Hiking the Florida Panhandle
It's not an adventure until somebody screws up...
ANF: West - February 17, 2007
My three days and two nights hiking in the Apalachicola National Forest with my sister, Nelda, turned into an overnighter. We bailed last night when we reached a spot where I could get cell phone service. We weren't intending to bail. We talked about it before I placed the call, and agreed that we would stay the night and see how we felt in the morning. After telling my wife what a rotten time we had had, she convinced me to let her come pick me up. I have to say she didn't have a lot of trouble talking me into it. The second time she asked me if I was sure, I said, "Let me talk to my partner." Nelda had been having an even worse hike than I, and she readily assented to an early exit. About an hour and a half later, my wife rolled up in the van, to find me waving a white sock on the end of my hiking pole, and yelling, "I surrender!"
Our plan had been to hike the first day from Camel Lake Campground down to Vilas (10 miles). The second day would be Vilas to Sapling Head Primitive Campsite (8 miles), and the third day we would hike to Porter Lake Campground (10 miles), where our spouses would pick us up. It would have been Nelda's first multi-day trip, and longest total trail miles. She just started backpacking this season. We had dayhiked comparable distances easily enough, but I didn't want to expect too much from us, not knowing what exactly we would run into on the hike. It turned out to be fully as much as we could handle.
The first day started off pretty good. It was cold out. The low that morning was 21ºF at the trailhead. I know, but around here that's considered pretty damn cold. Even so, it warmed up very fast. We hadn't gone a mile before we had to stop and peel off layers. The trail crossed and joined up with jeep trails at different points along the way. It crossed Big Gully creek via FR 105, and then went back into the woods. Further along, we came up on a couple of really beautiful blue cypress ponds on the north side of the trail. On the south side was a savannah of scattered pines, palmettos and tall, dry grass that glinted like gold in the morning sun. We stopped and took lots of pictures.
A little ways up we passed the southern terminus of the Trail of Lakes. It cuts off the bend of the FT that goes by Camel Lake Campground, rejoining it to the north. A sign at the junction told us it was 2.8 miles back to Camel Lake, and 6.4 miles to our first camp at the old abandoned town of Vilas. It was about 11:20am, and we felt like the next 6.4 miles would go by pretty quick. We didn't realize what the trail had in store for us.
I have a book entitled Hiking Florida that has a description of the trail through Apalachicola West, and a separate section on Apalachicola East. This is a portion of what it says: "Of the two forest trails, this is the drier. After heavy rains, you shouldn't find water much deeper than your ankles in even the wettest parts." Our last heavy rain was two weeks ago. Keep that in mind as you read what follows.
Leaving the Trail of Lakes behind, we set off through pine flatwoods on a well blazed, and well maintained trail. It looked like it had been freshly bush-hogged. In places it joined up with jeep trails, which made it even easier walking. Then we came to a boardwalk leading into a swamp. I was not expecting swamp, because of the above quote, but the boardwalk made it a pleasant surprise. It was just a series of 2 x 12's nailed to wooden blocks to raise it about 12" above the ground. It went on for a pretty good ways though. We couldn't walk real fast on this, but it was a pretty stretch of trail and our feet were dry. We noticed that the animals had been coming from miles around to poop on the boardwalk, even in places where there was perfectly dry ground next to it there would be poop on the boards. Editorial comment, or do the animals enjoy the benefits of civilization also? We also saw some pitcher plants, and some type of small tree that was in bloom.
Finally the boardwalk ended. Unfortunately, the swamp did not. We had to start picking are way through the wet places, trying to keep our feet dry. Nelda was pretty successful, but I kept putting my foot down in the wrong spot, and taking on water. It was cold water too. There were long dry stretches of trail in between the swampy portions, though, where my feet could warm up and start to dry out before we got to the next swamp.
Unfortunately, these sections had their own challenge. Something had happened to cause all the tall shrubs along the right side of the trail to fall over, blocking the trail. The twigs were dead and brittle, but they were so thick that it was hard pushing through them at times. Often it was easier to step off the trail on the left, and buschwhack through the underbrush. We were already tired from the miles we had hiked, and now we were starting to get discouraged. What's worse, my navigational skills were found wanting when I would try to connect our current location with some point on the map. I kept making overly optimistic estimates that only discouraged me even more when I realized they couldn't possibly be right. The last three of hours of hiking seemed to drag out forever with us not knowing how much farther we had to go to get to camp.
To add insult to injury, the trail took us off a perfectly good jeep trail back into the woods, only to set us back on the jeep trail after ten minutes of slogging through more brush. When it tried to take us back off the jeep trail again, I rebelled. I could see the blazes in the woods to our left, and there was no way I was going to follow them back into that perdition. I stayed with the jeep trail and reached the forest road about 50 feet away from where the trail came out. Take that!
