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Ryan's Great Adventures
Volume 86: Tuesday March 18, 2008
Our hiking hero plows through the Orlando area and into the Ocala National Forest where more heroics ensue
As usual, I woke up with the sunrise, and started going about my normal morning routines. I ate breakfast, and was brushing my teeth—and why do these things always happen while brushing my teeth?—and I heard a man on what sounded like a bullhorn (though it could have been a microphone attached to speakers) yell out, "Good morning, everybody!" then welcome everyone to a marathon. In the background, I heard what sounded like a hundred people cheer in return.
This came as somewhat of a surprise to me. I thought I was alone, with perhaps a few locals in nearby residential areas just waking up in their beds and going about their day. I just found out that a hundred people now grouped precariously near my camp, and my first thought was, "Oh, I so hope I'm not camped on the race course."
I hastened my brushing, and a couple of minutes later, a long shadow passed over me. It was a runner, running along the top of the dike, and I breathed a sigh of relief. At least I wasn't camped ON the race course, but I was close enough to it that the shadows of each of the runners would pass over my camp.
The porta-potties I noticed the day before suddenly made a lot more sense. They weren't for maintenance folks—it was for the runners this morning! Thank goodness I didn't camp on the dike like I'd been thinking about doing! =)
I finished my camp chores, pulled on my pack, and walked parallel to the runners to the intersection with Wheeler Road. I noticed a small stand on the corner of the dike where runners could stop to get water. In fact, some of the runners were actually walking, and I was walking faster than them. And I had a heavy pack on. Bunch of wimps. =)
After reaching Wheeler Road, the trail followed a long, tedious road walk for several miles, until I reached the town of Chuluota (Chew-lee-oh-tah).
I stopped at Chuluota Grocery for lunch, picking up ice cream, fruits, and a drink while three firefighters attempted to break into a car in the parking lot. They were at it when I arrived, and they were still at it when I purchased my items.
A dog had locked himself in the car when his owner went out, and the fire station was right across the street. So they were trying to rescue the dog, each of the men trying to jimmy the lock open at a different part of the car. It was rather amusing to watch as I ate lunch.
At last, the dog was freed, and the free entertainment came to an end.
One man at the store recognized me as the hiker I am, and he was section hiking the AT as time permitted having recently reached Virginia. There wasn't anything particularly remarkable or interesting about this man, and originally I didn't intend to mention him at all in this blog. He was a nice, friendly man—but there wasn't really anything interesting to report about him.
Skip ahead about 20 hours, however, and my mind changed. I was walking down a bike trail, and I overhead two rollerbladers as they passed me. The man said to the woman, "He said he bumped into a thru-hiker yesterday who hiked in all the way from the Keys...."
And I thought, "Hmmm..... There aren't a lot of people around here who hiked in from the Keys." So I shouted out at them, "Hey! Are you guys talking about ME?!"
Turns out, they were! Their friend was the man I met at the grocery store the day before, and he had told them about bumping into me, and less than a full day later, they did the same thing. =) Small world out there!
But back to Chuluota.... The trail finally left the road walking behind and went onto an old railroad grade to the Econ River. It was a nice, scenic area, and I enjoyed hiking this section. I found several letterboxes left for me along this section as well. =)
Near the end of the day's hike, the trail dipped back into water again. Determined not to end the day with wet feet, I crashed through palmettos and brush doing everything I could to avoid walking in water once again. I jumped over a barbed-wire fence in the process, and scratched myself all over, but I made it through with my feet dry before finally entering the town of Oviedo.
Oveido is not what I would call a hiker-friendly town. At one point, the trail reached a chainlink fence. A gate was supposed to open there, but it was locked with thick chains with no obvious way around.
I took off my pack, and tried squeezing it over the chain and between the fence posts, but it got stuck until I took off my camp shoes and the pack finally slipped through.
I squeezed through on the other side of the gate, away from the chain, thinking it would be easier for me to squeeze through without having to go under or over the chain.
I couldn't fit with my fanny pack on, though, so I took it off and finally wriggled through to the other side.
The trail then crosses CR 419 twice near downtown Oviedo, but both crossings require jaywalking across a VERY busy street. Apparently to see junk in a person's backyard, before crossing CR 419 a second time back to its original side.
I touched the historical marker explaining this history of Oviedo, because it was time to get off the trail for the night.
Lorax and ThreeHearts picked me up at sunset and whisked me away to parts unknown. We all spent the night at Lorax's house, carving stamps, eating pizza, and laughing the night away. We didn't finally go to sleep until after midnight.
The next morning, ThreeHearts dropped me back off in Oviedo and I continued my hiking. It would be a short day, twelve miles by my calculations, where I would end at a small restaurant alongside the trail for lunch and an impromptu gathering was forming.
The hike generally went well. It followed a bike path most of the way, which was nice since that meant no mud, no water, no cars, and no cobwebs to break through. A little busy with people, perhaps, but that was nearly a welcome change since usually I'm by myself on the trail.
I chatted with several people along the way, including the couple of rollerbladers I mentioned in my last post whose friend I bumped into the day before.
I also met a couple of women riding bicycles, Lorri and Andie, who seemed pretty curious about my walk. I sent them to this blog, so perhaps they'll post a comment and say hi. ;o) (They already e-mailed me directly, but I haven't had a chance to reply. Sorry about that!)
About two and a half hours into the hike, I checked my progress. About six miles, about what I expected. Which gave me about two hours and six miles until I was expected for lunch.
