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Ryan’s Great Adventures

Volume 83: Monday January 28, 2008

In which our hero thru-hikes the west side of Lake Okeechobee.

January 15

DebBee walks back to her car after dropping me off at John Stretch Park

Due to proper treaties not getting signed, broken promises, or some much nonsense, I'm not allowed to hike through the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation. Thus, after a day of rest and resupplies (including new shoes from my favorite shoe store—Payless!)

Speaking of shoes... I had considered duct tape on those old shoes, but the shoes were so wet and muddy, I judged that it wouldn't last a mile before the swamp sucked it right off the shoes (or what was left of them). I've done shoe repairs with duct tape before, and that's not something duct tape is good for.

And a lot of people laugh at my cheap shoes, usually acquired at Payless, and outlet stores, or in the case of those old shoes that are now resting in peace, I paid $15 for them at Costco.

I don't blame them for blisters or foot pains, however, despite their cheapness. I've seen hikers wearing the most expensive, top-of-the-line shoes in more misery than my cheap, lightweight shoes, and I've seen no evidence that price or quality has anything to do with comfort.

However, lightweight shoes are a LOT easier to break in, and they dry out much faster than heavier shoes will.

Additionally, cheap shoes are disposable shoes. When they have problems, I have no qualms about throwing them away and replacing them as often as necessary. Expensive shoes, on the the other hand, I'd want to get my money's worth, and I'd likely keep them long after they should have been replaced.

I'd rather go through two or three cheap sets of shoes than one expensive pair.

All the suggestions and advice people have provided I find rather amusing. How to treat blisters, shoes to use, duct tape, etc. There is no miracle cure for long-distance hiking.

I've seen a lot of things on the Appalachian Trail, and everyone has their own unique way of doing things. There's no one right way to do something (although there ARE wrong way to do things!), and there's absolutely no way to avoid pain.

If you're going to hike 17+ miles per day, you're going to hurt. Nothing will prevent that. Not one person who has ever completed a thru-hike has done so without sore feet. It will hurt. If it were easy, it wouldn't be nearly as fun.

As for how I treat blisters—I do carry moleskin, although I haven't used any as of yet. I haven't found it very effective around my toes, and in the past it has made things worse. I think it's mostly an issue of wrapping a flat surface around short, rounded toes. It gets lumpy and ends up causing me problems.

Sugarcane is grown in this area, which is burned just before harvesting.

So why carry moleskin? Because I have found it enormously useful on other parts of my foot—such as the back of my ankle where new shoes often chaff badly. It works well on most of my foot—just not the toes. Alas, so far, those are the only places blisters have formed.

Popping blisters helps, and I try to avoid getting them infected by using a lighter on the end of my safety pin before lancing one. (The water walk in Big Cypress probably wasn't good in that respect, but so far none of them appear to be infected!)

All-in-all, I'm doing pretty well. My feet do hurt, but that was expected and there's no avoiding it. The rest of my body is surprisingly pain free. After two weeks on the AT, every muscle in my body was sore, but I think the lack of hills is helping me this time. Going down steep hills is tough on the knees, and going up them is tough on the muscles. Flat walking is relatively pain free—except for the feet, of course.

The blister problem will eventually go away completely as my feet harden. On the AT, it took about six weeks before I felt they were in top shape, and I've only been in Florida for two weeks now. On the AT, the peak pain was probably about three or four weeks into the hike. I still have a lot of pain left to suffer. =)

So why do I do this? I suppose it doesn't sound like fun most of the time. There's not one reason I can give. I like the challenge—pushing myself to the limit. I like seeing new places, and I like the time to myself. I like seeing things that most people never get the opportunity to see. (Yes, the inside of the snake's mouth was white!) I got to watch the most beautiful sunrise, and I'd never seen sugar cane being burned before. It's all new and interesting to me.

Plumes of smoke from the burning sugarcane could often be seen on the horizon

But I digress.....

On the morning of the 15th, DebBee drove me out to John Stretch Park in the bustling town of Lake Harbor. I skipped perhaps five days worth of hiking, including the Seminole reservation, all of which I'll have to double-back to complete later on.

John Stretch Park is located near the southern end of Lake Okeechobee, and the Florida Trail splits allowing me to choose which side of the lake to hike. I picked the west side since it is slightly shorter and supposedly more remote and more scenic than the eastern side.

The trail splits at John Stretch Park, then follows along the top of the dike that surrounds the lake. Most of it is a paved bicycle path, although maintenance vehicles can also drive on it.

