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Ryan’s Great Adventures
Volume 82: Sunday January 27, 2008
Our hero, Ryan, battles fire and water while hiking through Big Cypress.
I slept relatively well during the night given that no traffic drove by to disturb my sleep. Bugs were the biggest problem, but a few splashes of deet solved the worst of the bugs.
At sunrise, and a beautiful one it was, I ate breakfast, broke down camp, and took my first few steps along the Florida Trail.
The steps were cautious ones, with limestone rocks poking out from slick, wet mud, but the tread wasn't bad. But I wasn't lulled into a false sense of security. No, I'd heard the horror stories, wading through alligator-infested waters up to one's hips. This was Big Cypress, where hikers come to die. Or at least come out of it feeling like they lived to tell about it.
The trail quickly became muddy, but nothing worse than I experienced on the Appalachian Trail. The mud did suck one of my shoes off, which I managed to extract and put back on, tightening the laces as far as they could go.
The thing that puzzled me most—with a name like Big Cypress, I expected a lot of BIG Cypress trees. All I saw were endless, scrawny little trees which I assumed were cypress.
It was near Roberts Strand that I finally got to experience Big Cypress. I reached a point where water blocked the trail and the next orange blaze was on the other side. Nothing to do except plunge in!
The water came up to my ankles, and my initial reaction was, "Wow! That feels relaxingly cool on my feet." I'd almost forgotten how hot and sweaty they were until my feet were plunged into the cool, soothing water.
The water level varied for the next couple of miles, at its deepest going up to my knees. It was a strange and exhilarating feeling, but I was careful about my footing so I wouldn't slip or fall. Falling into the water with all my gear seemed like a decidedly bad idea.
At one point, the trail was so overgrown, I had trouble finding the next orange blaze, and alternated between two possible paths—one heading away from the water, and one going directly into it up to the knees.
I scouted the path away from the water first, but after seeing no blazes in the first 50 feet, decided to check the water route instead.
And yes, there was the blaze, hidden behind some palmettos on the far side of the water.
Further away from Roberts Strand, the water was just an inch deep at times, and the water's surface rippled with activity, like tons of little fish fighting over the little water that was left.
In fact, looking closer in the water, there were fish jumping around with fury! How many of those had I just killed on my hike? Hiking through fish? That was a new one, even for me.
The trail never actually dried out after that, but the water did vanish leaving shoe-sucking mud behind. I slipped and slid through, until reaching the Oasis Visitor Center along Highway 41. I had traveled just 7.8 miles.
At the visitor center, I looked through their displays about the region, learning it was called Big Cypress because the region was big—not because the trees were big. How stupid is that? Next thing you know, Texas will want to be renamed 'Big Texas.'
I approached the ranger at the information table to inquire about the trail conditions ahead and weather forecast.
"The trail is closed today," she told me.
"What?" I was stunned. This was news to me.
"There are prescribed burns going on north of here, so the trail is closed. It might be back open again tomorrow, though. Let me find the person who can get you that information."
I read more of the displays while waiting for my ranger to return.
"Okay, I found the guy I needed to talk to. He's just about to go on a fly-over to check out the situation from the air, which will take about 35 to 45 minutes, at which point he'll return to give you a definitive answer.
I nodded respectfully, then went outside to a picnic table to make lunch and wait for the flight to finish.
I didn't finish a moment too soon, either, before it started raining.
I went back inside to find out the results of the fly-over and wait out the rain.
The fire guy hadn't returned yet, but the ranger said that there was a LOT of chatter about me over the airwaves. They knew I had walked in from Key West and wanted to support me on the hike, but they didn't want me burning to a crisp along the way either.
"The rain outside," the ranger said in a hopeful-sounding tone, "should improve your chances."
For once in my life, I wanted it to rain on the trail. I wanted rain, by the buckets, to drop from the heavens.
I decided to watch a short video they had to kill some more time, about the history, wildlife, and future of the area. It described how fish and other animals congregate in the small puddles of water as they dry up, reminding me of the fish I walked through earlier. During the rainy season, the video explained, nearly everything is underwater—just one enormous river—and during the dry season, it all dries up. January, the time I'm passing through, is the start of the dry season. Things aren't *completely* dry, but the worst of the flooding is over.
When I exited the theater, the ranger lady asked if I learned anything new.