Or so I thought. Looking closer at my data book, I suddenly realized that I actually had seven miles to reach Lake Mary—my destination—and I'd really have to haul to make it there by 2:00. My leisurely day just turned into a race!
The bike trail ended, then the trail wound its way through a seedy-looking section of town before heading into the woods where fallen trees and lack of maintenance slowed me down. Definitely going to be late, I thought.
The trail eventually found its way onto another bike path, and my progress improved. I sped through Longwood, finally arriving in Lake Mary.
The trail dumped me off at the intersection of Lake Mary Blvd and Rinehart Rd, a huge intersection, and I started looking around for the Peach Valley Cafe. Remarkably, I made it to the intersection at 2:00 sharp.
I didn't see the restaurant at first, so I walked up a high pedestrian overpass hoping the added height would help me spot the location, but alas, I still couldn't see it anywhere.
I came down from my perch, and asked an elderly lady if she knew where the Peach Valley Cafe was, and she pointed down Lake Mary Blvd, "Oh, it's a mile or two that way."
Huh? That can't be right. ThreeHearts told me it was right on the trail. "It's supposed to be near a Paneras," I added helpfully.
"Yep, a mile or two that way," she insisted.
Okay, something wasn't right. I walked over to a pay phone at 7-11 and called ThreeHearts. "And WHERE are you?" =)
Turns out, indeed, a couple of miles away. She insisted there were orange blazes nearby, and we concluded that they must have rerouted the trail fairly recently to this new location where I was currently standing.
When they reroute a trail, they'll usually only paint over the first few orange blazes of the old route, figuring once your on the new route, you'll no longer see the uncovered old blazes on the old route. Which is how things usually work, but in this case, ThreeHearts wasn't *following* the trail—she went directly to the middle of the old section, saw the blazes, and naturally assumed the trail still went by.
"Well," I told her, "someone better came by and pick me up if they want to meet me, because I'm not walking two miles off trail to get to this restaurant!" =)
Kaaren, of David and Kaaren fame, volunteered to pick me up, and I waited for her to arrive a few minutes later, whisking me away back to the Peace Valley Cafe.
It was a good gathering, with good food, with a half dozen or so letterboxers driving out to be merry and swap war stories. =)
Kaaren took me to her home for the night, where I got a second night with a soft bed. Speaking of which, her house is wonderfully large and would make a GREAT location for a letterboxing stamping party. *hint hint*
Kaaren had to work the next morning, but her husband David was able to give me a ride back to the trail in Lake Mary. (The correct intersection, to boot!)
It's hard to leave civilization behind sometimes. I slept in late, taking my time packing up. I needed to resupply, so David dropped me off next to a Publix supermarket at the intersection. I repacked all the food I bought into ZipLocks, mailed some postcards, and by the time I was ready to hit the trail, it was lunch.
So I stopped in at Taco Bell, checked my e-mail at a pay phone, and FINALLY got on the trail sometime after noon.
I'm just pathetic. =)
The trail crossed I-4 on a $3.6 million pedestrian suspension bridge. It's a nice, scenic bridge—I'd hope so for $3.6 million—and was probably the reason for the trail reroute through Lake Mary.
I took 381 steps to cross the structure, which I calculated in my head to mean that each of my steps is worth nearly $10,000. Wow.
I hiked another mile or two, until I reached the town of Heathrow where I dwaddled some more. Bought a cold soda (ugh, it was hot!), made some phone calls, and ate some snacks.
Civilization was slowly my hike to a crawl. Fear not, however, because the trail soon entered Lower Wekiva Preserve State Park and then the Seminole State Forest, where only things like trees and squirrels could distract me.
At the Seminole State Forest, I was required to pay the $1 entrance fee—which seemed wrong to do to someone who hiked in all the way to Key West. It was the first entrance fee I had to pay. Even on the whole AT I never had to pay an entrance fee.
It was an honor system payment, but I'm an honorable guy (usually), so I paid the dollar.
I stopped hiking near sunset at Boy Scout shelter—my first honest-to-goodness shelter of the Florida Trail. I missed the shelters from the AT, so it was nice to finally see one again. It had no register (boo!), but I happily set up camp in it for the night. I meant to hike five miles further, but the city life sucked me in, and I only escaped far enough to this shelter.
I was already about five miles behind schedule, flexible though it might be, and it bothered me a little so I was determined to push on to my original destination for the night somewhere near the town of Paisley—about 20 miles.
Not an impossible feat for me, of course, but I had hoped to get into town early enough to pick up a maildrop and use the library before they closed. I didn't know exactly when they closed, but it if were 5:00, I could have a hard time getting there in time.
I figured with a minimal number of rests, I could make it into the town by 4:00.
I woke with the sun, but didn't linger long before saying adios to my shelter and hitting the trail.
The next seven or so miles wandered around the Seminole State Forest, a beautiful area and a pleasing walk. I stopped briefly to find a letterbox by the Gamecock, who left a note in it saying there was trail magic ahead, and to look for a white bag in a specific location further up the trail. The note said to take anything I wanted and leave the rest behind—she'll come back later to pick up the leftovers.
I found the bag, stashed in a palm tree, and discovered a plethora of items to eat and drink. A bottle of Coke, what looked like home made chocolate chip cookies, fruit rolls, and more. Wow!
The Coke was still cool from overnight, but it was late enough in the day for me to have worked up a sweat, so I drank it right then and there. As well the cookies—they looked too fragile to put in my pack without getting destroyed.
