Hiking the Florida Panhandle


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It's not an adventure until somebody screws up...

Bear Creek - January 12-13, 2007

My wife and I took the kids to Bear Creek this weekend for an overnight backpacking trip with my sister Nelda and her two boys. Our plan was to hike counter clockwise around Bear Creek Loop, and camp at the primitive site on the back end. Itís not a strenuous hikeóthe entire loop is only 3 miles, and there isnít a lot of elevation change.

The hike was, in part, an experiment to see how much of a load the kids can carry. I had each one carry his sleeping bag, fleece pants, flashlight, glow sticks, snacks, bowl, cup, spoon, and 2 half-liter water bottles. They each added a couple of small items that they wanted to take (stuffed animals, books). In addition, my daughter was carrying her sleeping pad strapped to the bottom of her pack. I had to carry my sonís, because heís so short that it hung down to the back of his knees. He looked way overloaded with the sleeping bag pushing out on the pack and making it look like a turtle shell. The pack wasnít that heavy, but it pulled on his shoulders because of the way the weight was distributed.

Meanwhile, I was fairly loaded down too, considering it was only an overnight trip. The only family-sized tent we have is a three-man Coleman that weighs over 7 lbs. Itís a real monster. I carried it, and my wife had my Eureka Solitaire in her pack. In addition, I had my two MSR blacklite cooking pots, a homemade Pepsi-G stove, a half-liter of fuel, water filter, sleeping bag, pillow, her pillow, rain poncho, camera, trail mix, rope and stakes (for rigging my poncho as a tarp if it rains and I need a dry place to cook), a fleece liner for DSís sleeping bag, fleece pants, my thermarest ĺ pad, DSís foam sleeping pad, ground tarps for both tents, and two liters of water. The total weight was about 35 lbs. It seemed like a very heavy 35 lbs.

In addition to my tent, my wife carried the food, her sleeping bag, her thermarest sleeping pad, the first aid kit, her fleece pants, fleece jacket, rain poncho, a couple of books, crochet thread, two liters of water, and some odds and ends that kept getting added to her pack when I ran out of room on mine. Her total weight was about 28-30 lbs.

The weight hit us like a, uh, ton of bricks when we put on our packs at the trailhead. No one was happy with how much he had to carry. Neldaís crew got ahead of us quickly, and led the way. My wife and I hung in the back nursing DS along, while DD moved between the two groups.

Poor DS was ready to chuck it all pretty quick. I can see now that it will be a few more years before I can really expect him to carry his own sleeping bag on a lengthy hike. They just donít make a pack that will fit him well enough for him to carry something as bulky as a sleeping bag. Again, itís not the weight so much as the distribution. Also, his shoulders are so narrow, that the straps donít want to stay on him, even with the sternum strap, if thereís much weight pulling backwards on the pack.

It didnít help that he had put his shoes on that morning without any socks. I had gotten his pants and shirts out for him, and was running around trying to get everything together. When I saw later that he had shoes on, I assumed he was wearing socks too. He had put them on without asking anyone to get him a pair. I didnít have an extra pair for him, since we were just going to be out one night. I think that added to his general misery level.

My misery level was pretty high too. I hadnít worn my pack with that much weight in it for quite awhile. It was pulling backwards on my shoulders, and I couldnít seem to get the weight off of them, and onto my hips. Even so, I might have adjusted to the weight if I could have just hiked. I had to match my pace to that of a five yr old, though. When you can walk at your normal pace, you get a forward momentum going; you make the weight in the pack push you along. When youíre creeping along next to a small child, though, you have to drag that weight with every step.

On top of all that, I started to get very hungry. I have a tendency to turn into a bear if I get too hungry, and I was rapidly approaching that point. I had to have my wife dig my sandwich out for me, so I could go ahead and eat it while I hiked. It improved my mood almost immediately.

