Trip Report Pt1: Florida National Scenic Trail

Under Water and Above

Prior to the actual hike I attended the kickoff event. I was driven from Miami by a trail angel named Byron and we had another passenger, Tom, who was planning on hiking the whole ECT! At kickoff there were roughly thirty or so people, half of them being actual hikers planning to do hike the full trail this year. I'd arrived a day late and missed a group of another ten hikers that had started the day before.

I had a chance to talk with trail angels and past thruhikers about the upcoming conditions as well as make new hiking friends. There was a large spread of food(including fresh paella) that we could pig out on and a large fire around which stories could be swapped. I spent most of my time chatting with two hikers: Shepard and Scavenger Princess. I worked out an early ride for the following day with Shep and would partner up with Scav through the swamp.

After a restless night anxiously dreaming about Big Cypress I awoke and the hike begin in proper.

Ann, one of the trail angels, was up at 0530h making coffee and there was a small breakfast spread available. Our intended start time was immediately delayed as we hung around to eat food and say our final goodbyes. The rest of the hikers would be starting a handful of hours later and were just casually hanging out by the morning fire.

After Scav ate twice his fill we began the drive to the Big Cypress Oasis Visitor Center. The Oasis center has a boardwalk overhanging along a river where we got our first glimpse of massive alligators. Not necessarily the first thing we wanted to see going into the swamp.

Rock me baby

After plenty of pictures were taken with the southern terminus monument we entered the park and quite quickly began to slog through swamped sections of trail. The sky was clear and the sun was beating down hard as the mud creeped up. Water sloshed over our ankles.

This way!

It was a beautiful sight to enter such a foreign seeming land. The tall bare cypress domes, the palms, and the dead silence of the swamp occasionally broken by the cry of cranes. Roughly halfway through the day I left Scav behind to hike at my regular pace. Along the way I caught to another hiker, Rambler. It was his third time hiking the Florida Trail(FT)!

No one knows how to count Scavenger Princess in swamp Cypress domes

I reached 13 mile camp(which is actually like 10mi(16km) into the hike) around 1500h. The camp was already thriving with tents set up in almost every open dry spot between the palmettos. A hiker named Deluxe, who was only doing the swamp section, a girl from Chicago named Boots, another girl named Jessica and finally Jason who was using a hammock. There were two other older hikers but I didn't catch their name.

Swampy trail

After an hour or so Scav finally caught up to reach camp. It turned out Deluxe and Scav knew each other from hiking the Appalachian Trail(AT). About a half hour after that Rambler and Goose came through. They were both at the kickoff the days prior. Talking with Goose it seemed that we'd be a better match for hiking together due to our similar gear set up and pace. As the sun went down at 1800h the hikers joked back and forth in the twilight and we all enjoyed an early nights rest.

Swampy water

The following morning Goose and I packed up and left roughly around 0600h while it was still dark. We were anticipating the huge swamp section ahead and wanted to finish it all by sunset. A few miles in we caught up to Jessica. She had previously thruhiked the AT and got the trail name Eighteen Hundred. The reason being she hiked 1800mi(2880km) of the AT without getting a trail name. She was not a fan of the name and insisted on just being called Jessica. We chatted briefly before Goose and I continued ahead at our pace.

Goose Cypress dome

Before the sun was fully in the sky we had already entered the infamous swamp section. Every year is different but this year we had +10mi(16km) of continuous submerged trail to look forward to. From a 3mi/h(4.8km/h) pace to something like a 1.8mi/h(2.9km/h) pace, the submerged trail was very sandy and would often lightly pull at your shoes making progress considerably slower.

Budding plant Yellow water snake

Another hot today revealed itself to us but it was more manageable than yesterday. The cool water lapping at our ankles to our upper thigh at times offset the scorching sun bleating down from above. The whole day was a magical experience. Constant wading through water, the dead stillness of the forest, and the little fish spawn in the water that would swim just ahead of you as you walked on through.

