Marshes of Rhode Island

As FromSwamptoSummit prepares for the next trip, coming up in July – three weeks in the U.K. with a weeks’ interlude in Northern Spain – how better to get ready than a weekend in coastal Rhode Island, otherwise known as the Farm Coast.

Daughter A and son-in-law N apparently decided to celebrate almost a year of marriage by treating both their aged parental units to a week-end in a lovely, classic New England shingled Airbnb, right at the edge of a salt water marsh. The weekend started, as such things frequently do, with a delayed flight. But at least we were on JetBlue, which is now ensconced in the Orlando airport’s new Terminal C. Somewhat antiseptic, with large soaring walls that could benefit from what at one point would have been called decoration – but this is made up for by the significantly improved food and drink choices over terminals A and B. So there was that, at least.

We arrived almost two hours late at the very pleasant Providence Airport. Small, and some of the best airport bathrooms I’ve experienced. Someday I’m writing a coffee table book called bathrooms around the world. In any event, N’s parents, K and S, picked us up and we hied our way on to the Westporter restaurant in, you guessed it, Westport, where we met up with A and N.

N is finally almost recovered from his horrendous February ski accident (I have spared my readers those details), and we were able to enjoy a long period of sitting on the deck before we could get a table. Delays were clearly the theme of the day. Highlight of the deck experience was when N managed to drop his phone at a completely vertical angle, causing it to make a grand exit between the deck planks onto the ground three feet below. Undeterred, K solved the problem by finding a break in the fencing below the deck and shimmying under to retrieve said phone.

Fortunately, the rest of the evening passed fairly uneventfully.

We awakened the next day to the promise of rain. We managed a short walk around the neighborhood, down to what they call a creek here and I would call a sound side marsh. Two brave souls were in waders fishing for striped bass, looking like something straight out of a movie about rural New England life.

Once the heavens opened, as promised, we were off to the Four Corners complex in Tiverton, a collection of home goods, garden, bakery and gourmet food shops. Our fun stop after that was to Sweet and Salty Farms, a local cheese maker. A and N had ordered cheese and it was sitting out waiting for us at the top of the driveway of their home in a cooler!

After lunch, how better to take advantage of a rainy afternoon in R.I. than to visit one of the “summer cottages,” in Newport. It was the opposite of our cheese pick-up. We selected Doris Duke’s Rough Point as our keyhole into the lives of the rich and famous. She lived there until 1993, and the house is a mixture of the unbelievably opulent and the well lived in. The solarium still has the sofas scarred with marks from her dogs and there’s a microwave in the kitchen. It’s like a time travel trip from the golden age to the jet age. Of particular note, her “quirky” bedroom which features mother of pearl furniture.

Dinner that night was at one of my favorite RI restaurants, The Red Dory, in Tiverton. Usually there’s a beautiful sunset over the ocean, but not so much last night. But the food was as good as ever.

Sunday dawned cloudy, but at least the skies had finished their tantrums. Our trip to South Beach inadvertently turned into a trip toward a bayside walk near Tiverton. It was a working fishing pier with a great stack of rusted iron anchors that looked like a piece of modern sculpture.

This part of RI is not called the Farm Coast for nothing. After miles of small farm after small farm, intersected by sturdy stone walls, we made it to South Beach. The signs all warned the beach was “under repair” and there was “no parking” on either side of the road, but that did nothing to daunt the large number of surfers obliviously leaving their vehicles behind to take advantage of the waves.

On our way to lunch at Evelyn’s Drive In (apparently featured at some point on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives), we drove past White Rock Farms, featuring locally raised beef. Outside of Albania, I can’t think of when we have bought meat at the same location where the animal was born and raised. It’s a seventh generation farm with solar panels and electric vehicles and a commitment to humane farming.

Evelyn’s was nothing less than a feast of fried seafood. A, N and K shared the “two pound seafood platter.” I had a “stuffie” – a Massachusetts/RI specialty that involves a quahog (clam) stuffed and baked with the clam meat, breading and seasonings. J had some of the best fish and chips we’ve had, and there were plenty of little neck clams and clam cakes for the table. Clam cakes must be New England’s answer to the hush puppy – they taste almost exactly the same but for the insertion of clams.

Not sure how we’re going to have any room for the steaks!

Lost in Florida – Surprises at Sabal Point and How I Got A New Trail Name

On the trail

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.

Christmas berries?

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!”

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.

Be careful where you tread

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!