The forest road went up a little ways to Hwy 67, where we had to road walk to get over New River. We were running low on water, so we stopped by the bridge and dipped water out of a little rivulet into a container that I had brought along for the purpose. I filtered water from the container into our bottles. It had the golden brown color of dark beer--or really old piss. It tasted alright though. Since we didn't have far to go to get to the campsite, we took turns carrying the container into camp so we would have water for the next day. We had to go a little further up the highway to FR 107, cross a railroad track, then then pick up the trail headed into the woods on the north side of the road.
I was concerned about what the campsite would look like, but it turned out to be fairly nice. It was a little too close to the road for my taste. We could actually see cars going by out on FR 107. Fortunately, no trains came by during the night. I'm not sure if the railroad is still in use. There was a sign marking the location of the camp, and it had been cleared of underbrush. We were able to find reasonably flat ground to set up our tents, and cook our food. We ate, talked, and watched a little bat fly around getting his dinner.
The wind got up, and it was getting overcast. It started to sprinkle just as we were getting into our tents, and rained for a couple of hours. We talked a few minutes, and then drifted off. About 9:30pm I heard Nelda call my name. She said she wasn't feeling well. The little bivy tents we were using don't have much room. I refer to mine affectionately as "the coffin". This was the first night she had spent in hers. She had woken up suddenly feeling flushed, and stifled. She told me she had to get out of her tent. I got up too, and just as we stepped out, the rain slacked and came to an abrubt halt. I looked up, and the sky looked clear all around. How lucky was that? We talked a few minutes, and I suggested that since the rain had stopped she could leave the fly open to get in some fresh air, so she wouldn't feel so stifled. That's what she ended up doing, until the temperature started dropping and then she had to close it up. She opened it periodically during the night to get more fresh air in. She didn't sleep very well though. I feel bad, because I'm the one who suggested she go with that tent. It was inexpensive, and I was trying to save her money.
For my part, I slept pretty well. I tend to short change myself on sleep when I'm at home, because I stay up so late. In the woods, I go to bed right after the sun goes down, and get up when it rises, so that puts me in my sleeping bag for about 12 hours. If I only sleep two-thirds of that, I still get more sleep than a typical night at home. I was worried about being cold, so I brought along a fleece liner for my 30º bag to make sure I was warm. I also had my longjohns, fleece pants, fleece jacket, and knit hat. I tried to sleep with all that when I first got into the tent, and it was suffocating. I ended up using the liner for a pillow, and shedding the jacket and hat. I had brought two extra pairs of socks, so I put on the thicker pair to replace the wet ones I had been wearing all day. My feet were very grateful. It was the last comfort they would know for awhile, because Day Two would see them wet for most of the hike.
The next morning, I woke up just a little before 6:30am. It was cold out, and I could hear the wind blowing hard in the tree tops. Several times during the night, I had heard litter being blown against the side of the tent. It sounded like the bat was trying to get inside. The temperature had been dropping all night, and I had had to resort to the knit hat at some point. My bladder wouldn't let me stay in bed, so I donned my fleece jacket and went out and found a tree. Then I crawled right back into bed. Too cold, too windy. I crawled into the fleece liner inside my bag to warm back up, and waited until the sun got up before trying it again.
About thirty minutes later, I felt like I could take it. Nelda asked me if I was awake, and I told her that I had just been thinking about getting up. We crawled out and got our breakfast. I had seriously considered not cooking, and just eating some of the snacks we had brought with us. As soon as the warm oatmeal hit my belly, though, I knew that cooking was the right thing to do (/Wilford Brimley). It warmed me right up, and helped energized me. We broke down the tents, packed up and set out on the trail with fingers crossed that we would have an easier time that morning.
Fifty feet up the trail we came to our first swamp. We managed to get through that one without getting our feet too wet, but it was slow going, hopping from cypress knee to cypress knee, hugging trees, and stepping on rotten logs, hoping they would support our weight long enough to keep our feet from the water. I took on a little bit of water, but squeezed it out quickly on the next section of trail. I can't remember if it was the next swamp, or the one after, but I finally came to a spot where it was impossible to pick a dry path, and I had to put both feet in the water up to the ankles, and wade. Whichever one it was, it wasn't going to be the last spot or the worst.
Remember the quote: "Of the two forest trails, this is the drier. After heavy rains, you shouldn't find water much deeper than your ankles in even the wettest parts." There had not been a heavy rain in two weeks, but all the water we had been picking our way around was ankle deep or more, and now the ankle deep water had become unavoidable. My feet would be wet for the rest of the hike, except for when I took off my socks at lunchtime.