"Yes!" I told her. "I forgot there were water mocasins out there! Just something else for me to worry about now!" =)
And it's true, I did forget about them. What, with gators, shoe-sucking mud, wading through water up to my knees, and prescribed fire dangers, I kind of forgot about the lowly water moccasins.
Finally, the fire guy arrived, introducing himself as Jack, and asked if I had a cell phone. He didn't seem to like my answer of no, but gave me the scoop. I should not hike more than a mile or two up the trail that day, but if I could find a place to camp within that first couple of miles, that would be fine.
In the morning.... it was hard to say. He showed me a map of the area covering the prescribed burn, which the Florida Trail went right through the middle. "There are still hot spots flaring up, and it would be nice if we could call you with the results of our fly over tomorrow morning."
I shook my head. No cell phone.
"Well, go ahead and continue on the trail in the morning, but if you see smoke, turn around, okay?"
Seemed like a reasonable request.
"There are some buggy trails you could go around the fires with, if necessary," he continued.
Sweet! I had official permission to continue through in the morning, and because I had no cell phone, they couldn't call me back in the morning!
"Don't be fooled by the rain either," he said, waving outside, "it hasn't been raining on the fires.
Jack let me keep the map of the burned area, and I started preparing to leave. I filled up all of my available water stores, made some phone calls, and headed out.
I set up camp near the end of the airstrip, just outside of the visitor's center. I could even hear the traffic from Highway 41, though it was a distant, muffled sound and posed no threat to my sleep.
The morning dawned, bright and cheerful, and it wasn't more than a couple of miles along the trail I saw the first evidence of a recent fire. Certainly nothing for me to be concerned about, though. It was pretty well burnt out, and looked like it could have occurred weeks ago.
The trail stayed high and dry, and I reached Seven Mile Camp a little before noon where I stopped for lunch. I decided to get through Big Cypress using only the water I filled up with from the drinking fountain at the Oasis Visitor Center—the muck in Big Cypress didn't look too appetizing—so carefully conserved my water during lunch. Even going so far as to rinse the pot with water, then drinking it! Better to have that water in me than evaporating into the air, and I probably needed the few extra calories the food particles provided anyhow.
Then I threw out my ground sheet and went to sleep for two hours. This napping in the middle of the hottest part of the day was really appealing to me, and seemed to rest my feet for the next big push. The campsite didn't provide much natural shade, so I used the umbrella to shade my head once again.
A little into my nap, a small plane flew closely overhead, and I wondered if Jack was in it, doing a fly over to monitor hot spots. I wanted to wave, but didn't. Even if he did see me, he might think I was signaling for help—something I definitely did NOT want to happen. So I watched the plane fly overhead, then turn and bank flying over another parallel stretch of terrain.
At two o'clock sharp, my break was over. I packed up, and moved out.
Wasn't long before I came across my first still-smoldering log. The fire through here was VERY recent—it was still going! That's all it was, though, an occasionally log or tree smoldering like a spent campfire.
Until about an hour later, when I saw a thick, black smoke billowing into the sky. That's the kind of smoke, I thought, that Jack warned me to turn around if I saw. It wouldn't hurt to get a closer look, though, would it? Just to make sure the trail wasn't passable?
In a way, I felt strangely safe walking through this burnt-out smoldering wasteland—it had already burned! If the fire was as bad as it appeared in the distance, I could come back here—the fire would have nothing to burn to follow me back.
Finally I could hear the fire, crackling and consuming the forest. Occasionally, a heavy crashing sound pounded the forest, as if a tree finally fell to the firey onslaught.
The trail seemed to skirt around the edge of the fire, but heavy smoke and ash blew onto the trail and I pondered my choices. There was the prudent thing to do, like Jack suggested, and turn back. I, of course, did not do that.
Instead, I pulled out a hankerchief, with lots of survival advice printed on it—a small bit of irony there—and saturated it with water, then covered my face with it and charged through the smoke and fire.
The fire burned along perhaps 100 feet of the trail, but the smoke made my eyes water and I breathed through it for about 300 feet before escaping the channel of smoke. I was through.
The trail wound through Ten Mile Camp, smoldering logs and trees still burning around camp. Ironically, despite the fact that the camp was still on fire, it seemed like a safe place to bed down—the worst was already over here. There wasn't much left to burn—just the smoldering remains that were still burning.
Still, that wasn't my intended stop for the night. No, I pushed on to Thirteen Mile Camp (about seven or eight miles beyond Ten Mile Camp—not the three one would normally expect after subtracting ten from thirteen).
