“So what are the chances of rain?” I politely inquired of S. “Oh, the National Weather Service says only 20%,” was his nonchalant response. He and M apparently took this forecast as gospel truth since neither of them brought any rain gear. Although I didn’t voice them, I had my doubts, so J and I padded our weighted backpacks with raincoats.
My foreboding stemmed from our prior attempt with M and S at this very same trail – a couple of months ago we started it only to encounter a cloudburst within the first ten minutes. Alas, history proved predictive.
We managed the first couple of miles, trying to ignore the increasingly dark clouds. The goal was to reach the art walk portion of the trail – a mile or so of painted fences lining the sides. We’d done this hike back in 2018 (see A New Year, A New Trail – Seminole Wekiva Trail ) and had always wanted to return.
Unfortunately the dark clouds were engaged in a slow motion wind up and just as we reached the fences the sporadic drops had turned into a full fledged fire hose. This is a completely urban, asphalt trail, and we had just crossed a busy suburban boulevard that provided shelter in the form of an overhang of a small office building looking across a parking lot to a dry cleaners and what I would call a kennel but now goes by the much more exotic moniker of “pet spa.”
I have been slightly sidelined for a couple of weeks with a knee injury incurred in a rather embarrassing fall off the bouldering wall at Blue Swan Boulders. This first training hike since then had a similarly ignominious ending. Needless to say, since S is known for initiating the soggiest of hikes the proverbial finger was pointed at him. He, however, noted that he and M had done this same hike recently with no rain and that J and I were the only common denominator in the wet ones.
Nonetheless, we slopped along, and managed six miles. After wringing ourselves out, we felt we more than deserved a nice lunch at Antonio’s.
It started off as an innocent seven mile hike. S assured us that we wouldn’t have to wade through miles of swamp water, and on that point, at least he was correct.
The Sabal Point trail is a surprising natural gem buried amidst a large conglomeration of apartment buildings, houses, and condos of the same name. It’s hardly the place you’d expect to find an untouched spread of palm hammocks, marshes, and oaks. But there it is: the trail head innocuously placed at the end of a dead end street. You do rather feel as if you’ve been invited over to someone’s house.
Our goal for that Saturday was to work on carrying weight and to that end we’d all loaded our packs. M and S have had the brilliant idea of using bags of charcoal so they can burn it once done with training. Since I believe training should never end I’m carrying around a gallon of water, my old weight vest, and various bits and bobs to add up to 25 pounds. Need to get up to 35.
The trail itself is an old railway bed, elevated a few feet above very swampy forest. We are in Florida spring and the trail was dotted with what looked like bluebells, pink star shaped flowers, and red berry bushes whose Christmasy aspect seemed out of place.
One of the things about training is to check out your gear and M quickly realized the Osprey pack she’d bought was not for her – too rigid in the waistband and an odd shape that causes your arms to stick out at the side. Fortunately REI has a good return policy so she’s now trying my fav – a tried and true Gregory (I have 3, in all different sizes).
Enough of the gear talk. How did our hike deteriorate into something more sinister? As I was blithely walking along, chattering away, S suddenly yelled out, “You stepped on a snake.” My immediate reaction was, “Oh no, is it Ok?”, to which S (somewhat insensitively I thought), said, “No, it’s dead; you stepped on its head.” Not sure he realized that sounded like the middle verse of a rap song.
I could barely bring myself to look, but as J and S inspected said creature, S looked more closely – and said, “It’s not just a snake; it’s a water moccasin!”
At that point my guilt over the execution quickly by evaporated and instead I decided I was the hero of the hike. I mean, perhaps I saved countless lives! I don’t know much about snakes, but even I know water moccasins are BAD.
After the excitement of the snake we were looking forward to reaching the river, promised at 3.5 miles. But after a mere 1.75 (according to my trusty Fitbit) we encountered a forbidding metal gate plastered with no trespassing signs warning of prosecution if violated. Whoever posted them looked like they meant business.
So since training called for more miles we simply turned back, hiked back to the cars, and then hiked the same trail all over again to reach our 7 mile goal. The snake was still there the second time around – not unsurprisingly in the same position as before.
Not quite what we’d expected. But it was a beautiful Florida day, we carried our weight, and I now have a new trail name – Snake Stomper.
Excitement was palpable. The goal was within reach. The long hour and a half of inching my way ever forward almost made worth it. And yes, I had finally arrived at the Covid drive through testing tent!