The dike was built after communities around the lake were heavily water damaged by a hurricane in the 1920s, and some folks go for the annual "Big-O" Hike around the lake each Thanksgiving—a 109-mile loop.

The climb to the top of the dike was also the steepest, longest climb of my hike so far! Of course, Florida is flat, so if you find yourself hiking uphill, you know it's a man-made structure.

DebBee took some pictures of me with my new shoes on the blustery top. Oddly, I didn't see the lake. It looked like a canal on the far side of the dike, with land as far as the eye could see.

The trail follows the top of the dike around Lake Okeechobee, mostly paved for bicycles and rollerbladers.

What happened to the lake?

Then we parted ways and I started hiking westward around the lake.

The turkey vultures circled by the hundreds for the next several miles. I'd never seen so many together before! Ugly little things. And the wind at the top howled.

Highway 27 followed alongside the west side of the dike, and I hiked with a nice bird's eye view of traffic on one side, and the lake (which did finally make a brief appearance) on the other.

After ten miles or so, the trail left the dike to enter the town of Clewiston. Not because they wanted the trail in Clewiston, but it was the only way around a canal entering the lake without getting wet—using the Highway 27 bridge across the canal.

I lay down and get ready to sleep for the night.

I stopped at the Clewistown Inn briefly at admire the Everglades Lounge, with a mural painted 360 degrees around the room from the 1940s. Very cool place! But I wanted food, not a drink, so I headed back and stopped at Hungry Howies Pizza for dinner. Very good stuff, there. *nodding* It seemed to be a hangout place where all teenaged-mothers brought their young.

Then I wandered back to the trail and on the dike to continue hiking.

I camped several miles outside of Clewiston. It's actually legal to camp on the sides of the dike, although they recommend not camping ON the top of it since bicycles and the occasional maintence vehicle do go down them.

I found a flat spot in the light of the half-moon near the top of the dike and set up camp.

It was a beautiful place to camp. I watched the stars all night long. I saw what I think were wild boars rumaging around the dike for dinner. Highway 27 turned inland, away from the dike, so all I heard were the birds and the occasional distant horn of a passing train. I grew up with the sound of a distant train, and it's a very peaceful, calming sound to me.

January 16

I woke up to this view, and knew a sunrise to be remembered would be coming my way! =)

In the morning, the sun created a beautiful sunrise, and I took dozens of photos trying to capture its essence, with birds silhouetted against the red and pink clouds. I took most of them laying down right where I went to sleep, so you can see the silhouette of the grasses on the ground along the bottom of the photos, just as I saw the sunrise when I woke up in the morning. =)

I slept in late, not getting on the trail again until nine in the morning. Then I continued hiking the dike.

A few bicyclists and rollerbladers passed me while I was curled up in camp, but they seemed to disappear when the sun came out, and I walked ten miles into Moore Haven without passing a single person.

I did, however, watch as several large fires sprouted smoke on the horizon. I was walking by sugar cane fields, which they burn on a regular basis for some reason unknown to me, creating large billowing clouds of black smoke. Fascinating to watch, but I'm sure the locals are tired of it.

At Moore Haven, the trail left the dike once again to cross over the Caloosahatchee River on a large bridge for Highway 27. Near the top of the bridge, I found myself out of breath, lethargic, and... could I be suffering from altitude sickness?

The first hint of color starts showing up in the morning sunrise

Just kidding. Bad Florida joke. ;o) To be perfectly serious, though, Lake Okeechobee lays just 14 feet above sea level. The highest point in Big Cypress I crossed was about 35 feet above sea level. So, in fact, the highest points I've been to in this state are bridges that climb high enough for boats to go under. I'm not sure what is the tallest bridge I've been on (the Florida Keys had a couple of good-sized bridges), but the tops of those bridges are definitely the highest points I've been on since starting this hike.

In Moore Haven, I stopped at the library for Internet access (a whole hour to use them instead of the usual half hour I was limited to in the keys) and Burger King for a quick lunch.

Then it was back to the dike for more hiking....

The sun set, but I continued hiking in the moonlight, determined to reach Lakeport Campsite. The weather forecast a 40% chance of rain the next day, and I wanted the protection of a shelter over the picnic table in case it did rain.

So on and on I hiked, through the darkness. The moon was slightly more than half full allowing plenty of light to hike by without using a headlamp.

Near Fisheater Bridge, the trail left the dike and followed alongside SR 78 for three miles—the only section of Lake Okeechobee not protected by levies. A new bike path had been created parallel to SR 78 for the first part of the way, so new that even the paint on the surface hadn't been finished yet.

