Hiking the Florida Panhandle
It's not an adventure until somebody screws up...
ANF: FR356 to Bradwell Bay - November 3-5, 2007
(Scroll down for pictures, or click here.)
We met at the Bradwell Bay trailhead on Saturday morning. I got there first and killed a little time talking to a bowhunter who was parked at the trailhead. He was going into Bradwell, and wanted to make sure we weren't headed that way too. I told him we would be on the other side.
Nelda and her husband picked me up, and we drove down the forest roads through Oak Park and Sopchoppy until we got to US 319, and then headed east to FR 356. The trail crosses the latter not far from the highway. After getting my brother-in-law to snap some pics of us, Nelda and I headed into the woods.
The first half-mile or so of the trail was littered with garbage here and there. We found bigfoot's flip-flop. It had to be a size twelve. I thought I took a picture of it, but must have had an equipment malfunction with my camera--or a user error. After leaving the garbage behind, the woods were very nice. It was mostly sandhills with pine and turkey oak, occasionally shading into pine flatwoods.
The trail criss-crossed back and forth over a jeep trail for most of the morning. The trail builders have a horror of following jeep trails and will take you off into the woods for a quarter mile before cutting back across the jeep trail and doing the same thing on the other side. The trail maintenance was not the worst, but my shoes were getting soggy from the dew on the underbrush, and there were a number of times when I looked longingly at the nice, clear jeep trail. I was not entirely sure that we were coming back to the same jeep trail each time, though, so I stuck with the blazes.
All along the first half of the trail we were constantly dodging spiderwebs. It was like bushwhacking through Mirkwood. I tried not to disturb them when I could. It was a question of prudence as much as consideration. I didn't have a hiking pole to knock them down with, having forgotten to transfer mine to my wife's car from the back of my van. To knock them down I had to use my hand.
The morning part of the trip was mostly uneventful. We scared up three deer near a pond, and watched them bound off into the brush. I tried to get a picture, and managed to capture the backside of one of them on the jump.
We had one stretch of trail just beyond the junction of 321-C and 321-H that went through an old burn. They are usually very good about replacing blazes where a fire has gone through. This short stretch, though, had not seen any recent maintenance. We could still see the path more or less, but blazes were few and far between. We followed our usual routine of having me go ahead to look for blazes while Nelda marked the last one found. Usually, that method turns up a blaze within a hundred or so yards, but I had to leave her several hundred yards back a couple of times, almost getting out of visual contact. The pine trunks were blackened, and the bark was peeling off of many of them. I believe the fire happened back in July, but the underbrush had already grown back. It's too bad the blazes don't grow back.
Beyond that problematic stretch, we crossed FR 365, and went into a swamp looking area with real dense shrubs on both sides of the trail. The path went through them like a tunnel. The ground was spongy with thick green moss growing on it. In a wetter year, I'm sure we would have been wading water. It's been so dry lately that there was no water in the trail at all--very unusual for the ANF.
When the trail came out of the green tunnel, it climbed a ridge overlooking the Sopchoppy River. First we saw a deep ravine cutting off to our left, and I knew we had to be close to the river. A few minutes later we were standing on the bluff looking down at the water. We found a path down to the beach, and walked along the sand taking pictures. Then we pulled off our shoes and waded in the cold water.
It was so pretty, we decided to have our lunch there. I spread my tarp out on the sand, and we sat down to eat. A few minutes later, Nelda exclaimed, "Oh my God! Seed ticks!" They were crawling all over her arms. She started counting them while plucking them off of her skin. When she got to twenty-one, she realized they were all over her pants too. That's when she really began to freak. I looked down at mine, and they were on me too. I didn't have them on my arms yet, but they were all over my pants. We picked private sections of the beach, and stripped down to shake out our clothes. Then we rubbed bug juice on ourselves, and our pants legs.
