Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Day 12: River Ranch to Second Bifurcation (Orlando)

Jan. 18, 2017

Today was my last day hiking -- for now -- on the Florida Trail. I'm anxious to get back home, but also sad to leave. It's so wonderful to be out in nature every day, and to see beautiful sights and meet great folks.

Yesterday Nails, Dirty Dog and Minute strongly advised getting a shuttle from River Ranch to the start of the next off-road trail segment, Three Lakes. There's a 5-mile road route along busy Hwy. 60 between the two, and they said it was too dangerous. After hiking the uber-busy Hwy. 70 out of Okeechobee, I wasn't keen on another death-defying highway hike. So I drove myself to the Three Lakes area and parked in some hunting campground. The hunting season is over, so there were just a bunch of empty trailers there.

I had originally planned to hike the 16-ish miles of trail here, then have Dee pick me up and shuttle me to my car. But she had a busy schedule today and didn't seem all that reliable, so I figured I'd hike halfway out and then back. Well, the first half or more of this trail was terrible! First you're walking a mile or so on that gray, loamy soil I've mentioned before -- and it's so difficult. Then the trail went into tall grasses, which would have been really cool if the path was maintained. But it wasn't, so it was difficult to find the path at times and all of the vegetation was clawing at you. Even when the trail slipped into small pockets of woods -- normally my favorite -- it wasn't nice because there were SO MANY spider webs! Ick. They kept wrapping themselves over my face and neck. Those are just gross.

As I was tackling these hard miles, I thought there's no way I'm backtracking through this crap. Luckily the trail kept crossing this main gravel road, so I planned to walk back on the road instead. But then I decided to post on Facebook looking for a shuttle back so I could complete this segment and be done with it. I didn't want it hanging over my head to finish when I return. This nice guy I met at the kick-off, Trucker Bob, offered to get me, even though he lives north of Orlando, more than an hour away. (His daughter, Julie, was the one who helped me hang my hammock the first night.)

I finished the trail at 2:45 and had a few hours to wait until Trucker Bob arrived. Suddenly a truck pulled onto the park road so I flagged it down and asked some innocuous question -- just to judge if the people looked safe or not. They did, so I asked if they could give me a ride back to my car, or at least part-way down the park road. I didn't want Trucker Bob to have to drive so far if someone right here could shuttle me. They said sure, so I hopped in Mike and Mary's truck. They told me they were taking this road as a scenic detour to get to Hwy. 60, and showed me this eagle's nest they like to scope out.

After just a few miles the road was blocked by a gate, though. A park employee was there and told them they couldn't continue on to Hwy. 60 for a few more weeks; the gate was staying closed until then. I think it had something to do with hunting. Mike and Mary were willing to drive me all the way around on the highways to my car, but I asked the park lady if she could help get me back. She said yes, so I bid Mike and Mary good-bye and rode a few more miles with the park employee. I had her drop me off when I saw Duck hiking. I knew I had enough daylight hours to make it back to the car and wanted to bid him adieu.

Duck and I chatted a bit and exchanged war stories about this section of the trail. Then we took one more selfie together, and I encouraged him to hike the Ice Age Trail next. After that, we went our separate ways. I reached my car around 5:30 and did the tally: I've put the first 260 miles of the 1,100-mile Florida Trail behind me. Now I just have to figure out when I'll return ...

Stay tuned!


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Day 11: Kissimmee Prairie Preserve to River Ranch

Jan. 17, 2017

Today was a loooong day. Got up early to shuttle Late Start past a bad detour that required highway walking, then took Moon Shadow to the rental car office to pick up a car. Her knee just isn't getting better, so she's going to her sister's for a few weeks and seeing a doctor there. Moon Shadow then followed me up to Yeehaw Junction (love that name!), where I dropped my car. She then shuttled me to Kissimmee Prairie Preserve. So a lot of shuttling going on, but that's part of long-distance hiking.

I started hiking at 9:45 a.m. It was already warm, and the forecast was for a high in the mid-80s. The first part was through very similar prairie lands to those I'd seen yesterday. I have to say, it was pretty cool. Here in Wisconsin we have prairie, but it's rolling prairie. Florida is flat, and so you could look out over vast sections of the prairie. The skies here also have a lot of interesting clouds, so the overall scene was quite appealing.

There were two water crossings today, one ankle-deep and one calf-deep. I ran into three trail volunteers, Nails, Minute and Dirty Dog. They were re-blazing portions of the trail. Nails and Dirty Dog had done the Camino, so we talked about that for a bit.