And there's the sun! Another beautiful sunrise. =)

At one point, I heard what sounded like an incredibly loud death squeal from a wild boar in the bushes to my right. A quiet, still night, and the freakishly loud squeal from the bushes 50 feet away. I kept my distance and pushed on, a little disturbed by the sound.

At Lakeport, the trail turned back onto the levy, and the levy walk continued for another mile or so to the campsite.

I kept a close eye open at this point, not wanting to miss the designated campsite in the shadows of the darkness—it was near 9:00 at this point and long after sunset.

And there it was, the sharp angles marking a man-made object. I curved down the side of the levy, and noticed a strange sight, indeed—a tent!

Someone was already camping here! I hadn't seen a single hiker since Key West, and here was one in my presence!

The next designated campsite was another ten miles away—definitely no way to reach that that night!—so I decided to introduce myself and share the camp.

"Hello, there! Anyone in that tent awake?" I asked.

A frumpled crash came from the tent, like someone turning over, and I heard, "What? Ya! I'm here! Hello?"

"Hey there!" I said again, "I'm passing through, and hope you don't mind if I camp here tonight."

"Huh? Who is that?"

Birds flew by all morning, but I had a hard time getting a good photo of them silhouetted against the sunrise. This is the best of the bird shots, which actually isn't very good, but it was a beautiful sunrise to watch! =)

He seemed a bit discombobulated. I probably woke him up, which I felt a bit bad about.

I introduced myself and told him my story of hiking from Key West to Springer Mountain, and he told me he was hiking the Big-O around Lake Okeechobee. After several minutes, he exited the tent and we spent the next hour or so chatting. He was as surprised to see me, another hiker, as I was to see him.

Although, he explained, he had met two girls hiking from Key West to Maine earlier in the evening, probably camped a few miles up the trail. I quizzed him about the hikers—I might catch up with them and it would be nice to hike for a couple of days with other people for a bit.

They designated his trail name as Happy Feet, but he said he didn't care for it much and wanted a new trail name. I promised to think about it overnight.

"Man," he told me later, "you're a nice guy and all, but you scared the crap out of me when you got here!"

I laughed. It wasn't my intention, but given the circumstances, I could understand. Who would have expected another hiker to arrive in the dead of night after not seeing any for over a week? I must have seemed like a ghost or a troublemaker of some sort.

A little after 10:00, he went back to his tent to sleep, and I laid out under the stars to go to sleep myself.

On a totally unrelated note, I am typing this the next day, while sitting on the side of a levy, and I think there's a dead cow laying on the other side of the canal. It hasn't moved a muscle since I sat down, and it's on its side as if it were dead. Seems kind of morbid to be writing my adventures while watching a dead cow.

January 17

The dike provides plenty of places to camp along the way!

At about 4:00 in the morning, it started to rain. I moved my stuff under the covered picnic table, then proceeded to go back to sleep on top of the table. Not as comfortable as nice, soft grass, but definitely better than exposing myself to the rain or setting up my tarp in the darkness.

At sunrise, my campsite companion got up and we resumed our conversation from the night before.

"You scared the crap out of me last night!" he exclaimed. Hey, at least I didn't yell, "This is the cops! You are surrounded! Come out with your hands up!" That would have been funny, though. =)

The weather, still raining, of course was a topic of conversation, and I told him of my theory regarding Florida weather.

In Moore Haven, I stopped at the library and checked the weather forecast, which showed a 40% chance of rain for the day, then it bounced around between 10% and 30% for the rest of the week.

"In most places, a 40% chance of rain means a 40% chance of rain," I explained, rather logically, I thought. "In Florida, however, it means a 100% chance of rain that will last for 40% of the day."

"It doesn't rain in January," he replied, then thought better of the statement listening to the rain on the aluminum roof of the picnic area, "Well, almost never. Lord knows they need it this year!"

Then he went off about having never seen Lake Okeechobee so low, ever. "You can't even see it on this side of the lake!" So I noticed. "Business is bad."

During the night, I had spent some time thinking about a new trail name for Happy Feet, and I suggested my first idea: Professor. He was a teacher in a past life, and currently works to develop school curriculums in Florida.

"No," he replied, "that makes me sound like I have more degrees than I do. I don't really teach anymore."

"That's the beauty of trail names," I told him, "nobody but you ever has to know! It's like you can be anything you want!"

He shook his head. Nope.