Swamp flowers

Constantly on the back of my mind was the thought of alligators and the countless poisonous snakes of Florida. My luck prevailed as I didn't not see any life threatening fauna and only came across a harmless yellow snake in the water. Around midday the trail began to pass offshoots which would put you onto dry land if you wished to camp but my eyes were still set on the finish line. I caught up to Rambler and saw him take a spill stepping into a mud hole which caused him to break a trekking pole. I had at this point left Goose way behind as my pace was faster. I ran into an older couple and a group of three friends doing just the swamp section both of which seemed to be having a hard time. They didn't anticipate how slow they would be going. And finally I met a girl by the name of Shortcut. We chatted briefly, about the flora, asked if she had seen gators and then off I went again. She seemed to be going pretty fast and also mentioned that her plan was to hike out of the swamp by end of day. I wished her luck and told her that I'd see her at the end.

Hours passed wading through water and I entered a kind of trance as the miles slipped by. Finally I found myself on a massive dirt jeep road and I realized I'd successfully escaped Big Cypress. The road was still very water logged and continued to pile on muck onto my shoes. Right as I exited the gate for the northern edge of Big Cypress I saw a huge pavilion set up in the middle of a parking lot. Trail magic!

There were a handful of angels there offering fruits, drinks, chips and cookies. I proceeded to take off my socks that had ballooned in size due to all the mud that was caked on and in them. I grabbed a banana, some cookies and grabbed a seat. For the next couple hours I'd relax and chat with these wonderful people until Goose and Shortcut caught up with me.

The magic didn't end there. With Goose and Shortcut finally catching up, Shortcut let us know that her mom was in the area in a RV and invites us to spend the night. Goose and I immediately say yes and within an hour we have driven to a KOA in Naples. Margaret(Shortcut's mom) cooked us this amazing dish of cheesy chicken and a side of salad. I felt like I'd been transported to heaven. After dinner we hopped into a hot tub and then back to the RV to sleep comfortably on beds for the night. What luck!

Cheesy chicken

Margaret, being the sweetheart she is, woke up early and drove us all the way back to trail to start at 0700h. Giving her hugs and saying bye to our new trail mom, the three of us set off for a big day. Immediately after the swamp, the trail leads us through the Seminole reservation. There is no camping allowed so hikers must get the whole reservation in a day. It's roughly a 19mi(30.4km) section of road, but from where we started and where the next camp spot is we have something like 27mi(43.2km) to do.

We are met with another day of relentless sun. From soft sand and submerged trail to plain asphalt pavement the foot suffering begins. Mile after mile everyone's feet begin to deteriorate. Shortcut has it the worst out of the group and we end up waiting for her to catch up every handful of hours. At one of these stops, as Goose and I are enjoying root beer floats from a cafe, Shortcut catches up and says she can't handle it anymore. She decides to hitch the rest of the way, so Goose and I jet off to finish the section as a duo.

The road walk through the reservation was fairly boring but went alongside water canals. We would often hear a loud splash as we approached which indicated an alligator had just jumped in scared by us. Over the course of the day I managed to visually spot four gators and plenty of beautiful swans, cranes, and hawks. The day dragged on and we exited the other side of the reservation as the sun set. We got water from a cache in the dark and found ourselves on the beginning of a large levee section.

Hawk Alligator Sunset on canal

With the sun gone and the canal nearby we were instantly swarmed by hundreds of mosquitoes as we tried to set up camp. Goose was able to successfully get under his shelter but, no matter how much I tried, the bug net I had would not stop mosquitoes from entering. The grass was very rough and long so there was a good couple of inches of clearance where the bugs could just fly in. I put on all my layers of clothes and jumped into my sleeping bag hoping to stave them off. Sweating, getting bit constantly and being driven insane by the buzzing of hundreds of skeeters, I snapped. After roughly 25mins of trying to put up with the conditions, I got up and packed everything to begin night hiking.

Even though I'd just completed +27mi(43.2kn), the suffering at the hands of the bugs was worse than me continuing to walk. The temperature was perfectly cool and with the moon and bright stars I didn't need to use my headlamp to navigate the straight path along the top of the levee. As I walked I was bug free but every time I stopped, hoping to be able to set up my tarp and go to sleep, they would swarm me again.

I kept walking. The stillness of the night was only briefly interrupted by a shooting star off along the horizon and the dull hum of massive power lines passing at points near the levee. After a few hours I came across a construction site and several CAT machines. The first one that I saw that had an enclosed seat, I climbed up, opened the door and took shelter inside. Finally a place to sleep. The seat was extremely uncomfortable and the space cramped but at least I could stop walking and be free of insects.