I wasn’t there for any particular reason, except that the numbers are terrible in Orlando and I feel it’s our civic duty to get tested. And as a plug for the folks organizing free testing (rapid, PCR, or both available, no questions asked), the entire process was unbelievably well organized. Nonetheless, Friday’s triumph at a testing sight was not what I had in mind for whatever quasi adventure we can hope for these days.
Friend S has a book entitled 50 Best Hikes in Central Florida (yes, I’m sure many of you are doubtful there are enough to even create a list of 10) and has been methodically working his way through them.
Yesterday’s trail took S, M, J and me about an hour north of Orlando, to the other side of Deland just inside the Ocala National Forest. The plan was to hike the St. Francis Trail, which supposedly would lead us to the remnants of a pre-railroad days logging town on the banks of the St. John’s River. The Yellow Loop Trail on the way back was advertised as including two artesian wells where we could refill water bottles if we so desired. (We were not about to gamble on that and continued to lug our 64 ounces of water apiece).
Although Florida weather has been just cool enough that the summer wildflowers are gone, the cedar and palm filled swamps lining much of the trail make up for it. They’re covered with beds of what I presume is algae – so sleek and smooth that at first blush it looks like a meadow. Move away from the river, though, and you are walking through fields of tall Florida pines, as straight as pencils, with dry meadows of shoulder high brush.
But despite all this natural beauty – an historical adventure this was not. We never did see the remains of the town – when we took a brief detour to the river banks we found an ancient, rusty seat that had once apparently been part of a car and a beer can but that was it. The artesian wells were nowhere to be located. Oh, and the only hint of the logging railroad that was also touted as a feature might have been this bizarre guardrail stuck in the middle of nowhere?
It’s a beautiful, beautiful hike. As always (and especially with S’s choices!) it was a bit boggy. But by now anything that includes standing water of less than 6 inches seems practically desert like to us. (If we go down this path much longer, waders are going to be in order.)
Who knows. It’s Florida, after all, and nature overtakes man’s footprints in less than a New York minute.
By the way, this hike is advertised as 7.7 miles. It’s 10.3. But as this pandemic drones on, and Thanksgiving approaches, I’m giving thanks for any extra miles that are out there.
So this is the first of my Lost in Florida series since the time of coronavirus. And yes, this particular adventure was designed by our friend S — he of the famous Tosohatchee trail hike where he didn’t bother looking at the reverse side of the map — which was in color and indicated that much of said trail was blue (meaning under water). For that adventure click on The Lost in Florida Series – The Tosohatchee Wilderness.
Now, in fairness, this time he checked both sides of the map and the 9 mile loop in the Charles H. Bronson State Forest (I kid you not about the name) showed not even a tinge of blue. But, what the map didn’t show was that days and days of rain had turned an otherwise well marked trail into canals worthy of Venice. (Apparently Charles H. Bronson was a Florida public official who worked in the department of agriculture.)
Now, when I say canal, I don’t mean that the water was nicely contained like a Netherlands water control situation. No, first you’d encounter just a little bit of a soggy section on a low part of the trail. Then the soggy section would get wetter and deeper until it overflowed its banks into a bayou of 20 or more feet of brown tannic water which you just prayed was not inhabited by snakes.
There were few choices. Try to find some high ground around the sides and risk the thorns and people traps formed by vines, tiptoe through said water hoping it wouldn’t crest the top of your hiking boots, or just tromp the entire thing saying damned if you do, damned if you don’t. After five hours of slogging through I took the third option.
The area surrounding the trail is very beautiful. Of course, we couldn’t see much of the trail itself since it was under water. J and I and our hiking companions in crime, M and S, started just before 10 am at the Joshua Trailhead. After hiking out a short (and dry) spur to the actual loop, we decided to go right. It turned out to be a good choice because the wettest parts were on that side of the loop and I’m not sure we could have conquered them at the end.
The canopy is high and deep. Creamy petals from small magnolia trees sprinkled the first part of the trail, for all the world as if for a wedding procession. Occasional meadows were covered in wildflowers – fields of perky yellow ones, vivid oranges mixed with ornate pinks, tall blooming yuccas like grapes, and purple thistles as high as my head.
Then the water would come. Slightly oily looking in some places, clear in others, but always with a brown tannic look that you could take as mysterious or menacing. At one point we did hear something that could have been a bear or a boar, and raised our voices accordingly.