The rest I put in my pack, except a can of Starbucks something or another—not much of a coffee drinker here—and the empty bottle of Coke. (Why carry it 20 miles if Gamecock planned to come and pick up the leftovers anyhow? The empty bottle was left over!) What a wonderful surprise, though. =)
The timing couldn't have been better for that soda, either. Had I arrived much later, it probably would have been too warm to taste good, and had I arrived earlier, I'd still be cold enough to have not wanted it. Talk about fortunate!
Outside the forest, the trail went back to roads and fast cars and it wasn't much fun. Road walks rarely are.
After an hour or so, the trail veered into less used roads, making for a calmer walk, but I still wished the trail into the woods.
Unfortunately, I got my wish! It went through a recently burned area that had yet to be reblazed. Someone had gone through and tied orange ribbons to the trees in place of blazes, and I followed the ribbons for a bit with the occasional blaze that hadn't burned.
Until it stopped. It just stopped cold, and there was no obvious trail for me to follow. I saw a group of pink ribbons way off in the distance, but they were pink, not orange, and they were in a group of trees, not lined up like a trail to be followed.
I walked ahead a bit, hoping to spot an orange ribbon or blaze, crawling through charred and fallen trees that left black marks all over my body—especially the legs.
But I found no trace of the trail.
Having now given up following the trail, I decided to look for it instead. You might think that's the same thing, but it's not. I was now ready to hike miles with no sign of a trail at all, using my map, compass, and wits to pick it up again later.
I had a pretty good idea where on my map I was, and the trail generally headed northeast from where I was at, intersecting Maggie Jones road, "a hard packed sand road" according to my sources. Then the trail followed the road for miles.
If I could find that road, I could find that trail.
I started hiking east, then curved to the north hoping to use Maggie Jones Road as a catching feature.
I hadn't made it a quarter of a mile, however, before I crossed paths with an orange blaze! Woo-who! Back in the saddle again!
I followed the trail a short ways where, as expected, it turned onto Magie Jones Road, and I hoofed it as quickly as I could to Paisley.
Amazingly, despite the letterbox, trail magic, and getting lost, I did the 20-mile hike in just seven hours, and staggered into Paisley at 3:00 in the afternoon.
I picked up my maildrop with maps for the next 300 miles or so of trail, and stopped at the library for 30 minutes of Internet access.
Those time sensitive tasks out of the way, I then hit the local mini mart at the gas station where I loaded up with lunch and dinner, water, and snacks. I also made extensive use of their pay phone.
When finished, I walked back to the trail and continued hiking. I didn't hike long—perhaps a mile or so—before I found a nice spot to set up camp. Although no rain was in the forecast, I decided to set up my tarp anyhow. I was tired of waking up to dew on everything in the morning, and spending the night in the dew-free shelter reminded me that a roof, even in good weather, has its advantages.
Late in the night, long after darkness descended, I was trying to fall asleep when I heard a rather large noise from the direction of the trail. It was a hiker, whose shape I could see behind the glow of a headlamp.
Who was this man? Or was it a woman? What were they doing hiking the Florida Trail so late? Were they staying at the nearby Clearwater Lake campground?
The person must have heard me shift positions, because he stopped briefly, looking into the woods in my direction.
I stayed quiet, though, and the interloper continued on his unknown quest.
Paisley essentially marks the southern boundary of the Ocala National Forest and the start of 70 miles of not a single road walk.
Ever since the keys, however, locals have warned me that homeless people with guns inhabit the forest in the winter months. I can't say how bad the problem really is or not, but I decided to let the stranger hiking in the dead of night continue on without asking for his story.
The next morning, dew covered both sides of the tarp above me, but everything underneath was dew free. What a great feeling! =)
Each night, when I get into camp, I like to take off my shoes and socks and do what I can for my feet. Blisters will get popped, dirt cleaned off as best I can, dead skin peeled off. That sort of thing. It's been weeks since a blister needed popping, and now that I'm no longer hiking through water and mud, the dirt is at a relative minimum. Loose skin I peel off every night, though.
I have to be careful about peeling off that dead skin, however. Sometimes its attached to live skin, or is acting like protection for newer skin forming underneath.
The back of one of my heels is a good example. There's a thick layer of dead skin—VERY thick—that looks like it would be so much fun to peel off. I refrain, however, since I'm afraid it would leave a relatively thin and delicate skin for 20-mile per day hikes. Not a good thing.
There's a big, black hunk of dead skin on my left pinky that looks ready to cut off, but I don't. I'm not sure how close to the surface it is to the still living skin, and I don't want to cut too deep. It doesn't hurt, so I let it be. (If you'r worried about it being black, it's been that way ever since hiking through Big Cypress. I think the color of the mud and water permanently attached itself to that dead skin.)
Then there's the jelly between the toes. All of the toes have it, but I'm always astounded at the amount of jelly that forms between my two smallest toes. Huge gobs of it, every night it seems like. Wet with sweat, and has a rather unsavory smell. The rest of my toes have that same jelly, except that it's usually dry and doesn't smell.
The sheer quantity of the jelly between those little toes astounds me, though. If I saved it all, I think I could shape it into several new toes. The skin looks pink and sensitive, but there's no pain associated with it, and each day, it continues to shed a seemingly infinite supply.
But I digress.... you don't really want to hear about that, do you? =)
While packing up camp, a day hiker went past. Actually, he passed me earlier in the morning while I was still entwined in my warm sleeping bag, but on his return trip I was up and moving and breaking down camp, and he stopped long enough to chat.
We ended up chatting for the better part of an hour, about Central America for much of that time. I forget his name (and I gave him the URL for this blog, so if you're reading this, I'm sorry I forgot your name!)