After three or four hours of restless "sleep" I hopped out of the machine and began walking again. Hour after hour passed and the new day rolled on quietly. At one point around 1000h I just lay down right in the middle of trail and slept for an hour. It was another hot day as I raced forward to reach a water cache. Next to the cache was a pavilion on the side of a county highway so I made myself at home and slept a few more hours on a concrete bench. I was also hoping at this point Goose or Shortcut would catch up to me but they didn't.

Levee Levee

At around 1400h I left so that I could reach a camping spot early to set up my shelter properly and avoid a repeat of last night. To my dismay, still along the levee, there were no real good spots. The grass was not as high as the night prior but it still left about an inch of clearance on the ground. Rambler and Goose ended up passing me as they planned to camp ahead since there was no other good spot near where I was set up.

As the sun began to set I was anxious to see if I'd be free of bugs tonight. Once again right on schedule around 1800h the net was being swarmed. For the most part I was in the clear but every twenty minutes or so a skeeter or two would find it's way under and into my enclosure. I was in and out of sleep until roughly 0230h where once again the toll of constant buzzing and occasional bites forced me back to hiking.

So once again I find myself hiking in the early morning hours. I end up passing Goose who is set up on the side of a road and begin walking on overgrown levee structures and finally a road. At roughly 0700h I reach the bottom of Lake Okeechobee, climb up on the levee and continue on the pavement. There had been construction on the east side for the last few years but thankfully it had all completed, avoiding a detour along a major highway down below.

My feet really started to feel sore due to the combination of not being able to get enough time resting and sleeping plus the never ending battering against hard pavement. The sun comes out in full force once again to burn down on me as I walk completely raised and exposed on the levee for mile after mile. The levee walk seems to never end and the scenery remain pretty consistent, the marshy lake to my left and either cane fields or trailer parks to my right.

I get to Pahokee early and resupply at a Dollar General at 0800h. I buy extra food so that I can mail it forward to myself at River Ranch Resort. I also order a SMD Serenity Net, which is a bathtub bug net that I can use instead of my current set up. I jump back onto the levee and continue on the paved surface all day. In the early afternoon there is a day use park off to the right of the levee. I instantly spot an area of flat trimmed grass and decide to call it my campsite for the night.

There are families around picnicking so I wait to set up until later in the day and spend some hours napping on concrete benches. Setting up at 1630h, by 1800h once again thousands of mosquitoes are out and hundreds are resting on the outside of my net waiting for a chance to bite me. Thankfully my set up of the shelter this time is successful. I am able to sleep soundly for the first time in two days but my moral is low since I've been hiking and suffering alone.

I start hiking before sunrise and the day proceeds like those before it. Up on the levee walking in the hot sun, alone. The one bit of entertainment are all the different types of birds I see flying around. Once again I see many cranes and hawks about. I also run into an armadillo wandering around on the side of the levee. It doesn't realize I'm there at all and walks right into my foot as I'm taking pictures.

The day drags on and I take a break in the afternoon under a large bridge crossing. My feet are beginning to rub raw, I have some sun rash and I made a bad choice by popping one of the blisters that had formed on my right pinky toe. To my surprise Rambler caught up to me as I was lounging there for one hour. He tells me of his plan to hike 7mi(11.2km) to J&S Fish Camp so that he can grab a cab to Okeechobee. I'm in inspired by Rambler's idea and the thought of sleeping in a hotel for a night or two.

I start to head off at a blistering pace leaving Rambler well behind along the levee. I turn my music full blast and try to zone out. I want to make it to the highway before the sun sets to increase the chance of a cab or Uber willing to come out and grab me. Near the end I begin to jog in desperation as the hours slip by and my legs are now completely shot. Finally the fish camp comes into view after passing a lock. Checking the Uber app it seems like I can't find any drivers and the two local cab companies do not pick up their phones.

Completely beaten I walk around the fish camp. According to Far Out comments it's supposed to be closed today but I still head over to the bar. It's very much open with three locals in there, drinking and relating stories. I walk in to some strange looks and they ask me what I'm doing. I tell them that I hiked from Miami and that I was looking for some help either getting into town of finding a spot to sleep for the night. I get mostly empty looks but one patron turns around and offers to take me in his truck. He is completely drunk and I tell him I wouldn't feel comfortable with him driving. Instead he offers me a spot to sleep in his trailer. I immediate accept the offer, wait for him to finish his beer and head off with him to luxury.

