Me, Myself, I on 20 Miles of the West Orange Trail

FromSwamptoSummit sums up the West Orange Trail. You start in a swamp of poverty, journey through the foothills of mid-income housing developments, and ultimately arrive at McMansions that “start in the $800s.” As we prepare for our upcoming Balkans trek I wonder if there will be a similar journey, albeit in the wilds of the former Yugoslavia.

I like to prepare for a big trek by hiking 20 miles in one fell swoop. If you can walk 20, you should be able to do anything, right? But this time, for various reasons, my husband and erstwhile hiking companion J couldn’t make it. So there was no choice but to go for it on my own.

This is probably the fourth or so time I’ve done the entire trail  and it was familiar enough to me that it felt eerily like coming home in some ways. The Buddhist temple was just where I remembered it; the huge log house with the extensive grounds; the farm animals outside West Orange High.

But doing it solo caused more observation, here and there. I did the first 10 miles with barely a look at my phone, except to take photos. Sights?

  • The number of homeless people I encountered just outside of Apopka. Hiking on your own you are cautious about strangers. An elderly bearded man started to approach, clearly preparing to talk. “Ma’am, can you tell me what day it is?” “Saturday.” “Thank you.”
  • A little later I saw another man in the distance dart off the trail into the woods. As I reached his exit point, I could see a path worn into the woods, strewn with wrappers and other trash. It looked for all the world like a bread crumb trail left by Hansel and Gretal.  Who knew what was at the far end.

 

  • And a trip back in time. It was only in the mid 80s, but grey and humid. Outside one of the modest houses that line the area I think of as “church country” as there are so many of them sat two men and a woman on aluminum folding chairs. The men were wearing short sleeved button up shirts. One wore a tie; he was clearly the visitor. The woman was wearing a skirt and pouring drinks from a pitcher. I bet she even had on stockings. I expected the 1940s station wagon to show up any moment.

I took a 30 minute lunch break in the shade of an overpass at the 10 mile mark. I’d been watching  a very large tortoise slowly move along the trail but fortunately my pace was faster. At the bench I spread out, bandaged my feet again, changed from heavy weight to light weight boots, ate half a sandwich, and drank a lot of water.

A grey haired fellow on a racing bike sat down next to me and complimented my hiking poles (I think they were the only pair of hiking poles on the trail that day and they made all the difference). I apologized for hogging most of the bench with my various and sundry items.  He was wearing a US Postal team racing shirt. It turned out he had just been hiking in Death Valley and was riding 50 miles that day. Later on I encountered him going the other direction.

The last ten miles I gave up on my phone ban. I looked at social media and read WordPress blogs. And I also listened to at least three of the final episodes of Serial – Season 1. I can tell you anything about Anand Syed you want to know.

That internet blitz matched the world I was now walking into – housing developments that had mushroomed in the last year, advertised on huge billboards promising the latest in lifestyle pleasure.

At mile 15 I reached Winter Garden. The rain started to pour down and I sheltered in the bandstand, put my rain cover on my pack, and dug out my raincoat. After a few minutes it cleared and I was on the last stretch.

The final five miles, from Winter Garden  to Killarney, is quite beautiful. You pass through oak forests, meadows, and some small towns. Houses range from charming little cottages just outside Winter Garden to newly built mansions overlooking the surrounding lakes. There’s always something to look at. And I try not to focus on the history of racism that exists in some of those small towns. Just look up the 1920 Ocoee Massacre.

The last mile is always the hardest. But I pushed through and J was there waiting. It was quite a solo journey – under 20 minutes a mile the entire way. I think I’m ready for the Balkans.

The Lost Series – Palm Bluff Conservation Area, Florida

This post was supposed to be the tale of my 20 mile solo hike last Saturday on the West Orange Trail. But it’s July 4 and instead I thought I’d celebrate by a quick addition to the “lost” series. It’s timely because this hike literally only finished about three hours ago!