It gave me a late 9:30 start to my hike, in any case. It was a fun chat, but I probably lingered longer than I should have.
On another note, I should mention a strange thing has been happening to the trail starting near the Orlando area. In some places, the trail and the lands around it are NOT flat. It would be a stretch to call them hills, but the terrain is certainly lumpy in places, apparently natural humps to boot.
It's a nice change, and I find myself fascinated with the rolling humps. Crossing an area where visibility is good, I find myself fascinated with slopes, following their contours with my eyes. The subtle shifting use of different muscles on the inclines and declines.
A couple of miles into the hike, I met another backpacker. In Ocala National Forest, I'd see quit a number of backpackers along the way—sometimes as many as three or four in a single day! (Insert ooohs here.) Compared to everywhere else south of here, this is a backpacking hotspot the likes I've never seen before.
This particular hiker was by himself, stopped in the trail, but I knew he was heading south because I'd been breaking too many cobwebs on the trail for him to have been hiking ahead of me.
We chatted a bit, and he seemed rather excited to meet a real, live thru-hiker after learning I'd hiked all the way from Key West and had alredy done the Appalachian Trail. Thru-hikers aren't THAT uncommon, at least not out east, so I asked where he was from.
"Grover Beach," he answered. "It's near San Luis Obispo—"
I cut him off. "NO WAY!" He had begun explaining where Grover Beach was because it's a dinky little town that most people in California wouldn't even know where it is much less a strange backpacker on the Florida Trail. Except that I was from San Luis Obispo which is probably a 15 drie away.
"I know *exactly* where Grover Beach is! I'm from San Luis Obispo! I remember when it was called Grover City!"
Small world, huh? I've probably passed less than a half dozen backpackers on the Florida Trail, and this guy lives within spitting distance of my home town.
We we started talking about the area, and hikes in the area such as up Madonna Mountain, and our favorite places to eat.
"What's your name?" I asked him.
The coincidences officially became freakish.
"How old are you?" He looked perhaps a bit younger than me, I thought, but certainly not by much.
"Turned 28 today."
Different ages at least. "Well happy birthday!" Different birthdays too. =)
We swapped contact information, and when I wrote down my domain RyansATotalGoober.com, he exclaimed, "You mean that wasn't taken?!"
"Yeah, can you believe it! I was so sure someone would have snapped up such a great domain before me."
I suggested we get together when we both make it back to San Luis and swap more war stories, but we must have chatted for the better part of an hour before we continued on our separate ways. (I see he's already posted a comment on my blog, too!)
At the end of the day, I set up camp near the trail junction for Farles campground. I set up my tarp—last time I checked, rain was in the forecast, and it already looked like it was ready to rain. This time, the tarp's primary purpose would be protection from rain—not just dew like the night before.
It did rain during the night, quite hard at times, and drizzled a bit at sunrise. I stayed warm and dry under the tarp, though. What a difference it makes when it's set up properly instead of thrown over myself. =)
I lounged around under my tarp for the better part of the morning, hoping the on and off drizzle of rain would turn off for good. To kill time, I wrote adventures and an e-mail to wassamatta_u about a possible solution to an Atlas Quest bug that had come to me in a dream. (Well, okay, I wasn't asleep at the time, but daydreaming counts, right? And in case you're wondering, the idea didn't pan out. *shrug*)
When the rain appeared to stop for good, I broke down camp and hit the trail.
About a half hour into the hike, I came across two older gentlemen hiking south. The one in front, when he saw me, threw his arms open like he expected a hug, and both of them had smiles like they'd never been so happy to see anyone before.
"You guys seem happy to see me," I said.
"Oh, you have no idea! We're lost!"
Things started clicking together in my head. The evening before, I passed two hikers heading south who mentioned a couple of older gentlemen ahead of them, but I hadn't seen two older hikers and assumed they must have gotten off at a spur trail somewhere before our paths intersected.
The second reason I didn't see them didn't occur to me—they got lost. I'm not sure how they could get lost. The Florida Trail is pretty easy to navigate through the Ocala National Forest, and I could have found my way through in the dark if need be.
They did know that they were on the Florida Trail, but wanted to know if they were going the correct direction to Farles campground.
I told them I camped near the trail junction to the campground, about a mile or two more, and they seemed so incredibly relieved.
"There's a sign?"
"Well, no," I answered. "It's off on a blue blazed trail, though, and the blazes are pretty obvious. I didn't follow it to the campsite myself, but my guidebooks said that the campsite was at the end of the blue blazes."
We chatted a few more minutes. I found out that they were from Georgia, near Atlanta, and they thought it was wonderful that I was hiking to Springer Mountain.
They also said they ran out of water the night before and filtered some surface water three times through a handkerchief before drinking it. "Think that's enough?" one of them asked.
"I hope so," I answered. =)
It wouldn't have gotten the small nasty organisms out of the water like giardia, but most water is usually safe to drink anyhow. Worrying about it now won't do any good. If they get sick in a week, they'll be able to get to a doctor anyhow.
We said goodbye, and I continued north, still puzzled how they got lost on such an obvious trail. I can only imagine they started hiking in the wrong direction yesterday and it took them hours before they realized it. *shrug*
At the Juniper Springs Recreation Area, I stopped at the little entrance station to ask the attendant about the canoe runs. Ryan, the fellow I met the day before, raved about how wonderful it was, and my guidebook also had unusually nice things to say about it.