After the second swamp, the trail went into a burn area that was starting to come back. The contrast between the blackened trunks and the new green growth was very pretty. Then it joined up with FR 107 long enough to get over the two upper branches of Black Creek. Road walks were starting to look real good, and jeep trails were a godsend. The FT tries to avoid both, though, for purist reasons. Is it really a trail, if it's following a forest road? Maybe not, but the forest roads were put where they were in order to pick a way through the swampy areas. You can't get too far off the roads without going through a swamp.
The trail does try though. At times it will veer off of a jeep trail towards a thick clump of titi trees marking out a swampy area, follow the trees for a ways, and then come right back to the jeep trail. At the point where you leave FR 107 to get back into the woods, the trail actually went through 10 yards of "rough" to join up with the jeep trail that it then followed for several hundred yards. We bypassed the rough, and turned directly onto the jeep trail.
A little ways up the jeep trail, we stopped to drink water and make some adjustments, when what should suddenly appear coming up the trail but a jeep. The driver gave us a friendly wave, and commented on the coolness of the morning. I assented, but thought to myself, "Try walking with a pack on your back, and you'll warm up soon enough." A little farther up the trail, we passed three guys coming down the jeep trail from the other direction on ATVs. They were bundled up against the cold, which was probably considerable on the backs of those things. They nodded, but did not seem quite as friendly. Maybe it was just because they were too frozen to smile. It made me think that what I really wanted, though, was a nice swamp to put between us and them. I got my wish very soon.
The trail left the jeep trail right after the ATV guys, and struck out towards a stand of titi. If I hadn't just seen the ATV'ers, I might have been tempted to see if it was going to fake me out and come back to the jeep trail. It didn't. It went south, took a left, and then a right, straight through a narrow neck of Sapling Head Swamp. Yep, this swamp actually has a name. It was also very difficult to navigate. Parts had to be waded, blazes had to be sought. It looked as if the people doing the blazes had simply given up about two thirds of the way through.
A lot of people complain about the lack of blazes on the FT. My experience was that it is really well blazed on the more accessible parts of the trail. In the more remote areas, the areas where you really don't want to get lost, those are the areas where the blazes become hardest to find. I can honestly say, though, that there were only two places where I really became concerned about being lost. One was in Sapling Head Swamp when I came to a double blaze in the middle of the swampy area, and I couldn't figure out which way the trail turned. The blazes were there, but they weren't easily visible. The other would be the entire section of trail on either side of Bay Creek, which I will get to shortly.
After coming through Sapling Head Swamp, we stopped for a short break to eat our snacks. I had worked up an appetite coming through the swamp. We were in a burn area that was not yet beginning to recover, so the scenery had a Mordor look about it. When we started back off, the walking was relatively easy. I was trying to push hard in the places where we could walk fast to make up for those places where we were going to have to pick our way through. I was sore in my thighs and my lower back, and my left shoulder had become a little achy. I didn't feel like I needed a big rest yet though.
Nelda was having a very difficult time, though, her hips were aching, and her pack was weighing on her. She was trying to move the weight from her hips to her shoulders, but that was bruising her shoulders. At one point we had stopped to down some ibuprofen, but hers wasn't doing her a lot of good. I would set off hiking, and begin to pull away from her, then when I would realize how far behind she was dropping, I would stop to wait on her. That gave me a brief rest every so often, but she was just having to slog on through.
It was getting close to 12pm, and I figured we had made half the eight miles we were planning to do for the day. It was not a great pace we were on, but I thought we could still make camp before 4pm. That's when Nelda told me that she wasn't sure if she could hike another four miles, and she wasn't even sure how she was going to hike another mile. I was torn between wanting to press on, and not wanting to push her too hard. As soon as she saw that I wanted to keep going, she said she would keep going. Neither of us was hungry, since we had snacked big just a little earlier. I suggested that we hike until 1pm, or until we came to another swamp, whichever came first. I also suggested that she get in front, and set the pace. If I was going to make her keep hiking, at least I could let her do it at her pace.
At about 12:45pm we came to the next swamp. We sat down for lunch, and I took off my socks to let my feet dry out for a little while. I didn't even bother with the pita bread and PB&J I had brought for lunch, I just ate my snacks. Nelda did the same. Then we kicked back and rested for about thirty minutes. I spread out my tarp, and put my sleeping mat on it, and stretched out. She spread out her rain jacket, and leaned up on her pack. The wind was still blowing, but the sun was out and it was fairly warm. I had my socks hanging from a little bush, trying unsuccessfully to let them dry, not that it would have been to any good purpose with a swamp staring us in the face.
At about 1:30pm, we set off again into the swamp. The next section of swamp was short, but still good for a foot baptismal. We came out into another burn area that featured a double set of six foot scaffolds set up for a tree stand. That was a nice surreal moment, to be in such a remote area and find that kind of reminder of civilization. On the other side of the burn, was another swamp.