Fellow hiker and friend S has apparently developed a new hobby – finding the most unknown hiking trails in Central Florida. Today he thought we should all recognize Independence Day by asserting ours and venturing off into the wilds of Volusia County. He and M and their daughter B, all of whom will be leaving with us in two weeks for our Balkan adventure, insisted we get to their house at the ungodly hour of 8:15 am, to drive to the trailhead as heat was a concern. Boy, was it.

When we arrived at the trail head there were only two other cars in the wide flat meadow. One must have belonged to the two mountain bikers we saw early in the hike – they were the only other humans we saw on the trail. Two people were standing by the other car, neither of whom looked as though they had ability or desire to set off on an 8 mile hike. When we finally finished, ours was the only car in that meadow. The fact the grass was long and hadn’t been mashed down should have given us a clue we weren’t exactly on an Everest like climb. (Note – rather remarkable that Everest has become synonymous with crowded trails.)

Anyway, the first part was fine. Flat, grassy, and a number of stiles to go through with stringent warnings to shut gates as “cattle were in pasture.” We were basically circumnavigating a broad swath of power lines – I was hoping walking under them might give us a jolt of energy but it didn’t.

Anyway, as we chatted and walked, we found ourselves walking by a farmhouse, together with quite a few cows. We’d been making fun of how many trail blazes there were on what was really a well-marked fire road when we realized we hadn’t seen any of said red blazes for quite a while. M, pointing out she once had been a professional map reader in her brief career as a fire watch, was sure we’d missed a turn. S, equally confident in his navigation skills, felt sure we were going in the right direction. J and I, aware of our directional challenges, mostly stayed quiet. And B pointed out that there was now absolutely no shade, the sun had come out, the heat index was over 100, and it was so humid we were all leaving puddles of sweat behind us.

It turned out all of the above were true. After slogging on another half mile or so we finally re-encountered the trail, apparently having wandered off through someone’s cow pastures and added an extra mile or so to the trek. The universe had not taken kindly to our jokes at the expense of those who had marked the trail so well (but really – every 100 yards or so? And sometimes with poles that looked like flashers?)!

The remainder of the trail was truly brutal. Yes, it was flat, and pines lined each side, but the Florida sun was beating down with its most Florida like intensity.

After close to 4 hours, we reached our car, which was looking very lonely as it sat isolated in the meadow.

Beers and burgers were up next. Fortunately we were seated far away from anyone else in the restaurant which certainly was a blessing to those around us, given our rather fragrant condition. But, the Balkans approach, and I figure if we can get through this swamp we ought to be ready for those summits!

The Lost in Florida Series – The Tosohatchee Wilderness

The swamp has featured heavily in this blog recently. House flood and storms. But at a particularly low point, intrepid hiking friend S found a 30,000 acre wilderness – the Tosohatchee Wilderness Preserve – where we could try to escape the urban grind we’d all found ourselves in.

I was in a particularly sour mood. When you can’t even find your hiking poles you know you are at difficult point. Things started to look up when, after 45 minutes of driving through what can only be described as redneck Florida (I mean that as charitably as possible) we reached the entrance to the wilderness area. There was an ominous sign stating a hunt was in process, but we never heard any gunshot and presumably the hunters were carrying out their activities elsewhere. After all, it is 30,000 acres.

We picked up a map at the entrance but didn’t look at it until much later, relying instead on the black and white map S had printed off the internet. Turns out that made a difference, as you’ll see later.

We’d chosen a route that was part of the Florida Trail, a 1,000 mile path that runs from Miami to Pensacola almost continuously (well, except for 300 miles). Somehow it doesn’t have the cachet of the Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trails. Nonetheless, we’re from Florida and it’s ours, damn it.

The trail was quite well marked, in stark contrast to the Rock Springs Preserve where we spent hours tromping around the wilderness in no apparent direction. See Lost in the Woods – A Florida Hike. And, where it was dry, it was a nice, well maintained path.