The famous lock crossing was today. Hikers must notify the government when they plan to cross the lock at least a week beforehand to ensure a lock master is available. I got to the lock and pressed some air horn, per the instructions, and then Missy the lock mistress walked over. She unlocked the gate and let me through, then asked if I wanted cold water, bandages, etc. How nice! I took some cold water. Then she walked me across the actual lock, which entailed unlocking a lot of small gates. You exit the lock into a large cattle pasture, so once again you need to keep an eye out for cow pies.

From here there was a beautiful, long walk that alternated between crushed gravel paths and little dips in and out of the woods, palmetto, etc. It was quite scenic, although the heat made it tiring. I got to see my first armadillo, which was fun.

At the end of the day I was trying to reach my Air BnB hostess, Dee, who was going to pick me up and shuttle me back to my car in Yeehaw Junction before heading to her home, where I reserved a room. But Dee got everything mixed up -- she thought I was coming tomorrow, for one thing -- plus was running nearly an hour behind. By this time I'd finished hiking and was soaked with sweat, then getting chilled because it was the end of the day. I didn't want to wait another hour. Luckily I ran into Minute and Dirty Dog, who were going to pick up a vehicle and then head home -- right past Yeehaw Junction, so they gave me a lift. Trail folks are so nice!

Monday, January 16, 2017

Day 10: Starvation Slough to Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park

This morning at my motel, one of the employees saw me prepare a large waffle with lots of whipped cream. She said, "How are you going to work THAT off today?" I said I was hiking the Florida Trail. (So there!) :)

I picked up Moon Shadow at our usual 7:30 a.m., and we drove to Starvation Slough, where I'd ended yesterday. Duck was already gone, as I'd suspected. So I started off alone. The first two hours were wonderful. The air was still cool and the trail/scenery was gorgeous -- lots of palmetto, trees with Spanish moss and burnished grasses. The ground was interesting. The soil was some kind of gray loam. In certain areas it was all torn up, as if a tractor or plow had gone through. But a few feet later, it would be covered with grass. Odd. It was a little hard to walk on, as it was so lumpy and bumpy.

Mid- to late morning the trail became singletrack and tucked alongside a barbed wire fence (private property). This was difficult because the fence was on the right and to the left was a drop-off to a canal below. The footing was still lumpy-bumpy and I was afraid I'd stumble into the fence. Or the canal; I saw an alligator splash in. Luckily I was O.K., but the going was slow. Then, toward the end, the brush was very overgrown and there were some thorny plants in there that really attacked my lower legs. Luckily I had compression socks on, but it still hurt.

From here the trail wound about 10 miles through the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. For the majority of the time you followed a wide, sandy service road. The views were pretty, although you typically had 2-3 miles of the same view before something changed. It was hard walking in the sand, too. But it definitely was nice to be on trails all day.

Oh -- I've been meaning to note that there are lots of snails around. I saw a ton of shells by the barbed wire fence/canal today, but they've been along the trail since the start. I also saw my fifth turtle. And three raccoons scrambled up a tree as I went past. I thought they were nocturnal, and if you saw them during the day they were rabid or something. But here they seem to be out during the day.

Funny raccoon story from a few days ago: When Judy and I were packing up her car to leave the chickee at Billie Swamp Safari, an animal scampered near my feet when I was putting something in her trunk. I screamed, and it dropped something -- Judy's prescription sunglasses in their case! We looked around her car, and saw a ton of muddy pawprints in the back seat! We figured the raccoon was rooting around in there while we were in the chickee, grabbing our bags. And then it reached into her purse and pulled out those sunglasses. Ha!

Back to today. Moon Shadow met me at the park office, and we drove back to Okeechobee. Tonight I did laundry and made preparations for my last two days on the trail.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Day 9: Platts Bluff Boat Launch to Starvation Slough

I'm finally caught up on this blog, so the dates match. Yes, it's Jan. 15, 2017 today.

Poor Moon Shadow. Her knee just isn't healing well, so she's decided to go to her sister's house for a few weeks and rejoin her hiking partner, Late Start, at a further date. But for now she's still here and shuttling me. So today she drove me back to Platts Bluff Boat Launch, which is really a pretty little trail. Finally -- FINALLY! -- I had some great hiking. The swamp was wonderful, but I've been on levees and road walks for days now. The levees are pretty, but pretty much all the same. And road walks are never the best. So today was beautiful trails.

The first section was through some gorgeous woods. Well, I'm not sure what the term is down here, as they weren't really woods but a combination of trees and south Florida vegetation. But it was all beautiful. And there was something very fragrant -- perhaps wild dill? -- that made everything even lovelier.