"Okay," I continued, "How about O? Since you're thru-hiking the Big-O, your trail name can be O. When someone later asks how you got your name, you can tell them about your adventures hiking the Big-O."

He thought about it for a moment, and finally said, "Yes, I like that."

"The next issue to settle," I continued, "is how do you want to spell it? Just O, or maybe O-H?"

He thought a moment more, then said, "I like the O-H spelling better."

So it was settled—the hiker formerly known as Happy Feet (or Dan for those who knew him before that) is now known as Oh. It didn't seem likely that I'd get to help assign a trail name to this remote trail, but by golly, I got to name the first (and so far only) hiker whose path I crossed!

I departed northward—Oh was heading south—into the rain and wind.

My guidebook called this the Hiker Graveyard. Slabs of rock were driven into the ground to help stablize it.

The rain stopped within a mile or two, much to my delight, and I stopped at a gas station where the trail crosses a bridge on SR 78. The wind was so strong, I noticed, that it was blowing drops of water UP out of the water drains on the bridge—a strangely surreal thing to watch.

I stopped at the mini market there and bought a bottle of orange juice for breakfast, then (gasp!) applied some moleskin to the back of my right foot where it was rubbing against the top of my new shoe. It wasn't rubbing badly, but it was getting sore and that's where moleskin works it's magic best.

All patched up and ready to go, I continued walking.

This time, there would be no large towns to stop for lunch. For about 20 miles, I was on my own.

I stopped at a designated campsite about 10 miles up the trail for lunch. Originally, I planned to cook an elaborate meal, but due to high winds decided that cooking was out of the question. I didn't have a wind break for my stove, and it's hard to cook in a strong wind.

The scene of the Great Summer Sausage caper!

Instead, I decided, I would eat the one-pound summer sausage at the bottom of my pack. I'd been carrying that stupid thing since Key West, thinking it would make a nice snack through a day, but I didn't have a knife big enough to slice it up, so I kept putting it off. The thing weighed a POUND! That's a lot of excess weight for a hiker, and it had to go.

I pulled out the summer sausage, took off the plastic covering, unwrapped the 'skin' from around it, then just started eating it, ripping bites directly off of it. I felt like an animal, primitive but effective.

About halfway done, I realized it wasn't going to be easy to eat the whole darned thing. Eating an entire one-pound summer sausage seemed like something you would do on a dare or a lost bet.

The last few bites I choked down, but I finished it, and laid back on the bench of the picnic table to let it digest, and mentally calculating how many calories it had. 170 calories per serving, 8 servings per package, so I just finished of 1360 calories.

Quite a few for a simple lunch, but I'd have rather put down nearly 2,000 calories from a pint of Ben and Jerrys. (Forgetting, for a moment, that there was no frozen ice cream within a ten mile walk of my location.)

I almost missed this sunset, since it was at my back while I was hiking!

But hey! My pack was now a whole POUND lighter! That's awesome. My pack seemed lighter just thinking about it. I carried that stupid sausage about 200 miles. I figure carrying 1 pound 200 miles is equivalent to carrying 200 pounds for 1 mile. Ugh! Thank God that sausage is gone.

After a suitable period of digestion (about an hour or so), I continued on with the hike.

Near sunset, I sat down to rest a bit and was astounded to discover a beautiful setting sun behind me. It was still cloudy and overcast, but the sun managed to peek through a couple of clouds on the horizon, reflecting off a canal, and it was absolutely gorgeous. Had I not stopped to rest my feet just then, I would have completely missed it!

I passed a lock structure after sunset, which my guidebook said had potable water—a nice surprise since I was running low and thought I might have to dip into the canal water for the night.

I filled up my water, then hiked into the Buckhead Ridge designated campsite for the night where I found two tents already set up. Amazing! Two nights IN A ROW with other hikers!

It was Mountain Laurel and Mosey, former AT thru-hikers who were now thru-hiking the Florida Trail (and not going all the way to Maine, as Oh had told me.)

They didn't come out of their tents that night, so I wouldn't formally meet them until morning. In the meantime, I set up camp under the covered picnic table once again—the clouds looked bad enough that I didn't trust sleeping out in the open this night.

January 18

Mosey (left) and Mountain Laurel (right) pose before starting their hike for the day

The next morning, Mountain Laurel and Mosey started stirring early, and we all complained about the darkness coming too early at night and leaving too late in the morning. It's hard to get a full day of hiking in when it's light out for all of about 10 hours per day. In the keys and on the dike, walking at night was easy so that's how I got a full day's hike in, but January does not provide a lot of sunlight even in Florida. At least the days are getting longer, though.