You hear the key words – where it was dry. After meandering through a spectacular shaded forest of palm hammocks and live oaks, interspersed with open sections of slash pines, we ended up in a literal swamp. The trail simply went right through it. We could only assume that it was the remnant of a huge storm earlier in the week, because surely no one would route a trail through a swamp, would they? The water varied from a few inches to quite a bit deeper – and was remarkably clear. We soon discovered that if we aimed toward the clumps of grass there was a good chance it would be shallower – although you did risk the possibility of a suction like effect from the mud and muck. I simply chose not to think about snakes.

We alternated between swamp and patches of dry trail, and eventually emerged into what truly looked like a fairy glen. An open, almost circular area with wildflowers poking through coarse green grass. A spot where you could easily imagine the little folk engaging in their fairy festivities. And a good spot for some yoga. It’s also the spot where I realized the reason my pack was sloshing around and seemed so heavy was that I had forgotten I was carrying around about 10 pounds of water from my last training hike!

And, lest I forget – the flowers! Spring has sprung in Central Florida, and wildflowers were running amok. Wild iris (that sure look a lot like the Apostle Iris we paid good money for!), periwinkles, daisies, Florida style blue bells, thistles.

After a brief respite in the fairy glen, we were back at it. But by then we’d looked at the color map. As we studied the next section, we realized that the trail we’d just walked along didn’t run through the green part- it went straight through a whole lot of blue! In other words, this was no left over from a storm – the trail simply went straight through the swamp. S said he thought he’d sensed a current. I almost titled this post “Fording the Florida Trail” (M’s suggestion).

Armed with that information and having learned trails really do go through swamps, we selected what looked like a more reasonable – or at least drier – way back. But after walking for a while down a dirt road and arriving at Second Cut Trail – we saw it went straight into and along a canal, with no end in sight. Back to the road.

We turned off onto the next possible path back through the woods and went about ten minutes. At that point it became clear that even though well-marked we were basically bushwhacking through overgrowth and stomping through a mixture of mud and pond – and we hadn’t even reached the blue area on the map. Back to the road again.

Ultimately we reached a horse trail that was relatively above water. While longer, I’m sure we made better time.

After 9 miles and about 5 hours – this was slow going – we were back at the car. Someone had stopped us just before we reached the parking area to ask for directions, and S, Good Samaritan that he is, gave them the color map, assuming there would be more back at the entrance. There weren’t.

Guess that means we’ll have more unexpected trips through the blue areas. We definitely plan to go back. After all, where else do you start for a summit but in the swamp?

Lost in the Woods – A Florida Hike

Cue the spooky music.

Our adventure at Rock Springs Run Preserve started off benignly. Theoretically, the trail ran along the side of a major river, which, again theoretically, seemed fairly straightforward. Credit the location to our hiking partner in crime, S. But before we finished (and made our way to Celery City Brewing in Sanford), it wasn’t clear if we were playing Hansel and Gretal or the Blair Witch.

Rock Springs Run Preserve is a well-known canoeing and kayaking spot. Apparently not so much for those who want to hike.

We set off in good time, armed with directions that I’d downloaded from a Florida Hiking site to my phone. I should have been suspicious there wasn’t a map. Our first clue that things might not go smoothly was when the parking area was on the opposite of the road than what the directions specified. Come to think of it, is it possible we hiked the entire thing backwards?

Despite our trepidation that the written directions were already inconsistent with what we were seeing (this little hiking team consisted of three lawyers and a college professor, and dammit, we like things to be clear), we nonetheless plunged forward into a sea of saw palmettos, dutifully following the white blazes that were supposed to mark the trail. According to our trusty directions, a bench on top of a “hill” should have marked the start of the trail – not sure what was intended by the hill reference as everything looked pretty flat. But there was definitely no bench. Cue the spooky music again.

Undeterred, we kept on going and reached an oak hammock where the white blazes simply petered out. After a couple of false starts down rabbit trails, the only other people we saw on the trail that day located a faint white blaze a few hundred yards away, and we all took off in that general direction. We lost them pretty soon – I think they were doing the 3 mile “pond hike.” We had the 12 mile “challenge hike” in our sights – except the few signs we actually saw on the trail indicated it was only 9. Whatever.