The next trail section took me through a cattle pasture. There are loads of cattle farms down here, by the way. Sort of makes me think of Texas. The pasture wasn't a typical open, flat pasture as you'd see back home in Wisconsin, but a field of trees and vegetation. So you can't see the boundaries or across it or even where the cattle are. You just had to follow the blazes with one eye and watch out for cow pies with the other. It was sort of like trying to pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time.

Had a short road walk after that, then crossed a stile with a note saying if there was high water in the Kissimmee River, hikers should take the road. Well, how do you know if there's high water in the river if you can't see it yet? Actually, I did know it was totally dry from someone's FB post. So I crossed over the stile and spent several miles walking through various landscapes, from forest to field to more cattle pasture. At the end, Mike Gormley had left several gallon jugs of water for hikers. He is just the nicest guy.

The day ended with 10 miles of road walking. Not too fun, but at least no one was on the roads. With just a few miles left I ran into Duck, another hiker. He said I was the first hiker he'd seen since he left Big Cypress Jan. 6. Wow. We both were wearing blaze orange shirts and hats, which was funny. He said some guy had pulled over and told him his hiking partner was a little ways behind. He didn't know what that meant, but when he saw me he figured the guy must have thought we were partners because we were dressed alike.

Oh -- some people worried about me hiking down here due to the "dangerous folks" in Florida. Today four men in pick-up trucks stopped. The first man saw me being threatened by a dog and offered to drive me up the road. I declined, but when the dog started coming after me again he drove his truck at it, beeping, and didn't leave until I was safely far away. How kind! The next guy commended me on my hike, and the final two offered me water. Most people are good people.

Tonight Moon Shadow and I drove back south of Okeechobee to pick up Late Start, her hiking partner. Then I settled in my motel room and watched the Pack beat the Cowboys. YES!

Day 8: Indian Prairie Canal to Platts Bluff Boat Launch

Jan. 14, 2017

Moon Shadow dropped me off this morning at Indian Prairie Canal (I picked up a rental car last night) and I continued on the levees for about 10 miles. At 9:30 a.m. I ran into four people and two air boats up on the levee. What the heck?! Turns out they were boating for the day and taking a break. The air boat propellers can push the boats up on land, and there's a protective coating underneath so the hulls don't get ruined. So they were just chilling out on the levee (and drinking beer already!).

The levee trail ends at Buckhead Ridge and is supposed to continue along another levee. But it's under construction and there's a road-walk detour. The detour is 6 miles longer than the real trail, so I had Moon Shadow shuttle me up the road 6 miles. It was dangerous highway walking anyway.

Six miles up the road put me in the middle of Okeechobee. There are a lot of Snowbirds here, as there probably are in most parts of Florida, and they're easy to spot. I ran into a bunch of them when I stopped in at Dairy Queen for a cone.

I didn't mind walking through the town at all, but the detour then takes you 7 miles west along Highway 70 before rejoining the trail. Well, Highway 70 was a nightmare. The speed limit is 60 mph and the traffic was consistently going way over that. In addition people were passing recklessly and the traffic was incessant. I counted for a mile and there were one to 10 cars passing me every 5 seconds. The longest break between cars whizzing by was 30 seconds. One guy purposely drove right down the white line at me, and many people waved at me to get off the road. This should not be a detour route! I did have one nice couple stop and ask if they could give me a ride. The woman had done the AT before and recognized me as a distance hiker. They pulled over when I only had a half-mile left of the highway, so I thanked them but passed. It was sure nice of them, though.

Once I got off Highway 70 things were fine. I was on another road route for the final miles of the day, but at least few cars were on the road and it was peaceful. This was a day I'm glad to put behind me.

Day 7: North of Clewiston to Indian Prairie Canal

Jan. 13, 2017

I took a cab from my motel in Clewiston to the spot where I left off on the detour yesterday. Trail angel Mike Gormley is going to pick up my bags from the motel later today, then grab me at Indian Prairie Canal and take me to a car rental place in Okeechobee. What a nice guy!

The day began sunny and cool, which was nice. I walked just a few miles on a county road and then a larger highway before entering Moore Haven, a nice little town. There was a coffee shop with a giant rocking chair outside and a sign proclaiming, "We are awesome!" I would have stopped in for a latte and asked someone to take my photo in the chair if I hadn't just eaten an enormous breakfast at my motel.

I had about 10 miles to hike on Highway 78 before the detour ended and slipped me back on the levee. There were lots of semis going by, but it wasn't too bad. When I hit the levee some clouds moved in -- yay! It was nice not to be under the broiling sun all the time.

