice Creek Conservation Area traversing Nine Mile Swamp, where the beauty made up for the high waters as we were surrounded by a Florida jungle of towering Cypress and lush Palms. And all along this trail we have had the company of botanicals both edible and medicinal. I would like to take this blog, marking our halfway point, to fill you in on some of the plants that we have been appreciating along this trail.

Viola with heart-shaped leaves - any Violets that are blue and/or white with heart-shaped leaves have edible flowers and leaves
Lance-leaf Violet (Viola lanceolata) - questionable if edible due to lance-shaped leaves

I was thrilled when we began seeing the five-petaled faces of the Violets (Viola) in the prairie lands, reminding me of those that I know from home. However, these were different species, one in particular with grass-like leaves, Viola lanceolata, which we would never see up north. I have always been taught that all true Violets, except those with yellow flowers are edible. Some have a sweet flavor, whereas others may be minty or even spicy. However I have never encountered a violet with lance shaped leaves. Typically the leaves of Violet are heart-shaped. I have done some research and cannot find  anything confirming or denying the edibility of Viola lanceolata, therefore the jury is still out, eat at your own risk. The heart-shaped leaves of white and/or blue Violets may be enjoyed raw in a salad or tossed into a stir-fry or soup. They are a versatile green that never grows bitter – very unusual in the wild plant world. These violets have since persisted as we have hiked north and we have nibbled them here and there.

The colorful seeds of Coontie (Zamia pumila) which can be found near the base of the plant.
The Coontie (Zamia pumila) on the other hand, has been much more infrequent to see and we did not spot our first wild one until Ocala National Forest. This plant, endemic to Florida, used to grow in abundance but was overharvested and now found only sporadically or planted for ornamental purposes. All parts of the plant are toxic, containing cycasin, so not a plant to harvest while hiking. However the Seminole Indians employed it, carefully leaching this toxin from the roots, then making a flour and bread from the starch that they called sofkee. It was Coontie that provided nourishment as the US soldiers drove them deeper into the Everglades. We, Americans, later decided this might be a good money-maker and actually made an industry out of Coontie root, hence how it was nearly wiped clean from the Pinelands and Oak Hammocks.

The saw-tooth teeth of Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens) found along petiole (leaf stem)
Fronds of Saw Palmetto - one of these is actually considered a whole leaf
Another plant that has been employed commercially however continues to proliferate throughout Florida, the Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens). We have walked through vast prairies of these palm fronds with their saw-toothed petioles. The berries can be pulverized and ingested in a capsule or submerged in alcohol and tinctured, useful as an adaptogen – to support and nourish the body – as well as an alterative – to cleanse the body of excess waste. Herbalists regularly use it to treat prostate inflammation and disorders of the urinary tract. The Native Americans regularly ate the berries, but I have heard that they taste like soap. There are no berries to be found this time of year, so will have to be sure to sample a few later in the season.

Spring Coral Root (Corallorhiza wisteriana)

This unusual parasitic plant, Spring Coral Root (Corallorhiza wisteriana), was quite the find beside a pond in Ocala. It is the only place that we have spotted it yet and it was enjoying a blanket of wet leaves and the shade of Cabbage Palm fronds. Spring Coral Root is indeed medicinal however because it is infrequent, not one to forage but rather revere. It is reportedly one of our best herbs for increasing the body’s temperature (diaphoretic), breaking up a cold, and alleviating pulmonary ailments, however it must be used regularly for several weeks to fully restore health.

Wise Man hiking through Long Leaf Pine (Pinus palustris) and Saw Palmetto savanna in Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area
Long Leaf Pine Cone with open scales - nuts already gone
Long Leaf Pine sapling

Most anyone who has spent time on the Florida Trail through Central Florida knows of this towering slender tree, Long Leaf Pine. If shared space with Saw Palmetto through Three Lakes Wildlife Management area and reached for the sky in Ocala National Forest. Pluck some long needles from one of the stubby saplings and steep in hot water as we did for a Vitamin C rich tea that is also highly antimicrobial. Pine nuts may also be harvested from the large unopened cones. If you wait until the scales open up, the critters will have already found them, but put some closed cones by a fire to release the seeds. Hence, one of the reasons why the park service prescribes burns to perpetuate the life of these trees. We have yet to try this method as we rarely build fires but seems as though it would work.

Cleavers (Galium aparine)
Chickweed (Stellaria media)

Here are two greenies that we know and love from our grassy areas back home in the northeast, Cleavers and Chickweed. We were pleased to finally see them here along the unpaved Palatka Lake Butler Trail. Cleavers are a considered a Bedstraw, however this species, Galium aparine, is one of the very few to bear many tiny velcro-like hairs. Throw it at your fellow hiker and it will literally cleave to their clothing. Chickweed, this species very small and unassuming, Stellaria media, is sweet and crisp with a taste reminiscent of corn. Chickweed can be enjoyed raw like sprouts in a sandwich or in a salad. Cleavers is better cooked to dissolve those rough hairs. Both are excellent pureed in a pesto. A retired railroad bed is never a good place to forage due to contaminated soil and foot traffic…but the next time we see it along grassy trail…it is going in our lunchtime cheese sandwiches! Every thru-hiker needs their greens!

Usnea, aka Old Man's Beard, growing on Sand Pine cone - Usnea is an epiphyte, therefore it does not harm the organism it grows on but rather uses it as a substrate

Have you spied this lichen clinging to the Live Oaks, Sand Pines, and Wild Rosemary? Meet Usnea, aka Old Man’s Beard. There are dozens of species of Usnea and each rather difficult to tell apart, however all are highly medicinal. This organism is the closest thing to anti-biotics one can find in a forest and it had been employed as such for centuries. Modern day herbalists use it as an anti-microbial, anti-fungal and anti-viral, especially good for urinary tract infections and pulmonary conditions. However field medics back in World War I, would pulverize this lichen and pack it into men’s wounds to both prevent infection and staunch bleeding. Steep it in hot water or tincture in alcohol to ingest. To be certain you have Usnea and not another genus of lichen or Spanish Moss, gently break a piece and look for a very slender white or light pink thread running inside.

There are so many more that I would love to feature but they will have wait until the next posts for surely you would be better outside seeing these plants for yourself than reading them here! From here we continue to hike north, into parts of Florida of which we know only what we have been told. This is the magic of a thru-hike…to wander.and to wander slowly into places which we could not even conjure visions of in our wildest imagination…and to enter them without expectations but rather wonder, sure feet, and open hearts. It’s gone from real dry out here to real wet seemingly overnight as we near flooded rivers and deep swamps. Here’s to the Suwannee River and whatever you bring our way!