Fortunately, it only took us about an hour to reach the campsite, so the misery was cut short pretty quickly. We sat around for a bit, eating lunch (those of us who still had one), and enjoying the feeling of not wearing a pack. Then we started dragging out tents and setting them up. The campsite has a picnic table, and it wasnít long before we had it covered with bits of gear. We got the tents up, and the sleeping bags and pads arranged.

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Nelda and her oldest son.

Methinks his shirt doth protest too much.

My daughter,
as we saw her most of the trip.

Meanwhile, the kids wandered off and started bringing back wood for the fire. There were a few good-sized logs already, but we needed lots of kindling. That amused them for perhaps an hour, and then they started to get bored. A pine tree had fallen from the edge of the clearing towards the center. They had some fun walking it like a balance beam, but that got old after awhile too. My wife had found a place in the grass to lie down, and Nelda and I were just hanging out around the picnic table.

My wife had asked me during the planning stage of the hike why I wanted to get there so early, seeing as how it was only going to take us an hour to get there. She was clearly anticipating the exact situation that we now found ourselves in: sitting out in the woods with nothing particular to do. To me, that sounded idyllic. I certainly didnít want to do all that work preparing for an overnight camping trip that would consist of nothing but hiking in, sleeping, and hiking back out again the next morning. I wanted some time to sit around in the woods and relax.

Of course, I didnít explain all of this in detail. Married people are supposed to be able to read each otherís minds, and the fact that I wanted to get there early obviously implied that I wanted to hang out in the woods, right? And the fact that she didnít want to get there early obviously implied that she didnít want to hang out in the woods, being bored. Steps were taken to minimize her boredom, though. Thatís why she was carrying two books, a crochet needle, and some thread. She had also mentioned that maybe we could go for a walk or something once we got the camp set up. That proved to be her undoing.

Eventually, the idea of going for a walk did come up. She seemed momentarily reluctant, but agreed. We decided to explore some of the jeep trails that cut through the area. I grabbed DSís pack, readjusted it so it would fit me, and put water and some snacks in it. Then we set off on a forest road that makes a circuit around the hill that the campsite is on.

After about ten minutes we reached Pittmanís Dam where the loop trail crosses the road on one side of a small creek, and a spur trail goes from the dam up the other side of the creek to loop back into the main trail. I had wanted to hike the loop trail on the way in, but because of the problems we were having, I had to skip it. Since we were right there and hadnít hiked very far, I suggested we hike up the spur, and come back down the main trail.

There was a little bit of resistance to the idea from My wife and DD. If I had realized how unhappy they were going to be about it, I would have given them the map, and let them go back to the campsite. I canít remember now exactly how the conversation went, but I guess she didnít want to split the group up, and she agreed to hike the spur trail. We hadnít gone very far before I realized that both she and DD were very unhappy. DD was making noises of disgruntlement, and rather than trying to cheer her up, my wife was being snappish and grumpy in a ďyou think youíre having a bad timeÖĒ sort of way. This was about the time that I started to get really irritated. I had done all that prep work so we could have a fun hike, and people were acting like it was oral surgery. Why did I even bother?

DS became whiny too, and he was irritating everyone. I made him hang back with me so that my wife and DD could get ahead of us. (Nelda and her crew were well out in front again, because we were hiking so slowly.) He and I walked along at a snailís pace, bringing up the rear again. I kept talking to him, trying to encourage him and get him out of his whininess. Eventually, he did get into a slightly better mood. I let him catch back up with my wife and DD when he managed to get the whine out of his voice.

We got back to the road, and continued on around towards the campsite. At one point, DD dropped back to tell me that, while she appreciated my efforts, she wouldnít want to go hiking again for some time. I barked at her, ďDonít worry. Itíll never happen again.Ē I wasnít happy.

Once we got back, I could tell that my wife was feeling bad for me. Her bad mood evaporated, and I started to climb back down out of my tree. She went into the tent and took herself a nice long nap. DD got me to play Robin Hood and Little John with her on the trunk of a downed tree, and then she went with Nelda's boys to watch them play baseball with a limb and some chunks of bark. Nelda read for a bit, stretched out on the grass. I went and laid down in my tent for a little while, but didnít do more than doze for a few minutes.

