Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Our Finish on the Florida Trail: 1103.7 Miles Baby!

The Florida Trail rocked!
On the afternoon of Saturday, March 16th, after hiking 1103.7 miles since December 21st, Wise Man and I reached the northern terminus of the Florida Trail. We were taken by surprise by the stone plaque marking its end just on the other side of a humble foot bridge near the historic Fort Pickens. We dropped our packs and stood dumbfounded, barely believing that this was really the end. We had known since we started that this moment would one day arrive but it had always seemed so far in the future, so very many miles away. Now just like that, we were here, our feet having taken all the steps they needed. It was time to change into something fabulous! Hiking over 1000 miles certainly deserves a Rockstar finish. So in between families rolling by on bicycles we changed clothes, arranged Scott's ipad on his backpack for timed selfies, and got to voguing, while a crane looked on from its perch on the nearby creek. I imagine that crane has seen all manner of absurdity here at this lil sign.

Wise Man celebrating to finally be on the beach!
Since having finished, we have experienced a magnitude of feelings about this journey and the insights along its route were many. In an upcoming blog post I will share with you our reflections on the trail. For now, I would like to revel in those final miles leading up to the end.

Trail through Eglin, framed with Deer Moss
Leaving Defuniak Springs, we entered into forest owned by Eglin Airforce Base. This may sound less than romantic, but in reality this land was some of the most beautiful we had seen yet and the trail pristinely maintained. Before these 600+ acres was deemed Eglin it was actually the Choctawatchee National Forest, so allow your imagination to conjure not machinery and landing strips but rather miles of trail lined with fluffy Deer Moss, Yaupon shrubs laden with red berries, a forest floor cushioned with dried Long Leaf and Sand Pine needles, and Live Oaks that craned their branches overhead creating archways through which we walked. Here and there, wildflowers like Iris and Candyweed shown their faces, bright with Spring.

Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria) - Berries are toxic, but leaves contain caffeine and may be steeped in hot water for an invigorating tea. Roasting the leaves enhances their caffeinated properties

Dwarf Iris (Iris verna) - I have never seen an Iris in bloom so low to the ground

Most remarkable about these miles through Eglin, were the streams that ran so clear we could see all the way to their sandy bottoms. When we filled our water bottles, for the first time in over 1,000 miles, the water was not stained brown and when we drank it tasted like it had just come from a mountain spring rather than smelling of sulfur or swamp. And over these creeks were erected sturdy bridges, one of which was the biggest we had seen yet - Demon Bridge. Over the boggy areas we walked plank footbridges and these too carried us around the edges of swamps. Not once did we have to get our feet wet.

Pearl Creek in Eglin - look at how clear those waters are!

Wise Man on Demon Bridge over the Alaqua Creek

One of many boardwalks through Eglin

Eglin was also unique in the ascents and descents it put before us. Nowhere else on the trail had hills unraveled before us like this, over and over again, dipping us down to the shaded cool of trickling creeks and carrying us upward over dry land. As we hiked we sweat in the high temperatures that prevailed throughout this section, the air thick with humidity.

Wise Man crossing creek in Eglin, complete with stairs to help climb up out of the gap.

We understood what all this climbing was for when we reached the highest point on the Florida Trail at a whopping 271 feet.

Highest Point on the Florida Trail - 271 feet
Oh and remember that tornado that touched down in Eglin the night that we were at the Hillcrest Baptist Church? We saw the very place that happened when we reached a hillside just before our first camp for the night at Alaqua Campsite. The trail has already been cleared.

Damage from recent tornado just before Alaqua Campsite in Eglin - damage has already been cleaned up!

Throughout Eglin as well as Blackwater State Forest which was tucked in the middle, we had the assistance and guidance of Kelly and Sean, trail angels here in this neck of the woods and active with both the Alliance and Association. Not only did they help us get off to a hotel in Defuniak Springs, but welcomed us into their home after a long roadwalk through Crestview. While spending some quality time with these two, they gave us the full rundown on what to expect on the trail throughout Eglin. They were so very knowledgeable and kind and so much fun to laugh with well into the eve. And their two dogs made our stay even better. What loves! However, their assistance did not stop in Eglin. Kelly picked us up at the northern terminus and got us off to the airport in the morning where we picked up our rental car. That last evening we also enjoyed the company of Cricket, who will be finishing any day now. Above and beyond, you two. Thank you Kelly and Sean!