"The last runs leave at 12:00," she told me, and I looked up at the clock on the wall and saw that it was 12:30. Just as well, I thought, Amanda would probably be pretty miffed if I went on an incredible canoe run without her knowing she'd be flying in in a few days.
Which is when I thought, "Hey, Valentines Day is coming up.... I'm going to take Amanda on a canoe run!" =)
So I got all the dirt about running the canoes, the phone number to reserve one in advance, rules of river, and the lady explained that the river is often rated one of the best ten in the country and is not for beginners. (No problem, I thought, I've canoed before. Amanda, I'm not so sure.)
Apparently, the river is fed by a crystal clear spring—unusal in itself for this part of the country. Clear water? And from a spring?
And trees have fallen in the river, s at times you have to lean back limbo style to get past them. It usually takes four or five hours, and the last pick-up is at 4:30. Sounds like fun to me! All for the low, low price of $31.50.
Sign me (and Amanda, although she doesn't know it yet) up! =)
After learning about all of the canoeing details, I headed north on the trail again about five miles before stopping to rest and eat at Hidden Pond, considered the best primitive camping place in Ocala National Forest according to my guidebook.
It's a beautiful location, but the main thing going for it—a small lake with clear water. I looked around. There was nobody around. Based on the cobwebs I'd been breaking, nobody had been here all day. As late in the afternoon as it was, I doubted that anyone else would come.
I decided to, yes, skinny dip! Woo-who! I hoped I wouldn't get a sunburn where the sun rarely shines, and went in. The water was cool and took some getting used to, but it's Florida. It's not like it's a glacier fed lake!
Then I decided that clothes weren't so bad after all—I could rinse them in the water. They were made from fast-drying materials, and I figured they'd be dry or nearly so before I hit the trail again, so then you could find me naked trying to rub out the dirt from my pants and shirt.
Not sure how clean the clothes were—I didn't want to use soap in a natural lake such as this—but I figured the rinsing couldn't hurt.
All the while hoping none of those carnivorous animals Florida is famous for decided that was the time to take a bite out of me.
After my little swim and clothes rinse, I cooked a late lunch/early dinner (a lasagna version of Hamburger Helper, for those keeping track).
Then I packed up and continued north, always north.
I stopped for the night about three miles up the trail from Hidden Pond, at the top of a hill.
The weather forecast I last saw had Thursday night taking the worst of the rain (60% chance), so I definitely set up my tarp good and proper. The sky looked clear by this time, but I wasn't taking any chances. I saw the weather forecast.
One unfortunate aspect of my choice of locations were painful, annoying little thorns all over the ground. I spent a half hour rubbing my hands lightly across my ground sheet feeling for tiny but painful little pricks and removing the sticky thorns.
While going to sleep, I smelled the distant smell of a campfire. Strange, I thought, since I didn't know of any campers within five miles of my location. It would have to be an awfully big campfire for me to smell it.
Late into the night, the rain did start to come down, and once again, I stayed dry and warm.
I always knew Florida had a water problem—lots of it with nowhere to go. For most people, it's no longer a problem. They've built canals, dikes, and levees to control the worst of the problem.
But it seems this state has a regular problem with fires. In Big Cypress, they were set deliberately. This day, I don't really know. There was no sign warning that the trail was closed or that prescribed burns were going on.
For the first hour or so, I'd smell that mysterious 'campfire,' on and off, and wonder where it was coming from.
Near Hopkins Prairie, though, I suddenly noticed smoke—visible smoke—on the trail. This fire was much closer than I realized!
And that's when I found my first smoldering log.
Continuing on, I found much larger burn areas, much of it still smoldering, and I now realized there was another fire on the trail. I'd find the occasional tree on fire, but mostly just smoldering remains of logs, brush, grasses, and trees. The grasses made a satisfying crunch sound every time I stepped on what was left of them as the burned remains crumbled under my foot.
A half hour into the burn area, I finally found a piece of paper tacked to a tree, dated the day before, warning that the north end of Hopkins Prairie had a wildfire, but firefighters were monitoring it and apologizing for any of their fire fighting equipment ruining the quiet beauty of the area.
Huh. I guess that meant the trail was still open. =) From the tone of the message, it suggested there was a genuine fire—not a controlled burn—but who knows?
So I continued on through the smoldering remains of the wildfire. I didn't find any hot spots like I did in Big Cypress—just smolders.
I noticed what looked like recent bulldozer tracks over much of the trail at the edge of the prairie, and I assume they must have ran some bulldozers through yesterday to control the fire. Many blazes had burned or been felled, and trail itself wiped out where bulldozers went through, but the trail largely followed the edge of the prairie and I was able to continue following it without too much trouble.
It's still kind of unnerving to walk through the smoldering leftovers of a wildfire, though.
Further on, I reached the trail junction for Salt Springs. Originally, I planned to resupply and call Amanda from there, but it would have required a three-mile one-way hike into town. I decided to skip it and go to the 88 Store instead hoping it had enough to resupply my needs for the next few days.
Another seven miles up the trail, the east and west corridors of the Florida Trail around Orlando merged, and I walked into Region 5 of my guidebook.
The 88 Store was 0.4 miles beyond the trail junction, or rather the blue-blazed trail to the store was. The store itself was another 0.4 miles down the blue-blazed trail, and I arrived there a little after 3:00 in the afternoon.
The store's owners are Jack and Annie, and apparently have a 1,200 pound hog named Elvis that drinks beer and chews tobacco. My guidebook suggested that hikers should ask if Jack is around to show off the hog, but that seemed a rather weird thing to do and I didn't.