The man's name is Lenny and he lives alone with his dog, Freckles, in a fairly small trailer. He lets me launder my clothes, take a shower, and eat anything I want. Walking around barefoot in his trailer he spots my feet. At this point they are swollen, covered in hundreds of mosquitoes bites, discoloured from sun rash and beaten by the little jog I'd done earlier. He begins to tell what a sad state I'm in and insists on treating my feet. The next three hours he has me doing foot soaks, applying O'keeffe's lotion to my feet and Jergen's lotion to my legs. Lenny continues to drink, smoke pot and take some nondescript pills all the while blabbing about USA conservative/Fox News talking points. Despite all the kindness he shows me he also reveals his deep inner rotten hatred stemming from his ideology. He plainly tells me at one point that I only am receiving this kindness since I'm a white man, while not knowing that I am also half hispanic. I keep my mouth shut and just accept the good grace given. At point in his stupor he forcefully offers to apply lotion to my feet himself. Laying on the ground, my foot in his lap, Lenny begins to expertly massage O'keeffe's lotion onto my withered feet. Unprompted he begins to assure me that he's not a homosexual and that he's really just worried about the condition of my feet. This process of foot care extends past midnight before he finally retires to his own bed and I fall asleep on a large lazy boy in the main room.

I wake early and book a motel in Okeechobee 10mi(16km) away for two nights so that I can take a zero day and further baby my feet. I make myself an egg breakfast and wait for Lenny to wake up so I can say a brief goodbye. He wakes around 0900h and will not let me leave unless I take some medical supplies for my feet. To appease him and make my escape I take the remaining O'keeffe's, the large bottle of Jergen's, a tiny tube of Neosporin and a sandwich-sized bag of bandages.

Finally free and back on the paved levee, my feet feel almost brand new! After four hours I arrive at the motel and pass out in the room. I send a message to Goose since I figure he must be less than a day behind. Getting more people in the room would lower the overall cost. He is just a few hours behind me and is bringing another hiker, Peacock.

I take a shower and slather lotion all over my legs and feet. Peacock and Goose finally arrive and we catch up on everything that has happened over the last few days. Peacock was also there the night with all the mosquitoes and he had suffered a similar, but not as brutal, series of events as I did. He was planning on quitting the FT the following day but he was still unsure. Goose and I tried to encourage him to stick around.

For dinner we split a few large pizza between us and watched The Shining on TV. Well relaxed and knowing that we would not do any hiking the following day we stayed up late just chatting.

The first zero day on trail. This means no hiking for any of us. We hang our gear on the railings outside our room to dry, Goose spends time drawing, I spend time reading my tsumego book, and Peacock has a virtual session with his therapist. My package of the new bug net has arrived but the post office is quite far away. Unable to get an Uber or cab again I talk with the owner of the motel and he offers to drive me. He is a Polish immigrant living and operating the motel with his wife and kids. Previously he had worked at the motel under some visa scheme but then he was able to purchase it himself. Unfortunately the purchase coincided with he start of the COVID pandemic so he has been having some rough times. I grabbed my package and we drove back.

Everyone was still lounging around and Peacock let us know that he would be quitting the trail. We go to lunch to a local place called Ding A Ling Deli. Easily the worst food any of us have ever tasted. The day passes with more conversation and lotion application.

Grabbing some breakfast in the early morning from the nearby gas station, Goose and I planned to hike out at 0700h. Goose didn't charge his electronics the night before so we are held up for two hours before getting back to trail. Saying our goodbyes to Peacock, we finally get moving.

The trail eventually leads us off the paved levee, as we have now completed the east side of Lake Okeechobee, and onto gravel roads. I fill up on water near a lock but half a mile later there is a water cache which I use instead. We pass two other hikers, Pine Needle and Farmboy.

The day proceeds uneventfully until along a road walk a truck pulls over to us. The lady inside asks if we are hungry and we immediately answer in the affirmative. She has two large pieces of bread pudding for each of us! Shortly after that we pass a house and a dog comes bolting towards us barking murder. Goose spins around with his trekking pole and yells 'GET THE FUCK BACK', successfully confusing the dog for a few moments as his owner who was nearby calls it back.

Live oaks

At the very end of the day we finally see the first bit of actual hiking trail since Big Cypress. The area is beautiful, covered is lush palms and live oaks. We camp under a pair of live oaks and my new bug net works perfectly to give me a good night's rest.

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