Cricket, Sean, Kelly, Wise Man, and Bot outside of Waffle House in Crestview

When we emerged from the Eglin forest and onto the roadwalk that led us into Navarre, we caught our first glimpse of the shimmering bay and the long bridge that would carry us across to Navarre Beach. It was then we realized just how very far we had come and that Fort Pickens would soon be a reality.

Navarre Bridge over the bay

He hooted and hollered and sang as we crossed the bridge in the midday sun and celebrated with cold sodas at a Tom Thumb convenience store on the other side. From here we walked through a colorful beach town with houses both big and small and an array of lawn ornaments dressed up for Mardi Gras, all the while feeling simply high that we would walk this skinny strip of land to its western tip.

Wise Man walking on bike path through Navarre Beach
So many celebratory lawn ornaments...were they really for us?

It wasn't long before we reached Gulf Islands National Seashore and \turned onto the beach where the walking became increasingly more difficult. The tide was in and so the soft white sand was deep and with our heavy packs we sunk even deeper with each step. We persevered as long as we could and then returned to the road where we still had a good view of the ocean waves.

Approaching beach walk

Gulf Islands National Seashore

Walking beach on the Florida Trail

Later that afternoon we reached Pensacola Beach and turned onto trail through the sand dunes and forged our own path towards the Bayview Campsite. Because the dunes are always shifting, there were blazed posts generally marking the route, however it was up to us choose to go over or around the heaps of sand and salt spray loving plants. Looking out from the tops of these mounds the landscape sometimes more resembled an alien planet than the beach.

Yay! Pensacola Beach

Walking through the dunes on the bay

That evening we sat at the benches near camp and gazed out over the salty waters that lapped at the shore. Across from us were the lights of mainland Pensacola. The winds blew strong and we were so chilly we had to don hats, jackets, and long pants. We had come a long, long, ways from the swamps of the Everglades. The immensity of our journey now undeniable. We sipped celebratory beverages, having procured our ingredients from mainland Navarre and carried them all the way here.

Final campsite on the trail at Bayview Campsite

We slept through the night despite the billowing walls of our tent from the gusting winds and the spraying rain from a storm overhead. In the morning it still rained and the wind blew fiercely, the temperatures having dropped significantly. We bundled up and hiked on over the dunes, civilization looming on the horizon. However still we appreciated the Spiderwort, Sea Rocket, and Wild Rosemary that called this isolated wild place home.

Wild Rosemary (Conradina canescens) - a different genus than our cultivated rosemary, although still a member of the Mint Family, evidenced by its fragrant aroma

Sea Rocket (Cakile) - a member of the Mustard Family, leaves are edible and taste somewhat spicy
Proceeding through the town of Pensacola, we continued to walk in rain, but it mattered little, this was our last day and it seemed everything had a glow about it even in the confines of town. It really started to glow when we resumed our beach walk. Periodically we slowed down and searched the shores for treasures, pretty seashells and sea creatures.

Gifts from the ocean

Bundled up but happy to be on the beach
Wise Man searching the beach for sea glass

In our last miles we hiked giddily, skipping and running down the trail....We made it! We passed looming historic structures but they could barely keep our attention. They were not what we were here for. In the last mile, however we slowed it down, way down. Every footfall held weight. We held hands and dropped some tears, not for reaching the end but for the immensity of what we had been through in the last nearly three months and the connection that we had strengthened to each other over that time. The Florida Trail was a jungle of a trail...but we navigated it like Tarzan and Jane!

Love at the northern terminus
Thank you all for supporting us in our journey and for hiking along with us virtually. Knowing that we were not alone out there in the swamps meant the world and gave our hike greater purpose. The community surrounding this trail is truly unique and we were welcomed into it with open arms. A special thank you to our families that supported us in our endeavor! Thank you Mama Weis for mailing those packages of much anticipated food and gear and slipping in some treats!
Mama Weis and Wise Man
We may have set out on foot alone but we completed it with the help of all of you!!!