When I got up, Nelda and I went down to the creek to filter water, followed by DD and DS. We went to the little feeder creek that flows across the trail and down to Bear Creek. It was barely more than a trickle, and I had to search for a spot deep enough to filter from. Thatís when I discovered that I only had one coffee filter to put over the pre-filter to keep it from clogging up too fast. We filtered about 3.5 liters of water. At the end I had to pull the pre-filter up out of the water and slosh it up and down every now and then to unclog it.

We went back up to the campsite, and Nelda's boys got the fire going while Nelda and I started getting ready to cook dinner. I brought my little Pepsi-G stove to cook with. I had forgotten to pack the bottom heat shield for it though. I had both of my MSR pots, and my intention was that I would cook for my crew in the big one, and Nelda could cook for her boys in the smaller one. My rice mix required 4 cups of water. This is when I discovered that my Pepsi-G stove will not bring 4 cups of water to a boil without the heat shield underneath. Iím not positive that it would do it with the heat shield, but it definitely wonít without it.

I ended up putting the pot on the grill over the fire, because I couldnít wait on the feeble efforts of my stove. Nelda did the same thing so that she could go ahead and get hers done. I had Lipton rice, which only takes 7 minutes to cook, but the mix she had takes 20-25 minutes. Hers ended up being a little burnt on the bottom from having to simmer so long. Iíve had that happen to me, too, when Iíve used the slower mixes. From now on, Iím using Lipton.

Everyone seemed to enjoy their dinner. I think they had worked up a good appetite playing. My guys all cleaned their bowls. I rinsed the pot out a little with some cold water, and then used my stove to heat up some water to wash the dishes. I had been kidding DS all week that he was going to be our dishwasher. I guess he liked the idea, because he insisted on doing it. I showed him how to wash up the spoons and bowls. As he did each one, I rinsed it off with water from a bottle, and then passed it to DD to dry off.

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Our dishwasher.

DD pitches in.

Talking with Nelda.

After he was done, I washed the pot up real good. It was smoked up from being on the fire, but I was able to get all of that off. Then I made up water for hot chocolate doing it two cups at a time. That worked just fine. The stove can heat two cups with no problem. Iíll have to remember in the future that if lots of people are going I should bring my MSR Whisperlite.

After washing up the cups, and Nelda doing her dishes, we needed more water. We went back down to the creek with the sun beginning to sink behind the trees. Garrett went with us, but I made my kids stay at the camp, so they wouldnít have to stumble out in the dark. We hadnít brought a flashlight with us, so we made Garrett go back up for one. It took about 30 minutes to fill up seven bottles. Three were one-liter bottles, and the other four were about .75 L bottles.

It was painful drudgery. I tried reusing the coffee filter I had used earlier, but it ripped. The pre-filter kept getting stopped up, and I would have to slosh it around to unclog it. Iíve decided that from now on I have to do this a different way. Iím going to get myself a collapsible water container that I can fill up at the creek by just scooping the water up with a cup, and then Iíll bring it up to camp and allow any sediment to settle before filtering water from the container. The container will be a little more weight to carry, but it will be worth it when I have to filter that much water.

One thing that would have made the filtering easier is if I had gone on down to Bear Creek to do it. On the way out the next morning, we saw a really good spot for filtering. I had never seen that much water in Bear Creek before, but with the rain weíve had recently the water level was up. Iíll have to remember to look for that next time.

We hung out around the fire for a little while, looking at the stars and talking. DD and DS played with the glowsticks that they got in their stockings this Christmas. At one point there was a wrestling match featuring the little kids vs. Nelda's eldest. I think he eventually got tired of that though. Then the kids settled down a little and started looking tired, so we all crawled into our tents. I went to my Eureka Solitaire, and my wife got into the Coleman with the kids. Nelda had a 4-man tent that she was sharing with the boys.