Annie was behind the counter tending the bar, and I read and signed the hiker register. I didn't talk to Annie or the customers much, though, because the smell of them smoking bothered me. They might be friendly to hikers, but the place reeked of smoke.
I looked through their limited selection of foods and was disappointed with the choices. I expected something similar to a mini-mart of a gas station, but the selection here was even less. I grabbed a multitude of snacks, a box of mac 'n' cheese for dinner, and a cold Coke to drink on the patio.
The thing I really needed was breakfast. I had finished the last of my cereal that morning. There just wasn't any real breakfast material in the store, so I grabbed the box of mac 'n' cheese thinking it might have to do in a pinch.
All my chores done, I hit the trail again, hiking out to Grassy Pond for the night.
I was surprised at the size of the place, off the side of a dirt road. It looked liked a place where large, wild parties with alcohol took place, and in fact saw the reminds of several beer cans and fires.
It wasn't an ideal place to camp in my opinion—far more exposed than I liked to be—but it was too late to reach the next camp at Lake Delancy before dark. I'd camp here for the night.
I no longer expected rain in the forecast, but waking up dry was a nice habit of getting into so once again I set up my tarp.
Shortly before sunset, two other hikers stumbled into the campsite. They looked older than the usual hikers, but they're packs were lean and light. These were experience backpackers, and I called out, "Are you guys thru-hikers?"
One of them was. Snap, the man, was thru-hiking the Florida Trail. Gretchen, the woman, was not. I told them if they made a fire, I'd invite myself over. If they didn't, though, they were welcome to come by and visit any time. =)
I didn't want to follow them out to where they were setting up camp in case they really didn't want to chat, but I wanted to make sure they knew they were welcome to do so with me. It's not often I have people to talk to at night!
After setting up their tent, they brought their dinner over to my tarp and we chatted long into the night.
Snap got his trail name after breaking his arm while trying to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. Even with a cast on, he continued hiking, only calling it quits when his doctor recommended that it wouldn't be a good idea after getting the cast off since there would be nothing to support it.
He wisely deduced that I had hiked the eastern corridor around Orlando after noticing my footprints in the sand only after the junction of the two routes. He had hiked the western route.
You'll see a lot of animal tracks on the trail, but after awhile, you also start analyzing footprints from people. So few people hike the trail, it often warns you when people are ahead, how many, or even how tall they are.
Before catching up with Mountain Laurel and Mosey just before the 30-mile road walk, I had noticed two distinct sets of footprints, definitely no older than the last rain a couple of nights before, and I wondered if it was them.
And earlier in the morning, I passed a set of footprints that were absolutely enormous. I never found the owner of those prints, but I'm convinced that Shaquille O'neill was on the trail. The shoe prints were three or four inches longer than mine!
On the trail out here, you're always keeping your eyes open for fresh prints, especially those headed the same direction as you.
I never really finished my chat about footprints because of those pesky limitations on PocketMail, but in a nutshell, all of us hikers seem to spend a great deal of effort analyzing and learning from them.
Snap and Gretchen finally called it a night, and so did I.
They left early the next morning, a bitterly cold morning it was too. I was loathe to leave my warm sleeping bag, but eventually was forced to by my bladder.
The trail zipped past Lake Delancy, which was hoping with what seemed like hundreds of people with ATVs. Thank goodness I didn't end up their for the night! So that's where all those campers went!
Just before Penner Pond, a ribbon was tied across the trail. On it, someone had written yesterday's date and that the trail was closed due to prescribed burns.
Since it was dated yesterday, I assumed that meant it was safe to pass and I ducked under it.
There were small areas that had burned, but as far a fires went, I'm not sure they needed to close the trail for this one. There wasn't much that had burned.
I pushed on to the Rodman Reservoir.
This reservoir was the result of a failed public works project. Your tax dollars at work. =)
The idea was to build a canal across through North Florida so boats and barges could get from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico without having to go around the entire state of Florida.
Talk of such a canal started in the early 1800s, but it wasn't until the Great Depression that work on it started. Get jobs for people, and benefit North Florida for decades to come.
Due to environmental or cost concerns or something, construction eventually stopped after just 3% of the project was completed.
But no, that wasn't the end of it. The US Army Corps of Engineers took another whack at it in the mid '60s. They spent millions of dollars, destroying swamps to create Rodman Reservoir and building canals and locks. Progress went much further this time, but once again, it was never completed.
Due to environmental concerns, the project was officially scrapped in the early 1990s, and the section that had been completed was turned into a public greenway, which the Florida Trail now followed along.
The trail follows along a completed section of the canal, and ducks under a wonderfully enormous bridge for SR 19. The bridge seems to tower a hundred feet above the canal, originally so large barges could cross under it. The barges never came, though, so now it looks monstrously out of place.
The trail crosses the canal at Buckman Lock, and I arrived just at the same time the lock attendants were leaving.
Not that that bothered me—I had the combination for the locks that kept most pedestrians out. =) The FTA will give thru-hikers, and only thru-hikers, the combination for the locks that keep other people out. I had called the FTA office the day before from The 88 Store to confirm that the combination hadn't changed since I first got it.
I unlocked the first gate, relocking it behind myself.
A man came out of the building by the lock, asking if I relocked the gate behind me (yes, sir!), then directed me out the front gate saying the trail followed alongside the road to the end.
He didn't seem especially friendly, and I felt like my being there was an annoyance to him, so I left the lock and headed to the Visitor Center instead.
Inside, an older gentleman named Carl sat behind a large counter to help tourists and other visitors with whatever problems or questions we might have.
