Hiking the Florida Panhandle
It's not an adventure until somebody screws up...Lake Talquin State Forest consists of several tracts on the shores of Lake Talquin, and the banks of the Ochlockonee River just north of the lake. A map of the forest is available here. There are two tracts that have been developed with hiking trails, the Fort Braden Tract and the Bear Creek Tract.
The Fort Braden Tract is located in Lake Talquin State Forest on the north side of Hwy 20, just west of Coe's Landing Road.
There are three interconnected hiking trails in the Fort Braden Trail system. By following the outside of each loop one can make a long circuit of 9 miles (Note: The map says 11 miles, but milemarkers on the trail say 9 miles.) There are also several equestrian trails that cross and sometimes join the hiking trails, so watch where you step!
Lake Talquin State Forest. Its formal name is the Bear Creek Educational Forest and State Arboretum. It's located off US 267 north of Hwy 20, 5 miles south of I-10. A map of the state forest is available here.
There are three main trails in the tract:
There are also two spur trails. One leads to a group campsite from the northeast corner of Beer Creek Trail. The other leads from Pitman Dam south-southeast and back around to the southeast corner of Bear Creek Trail. See the map above for details.
The trailhead has restrooms and a small building with posters identifying different animals, trees, birds, snakes, etc. There's also a ranger building but it was unoccupied when we were there. The fee is $1 per person, children under six are free.
The Living Forest Trail winds down the hillside to a platform overlooking the beaver pond. It is paved with asphalt, presumably for wheelchair access. Along the trail there are posts with recorded messages that you can listen to. We tried the first one, but didn't find it worthwhile, as we were there to hike. Signs along the trail identify the different trees in the forest: southern magnolias, spruce pines, American beech, laurel oak, sweetgum, loblolly pines, sparkleberry, pignut hickory, live oak and white oak.
The platform is about twelve foot square and has a bench along one side for sitting. The pond was formed by beaver damming up a small creek that flows through the ravine. Looking down from the platform, the dam is to the left. It doesn't look like a beaver dam, it looks like they've dumped dirt on it to make a road across it. I suppose they covered up the beaver dam.
The Ravine Trail begins at the platform, goes down to the pond and splits to the left and right. It's well marked with blue blazes. At one time it must have been blazed with orange, but most of those have been painted over. Now the orange blazes are reserved for Bear Creek Trail.
The trail runs along the bank of the beaver pond for some way before climbing up the side of the ravine. The pond is green around the edges with algae and lily pads. The center is blue, though, and the creek that feeds it looks very clear.
The trail climbs up away from the banks of the pond and travels along a ridge a little ways before dipping back down to the creek that feeds the pond. It climbs again for a ways before circling around the head of the creek and going back down. The creek winds back and forth through the ravine before flowing into the pond.
On the east side of the pond, the trail is joined by the southern side of the Bear Creek loop. Just after that intersection, a rutted road runs down from the ridge above the pond towards the beaver dam. The trail crosses the dam on the road. To the north, water gushes out of a pipe that sticks out of the side of the dam.
The dam is a grassy causeway that separates the pond from the pipe-fed creek below.
The pond seems quite large looking at it from the dam, especially considering the size of the little creek that feeds it.
On the other side of the dam, the creek flows north into Bear Creek, which flows east into Lake Talquin.
We stopped for a few minutes on the dam to look at the minnows and little froggies swimming in the pond. At the west end of the dam is a little spillway with a bridge over it. The white pipe in the picture below is connected to a pump that pushes water into the pipe that goes under the dam. That's why there's so much pressure on the water coming out the other end.
One trail down on our Trailwalker list.
This past weekend Anna and I went back and did Bear Creek, camping out overnight at the primitive campsite. The sky was cloudy, and the forecast called for rain that evening. I had seam-sealed the tent the week before, so I figured we would stay dry during the night at least. As it turned out, the rain didn't start until about 2am, but it stayed through the next day.
We stopped at the Division of Forestry on Geddie Rd. for our camping permit. As we passed the city power plant, I pointed it out to Anna. Her response: "It's beautiful!" Cool kid. She embarrassed the heck out of me inside the Forestry building, though. I was waiting on her to get out of the women's restroom, and she started yelling for me. The receptionist told me it was okay to go in if I needed to. I stepped in to see what she needed. She just wanted to tell me something. I won't tell you the big news she had for me, but it was not something I needed to know.
