Hiking the Florida Panhandle
It's not an adventure until somebody screws up...
ANF: Bradwell Bay - October 13, 2007
Backpacker magazine has rated the hike through Bradwell as one of the toughest hikes in North America. The rating is primarily due to the fact that many sections of the trail are typically a foot underwater, and some involve hip-deep wading. In the wet season. Today, we hiked the entire 12 miles of the trail from east to west, and didn't get our feet wet once. All the swamps were bone dry. Monkey Creek-- where the wading can get hip deep-- looked more like Monkey pond. I hiked through the eastern section last March, and the water was knee deep. I walked through this time on dry land.
Wildlife sightings for the day included one bear, one water mocassin, four or five alligators, and four deer.
Our group included Paul Geyer, who is thru-hiking the trail, my sister Nelda, and me. We parked Paul's van at the trailhead on FR 329 by the Sopchoppy River, and put mine at the new trailhead west of Monkey Creek, and Nelda drove us around to where the trail enters Bradwell on FR 314. Just as we were pulling away from the second trailhead, a bear ran across the road about two hundred yards from us. We were all thrilled by the sighting, which struck me as funny, since the bear was headed into Bradwell. He was a small 'un though. I think I could've taken him.
The first mile or so of the hike was pretty easy walking, but then we hit a 1-2 mile stretch of blowdowns that slowed us down a good bit. Besides having to navigate over fallen trees, we were also having to hunt blazes. For the most part, this was just a slight inconvenience. It would occasionally cost us a minute or three to look around for the next blaze. We hit one spot, though, where we spent 5-10 minutes in befuddlement, looking for where the trail had gotten to. Nelda finally got us straightened out, and back on the path.
This was taking place in the middle of a vast swamp that covers most of the western section of Bradwell. It was there that I saw my first snake in Bradwell. I've waded water through there several times, always expecting to see snakes hanging from every limb, but had never seen one before today. This one was a water mocassin, about two feet long, and he was just lying quietly on the side of the trail. I was only three feet away when I spotted him. Out came the camera, and I took a couple of pictures before stepping off the other side of the trail to give him plenty of room. He never moved the whole time.
Somewhere about halfway through the swamp, the blazes became more recent, and the trail cleared out. From there on, we had no more trouble with either blazes or blowdowns. The maintenance crews have done a lot of work out there in the past year or so, and it really shows.
We made it to the first blue blaze by a little after 11am, and followed it about 100 yds out to the trailhead where my van was parked. I had water and cokes on ice in the back, and we sat in the shade and ate our lunch.
I have a reputation with Nelda for making overly optimistic predictions about our pace, conditions on the trail, our location on the trail, etc. I had told her the day before that I thought we could make it to the first trailhead by 10am-11am, though, and I proved to be right. After we left the big swamp, though, I made the mistake of saying I thought we would be at the trailhead in 30 minutes. It was more like 50-60. She and Paul asked me for another prediction on how long it would take us to get to the end of the hike, and I told them 4pm. I deliberately padded the estimate, and hoped like heck that I wouldn't turn out to be wrong.
We started back on the trail at 11:42am. Monkey Creek was just a short ways up, and we stopped there to take pictures. Our next landmark was the blue blaze that goes out to the Monkey Creek trailhead. I thought it was 1.8 miles from the previous blue blaze, and kept wondering where the heck they had moved it to. Come to find out, it's 1.8 miles from Monkey Creek. I was very relieved when we got there, but I was beginning to lose confidence in my prediction. It had taken us 1.5 hrs to cover the distance, and even with the picture taking at Monkey Creek, it seemed like our pace had dropped way off.
From the second blue blaze, the trail makes a long detour north before turning south and paralleling the Sopchoppy River back to the road, a distance of 5.4 miles. The previous time I hiked this section of the trail, I was going the other way, and had made very good time at the beginning of the hike. It skewed my perception of how fast we could cover that distance. I kept finding new areas of trail that I didn't remember, and it seemed like someone was adding new sections of trail in front of me. Even though I knew that the turn to the south was very noticeable, I kept thinking that surely we had already made the turn. Then I would check the position of the sun, and realize that we were still headed northeast.
When we finally did reach the turn, I was once again very relieved. I was so relieved, that I ventured another prediction: we would reach the trailhead in 30 minutes. I quickly revised it to 30-60 minutes, which was a good thing. It turned out that the hike south was much longer than I remembered it also. The last two miles of a twelve mile hike just do not feel the same as the first two miles of an 11 mile hike. This true, I don't care who you are. It seemed to take forever to reach the trailhead. I was hiking fast, trying to make my prediction come true, but I started my "sprint" too soon, and I was beginning to flag with no trailhead in sight.
We had passed one area near the river where the trail goes between high shrubs on either side, and Paul said he remembered that spot being close to the trailhead. I thought so too, but then we came back out into a long open area where the sun was beating down on us. Still no sight of the trailhead. After pushing on a bit more, I finally had to stop in a little bit of shade and breathe for a few minutes. Not too much farther along we came to another one of those "tunnels", and I realized that we really were getting close this time.
A little creek crosses the trail (an old jeep trail) under a cement bridge, and flows down to the river. As we crossed it, I commented that it looked like a good spot to see another snake. All of a sudden, there was a flurry of movement, and three or four little alligators dove into the creek. I was just about to be pissed at not getting a picture of them, when I spotted a slightly larger one that hadn't bothered to flee. We stood there for a few minutes snapping pictures of him, and then headed on. A hundred feet up the trail we spotted Paul's van. Nelda checked her phone after we got in, and it was 3:20pm. Redemption! :)
We rode down to the Sopchoppy River to check the level, and take a few more pics, then Paul dropped us off at my van. I'll be seeing him again Monday morning when I shuttle him to the trail. I drove Nelda around to her truck, and saw four deer along the way. Then I headed home, tired, sore, and exhilirated to have finally completed the trail through Bradwell Bay.
Pictures from the Hike