The trail continued on through classic Florida wilderness, with just enough similarity to the directions we thought we must be going the right way. That said, the entire trail was totally overgrown (we thought this was the part where the directions said you’d be walking on a narrow path like the Seminoles did). For a couple of hours we hiked through fields of saw palmettos, on six inch trails that looked as thought they’d been designed for rabbits, and across Florida prairies – low waving golden grasses, thick as a carpet, with occasional long leaf pines looking serenely down. We thought we were in good shape, despite some decisions we’d had to make at a couple of forks where the trail merged with fire roads. Oops. In retrospect, not sure those were the right choices.

After a quick lunch, it was time to find the white blazes again. Once again we took off through the saw palmettos – but now what we thought was the trail took us into a heavily forested boggy area. The directions referred to a “dank and earthy smell emanating up from the earth.” That seemed consistent, right? This is the point where M realized she should have worn her high top hiking boots.

After fording a couple of streams and fighting with some very thick over and undergrowth we finally found what we believed to be some white blazes. But these led us back to a white sand road. We walked along it and then saw blazes on a tree way across another field of saw palmettos. But as the trail, according to the directions, was going to rejoin the sandy road we thought were on, we decided not to bother with that particular scenic overlook and to stay on the road for a bit. Turned out the road wasn’t any easier walking as you sank several inches into the sand with each step.

By now we were starting to feel a bit uncomfortable about where we were going and I was thinking we should have left a trail of bread crumbs as we certainly could have been headed to a witch’s house somewhere in the depths of the Florida woods.

Problems compounded as we faced a series of intersecting sand roads, none of which, by now, bore any resemblance to anything in the directions. At that point we suddenly heard a truck, and a ranger pulled up, clearly wondering what our small band was doing in the middle of nowhere. Alas, while I’m sure well-intentioned, he had not a clue about any of the hiking trails and instead suggested we walk down one of the roads to the “horse barn.” Needless to say, we rejected out of hand his offer of a ride back to civilization.

Our meager sense of direction told us we should also reject his directions. And it was a good thing we did, as we later realized that would have added about another six miles to our journey and it was already mid afternoon with. 5:30 pm sunset.

We took off down one of the sand roads that we thought would lead back from whence we’d come. We did run into some “no vehicles allowed” signs, mentioned in the directions; the problem was, there were multiple such signs! By now the thoughts of a Blair Witch scenario were kicking in; time was passing; we were getting nowhere; and the sun was a couple of hours from setting. Those are the moments when you contemplate how much food is left (count: half a sandwich, apple. hard candies) and wish you’d actually bought one of those foil blankets that are supposed to keep you from hypothermia. Yes, it was in the sixties, but we are from Florida.

Finally, in a stroke of what I will modestly describe as genius, it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps I could type the general trailhead location into Maps on my phone and get walking directions. Lesson learned – why didn’t I drop a pin when we’d parked? In any event, a blue line miraculously appeared and we seemed to be going in the right direction, this time along a horse trail.

After another 45 minutes or so, we realized we were near a road and a parking lot area labeled number 3. A trail runner was just starting what I presume was to be a quick run given the time of day. He assured us if we walked down the road – we were now on asphalt – we’d get to the our parking lot. Mysteriously, parking lot 3 was on the side of the road specified in the directions….but there still was no bench and certainly no hill.

The car was sitting just where we’d left it, oblivious to the travails of its occupants. We piled in, realizing we were caked in dust, mud, and general Florida grime. Deciding we deserved some reward, off we went for beers at Celery City Brewing. I’m just hoping there wasn’t too much of a dank and earthy smell emanating from us.

Here’s a map I photographed from a bulletin board at the last parking lot. Don’t think it would have helped.

A Ribbon of Wild – Black Bear Wilderness Loop Trail

I’m going back a couple of months now, to a post I promised some time ago where I hinted snakes might be a feature of the next one. But one thing led to another and while I’ve published cogitations on this and that since then, the poor old Black Bear Preserve was left in the lurch.

No longer. Here’s a quick little primer on a strip of wilderness surprisingly close to downtown Orlando.