After we got out of there, we drove on out to the Bear Creek Tract. There was only one other vehicle at the trailhead. We ran into them later, a couple hiking with their two dogs. They were the only people we saw the whole day.
To get to Bear Creek Trail, we had to go down the Living Forest Trail, and then take the Ravine Trail across the beaver dam. Bear Creek Trail branches off from just beyond that point. I took the south side of the loop, because it is farther to the campsite in that direction. I wanted to do more hiking on Saturday and make Sunday a shorter walk in case we had to hike out in the rain. It was a good decision.
Where the trail branches off, it immediately begins to climb uphill to get out of the ravine. Anna just as immediately began to complain that she was too hot, the pack was too heavy, she was too tired, etc. The pack was 11 lbs at the house, before I drank one of the half-litre bottles from it. It was no heavier than it had been at Torreya, and probably lighter since she didn't have her stuffed tiger this time. I chalked the complaining up to general contrariness and pushed on.
She's become a very noisy hiker lately, yelling, singing, kicking leaves, etc. I've been trying to get her to walk a little more quietly so she can enjoy the sounds of the forest and have a better chance of seeing wild animals. Naturally, she's resisting that effort. Unfortunately, it caused her to miss seeing a deer. I had stepped off the trail for a moment to pee, and she was back down on the trail dancing around and singing. She scared a deer and it took off running about 100 yards from me. It was gone before I could point it out to her.
The trail manages to stay in a hardwood forest for its entire length, although in some spots it's just a narrow shady strip running between two large stands of pine and wiregrass on either side. This strip is along the southern side between the Ravine Trail and the little creek that parallels the eastern side of the loop. It crosses a sandy ridge, and the pine stands are no more than 50 feet to either side of the trail. I understood why there would be hardwood stands along the creeks, but this narrow band was a puzzle to me.
After crossing that ridge, the trail heads back down into another little ravine with a small creek winding along the bottom. There's a spur trail at the top of the ravine that will take you around on the other side of the creek, but we stayed on the main trail. When we got to the bottom, we stopped to get a closer look at the creek. There were a couple of little waterfalls. I let Anna go down and play around, poking her walking stick in the creek, etc.
The trail follows the creek for about a half mile. Farther down, there's another little beaver dam like the one on the Ravine Trail. This is where the spur trail comes out. The pond formed by this dam isn't nearly as large. It's more of a swamp. Below the dam, the land becomes very swampy. The smaller creek flows down into Beer Creek in what looks like a pretty wide flood plain. I whipped out the old camera to take some more pics, and that's when I discovered that the batteries had gone dead. No more pics. :(
The trail turned west of northwest, and followed the Bear Creek flood plain. It was on a ridge about six feet above the swamp, so we didn't have to worry about our feet getting wet. An old broken down fence paralleled the path. After less than a quarter mile, we came to the spur trail that leads to the campsite. I had been wondering whether we were going to be camping in a swamp, but the trail took us up the hill away from the creek and into a pine forest. The campsite was in a nice grassy clearing surrounded by pine trees. It had a fire ring and a picnic table! (Picnic tables at primitive sites are a real luxury.) Around the fire ring, they had rolled a bunch of large pine logs to sit on.
The first thing we did was gather up firewood and stack it near the fire ring. Most of the deadwood close at hand was all pine, which smokes too much for a good fire, so we had to roam about a bit looking for downed oaks. We drug up as much as we could and I broke it up by leaning it on the log seats and stomping it. One of these days I'm going to get myself a little folding camp saw, because some of the pieces I drug up didn't want to break. I scared up a couple more deer while fetching the wood. The came up out of a little ravine below the camp and took off through the pines. I tried to point them out to Anna, but she didn't see them.
After getting up a sufficient amount of wood, we went to filter water. In the ravine below the camp was another little creek. The ravine was a bit steep, and the creek was very small with high banks. Not an ideal place to get water. I had to jump across to find a good spot to filter from. I saw fresh deer tracks in the mud, probably from one of the deer I had scared. I showed them to Anna. She's gotten very good at recognizing deer tracks. When we brought the water out, I made her show me the way back to camp. She needed a few hints, but it was a good exercise in looking for landmarks.