Discovering the ticks had kinda ruined our lunch break. As soon as we could, we got everything packed up and set off again. The path went a little ways up the bank to a forest road, where it crossed the river over the Oak Park Bridge. There's a new trailhead right by the bridge. The trail continues to follow the bank on that side of the river. We saw some blue blazes by the trailhead, and I thought they were leading off to the campsite that's supposed to be near the bridge. I didn't want to be that close to the road, so we continued on. A little farther up the trail, we spotted another blue blazed path that must be the way to the campsite. I had already made up my mind that I wanted to camp by the new footbridge on Monkey Creek, so we kept on going.
Along in that area is where we started to see lots of bear scat. When we hiked through Bradwell Bay a few weeks back, we saw lots of bear scat then, and a bear. We were in Nelda's truck when we saw the bear and he was headed into Bradwell. It was a very cool thing, and we weren't scared while hiking the trail that day. In the planning stages for this overnight trip, though, I had started to worry more about a potential bear encounter. There has never been a documented bear attack on a human in Florida, but I didn't want to be the first. I figured it would be bad for both me and the bear.
My answer to that worry was that I tend to worry over potential hazards a lot more when I think about them beforehand--or even after the fact--but while I'm in the moment, it doesn't bother me. This is true of long car trips, going out deep sea fishing, etc. When I contemplate the dangers of such activities, my thoughts can be rather morbid. While doing them, though, I don't dwell on the dangers. I figured that hiking around bears would turn out to be the same way.
The only concession I made to the fear--which was a rather dumb one--was that I decided to carry a heavy knife that my dad had talked me into buying. It came with a hatchet and a vinyl sheathe that holds both. Dad thought it was just what I needed for backpacking, and I didn't have the heart to tell him that it was way too heavy and that the hatchet would be useless. He was trying to be helpful, and it was only $20. When I got it, I put it in my car camping gear. Of course, I always take a pocketknife, but I keep it in my pack, and it's impractical and inaccessible for self-defense. As this trip approached, I decided I would ditch the hatchet from the sheathe, and just carry the knife on my belt.
So as we're going up the west bank of the river, we're stepping over bear scat every hundred yards or so. Most of it is old, weathered and blackened. Then we came to a pile that was very moist and had a nice pale brown color to it. The flies were still buzzing around it. We looked at it, and I kind of grimmaced.
Nelda said: "That's FRESH!"
I made light of it: "Yeah, we must have scared the shit out of him."
We each took a picture and hiked on. A little farther up the trail, three things happened in quick succession: I saw a black racer disappear off the path about twenty feet ahead; a lizard ran up a tree right beside where he had been; and something loud crashed in the underbrush to our left. I stopped abrubtly when I saw the snake, and jumped when I heard the crash. I spun around, trying to see what was making the noise. It crashed around some more. The noise was coming from a thicket maybe a hundred to two hundred yards off the trail. It was not that bounding-away-noise that a deer makes. It darn sure wasn't the poking-about-in-the-underbrush noise that smaller mammals make. Large branches were cracking. It was something heavy, and it was moving deliberately. It wasn't panicked, and it wasn't moving away from us. Fortunately, it wasn't moving towards us either. It was just kinda hanging out.
In the moments it took me to establish that, my hand went automatically towards, not my knife, but my camera. I pulled it out, and tried to get a better vantage point on the thicket. I climbed up on a log, then stepped a little higher up the bank. Never saw nothing though.
So maybe it wasn't a bear. I can't say for sure, but I will always believe that it was.
The noise moved off a bit, and we decided to head on. As got closer to Monkey Creek, the amount of bear scat lessened, and then disappeared from the trail. That, at least, was good news. I was still feeling a bit iffy about the situation. When we camped near Vilas last February, I had no thought of bears. I slept with my food in the tent, and it didn't bother me a bit. Ignorance was blissful. Now, bears were no longer near-mythical creatures to me. I was sharing the woods with them.
I wondered how Nelda was reacting to what we had seen and heard. Did she want to leave? From the campsite at Monkey Creek, it was just two more miles to my car, and it was only 3pm when we got there. We had plenty of daylight left, and a short hike to get out. She had been worried about the bear situation beforehand too, and if I said something to her about going, she might be more than willing. I had an internal debate with myself, and decided I had to stay. I wasn't going to be chased out of the woods by fear. If Nelda really wanted to go, she would say something, and we would talk about it then. I wasn't going to be the one to bring it up.
