Hiking the Florida Panhandle
It's not an adventure until somebody screws up...
Fort Braden - December 2, 2006
This past weekend. I went to Ft Braden Trails on Lake Talquin with my sister, Nelda, for a day hike. We plan to hike Apalachicola West in February, so we are trying to get in shape. It’s been awhile since I did more than a day hike, so I loaded up my backpack with most of my gear and took it along. It weighed about 20 lbs.
Nelda still has to purchase a good backpack for our February trip, so she was using her usual day pack. She had loaded it up with two five pound bags of sugar, along with her water and food, in order to give herself a workout. I told her she might wish before we were done that she had used sandbags, so she could empty them if the pack got too heavy.
Located on Hwy 20, eight and a half miles west of Tallahassee, Ft Braden Trails is in the Ft Braden tract of the Lake Talquin State Forest. It has both hiking and equestrian trails. The hiking trails are three connected loops, each one 3-5 miles long. The trail map gives the distance of the total circuit as 11 miles, but the mile markers on the trail make it more like 9 miles. Our plan was to start on the east loop hiking counter-clockwise and hike the entire circuit if we could. If we pooped out, we would have a couple of opportunities to cut the hike short.
I had hiked the trail a couple of times before. My wife and I had done the big loop once before, breaking it into two hikes by camping overnight at one of the two primitive campsites on the trail. We enjoyed the hike, but spent a lot of time stepping over and around horse poop. The hiking and equestrian trails join up for part of the way, but we were seeing droppings even on sections that were exclusively hiking trail. That wasn’t the case this time, thankfully.
Nelda and I met at the trailhead at 9:30am. There were people there unloading horses, but we were the only hikers. There’s a bathroom by the parking lot, and after availing ourselves of it, we set out on the trail. The first part goes through sandhill scrub before dropping down to cross over a couple of creeks. There was a boggy area that had boards laid down to keep our feet dry.
Nelda was in front, breaking trail for me by clearing away the spiderwebs with her face. She came eyeball to eyeballs with one golden orb spider that had blocked the trail. I think she gave him a coronary when she yelled. Do spiders have hearts? Or ears? Anyway, we stepped around him, and left his handiwork intact.
The trail is covered with leaves, and hasn’t been hiked enough to make its location obvious. The blazes are sometimes spread apart, or take unexpected turns, so we had difficulty keeping ourselves on the right track in places. We didn’t get lost, but we had to search for the next blaze a few times, which slowed us down a little.
The most confusion I suffered during the hike was when we reached the center loop, and saw a sign that said “Primitive Campsite”. There wasn’t a campsite that I could see, but there was a trail leading uphill towards what might be a campsite. I didn’t recall having to go off the main trail when I had camped there with my wife. I decided to stay with the blazes—usually a good choice. Since we had apparently passed one campsite, I figured we would come next to the picnic area. After hiking some distance, we came to the campsite I remembered staying at with my wife, but we had seen no picnic area. I was pretty well puzzled, but eventually I figured out that the sign I had seen was pointing the way to a group campsite that is in the center of the forest. Mystery solved.
We stopped there at the campsite to rest, eat our lunch, and take a few pictures. Located about two hundred feet from the lake, the campsite is very primitive. It’s just a fire ring with some dead logs gathered round it. There’s a little bit of a clear space for pitching a tent, but the grass is pretty high from not being used much. It was, at least, free of garbage. The lake can be seen through a light screen of trees.
Water at this campsite might be a problem, unless you’re okay with filtering from Lake Talquin. There’s a little stream that runs down into it nearby, but it’s seasonal—probably flooded and stagnant when the lake is backed up, and non-existent in dry weather. It was just a trickle on Saturday. I remember that when I camped there with my wife, we had brought enough water to get us through breakfast, but had to hike to the next good creek to get more.
As we were getting up to gather up all our stuff, another hiker came up. He was intending to stay at the next campsite for the night. We spoke to him for a few minutes, and then he set off ahead of us while we were shouldering our packs. After about ten minutes we caught up to him again. He had stopped to take a picture of the most beautiful tree. It was about 40-50 ft tall with a smooth silver bark. The ground all around it was covered with yellow leaves, and the leaves in the crown were a brilliant yellow with the sun slanting down through them. The air around the tree was bathed with a golden light. I immediately thought of the mallorn trees in Lord of the Rings. I don’t know what kind of tree it actually was. The other hiker suggested it was a sugar maple.
I was getting tired at this point, and having just gotten my momentum going again, I didn’t want to stop and get out the camera. (I need a lighter one that I can keep on my belt.) We got 50 yards up the trail, and I started kicking myself for not getting a picture. I didn’t go back though. I was ready to finish the second half of the hike. My shoulders and hips were starting to feel tender where the pack was rubbing on them.
We kept on going, and made it to the picnic area where a number of horse riders were taking their ease. We waved and kept on trucking. After the picnic area, the trail gets into a nice area that is crisscrossed by winding creeks. It was here that I filtered water when I camped here before. One of the creeks was dry this time, but the other one had plenty of water in it.
Up until the seventh mile, I think we were both still in fairly decent shape. By the time we were done with it, though, we had to take another break. Nelda’s pack was cutting into her shoulders, and my feet were starting to hurt. We sat down and got out the cameras to take some pictures. All of a sudden she jumped up, yelling and slapping at her pants. She had sat down next to a wolf spider. We found him hiding in the leaves, asking himself, “What? What’d I do? I was just sitting here minding my own business. She nearly sat on me, and then started yelling like it was my fault!”
We took another short break after mile eight, and then it was the parking lot or bust. I had gotten in front at some point, and I was hobbling along looking for some sign that we were almost there. The trail had come up out of the bottom land near the lake, and was going up a sandhill ridge. I got very confused when we passed a clearcut that looked similar to one we had passed in the morning. I thought maybe we were starting around the loop again. The trail heads back down into the lowlands at that point, and I just knew I had missed the turn into the parking lot. I wasted a few minutes getting it figured out, but finally realized that we had to go down one more time before climbing out.
The trailhead was a joyous sight. We had had a good workout, and we now know what we are in for on our hike in February. Mile ten would have been an excruciating experience, and my pack will be heavier then. The foot soreness was gone after a day, but the muscles in my calves were tight until yesterday. Nelda had no trouble with her legs, but the day pack really worked on her shoulders. If we get her outfitted with a good pack, she should do great. That will set the bar high for me, since I’m not about to wimp out in front of my little sister.