Ten Mile Camp pretty much marked the end of the burn area. There was another mile or so of trail that had burned, but the rest was easy going.
I still had to pay close attention to blazes—it was very easy to lose track of the trail if one didn't pay close attention to the blazes. Often, there would be no visible footpath at all, and you made your own path from blaze to blaze. The burned areas required even more attention since some of the blazes had burned or were on trees that fell after burning through at the base.
Several times, I spent ten or fifteen minutes scouting for the next orange blaze, and I could imagine a lot of less experienced hikers getting lost out here.
I made it into Thirteen Mile Camp near sunset and set up camp. The camp had a register, which I signed and warned about the fire near Ten Mile Camp for southbounders coming through, and so if Jack or anyone else from the park service were worried about me, they'd know I made it to Thirteen Mile Camp in good condition.
Then I wrote up some more adventures on my PocketMail device and went to sleep. It would be my first night at an official, designated campsite. The stars were twinkling, no motorized vehicles around, and the nearest person to me was probably half a dozen or more miles away. It was a beautiful night.
I woke up at Thirteen Mile Camp and could swear I heard growling. A panther, perhaps? I couldn't find what was causing it, but it sounded distinctly sinister.
I ate breakfast and packed up camp quickly—especially when it started to sprinkle.
The first few miles went quickly, and the sprinkle stopped. But the water had just begun. First it was mud, shoe-sucking stuff that it was, and my shoes had badly deteriorated already in Big Cypress. A distinct hole formed on the side of the right shoe, and the entire front of the sole on my left shoe had come loose. I could see my toes wiggle if I viewed them from the right direction—not a good thing.
Rather than just pulling directly up with my foot, I tried walking by bringing up my heal, then sliding the rest of the foot out of the mud, hoping that would help keep the rest of the sole on the shoe rather than allow the suction of the mud to rip it off completely.
At one point, I nearly stepped on a snaked, coiled in the mud directly on the trail. The snake opened it's mouth, impossibly wide, and hissed loudly at me. The snake was brown, and not one I recognized, but given the particularly aggressive nature of this snake, I wondered if it was one of those famed water moccasins. Most snakes slither off the trail, afraid of direct contact, but this snake seemed to act like I had reason to be scared of it.
It wasn't a large snake, and I studied it for a couple of minutes from a safe distance (perhaps three or four feet away), and it sat there, coiled up, waiting for a chance to strike. I walked around it, and it opened its mouth and hissed some more as I did so, but it stayed put, not even adjusting it's position to match my movements.
After a mile or so in the mud, it became ankle-deep water, which actually made walking a bit easier since it acted as a lubricant on the mud. It was still tough walking, but slightly easier.
The water got deeper, nearing my knees, and I sloshed through mile after mile of water and mud. Words like grueling, arduous, exhausting, and Bataan Death March went through my head.
When I made it to Oak Hill Camp, I stopped for abot 15 minutes to rest. I didn't dare take off my shoes—I was afraid I wouldn't be able to get them back on if I did, or that the structural integrity of the shoes would disintegrate completely in the process of getting them on or off.
At Oak Hill Camp, I found an abandoned backpack—I had little doubt that it was all that was left of the last victim, er... hiker through Big Cypress.
According to my data book, the deepest section of water was 0.1 miles after Oak Hill Camp, a dark and scary place known only as The Black Lagoon. The creatures that live there can only be guessed at.
Rather than wear my fanny pack around the waist like I normally do, I adjusted it like a sash, over one shoulder and under the other arm, to get it higher. It had my wallet, camera, PocketMail device, and other items that really shouldn't get wet, and if I ended up to my waist in water, I needed the fanny pack to ride higher.
When the break was done, I felt a bit nervous. How much deeper could the water get? To help psych myself into going, I stood up and yelled as loudly as I could, "Let's DO IT!!!"
I tromped past the abandoned pack and entered into The Black Lagoon.
The trail was completely covered with water—no visible ground could be seen in any direction, and the only clue to the correct direction to hike was following the orange blazes. How you navigated the water from one blaze to the next was up to you, and the water didn't come past my knees, somewhat of a relief.
While the water was no deeper than other places along the trail, it was a sustained deep area. The other places seemed to drop down then come back up within a few feet, but the water stayed up to my knees several minutes before the water level dropped.
I survived The Black Lagoon.
The trail continued for miles, often underwater, always through mud, sloshing exhaustedly from one orange blaze to the next.