Friends M and S of Everest Base Camp, Iceland, and soon to be Balkans fame had hiked a portion of this trail previously. They were of the impression the trail ran through a beautiful wooded area but then cut across shadeless power easements – you know, those big, semi-mowed, grassy swaths that house power towers and high voltage electrical lines just when you think you are actually in the countryside. But in reality the trail crosses just one of those areas and then guides you right back along side the St. John’s River.

The expedition to find the trailhead started with a few wrong turns, thanks to moi. I have to learn not to read maps so literally. But we eventually found the beginning of the trail, only to encounter various other hikers warning of snakes along the way.

The trail is surprisingly shady, and would make a great choice even in the dead of summer (contrast this to the death march around shade free Lake Apopka). See Lake Apopka Loop Trail, Florida – Amid the Alligators

We saw one quite large snake – I think poisonous – but S turned his hiking pole into a quite effective snake pusher to encourage it off the trail. We paid the favor back and warned the next hikers we saw about the friends they might encounter along the way.

Snakes weren’t all the wildlife. Aside from turtles (see photo above) there was lots of evidence of what we believed to be turtle eggs.

Not to mention the flora and fungi.

And because it’s Florida you have to have an alligator.

All in all about a 7 mile or so hike. Some rocky terrain and a nice change from the urban hiking that is our easy go to. We spent a lot of time puzzling about cypress knees. Based on a quick Google search their function still seems to be a source of some mystery. See photo below.

Gotta go back. Next trek is only seven months away! Time to train!

The Florida Foothills- 10 Mile Clay Loop

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Foothills is a misnomer- it implies a lead up to something large and here in Florida that’s apparently only a 375 foot mountain called Sugarloaf. But the Ten Mike Clay Loop has an outsized reputation around here – it’s rumored to be the site of many a professional athlete’s training regimen and numerous folks have mentioned it to J and me as a good candidate in our never ending quest to find some topography in Central Florida.

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Lots of abandoned footwear

So now that my weekends are slightly freer than they were in the midst of my trilogy of trials and arbitration, last Saturday we ventured out to try the famed loop. Of course, everything we had read urged an early start but for us that translated into arriving at the small parking area just before noon, when the thermometer was just topping 89 degrees.

Due to the eccentricities of google maps we actually ended up driving most of the loop before we finally located the small parking area, just off of Hwy 27. At that time of day, there was only one other car parked and in fact, on the whole trail we only saw one or two very hot looking runners. We didn’t see any other backpackers.

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The clay roads start off with some gradual uphill through cattle grazing land. If you try hard, you can imagine you’re in some spot more exotic than Central Florida.

But at the same time, there’s a tremendous amount of what appear to be very industrial water reclamation or drainage structures. My favorite was at the top of a small hill – large metal pipes and structures by a hollowed out pond of some type and a sign indicating it’s a recharge area for the Florida Aquifer. I guess it was a large scale version of a rain barrel.

You hike first along Five Mile Road. There are a moderate number of cars but they are relatively well behaved. We enjoyed the high school,students who kept stopping in the middle of the road to take photos on top of their car. Eventually you walk past a never ending tree nursery. If you ever wondered where maples, cedars, and the like some from in Central Florida, we found the spot.

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The orange tree of last resort

Most of the land to the side of the road is cordoned off with barbed wire, but thankfully, there’s an old, unmaintained orange grove without such barriers close to mile 5. I say thankfully because although we had plenty of water we’d brought absolutely no food. Who would have thought a purloined orange could taste so good.

At mile 5, just as you leave Five Mile Road to turn onto SchofieldnRoad I decided to switch into my Grade B2 mountaineering boots, bought specially for the Stock Kangri climb. It seemed a bad idea to me to wear them for the first time on summit day. My costume change was just in time for the hardest and hottest part of the hike. It turns out the steepest hills (and some are quite steep) are during the last three miles. Plus, a lot of it is through soft sand, adding an extra challenge. The other part of the experience is that you can’t tell whether you’ve hiked the final hill or not.  There always seemed to be bigger one just over the horizon. Good training for the “fake summit” experience you find on a mountain, just when you think you’ve reached the top.