The low for the night was supposed to be 54ļ, so it was fairly mild. Nelda's boys will dispute that, because they didnít have sleeping pads, and their bags had cold spots in them. I was pretty cozy, though, and my wife said that both of our kids slept pretty well. DD woke up once in the night, and had to go pee. They woke me as they went by my tent. I had to get up after they were done and call on a tree too. I couldnít back to sleep then, because I was congested and had a sore spot in my back. I got back up, got some pills from my wife, and took them. I guess they helped, because I was able to get to sleep after that. I did wake up briefly a few times in the night. There were cars going by out on the highway, and some of them made a lot of noise. My wife said they woke her a few times too.

DS slept straight through.

I woke up just as it was starting to get light outside. I unzipped the flies on the tent and tossed them back so I could see out, and lay there watching the morning come on. After it got light, I could hear my wife moving around a little, so I went ahead and got up. I built up the fire, and everyone else started to file out of their tents.

We had a quick breakfast of oatmeal, and started packing everything up. I packed the dishes away dirty, so that I wouldnít have to filter more water. It took awhile to get it all stowed away again. For some reason, my pack seemed fuller than it was when we left the house. My wife was having the same problem. We were lighter, though, thanks to the empty water bottles, and empty food bag.

On the hike out, I once again moved to the back of the line to shepherd DS along. He had a small accident, though, when we got down to where the trail crosses a little feeder creek right past the spur trail to the campsite. Thereís no bridge there, just a few saplings laid across the trickle of water. Nelda's eldest let DS ahead of him to help him across, and my wife took his hand from the other side. Thereís a boggy spot on the opposite bank with deep, black mud thatís as sticky as tar. My wife was trying to help him pick his way across it, but he stepped right into it. When he tried lifting his foot to take another step, the mud grabbed it, and he nearly did a face plant. He got it all over his left hand, and on his pants. His shoes were encrusted with it. Nelda pulled out a water bottle and she and my wife washed his hand off for him. It would be nice if someone would build a bridge across that spot.

It didnít take long for the rest of the group to get ahead of us. I walked along next to him, coaxing him, praising him, and saying anything I could think of to improve his mood and keep him moving. He kept telling me that he wasnít a happy hiker. I said, ďMaybe not, but youíre a heroic hiker.Ē

Finally, we reached Beaver Dam. We could see the others just up ahead of us. They had stopped to play a little at the dam. DS wanted to go down the steep side, and take a look at where the water gushes out of a pipe into the creek below the pond. I took his pack for him, so he could make it down the slope easier. When he came back up, he informed me that I could continue carrying his pack.

I said, ďDonít you want to be able to say that you hiked the whole trail with your pack on?Ē

ďNo. Itís too heavy.Ē

ďOh. I see. You donít want to carry all that weight, but itís okay to make Dad carry it. Poor Dad.Ē

ďYouíre the man.Ē

I laughed. ďOh, I da man.Ē

ďYouíre the man, so you have to carry the most weight.Ē

ďOh.Ē

Thatís when I realized that he was referring to a conversation we had the day before in which I told him that being the man meant you had to carry the most weight. Hoisted on my own petard.

Just a little ways up from where we were the trail becomes paved and there are speaker boxes spaced along it that will play recorded messages. On the way in, Nelda's youngest kept pushing the buttons, and I had had to listen to the cheesy recordings of non-actors pretending to be trees. DS stopped beside one of these boxes on the way out, and was going to push the button. I told him not to, because I didnít want to have to listen to them again. He made like he was going to do it anyway, and I told him that if he did, I was going to make him wear his pack. He thought about that for a second, and then held out his arms for me to put the pack back on him. I had to listen to a woman trying unsuccessfully to sound like Scarlet OíHara (or Blanche Dubois) while pretending to be a southern magnolia, but he finished out the hike with his pack on.

We reached the trailhead to cheers and congratulations for DS. I was very proud of him for sticking it out. Iím going to have to come up with a different plan for carrying his gear until he gets older. His sleeping bag is going to have to ride with me. Maybe I can give him something else thatís about the same weight, but less bulky.


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