Mosey pointed at my shoes. "Those did NOT go through the Big Cypress," she told me.

Indeed, they did not, then proceeded to tell the sad, heart-wrenching story of shoe-sucking mud and the final demise of my Costco shoes.

I asked about their plan around the Seminole reservation, and they started hiking from the north end of going south on December 31st, just before it was officially closed to hikers. (Hikers who STARTED through by December 31st were allowed to continue through in January—no hikes were allowed to start through the reservation in January, however.)

So they hiked south to Loop Road, then got a ride to the north end of the reservation and continued north where I caught up to them.

They left to the trail while I finished packing my stuff and followed behind a short while later, catching up to them at Okee-Tantie Recreation Area.

At this point, our paths would temporarily split. I needed to go into the city of Okeechobee for a mail drop which included a much needed map further up the trail, and to resupply since it would be the last major place to resupply for quite some time.

In hindsight, Okeechobee wasn't a good place for a maildrop, being located about five miles off from the trail.

I tried calling two different trail angels that lived in Okeechobee, from a list provided by the FTA, hoping one of them could give me a ride into town avoiding the five-mile hike. Doug didn't answer, and Tommy did answer, but was at work and wouldn't be able to help until he got off at about 5:00 in the afternoon.

Drats, a five-mile hike into town it would be, then. (Only later, much later, did I realize that my guidebook included the number for a taxi service. Do'h!)

That said, it was still another three-mile hike along the dike, and I got a couple of views of the big lake that supposedly was out there the last three days. I even saw two alligators on that section, the first I'd seen since Loop Road.

I stopped by the library to get on the Internet, but they wanted to CHARGE me for using it! I never heard of a library charging for Internet access, and with no pressing reason to get online, turned them down and continued on.

I passed this tanning salon while walking into Okeechobee, which gave me two thoughts. One, why do they need tanning salons in Florida? And two, if you turn black in the tanning salon, you've been under the lights too long.

I stopped at Dairy Queen for a large strawberry shake—oh so good—then picked up my mail drop at the post office. Annoyingly, the post office had no pens available for writing addresses or filling out forms, and several groups of people had banded together to share a coveted pen. A library that charges for Internet access, and a post office with no public pens? What kind of bizarro world had I entered?

I resupplied snacks and food at the Wal-Mart on the way out of town, pushing my pack through the store in a shopping cart. I didn't use a shopping cart to cross those fishing bridges in the keys, but I use them all the time in grocery stores!

Then it was back to the trail for me. It was still too early to call Tommy for a ride out of town, but I did like the canal walk into town and figured I'd walk out again. Not like I'm in a rush or anything. =)

I walked back along the canal, then crossed SR 78 where the trail peeled off to the north.

The sun had set at this point, and I started keeping my eyes open for a place to camp.

The trail followed alongside the Kissimmee River, lit up along its length by strange boats that looked vaguely like spaceships resting in the water, each one casting off enough light to light up a small city. I imagined the lights were meant to draw fish or some other critter in the water, but I don't know what they were after.

Then what did my wandering eye did see? A flicker and then a gleam of light! I sprung to my saddle... err, sorry, that's a line from Paul Revere's Ride. I did not spring to my saddle because I did not have one, but a did see a flicker and them a gleam of light.

Getting closer, I smelled smoke. A campfire!

Closer still, I saw several fires burning, one rather large that looked more like a bonfire than a simple campfire, and I reconsidered introducing myself. I didn't know who these people were, but they seemed more like partiers than I cared to dwell with. They could have been Boy Scouts for all I knew, but I had a bad vibe coming from them and decided to pass them by.

A few miles up the Kissimmee River, a felt a few drops of water hit me. The start of something more? Rather than risk getting caught in a rainstorm in the middle of the night, I set up camp right there off the side of the road.

I found a soft, grassy patch, threw out my things, then rigged the tarp over me. I didn't have a tree or anything to prop up the tarp, so I weighted down the corners with water bottles and heavy objects, and threw them beyond the edge of my ground sheet. No puddles will form on me this night, I thought confidently!

The set up did work better than the last time I threw my tarp over me, but it still wasn't comfortable when the rain finally did come down in earnest.

Fortunately, it only lasted an hour or so before the rain stopped, and the rest of the night went by without much of anything to note. Just the occasional truck with a boat driving by, its headlamps piercing the fog then fading away. The people driving it probably never even noticed me sleeping there on the side of the road.

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