Testing, Trails, and Thanksgiving

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.

J on one of many “bridges” crossing the swamps

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?

Really? A guardrail?

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.

Happy Thanksgiving, one and all.

Lost in Florida – Staring Down Charles Bronson

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!