I sat in a chair near the entrance, happy to get off my feet, and told Carl a bit about my hike, including the URL for my blog which he pulled up right then and there on his computer while I explored the dislays explaining the history of the failed canal.
When I finished and walked back to Carl, he said, "You sure do look clean for a thru-hiker!"
I laughed. "Hey! It doesn't count when you just read that comment in my blog!"
I headed back outside to make dinner on the conveniently placed picnic tables with spigots with safe-to-drink running water.
While making dinner, someone behind me called out, "Hey! How did you get over there?!"
It was Gretchen, with Snap, who I had passed on the trail earlier in the day. The lock was closed, but they also had the combination for the locks and crossed into it, but they didn't seem able to get out the other side.
I looked at the entrance—closed now-pointing at it and said I walked through. But the gate was open when I walked through. Gretchen said that it had a key lock on it, not a combination lock, and couldn't get through, fearing they put on the wrong lock.
"There must be another entrance," I concluded, and spotted a smaller gate off to the side. "What kind of lock does that gate have?" I asked.
It had a combination gate, and the two made it through the lock joining my dinner preparations with my own.
I decided to push on for another hour of hiking before sunset, while they ultimately decided to cross back to the far side of the lock (they had the combination and knew the route!) and camp at the campground there.
The trail delved into a series of dirt roads, filled with trucks and ATVs zooming around. Large piles of trash littered the roadside, and I could hear gun blasts in the distance.
Not really a fun environment to walk through. I finally stopped minutes before sunset, camping well off the dirt roads. Only two ATVs passed later during the night, and quiet finally settled in.
I set up my tarp once again to protect against dew, which was so thick it rained down as tree snot from the trees above.
The next morning was, once again, brutally cold, and I woke up shivering. I got an early start on the trail, skipping breakfast to get on the trail quicker and warm up. I did eat some Pop Tarts and granola bars to have something in my stomach, but eating cereal was out of the question because I ran out the morning before and cooking a dinner was out of the question because I was too cold to want to wait around for a meal to cook.
My bottle with denatured alcohol collapsed overnight, like opening an empty water bottle at a high altitude then bringing it down to a low altitude, except my altitude never changed. Just the denser, colder air was enough to crush the bottle I used for my fuel. Even on the AT, I can't remember that ever happening.
After a half hour of hiking, I felt comfortably warm, though I continued to wear my fleece jacket to stay warm. I figured Snap and Gretchen were probably 30 to 60 minutes behind me given their usual morning wake up time, so I scratched a message to them in the dirt road with my trekking pole: "Good morning, Snap + G! =)" (including the happy face, but it wasn't sideways), and signed it GT. I was lazy about writing out Gretchen's lame.
About 15 minutes later, I wrote another note, this time including the time I wrote it so they'd have an idea of how far ahead I was.
Five minutes after that, a truck drove by in the opposite direction, and I knew it would run over my first two messages, so I scratched a third message into the dirt, including the time once again.
The trail finally left the dirt roads, crossed over SR 20, and into the woods at the Rice Creek Conservation Area. My guidebook explained that it was a rice and indigo plantation by British loyalists in the 1780s.
There is a lot of water in the area, but due to the amazing work of local FTA volunteers, the trail was high and dry. And the work truly was amazing.
Hoffman's Crossing is a narrow boardwalk 1,886 feet long (about one-third of a mile!), crossing over deep sections of water they would have made you walk through if it was in Big Cypress.
Over 30 boardwalks and bridges were built along a two-mile section of trail, if I remember correctly, to help keep hikers' feet dry. And my feet did stay dry. Amazing work! I've done some trail work in California and Washington, and I know what an incredible effort was put into this place.
Further on, the trail splits. Well, kind of. The Florida Trail turns left and heads to the eighth largest cypress in Florida, but a white-blaze trail led right to a shelter commonly called the Hilton.
I was torn—which did I want to see? The eighth largest cypress in Florida, or a shelter? I decided on the shelter since I figured it probably had a picnic table and I could cook a proper meal easily to get me through the rest of the day. Not to mention that it was only the second shelter on the trail so far. I wished I could spend the night—it's a shelter!—but it was far too early in the day to stop there.
So I stopped for a late breakfast and early lunch.
The shelter is wonderful. It's a two-story design, screened in to keep out bugs, and even included comfortable lounge chairs upstairs. Cosy little place.
Someone left behind a newspaper about a month old, which I enjoyed leafing through while my Hamburger Helper meal was cooking.
I ate, cleaned up, and packed my pack again, leaving the fleece in the pack since the day had warmed up plenty warm at this point.
I stayed at the shelter for about an hour, wondering if Snap and Gretchen would drop in on me or stay on the Florida Trail and perhaps be ahead of me by now.
I had two choices I could make: Follow the white blazes northward to where it intersected the Florida Trail again, or backtrack to where I got off the Florida Trail. I'm not nearly as 'pure' with this hike as I was on the AT where I was determined to walk on every foot of that trail.
Because of the poor blazing at times, I'd already missed small sections of official Florida Trail, and other areas didn't even have a physical trail that could be followed with the 'any path between blazes' mentality.
So I had little qualms about missing the mile or so of official Florida Trail by following the white blazed side trail that led to the shelter. The trail wasn't noticeably shorter, easier, or different than the official Florida Trail.
Except for one thing—the eighth largest cypress in Florida was on the official FT trail, and I knew you all would want to hear about that. I wanted to see this legendary cypress.