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The final hill – as seen from the parking area

So, once again we Florida hikers try to morph sand into snow, hot temperatures into below freezing ones, and the rolling hills of what was probably an ancient seabed into mountains formed from earthquakes and volcanos. It’s worked before and I hope it will work again. We leave two months from tomorrow for Stok Kangri.

A New Year, A New Trail – Seminole Wekiva Trail

 

The day before New Years Eve seemed the perfect time to check out a new urban/suburban trail. We’ve hiked Cady Way more times than I care to remember – entire housing developments have mushroomed in the seven plus years we’ve been hiking it.

It was time for a change. So we invoked the trusty google search to see what trails might be be lurking in our back yard, or close thereto.

Now, Wekiva State Park itself is an oasis of wilderness surrounded by a sea of suburbia. But you can follow a 14 mile trail through multiple ecosystems and feel you are truly in the wilds (except for that one area where you can hear the gun shooting range and become convinced a serial killer is pursuing you).

Even though it parallels the outside perimeter of parts of the park, the Seminole Wekiva Trail is anything but wilderness. In fact, it makes the West Orange Trail look positively fierce.  For multiple adventure on that trail, see  West Orange Trail – Beginning to End.

After following some very poor directions from one of the Florida Trail associations’ internet sites, we finally resorted to Google Maps and with only a little less difficulty were able to locate the parking area. The trail itself, which runs along an old railway line, is a walk through suburbia. You pass a softball center, a park, a church, and wind between the backs of many houses. At one point you emerge onto a road lined with McMansions.  There is perhaps a couple of hundred feet of elevation gain. At a certain point, there’s a sign commemorating the fact you are standing at a former railroad flagstop location – leading to much discussion about the relationship between flagstops and whistlestops.

Lots of families were biking –  Santa apparently brought a many bikes this year. Loved the older brother helping out sister (even if he did inadvertently almost pull her over).

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After a few miles the backyards are all enclosed with wooden privacy fences which some good soul decided to paint. It’s called the “Art Wall” and each panel is ornamented with scenes ranging from rock stars to endangered animals to movies. Apparently the artist has another few miles to go. It provides a welcome addition to an otherwise rather boring stroll.

 

We managed about ten miles, five out and five back.  Not sure it did a whole lot for our Stok Kangri training. Part of the challenge of climbing high mountains when you live in Florida is simply finding a way to train. Oh well, still five months to go.

 

 

Back on the Trail – Eyes toward Stok Kangri

It may be seven months off, but when you’re headed towards the ripe old age of 57, and there is a  20,000 foot mountain  called Stok Kangri beckoning you, you have to respond to its call with a training regime. Unfortunately I was just gearing up my program when all hell broke loose at work, which has wreaked havoc with my workout plans, but I’m doing my best.

One place J and I re-visited a couple of weekends ago was our old favorite, the Cady Way Trail. We started to hike it back in 2011 when we were preparing for Kilimanjaro and I’ve been meaning to write about it since day 1 of this blog. In fact, there’s still a partially written post in the drafts folder.

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Over the last six years we’ve watched this urban/suburban trail change – almost a microcosm of the larger world around it. Case in point – there was a little rundown house we always used to look at with a slight sense of incredulity. The windows were cracked, the washer and dryer resided in a strange outdoor closet, and my personal favorite was the trough for feeding the owners’ collection of pit bulls. Six years later – the house was gutted, windows replaced, the outdoor washer and dryer vanished, and landscaping has substituted for  the dog feeding trough.

Cady Way is long and hot and winds between the backs of houses, past a little used golf course (or so it seems), by a high school and culminates in a high pedestrian bridge that passes over one of Orlando’s long wide boulevards, studded on either side with Mexican restaurants and car lots. Oh – at the far end of the trail there is a beautiful little memorial area to remind hikers of a couple of brutal murders that occurred there a few years back.