At times, where the trail became thick mud, I would walked parallel to the trail, darting between cypress trees that would scratch against my legs and arms. The legs weren't a problem since I wore pants, but more than once did the branches scratch my arms deep enough to draw blood.
It was slow going, but avoided some of the exhausting mud. Grasses and weeds caught between my shoe and its sole, tickling my feet, and I'd have to stop occasionally to pull them out.
I passed more abandoned gear, presumably from the same guy who left the backpack at Oak Hill Camp. First it was a sleeping bag—a terribly large and heavy one better suited to a living room than the great outdoors.
Then later, I passed a plastic garbage bag with more backpacking debris.
I wished I could carry some of it out, but I had my own pack to worry about.
I stopped briefly at a small hammock—a Native American word meaning land over water if the displays at the Oasis Visitor Center are to be believed. I understood the term oasis a lot better as well—a small patch of land above the water that saturates the rest of the area. A place where palm trees florished, and hikers could stop to rest or take off their shoes.
I hadn't planned to stop and rest again until I reached Ivy Camp, but the water and mud wore me out. A collapsed in a pile on a small hammock, exhausted. "Please, let the madness end soon."
I got up again, and whispered to myself—far too exhausted to yell motivational speeches to myself now—"Let's finish this."
I plodded along, passing another abandoned backpack. "Another victim," I thought. "Rest in peace."
I felt a hard bump in my shoe, and discovered a plastic piece on the bottom had come loose and was falling out. I put it in my pocket, now with nothing more than the thinnest strand of rubber and the insole keeping me from being barefoot.
Another 15 minutes, I gratefully stumbled into Ivy Camp, apparently infamous for the abundance of poison ivy that grows there.
I threw out my ground sheet and collapsed in exhaustion. This would be my lunch break. I no longer had enough water left to cook a proper meal, so I ate the rest of the snacks in my pack instead which consisted of gorp and strawberry leather.
I napped a bit, which felt wonderful, then propped myself up and finished reading Up Shit Creek, with some seriously disturbing stories involving groovers. For those of you who don't know what a groover is, it's basicly a backcountry toilet that those on river trips use.
Most rivers require that you pack *everything* out that you bring in, including number two. Sometimes, however, things go terribly, terribly wrong.
To make a long story short, sometimes, very bad things happen to otherwise good groovers. The stories are horrifying, scary, nightmare-inducing (but sometimes very funny!) of supposedly real-life incidents.
Alas, for those of you familiar with the Golden Groover story, that story is not in this book—but I think it should be included in the next edition. *nodding*
By the time I finished the book (look for this original copy that went through Big Cypress and now autographed by me on eBay soon!), I felt more relaxed and ready to continue.
I hoped the water and mud would be over soon. I didn't know if it continued all the way to I-75, but I hoped and prayed the water and mud would go away.
And it finally did, about a mile or so out of Ivy Camp. The trail dried up, and my pace picked up, and I started whistling Walking On Sunshine while practically running down the trip. Please, oh, please, stay like this, I begged the trail. Don't go back into the water.
The miles clicked down, and at last I saw traffic barreling down I-75.
I fell on my knees with glee. At last, at last, thank God, at last—I've made it!
I shouted at the cars speeding along the highway, "I'm coming for YOU!"
I signed the trail register at the end, just in case the rangers from Oasis Vistor Center were worried enough about me to check that I made it out okay.
I walked up to the rest area and gave DebBee a call to pick me up. I took off my shoes one last time, knowing they would never go on my feet again, but I saved them a bit longer since I figured DebBee would get a kick out of seeing how thoroughly worn out they really were.
I bought a Coke from a vending machine, then waited for my ride out there in the dusk of the setting sun.
I survived Big Cypress.
Technically speaking, there is more Big Cypress ahead, but I've read that it's considerably drier and easier to hike than the area I already passed through. The worst is behind me.
And, alas, it'll be a bit longer before I finish the rest, since it runs into a certain Seminole reservation that I don't have permission to hike through. I'll skip this next section for now, but as MacArthur once said—I will return.
DebBee and her husband, Steve, picked me up from the rest area about an hour later, and took me home and cleaned me up.
The next morning, DebBee took me out to buy new shoes which will hopefully get me another 500 to 700 miles along the trail before they too need replacing. I took a zero day, my first on the trail.
Life is good. =)
I bought new shoes, resupplied, and rested. No miles today! =)
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