I backtracked 0.4 miles to where I got off the trail, grumbling about the backtracking. Couldn't they have put he shelter and eighth largest cypress in Florida on the same trail?
At the cypress, I found Snap and Gretchen laying at their tent to dry and preparing lunch.
"Hey guys! I was wondering when our paths might cross again."
Gretchen asked, "How did we get in front of you?" then, before she finished her question figured out the answer. "You went to the shelter?"
"Yep," I confirmed.
They had found two of the three messages I scratched in the dirt for them, which they enjoyed finding—a friendly, unexpected surprise.
We chatted for a few minutes and I took pictures of the eighth largest cypress in Florida, which didn't really look all that impressive to me overall—it looked kind of dead, in fact—but then I did grow up in the land of the giant sequoias where the largest trees on earth grew. The eighth largest cypress in Florida didn't really stand a chance compared to that.
For a cypress tree, however, it is definitely a larger than normal one!
I only chatted with Snap and Gretchen for a few minutes, though, because I wanted to push on another 13 miles to the next shelter on the trail, Iron Bridge shelter. (Two shelters in one day! I may be getting spoiled out here!) But I had to push hard if I was going make it before dark.
At Old Starke Road, I once again decided to forgo a resupply—a one mile off-trail, one-way hike to Bud's Groceries. I couldn't if I wanted to still make it the shelter by dark.
I did, however, stop long enough on Old Starke Road to write more messages in the dirt for Snap and Gretchen. =)
The trail followed along dirt roads for miles. Happily, traffic wasn't heavy, but a couple of places there were aggressive dogs that came out to bark at me which I didn't much like. Is it so hard for these people to keep their dogs on a leash or in an enclosed area?
The trail, near the end of the day, ducked back into the woods again, and followed alongside Etonia Creek ravine, with a real, honest-to-goodness ravine. I was shocked. It was the steepest, highest, natural viewpoint so far on my hike.
Etonia Creek ravine was probably 30 or 40 feet deep—and steep enough to seriously hurt or kill yourself if you stepped a bit too far off the trail. Very exciting, and even pretty! =)
I made it into Iron Bridge Shelter just before sunset, happy to not set up my tarp this night. I did pull it out and hang it up to dry from the dew in the morning, but I slept in the shelter, another nice place. It was also enclosed with a screen to keep out bugs—not that they were a problem this time of year.
I chose to make mac 'n' cheese for dinner, not that I had a lot to choose from at this point. My food bag had never been skimpier!
The next morning, once again, was bitterly cold, seemingly colder than ever. I did make breakfast since I had a 14-mile hike to Gold Head Branch SP and knew I'd need the energy. I ate my last full meal, a bag of mashed potatoes, nearly finishing off my fuel at the same time. I found it surprisingly hard to light in the cold, but it did light.
I got on trail before 8:00, and hoofed along, anxious to reach the state park where I expected to meet Amanda at around noon. Doing 14 miles in four hours is quite fast, but darn it, I wanted civilization!
The trail dumped me out onto road, busy roads, for most of the day, which made me all the more anxious to finish this day's hiking as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately, the FTA's habit of poorly blazing 'obvious' sections of road walk thwarted my plans for a quick hike.
I remembered the trail reaching a T-intersection, and a note saying that potable water was available 0.3 miles north at a fire station but the trail headed south.
I didn't need potable water, so at the next intersection, I turned south. I kept my eyes open for blazes, but saw nothing in either direction at the intersection, nor even behind me on the road I walked up. I wasn't concerned, however, because I hadn't seen a blaze for miles. It was a road walk, and blazing was notoriously poor on road walks.
I remembered that the trail turns off the road after 1.5 miles, so after about a mile of hiking, I pulled out my data book to verify what road the trail turns on. The blazing was poor, and I may need to know the name of the road to know when to turn.
Which is when I got a bad, sinking feeling in my gut. The next intersection, according to my databook, had a fire station 0.3 miles to the north, and the trail turned south.
I thought I already passed that intersection. If I hadn't passed it, then what intersection did I turn at?
I dropped my pack and pulled out the maps, looking them over hoping that I had turned the correct direction.
I hadn't, and I said a few not-so-nice things about the FTAs blazing policy. I was downright angry, having walked more than a mile in the wrong direction because they didn't have enough paint or time to slap on a few extra blazes on road walks to mark the way or confirm we were walking in the correct direction.
I deliberately looked both ways for blazes at the intersection to confirm I was going the correct way, and could not find a single blaze, including behind me where I had come from. One well-placed blazed at that intersection would have saved me a mile of walking in the wrong direction, and I was furious!
I turned around and walked 20 minutes back to the intersection, knowing there was no chance I'd make it to the meeting point with Amanda on time anymore, and my 14-mile day, non-stop hike just turned into a 16-mile day, non-stop hike. ARGH! On a miserable road walk, no less!
I finally huffed into Gold Head Branch SP, not at all mellowed since discovering I had walked in the wrong direction. At the recreation hall, where I was to meet Amanda, I didn't see her and started using the pay phone to call her when she turned the corner and arrived, mere seconds after I did.
Strange, bizarre coincidence. Amanda had arrived late as well, the drive taking longer than she expected, and we arrived at almost the exact same time. I was still pretty peeved about my wrong turn, though. I could have finished hiking through the park while waiting for her, or rested, or wrote some of my adventures. Anything but a miserable extra two miles of road walking.
I filled Amanda in on our plans for the next day—canoeing at Juniper Springs—and we drove off to Ocala to find a hotel for the night—the closest major city to Juniper Springs.
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