This was the absolute worst section of trail we hiked, bar none. It featured all of the things we had struggled with: obscure blazes, swamp wading, and bushwhacking. Actually, it was not exactly a swamp. It was like someone had left the bath water running and flooded the woods... in the middle of a blowdown. There were dead trees all over the place, and water up to the ankles in the grass in between. The path disappeared in all of this. The blazes were far apart, and not easy to locate. I had to have Nelda stand at one, while I ranged ahead to find the next one, then repeat. I became very worried that we would get into the middle of that mess and not be able to find our way forward or backward. I found one blaze on a log that had fallen into the water. Another one was on a rotten tree stump that was full of holes made by woodpeckers. I don't think it will be there much longer, and when it goes, there will be no way to navigate through that area. I can't emphasize enough how bad it would be to be lost there either.
We finally passed through what looked like a creek, and stumbled out onto drier land. As soon as we got out, I saw where there used to be a boardwalk over the creek. All that was left was the wooden block on which the board had rested, and a wire strung between two posts. The area all around the missing boardwalk was just as overgrown as any other place in the blowdown, and the blazes were nowhere near it.
Once on the other side, I was still a bit shaken. I couldn't be sure if the trail was about to give out on us, or if it would still be good going forward. The blazes were looking very old, and I was concerned that I might have ended up on a discontinued section of trail. I thought that the creek we had just crossed was Bay Creek. Imagine my surprise, then, when I came to another swamp with a creek in the middle of it a little farther up the trail. That thoroughly confused me, and I no longer had any clue where I was at. I thought I was in the vicinity of Bay Creek, but I had been wrong so many times on this trip about my location, that I no longer had any confidence in my judgment. Looking at an online USGS map now, and comparing it to what we did, I can see that the second creek had to be Bay Creek. If I had had a good USGS map at the time, I might have been able to draw the same conclusion, but the FT trail map doesn't have as much detail.
Coming out of Bay Creek, we found a perfect place to camp. It was flat, and it was cleared, and it was right next to a great water source. Was it the place we were supposed to camp? I wasn't sure. I was afraid to camp there if it wasn't. I knew we we had ten miles to hike out the next day from the planned campsite, and I didn't want to make that any harder than it was already going to be. I decided to keep going and see if I came to FR 175, which would have been just up ahead, if that was the right camp spot. If it was, then we could turn around and go back to it.
I made a mistake at this point though. I should have stopped and filtered water. We were both down to a half litre in our bottles, and I wasn't sure there was going to be water near the planned campsite. As we hiked on, and it became obvious that we weren't reaching FR 175 anytime soon, I realized that the water situation might become critical.
On the other side of the cleared area where I considered camping was a single blaze on a charred stump. From it, I could see one more about 100 yds away near a clump of titi. We walked to it, and then found the next blaze off to the right. From there on, all of the blazes were faded, and only visible close up. The path was more overgrown than any non-swampy area we had seen so far. At one point, we were pushing through a 6 inch gap between a wall of shrubs on both sides. We could only follow what looked like the trail, and hope that we would find the next blaze a little farther up.
Eventually, we came out onto a jeep trail for a little ways. It went down into a wet area where the road was covered with large gravels. There was water on either side, so I decided to stop and go ahead and filter. We drank up the water we had, and got out the pump. The water wasn't pretty, but we poured it into the container, and filtered it from there. It was after 3pm, and I was beginning to wonder if we would ever find the campsite.
The trail left the road, and continued north before bending away towards the east. I began to hope that we were drawing close to the intended campsite and FR 175. We finally found it, marked only by two weathered posts and the shattered remnants of a sign that was no longer readable. I experienced a set of contrary emotions. One was happy relief at being at a location that I could point to on the map, and the other was discouragement, because the spot was completely overgrown. There would be no camping there.
We hiked on down to FR 175, discussing our options. My suggestion was to road walk around the next section of trail, and try to camp close to where the trail came out onto FR 107. We could see the sign for FR 107 from where we were standing. Nelda suggested that when we got up there, we should see if we could get a phone signal to call out and let everyone know we were alright, since we hadn't been able to communicate with them since they dropped us off the morning before. It turned out to be the phone call that ended the hike. Neither of us was in the mood for more wading, bushwhacking, or searching for blazes. Walking with a pack on our backs was challenging enough. There were some parts of the hike that were really enjoyable, and there were others that were just pure hell.
I've had a few twinges during the course of the day, wishing I had stayed and tried to finish the hike. After a hot bath and nine hours of sleep in a cozy bed, it's easy to think I would have done alright. I know how happy and relieved I was last night when I made the decision, so I'm not going to waste any time regretting it.