Interspersed with the jungle were stands of Florida pines with little underbrush, along which were treeless prairies. The trail narrowed so there was barely room for a person to creep between the tall scrub on either side.
The final slog was not wet but unbelievably hot. It was 95 degrees. We had not brought enough water since we usually have too much and were down to our last sips by mile 9. By then the injury count was high. M had impressive scrapes after she encountered a vine trap apparently designed to capture people; I had a great bruise from clamboring over a fallen tree, combined with multiple bites from mosquitoes who were impervious to DEET; and J and S were both dehydrated.
Our pace was slow, and our survival skills would not have earned us an A in any Sierra Club challenge. Anytime you run out of water in 90 plus degree weather you know you’ve done something wrong. But at the end of the day, it didn’t matter. We faced down Charles Bronson and won!
For years J and I have puzzled about the Klondike. No, not of Alaskan gold rush fame, but the mysteriously named strip of sand, dune, palmetto, and marsh that lies between the end of the roads at Playalinda Beach (parking area 13, where signs warn of nude sunbathing) and Apollo Beach (parking area 5, which I don’t believe has any similarly salacious signage although since I haven’t been there yet, I’m not sure).
It’s 13 miles between the two beaches. Some internet research had suggested there was actually a trail that veered off the beach, although the post from a year ago cryptically mentioned it “did not seem to be maintained” and was “not well-marked.” A call to the Visitors Center further confirmed that “no one is allowed back there” and whoever had been so adventuring was “doing something they weren’t supposed to.” Being law abiding citizens, we decided we would just stick to the beach, which seemed to be grudgingly accepted as permissible as long as we purchased our back country hiking permits.
The logistics of hiking straight through end to end seemed too daunting, at least for a first attempt. It would have taken two cars, with multiple drop offs and pickups. Thus, the plan was to hike half of the south to north route and turn back; next time we’ll hike the other half, north to south and then reverse; and theoretically, after that, we’ll figure out the logistics to do the whole thing.
Temperatures were in the low 70s, with a little chance of rain despite steely grey clouds, so we knew conditions should be good. Despite the signs promising nude sunbathing there was little to be found in the morning. The hike started off in some soft sand that hardened a bit as we got further away from the road. We soon passed the permit required sign, and the one lone person who had been ahead of us turned around and headed back toward civilization.
Not so us! We kept on going, along a medium wide strip of beach that narrowed to an alarming few feet and backed us up to the edge of the dunes at certain points. We could see points of land ahead, sheathed in sea spray, and had not clue what might be on the other sidet. And not a person around. Eerie is the word that comes to mind.
Glancing over the small dunes, edged with sea oats and palmettos, we could see the lagoon (what in North Carolina we would call the Sound) across a marshy area. But in some places the island itself narrowed, and I was conscious of being on a windswept strip of sand that one rogue wave could easily submerge.
As we continued on, the tide – I think we were at high tide and it turned as we were hiking – brought in a steady stream of human detritus. Full size plastic trash cans. A Gatorade bottle, still full. An air compressor with its power cord stretched out along the beach like a tail. And thousands of pieces of flaked plastic that blended into the white chipped scallop shells. So here we were, on a completely remote and uninhabited beach, yet surrounded by plastic.
It was so bright that I couldn’t really see my Fitbit, except when I synced it to my phone, so we strictly adhered to our time estimates. The last thing we wanted was to be stuck behind the gates after the park closed. As we turned back, at approximately the half way mark, we could see our footprints, except for the spots where the waves had worn them away. There was something reassuring about knowing we’d already walked that way before.
We crushed through seashells, dodging sea suds blown all around us. On the way out, we had only seen pelicans. But the sun had now come out, and so had many small little seabirds, congregating at the edge of the water as though they were attending a convention.
Finally we started to see signs of life other than of the two legged and winged variety. I guess you could say it was a little Adam and Eve like, as the first person we saw, striding purposefully along in the surf, caused J to say, “does he not have clothes on?” Apparently the long promised nude sunbathers were now out in full force.
It was a monotonous hike (and a great workout), and it took some mental energy to keep on going (especially given the blisters I discovered I’d developed by the end). But when it’s monotonous – yet scary – you focus on the here and now. A lesson in mindfulness. And we’ve still got the other half to go.