Aside from the normal prurient interest in getting to see everyone’s backyards abutting the trail – the most interesting place is an odd building that was part of the old Naval Training Center. J and I are convinced it’s a listening center for the military – that location that’s monitoring cell phone traffic. All we know is there are never any people present, there’s a loud hum, there’s an odd asphalt track that he runs around a field for no apparent reason, lots of gas canisters and double barbed wire fences. There’s no telling what it really is – but it certainly lends itself to speculation on what can otherwise be a brutally boring hike. (In face, we’ve never photographed it for fear of being observed!)

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Cady Way has no spectacular sites, no vistas, and only a few spots that even qualify as “natural.” But it’s long (10 plus miles round trip), it’s really hot (and hence meets my theory about stressing your body for high altitude), and the little changes that you see year by year create just enough interest. By now it’s like an old friend that’s giving an “atta girl” to help me get up that mountain.

Lake Apopka Loop Trail, Florida – Amid the Alligators

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We were supposed to start at 9:30. Which still wasn’t early enough given the projected mid-90s temperature – but would certainly have been preferable to 10:30 when we finally set off on the Lake Apopka Loop Trail. I had heard great things about the trail from someone who hiked parts of it in the fall. Her account omitted two facts. 1. It’s not a loop. 2. There is absolutely no shade.

The trailhead (it turns out there are two, since, as mentioned, it’s not a loop), is fifteen miles from downtown Orlando.  It starts in a park in some lightly populated areas.  For years Lake Apopka was one of the filthiest lakes in Florida. Victim to agricultural runoff, the lake was basically dead. But a few years back the state started buying up the surrounding farmland, and recreated the wetlands that had previously existed.

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The birds have come back – I’m not sure about the fish, but the alligators have definitely returned. More in that below.  And there are more dragonflies, grasshoppers, moths, butterflies, and of course mosquitoes than one can count.

The trail goes around the northern part of the lake, and is approximately 14.5 miles in each direction. The part we hiked is compressed gravel and dirt. It follows the top of a narrow levee a few feet high that separates wetlands from the lake. In a few places the water can flow under the levee. In a hurricane, it would be wiped out.

The levee had more significance after we spoke with a couple at the beginning of the trail. They pointed out an alligator head poking out of the green algae and remarked how many they had heard further down the trail. A few feet of elevation was a good thing.

Although you might not technically be in the middle of nowhere, Lake Apopka Loop Trail feels like it. As we walked along the endlessly flat path, the palms and rushes cleared on one side to reveal an enormous vista of the lake. There were hardly any boats – I think we saw one all day.

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Looking up from our boots and the white grey trail provided some variety . Ospreys, hawks, falcons, herons, and anhingas drying their wings. And although we couldn’t see them, to our sides we could hear a remarkable amount of life in the swampy water. Ducks and frogs, but most startling of all were the grunts of alligators. I started to have fantasies about what we’d do if we encountered one sprawled across the path in front of us. And then suppose we turned around, only to find one lying across the trail in that direction also.

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Such thoughts were getting me nowhere. We finally saw an informational billboard with a trail map – and realized the trail did  not in fact go around the whole lake. If we’d planned to hike 14.5 miles, as we had originally planned in the cool of our air conditioned house, we were going to have to hike 14.5 miles back also. Despite the hot noonday sun, common sense kicked in and we decided to hike 5 miles out and 5 back. We stopped at mile 4 at what appears to be the only historic landmark – an old pump house with a shelter where there was at least a vestige of shade. There’s a marshy lake nearby where we counted at least 15 alligators. My Kind bar had completely melted.

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The next mile is open to vehicles for a wild life drive and we finally saw some other humans, most of whom looked at us as though we had lost our minds. By that point we might have.

At mile 5 we turned around and tried an even brisker paced for our return. By now we were completely drenched and the heat index was well over 100. Even the alligators had gone to sleep, and  now the spookiness of the trail came from the eerie silence.