That done, I pitched the tent and then we played for a little bit. Anna's been watching The Adventures of Robin Hood lately (Errol Flynn), and she wanted to play like we were Robin and Little John fighting with staves. I cut myself a stick and we hopped up on this huge fallen pine tree (2.5 ft diameter). I had to be Robin Hood, of course, because LJ wins this particular fight. Even without intending to lose, I got my knuckles rapped pretty hard a couple of times. She knows the scene by heart, so she fed me my lines and told me what I was supposed to do. It ended, as scripted, with me getting knocked off the log.
By that time I was ready for the big feast, so I pulled out the cooking kit and started dinner. I got to try out my new Pepsi-G stove. It worked well getting the water to the boiling point, but I ran into the same problem I've been having: it takes a lot of alcohol to boil the water and then simmer the food for 20-25 minutes. I start with 2 tbspns in the stove, and that will bring it to a boil. If I could reduce the rate of burn, I might be able to simmer it for 20 minutes with another 2 tbspns, but at full blast I have to stop twice to add more alcohol.
I came prepared with an alternative this time, though. I brought a small tea candle and a shorter pot stand. I found, though, that taking everything apart to put the pot on the shorter stand lost too much heat. The candle couldn't heat it back up to a good simmer. So I put it back on the taller stand and brought it to a boil with the alcohol stove again. This time when it burned out, I opened the windscreen up just a bit, flipped the stove over with a stick and then put the lit candle on top of the stove. That worked. The candle kept it simmering nicely, and twenty minutes later it was done. It looks to me like one candle would simmer 5-10 dinners, so it's an economical solution as well.
After dinner, Anna toasted some marshmallows and we drank hot chocolate for desert. Then we played another game. We took turns pretending to be some type of animal and the other person had to guess the animal. I confess to being baffled a few times by her pantomines. She had to give me hints. The only one of mine she wasn't able to guess was the hawk. She didn't recognize the cry, or maybe I was doing a lousy job of it. She got my seagull right off, though: "Mine? Mine? Mine?"
By this time it was pretty dark, and we were having to use the flashlight to see each other. It was only a bit after 7pm, but we went ahead and got in the tent. I read out loud to her a bit from The Two Towers, and then we went to sleep.
I was gratified that the rain held off that evening, allowing us to cook dinner dry and have some entertainment. We had even had some sunshine during the middle of the afternoon. Before we went to bed, though, I pitched my poncho as a tarp just in case I needed a dry spot to cook breakfast in the morning. It was a good decision.
The rain started about 2am. It sounded nice hitting the tent. There were no major leaks, thanks to the seam sealing. A little bit of moisture began to collect on the seam ridge, but it wasn't enough to drip. I wasn't sure if it was coming in from the outside, or if it was condensation on the inside. Given the small amount, probably the latter. There was plenty of rain on the outside.
I slept in, trying to give the rain every opportunity to stop. Around 8:30am, I finally got up, grabbed the food and cooking kit and went to cook breakfast. The little area under my tarp was just big enough for me to spread out a little. I heated up enough water for oatmeal and hot chocolate. Anna came out and joined me under the tarp. By this time it had slacked off to just an occasional drip. We ate our breakfast, and then started the packing up process.
This is always the most difficult part of camping, and it wasn't made any easier by having a wet tent. I packed up all the inside stuff first. It was kind of a pain, because I always put the tent in the bottom of my pack, and everything else on top. Luckily, I have a dividing wall to form a separate compartment in the bottom and a zipper that allows me to access it. I haven't been using the dividing wall, but I went ahead and zipped it up and packed everything in on top of it, leaving the bottom open for the tent. The sleeping bag didn't want to compress very well, but I eventually got it all stuffed in. I put the packs out on the picnic table and Anna had the bright idea to cover mine with my poncho and hers with an umbrella we brought. Then I took down the soaking wet, soggy-ass tent, rolled it all up and stuffed it in the bottom of the pack. A few more adjustments and we were ready to head out.
The trail was wet--naturally--but one spot was very wet. The trail crossed the little creek where we got our water not far from where we started. The ground on both sides was muddy and sloppy. I had no trouble getting through with my boots, but I had to guide Anna around it. I loaned her one of my hiking poles so that she could cross the creek by walking on a small branch.
The hike out only took about an hour. I was glad we didn't have far to go. We were back at the house getting dry by 11am. Even with the rain, Anna seemed to have a good time. I made a special effort with the games. I don't always have the patience to follow her scripts, and do things exactly the way she wants them done. She enjoyed playing Robin Hood and doing the animal guessing game, though. I had fun too.
This weekend we're going back to Ft Braden with the whole family to add another trail to our Trailwalker list.