Thank You ALL!

Friday, March 8, 2019

By Trail or By Road, We Will Prevail!

Florida Trail sign along SR 20
This past week we pounded pavement...over 60 miles of it in fact. It wasn't easy to tell you the truth. It was cold and windy and the traffic barreled by at full speed kicking up mini sandstorms in its wake. We found sand in our hair, in our pockets and crunched on it at meal times. We camped in the most random of places - vacant land for sale and roadside thickets by powerlines - and took breaks besides stop signs at intersecting roads. But in all our miles we saw our plight was minimal given the devastation that this area, the western panhandle, incurred. To both sides of us were forests of trees that had been snapped like matchsticks and houses gutted. We heard stories from locals we met along the way of just what it was like to go through Hurricane Michael. "We knew we were in trouble when the trees starting flying past the windows and water was coming in under the door." To imagine it is terrifying. We did however sidestep our own scary situation thanks to the help of Wilton Quattlebaum of the Hillcrest Baptist Church who provided us sanctuary in more ways than one.

Wilton Quattlebaum of Hillcrest Baptist Church
On our first long day of roadwalk out of Blountstown, we stopped at a small convenience store and were enjoying a meal of all things fried when both the women behind the counter and numerous patrons passing by informed us of a tornado warning in the area. The winds had been strong all day but they had recently picked up to the strength of gusts that threw our hiking sticks to and fro and knocked the hats right off our heads. Back home in the northeast a tornado warning doesn't mean a whole lot but out here we wondered just how concerned we should be, especially with evidence of the meanness of storms all around us. We hiked on and shortly received a message from Wilton. He too warned us of the weather and offered to come pick us up and take us back to the church for the night. We happily took him up on his offer!

Hanging with Brother Tom 
Here we had not only a safe place to spend the night in the fellowship hall, but had the luxury of a shower, and Wilton cooked up a vegetarian feast for us...and we had never before had corn fritters...they are among one of many gifts from God. We need that recipe, Wilton! Above all though we enjoyed the company of Wilton and his daughter Turtle (she too has taken on a trail name) and a sweet soul named Brother Tom. We feasted, made music, and talked about the things that matter and remained safe through the storm that touched down just three miles from the church and took the lives of 27 people throughout Florida, Alabama and Georgia. Thank you, Wilton!

Our fellow traveler, Wilson
At the end of another day's long hard miles by road, Brother Tom surprised us with a visit. He bore fresh oranges, juice packets, and a special friend for us to take with us to Pensacola, named Wilson. Wilson can stand in for a dog for us for now, he doesn't weigh much and he is awfully darn cute. Thank you, Brother Tom!

I would also like to give a shout to the man who offered us a safe place to stay at Thistle Dew Plantation. We were simply walking by him on the road with the wind pummeling us and Wilton already on his way. This local doctor was also heeding the tornado warning and with no questions asked except for, "Where on earth are you hiking to?" offered us shelter. The kindness of strangers throughout the length of the Florida Trail has been incredible.

Long Leaf Pine forest in Pine Log State Forest

When we finally reached the border of Pine Log State Forest and the Nokuse Plantation we felt as if we were in nature's sanctuary once again. To feel soft trail beneath our feet, to smell the fragrant flowers of Ti-ti and scorched Pine resin, and at night to sleep amidst the deafening quiet of the woods punctuated only by the howling coyotes and hooting owls was a gift. 

Wise Man crossing Cypress Creek in the Nokuse Plantation
Cypresses enjoying the wet of a sinkhole
Wise Man hiking through young Long Leaf Pine in sandy terrain
Walking through rehabilitated farm land, now planted with Long Leaf Pines in Nokuse Plantation
The Nokuse Plantation was full spectrum. We literally felt as if we were walking the whole Florida Trail in bite-sized pieces. We trekked through sun-dappled woods with Live Oaks and Magnolia trees into sandy desert-like stretches of Long Leaf Pine and Turkey Oak, then dipped into dark woods tip-toeing our way over muddy bogs with the help of tree roots, crossed picturesque streams with clear running water on sturdy bridges, strode through miles of yet more young Long Leaf Pine planted in perfect rows, and finally hit the steep ascents and descents of the steephead ravines which reminded us of home. The landscape here is ever-changing. Along the way, we also met a number of plants, some entirely new to us. There is nothing more thrilling than stumbling upon a plant which you have never seen!