All those thoughts went through my head in the last mile of hiking, and the first thirty minutes after getting to Monkey Creek. The first thing we did when we got there was to lie down and rest, me up on the bridge, and Nelda down by the creek. By the time we were done resting, I had made up my mind to stay. We filtered water, and set up camp on the north side of the bridge. Then we did our cooking on the south side. When we were done, I hung the food bag from the bridge trestle. A really enterprising bear probably could have gotten it, but our bears aren't as educated in the ways of stealing food from humans. Judging from all the seeds in their scat, they don't particularly need it.
We sat out on the bridge, and talked for a little bit after dinner. It was incredibly quiet. No guns being fired off, no dogs barking, and no cars. All we could hear were the birds, and the occasional pine cone dropping to the ground.
About 7pm, we decided to retire. I fell asleep pretty quickly. Around 9pm we both woke up to some sort of scream or screech. Nelda said she thought it sounded like a cat. My first impression had been of an owl. I dunno what it was. While we lay there waiting for it to happen again, we heard something like a bird or bat flying around outside the tent and making a high pitched squeak. Don't know what that was either. After watering the bushes we went back to sleep.
I had a little trouble staying comfortable during the night, but managed to get enough sleep on the whole. I woke up at about 4:30am, needing to urinate. While I was sitting there debating whether it could wait, I felt something crawling on the back of my arm near the shoulder . I reached up the sleeve of my t-shirt and tried to knock it out. I thought I had gotten it. I decided I couldn't put off a trip to the bushes, so I crawled out of my tent. While I was getting out, I felt a stinging on my arm. I reached up my sleeve again, and this time came out with a small, half-squashed bug. I dropped it without thinking that perhaps I should try to figure out what it was. While I watered the bushes, the stinging became a bit more intense. I realized I had probably been bitten by a spider. I woke Nelda up, and made her get up and look at the spot to see how bad it was. She said it just looked a little red. The stinging eventually subsided, and I fell back asleep. I still don't know what it was, but there's a bump on my arm where it bit me. No bullseye coloration though.
Other than that, we heard no nightly noises, no things going bump--or growl--in the night. Our fears had been feared for naught. Well, maybe not for naught. We had taken some sensible precautions in preparing our dinner away from our tent, and hanging our food. The knife had come in handy a few times for cutting down spider webs, since I didn't have my hiking poles. And we could both be proud that even though we had felt the fear, we hadn't given in to it. It was a useful lesson. Bears aren't to be taken lightly, but we don't have to concede the forest to them.
We woke up again around 7am, got up, filtered water, and made oatmeal and coffee for our breakfast. It was a clear morning, not too chilly. The birds were waking up, and singing in the trees all around us. Away in the distance, we could hear hound dogs baying. We broke camp, packed up, and set off on the trail.
The hike out was very leisurely. We took our time, and lots of pictures. The woods along the river are very pretty, and we stopped to admire the large cypress trees on the banks. It took us an hour and a half to walk the two miles or so to the car.
We were both wearing lots of blaze orange to let the hunters know we were there. The dogs were far enough away when we set out that I wasn't immediately concerned. As we neared the road, though, I made sure to keep a conversation going as an additional warning that we were humans, and not deer. As we stepped out on the road, we saw a truck to our right headed away from us. He stopped at the end of the road, and sat there longer than necessary. I made a joke about him checking his regulation book to see if hikers were in season, but most likely he was just wondering if we knew what the heck we were doing, or if we needed help.
We would both have to undergo extensive tick removal procedures later in the day from our respective spouses, and suffer intense itching in the following days; but on the whole it was a great hike. The woods were beautiful, especially along the river, and we had lots of wildlife sightings. We're planning to go back later in the year with a larger group to hike just the section between Bradwell and Oak Park Bridge.