After a couple of miles, we saw a black shadow down the trail, about the size of a bear.  I saw no way that a bear could possibly reside in this environment but J pointed out they habituate easily….as we drew closer, we found ourselves face to face with an older English gentlemen on a motorized scooter. He was hooked up to an oxygen tank, and was apparently just out for a sightseeing ride. He was by himself, which didn’t seem like a good idea in the best of circumstances given the warnings at the beginning that you were to buddy up before starting the hike. In any event, we had a nice conversation- although I couldn’t resist a quip about mad dogs and Englishmen. After he’d had a rest he trundled along, soon overtaking us.

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We finally made it back to the old faithful minivan. J suddenly had a complete dehydration or heat stroke experience that started with nausea and then left him with an enormous leg cramp. I’d moved over to the drivers seat but even in the passenger seat he couldn’t stretch out the cramp. It began to pour on  the 15 mile drive back – one of those blinding Florida rains where you can only see six feet in front of you. But all I could keep thinking was that at least I wasn’t trapped between two alligators! That put everything else in perspective.

A Walk on the West Orange Trail

Cement plant amid abandoned orange groves
Cement plant amid abandoned orange groves

Training has to be in earnest now. The long Martin Luther King weekend  provided the impetus for our first hike with weight since – oh, probably when we were training for Elbrus last year. But with Cotopaxi and still maybe Chimborazo looming a mere six months away, it’s time to ramp up.

Orlando has been working on its urban and semi-urban trails for a number of years, and the West Orange Trail was one of the first. It stretches 22 miles from Killarney to Apopka, running mostly along abandoned railroad tracks.  It passes through suburbia, a high end residential enclave, abandoned orange groves, and, every now and then, glimpses of the pine forests and palm hammocks that graced the state before development threatened to turn it into one giant subdivision.

Husband J and I had hiked the segment from Killarney to Winter Garden last year, so we were already familiar with the classic car show that takes place in Winter Garden on Saturdays. People from all walks of life sit on lawn chairs with everything from Model Ts to 1967 Mercury Cougars on display. Somehow I don’t think my 10 year old Sebring convertible would have qualified.

So this time we decided to load up the backpacks with about 25 pounds and walk the next segment, from Winter Garden to about three miles beyond the Chapin Station by Chapin Park, for a nine mile round trip. Before Ecuador this summer we are going to try to walk the whole length in one day. Hey, if the Romans could march over 20 miles every day, why can’t we?

Not really a walk on the wild side
Not really a walk on the wild side

The first part of the trail cuts through several housing developments. One of the most striking features is the lengths and lengths of white vinyl fences that line the trail. The fences finally stop and you’re treated to a view of backyard after backyard – all of which blend into one another with barely any delineation. Talk about peer pressure to mow your lawn! Notably, I saw not one soul sitting outside on any of these neatly manicured grass strips, even on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. Finally, housing developments give way to abandoned orange groves. As we passed the one with the cement plant rising up out of the middle (see photo above), we heard what at first sounded like a loud rant of some hellfire and brimstone preacher. But as we got closer, in the distance we could just hear an amplified broadcast of MLK’s I Have a Dream speech. Somehow very fitting for the weekend, the trail and our training.

West Orange Trail - J's trademark shadow in the corner
West Orange Trail – J’s trademark shadow in the corner

The next segment did move into something approaching nature, although the sound of the highways nearby was never too far away. A hawk almost strafed our heads as we paused on the bridge shown above, and then settled into the trees, its plump belly blending into the mottled deep green black leaves.  We passed by a specialty crop garden tended by a local high school, as well as what looked like an uninhabited barnyard with a big sign saying sustainable farming.  And at one point, from a warehouse al out hidden by the trees, we could hear the throbbing bass of a rock band practicing. On the way back, it seemed to have transformed into something that sounded like a mariachi band. Same band? Or rented space?

The West Orange Trail even has a few hills – at least by Florida standards. I just kept thinking to myself, “imagine it’s 10 degrees farenheit, it’s a 35 degree slope, and you are at 18,000 feet.” You’ve got to have some imagination to train in Florida.

There's a hawk somewhere in there - use your imagination!
There’s a hawk somewhere in there – use your imagination!