Star Anise (Illicium floridanum) - not the kind we cook with! Even though it's leaves were intoxicatingly fragrant and it's blossoms simply stunning. We found this growing creek-side, great large bushes of it  
Sundial Lupine (Lupinus perennis) - I haven't seen Lupine since I was out west. Never had I seen it on the east coast growing naturally!

Black Ti-ti (Cliftonia monophylla) - We have been walking through thickets of this since the tail end of Saint Marks WMA and into Appalachicola, but still it persists here in Nokuse as well. It's blooms saturate the air with sweetness

Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia) - made me think of the sweet mountains of North Carolina!
Lupine (Lupinus diffuses) - yet another species of Lupine, this one with elliptical leaves
And I must say, right now our minds are reeling from the fact that we have just 125 more miles to go. That's right...we are nearly 1,000 miles into this trek. And that deserved a zero, well a nero (we hiked two miles to the trailhead). So we are resting up in Defuniak Springs for the day, which could not have happened without the trail magic of Kelly Willis Fairbanks, who picked us up at Nokuse trailhead and delivered us safely into the belly of decadent fast food, soft beds, and all the hot showers we could want. Thank you, Kelly! And thank you to her husband, Sean for helping us sort out Eglin's very confusing map and closure schedules. Now we will not get escorted off the base or blown up.
Thank you Kelly Willis Fairbanks!

We are excited to see just what's around the bend in Eglin's old growth forests and steephead ravines...and will be sure to steer clear of all unexploded ordinances. You see not only is Eglin a forest that has been preserved since the 1900's but it is an air force base. And we have been hearing the nearby booms now for days resounding through the woods. One never knows what they will find around the next bend!

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Gators, Swamps, and Friends

Wise Man hiking across an old train bridge in Saint Mark's National Wildlife Refuge
It's a jungle out here! Thank goodness for the magic of friends out here amidst the swamp diving, enormous gators, and the many, many miles of walking. We are 875 miles into this hike with just a little over 225 miles left to go. I can barely believe it. It has been sometime since I have posted due to the slim cell signal but we are after all in the Florida wilds!

Entrance to Saint Mark's NWR - love this quote from Edward Abbey
 After leaving the banks of the Suwannee we trekked along forest roads and wound around the deep sinks of the Aucilla River, we then ventured into the much anticipated Saint Mark's Wildlife Refuge. Our couple of miles into this wilderness were wet and rugged, as we crashed through downed palms and slid in ankle deep water and mud. We were relieved to reach an old railroad bed that lifted us above the salty waters of the swamp - being that we were so close to the Gulf, salt waters regularly mix with fresh water - however here we came face to face repeatedly with the abundant wildlife of the refuge.
Just one of  the many gators we saw in St. Mark's NWR
This was like running the alligator gauntlet. Along both sides of this path were deep culverts filled with black water and the evening was warm so apparently the gators thought it a fine time to come out and soak up the last of the day's rays. We camped next to one of these culverts and in the morning started our day with an alligator growling nearby. 

Looking to the Gulf
Wise Man walking the levee in Saint Marks NWR
And more gators!

We were pleased to reach the even higher ground and the open skies of the levy that separated the marsh from the Gulf and us from the gators...although even more lurked in the muddy plains below. It was intoxicating to walk trail bathed in bright sun again and to smell the salty air. There was no denying that now we had walked a very, very long way from where we had started. And then we got to take our first boat ride...that's right folks...these are miles that we don't have to walk! It's the only way to get across the St. Mark's River to pick up the trail on the other side in the town of St. Mark's.
Boat ride thanks to Shell Island Fish Camp
We enjoyed an evening in this quiet little fishing town, enjoying drinks waterside at a tiki hut. The next day however, brought the greatest gift of all...the company of my dear friend, Rachel Horn. Can you believe this girl still agreed to come join us for a few days on the trail despite tales we have been telling...and can you believe that she chose to jump on just in time for a traverse of Bradwell Bay Wilderness??
Bot and Swampalicious, aka Rachel Horn

Allow me to give a quick background on Bradwell Bay Wilderness. It lies within the heart of Appalachicola National Forest and is considered the most challenging swamp walk since Big Cypress National Preserve. It is four miles of shoe-sucking mud, limestone holes into which one easily missteps, fallen trees, bramble, and thigh deep water. It is literally the heart of the swamp and it is no joke. But we still managed to have a whole lotta fun in there!
Swampalicious deep in Bradwell Bay mud
Swampalicious wading the waters of Bradwell Bay 
Swampalicious walking downed tree - makes a handy bridge!
Bradwell Bay was particularly rugged given the fact that trail crews have not yet been able to tend to the blowdowns and overgrown brush since Hurricane Michael but we prevailed and emerged scratched up and covered in mud but still with dry clothing. Just in case we had packed warm dry clothes into ziplock bags inside our packs should we fall in or have to wade through water above our wastes. And let's talk about those backpacks...and the magic of friends....

Swampalicious, Chuck Norris, Wise Man, myself, and Tigger

For several days of our trek through Appalachicola National Forest we had the good fortune of running into these sweet souls of the Florida Trail Alliance, Chuck Norris and Tigger. We had not seen them since Billy Goat Days and had not crossed paths with them on the trail since we first met them all the way back in Moore Haven near the start of the trail. We came upon the both of them along Jack Crum Road - a 6 mile reroute through the forest. Not only did we get to enjoy the companionship of Tigger for our miles through the forest and along the Sopchoppy River but Chuck Norris slackpacked us all for as many miles as he could, which at times meant trucking along some pretty roughed up forest roads. What a treat! We don't know if we could have made it through some of those without you!

Hanging with Rachel and Stephanie in town of Appalachacola

After our treacherous walk through Bradwell Bay, our friend Stephanie was so gracious as to come pick these muddy hikers up and whisk us back to Rachel's house in the town of Appalachacola where we feasted, laughed till we cried, and slept in real beds, oh and of course showered! Thank you Rachel for being such a badass and an amazing true blue friend and for opening your home to us! Thank you Stephanie tolerating our stank in the car as you shuttled and for contributing to making us laugh until we cried. A treat to spend time with you off the yoga mat!

the many spiderwebs shimmering like a fairy kingdom in Appalachicola National Forest

Upon returning to the trail, we hiked on, just my sweetie and me through the remaining 30 miles of Appalachicola National Forest, which lemme tell you, was no small feat. It rained and poured, thundered and lightninged, as we traversed as much of the trail as we could, against the strong recommendations of the forest rangers to simply hike paralleling forest roads due to the destruction of Hurricane Michael. At times we found trail better than expected and freshly maintained and other times it was nothing but a tangle of fallen trees and brush. It was almost always wet, boggy, or straight up swampy...but the plants....oh the many insect eaters!

Yellow Butterwort (Pinguicula lutea)
Green Pitchers (Sarracenia flava)
Sweet Pitchers (Sarrancenia rubra)
But even here in the isolated swamps of Appalachicola, we made new friends. Meet Mark and Cheryl Brent, owners of Palm Glades Shorthairs (google them!). We happened to pass by their big white house just a mile south of Porter Tract Campsite and Cheryl waved us over offering us a glass of ice cold sweet tea. We soon met Mark and one of their beautiful pooches. We learned that they had met another hiker sometime back and made him sandwiches to go. They offered us pizza for dinner but sadly we had to get onto camp that night. They said they would love to meet more hikers, so be sure to stop by for a spell and chat. Thank you Mark and Cheryl for your company and generosity!

Enjoying some porch sittin' with Mark and Cheryl Brent

 And now here we find ourselves in the town of Blountstown, again amidst civilization, as if all that swamp were a mere dream, that is if we weren't still as dirty as a swamp. Oh and we have crossed into Central Time Zone! Now the miles of pavement unravel before us as we make our way towards Pine Log State Forest...road or not...these last 225 miles are to be savored wholly and completely.

Crossing the Appalachicola River and into Central Time Zone, baby! Here's to the miles ahead!