The levees/canals here were different in that there was a lot of boating traffic on the canals. I passed one lock linking the canal with Lake Okeechobee, which you could barely see, as a lot of land and vegetation separated the two. Rats. I thought the levees were pretty much right next to the lake. On the far side of the canal were lots of homes set perpendicular to the canal and with little watery "streets" in between so people could just hop in their boats, head down their "street" and into the canal. It was pretty cool.

The levee ranged from crushed limestone to grass/scruff to blacktop. There were occasional benches, which was nice for backpackers/hikers. Lots of birds here, too. At one point a huge flock of turkey vultures was on the path ahead of me. The group kept lazily flying up and ahead a few feet, then settling back down until they realized I was coming again. This repeated itself about a half-dozen times before they realized it was smarter to leave the area.

I ended the day where the levee curved back to the highway. When Mike picked me up I had a surprise: Edna/Moon Shadow was with him! Her knee was still sore, so she was moving up to Okeechobee in the hopes that by the time her hiking partner, Barb, reached this city she would be ready to hike.

Moon Shadow's presence was great for both of us because it solved two problems. I needed shuttles the next three days, and Mike could provide two of them but not all three. He'd be traveling from Sebring, a fair distance away, to help me. Moon Shadow was going crazy sitting in hotel rooms all day. The solution: Mike can stay home and Moon Shadow can shuttle me to/from the trail every day, which gives her something to do, helps me and helps Mike.

Tonight I ordered a large Domino's pizza and ate half of it all by myself. No regrets. I was starving and I'm probably not eating as much as I should all day. It's so hot I'm mostly drinking water (about a gallon a day).

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Day 6: South of Clewiston to Northwest of Clewiston

Jan. 12, 2017

Today was tough. Mentally and physically. Judy and I had stayed at a Clewiston motel last night; she drove me a bit south of town to get started. Then she left for home and I was alone on the trail, carrying about 10 pounds of water in my pack. My first 4.8 miles were along another levee. But today the footing was scruffy, the sun was in my eyes the entire way and I walked into a headwind. So those miles were unpleasant.

After exiting the levee I had a few miles on crushed gravel that were O.K., but then I hit a 10-ish mile road walk into Clewiston. Normally the trail goes up to a levee around Lake Okeechobee, but the Army Corps of Engineers is re-doing the levee so the path is closed. Thus this road re-route. It was hot and sunny today, with the trail in full sun, and I could literally feel my flesh burning, despite reapplying sunscreen many times.

The one pleasant spot came when I entered Clewiston and spotted a sign for homemade ice cream in a convenience store. I had planned to get a soft-serve cone at McDonald's when I passed by, but this was much better. The ice cream was great. I also ran into hiker Lt. Dan here. Later, as the detour led me through Clewiston, I passed Ninja Tortoise on the sidewalk, so we stopped to chat.

At night I picked up some food at Wal-Mart for dinner. The clerk was really interested in my backpack, trekking poles, the trail, etc. It was kind of cute.

I think I've decided on a new trail name to replace Valderi, which no one understands. It's Snowshoe. This name is a reference to my home in the Great White North, plus it's also appropos because one of the reasons I'm stopping on the FL Trail when I am is to compete in my son's Snowshoe Beer Mile in Eau Claire next weekend. I'll ponder it a bit more, but I do think this is the new trail name for me.

Day 5: Deer Fence Canal to south of Clewiston

Jan. 11, 2017

This morning we had a whole table full of hikers at the Billie Swamp Cafe. Judy was getting into it! I said I felt I had to change my trail name since almost no one knew the name "Valderi" nor the song "The Happy Wanderer" from whence it came. Eagle Eye said I should be Ice Age because of my love of the IAT. That sounded too cold. She then suggested Ice. I said I'd ponder it. Meanwhile, Kathy was also wanting to change trail names. She started with the Greek name "Sisyphus," but similarly no one knew who that was. Plus, I told her, it sounded like "syphilis." So she went with Scout, but decided that was too common. So for now we've both Valderi and Scout, but wanting to change our names.

I again ordered the pancakes with strawberries and whipped cream, but Pam, our server, brought them out sans whipped cream. I reminded her what was missing, and she came back with a whipped cream bag and carefully put one dollop on top. Ahem, I said, yesterday I got three blobs. So she put three on. We all cracked up.

But enough of that, it was time to hike! Judy drove me back to the spot where I left off and joined me for the first 40 minutes. We had a lovely time chatting and taking in the sparkling blue canal and wildlife. She turned around, drove the car ahead, and again walked back toward me. This stretch was 13.1 miles and took much of the day.

The last part was 7 miles on another levee, but instead of being crushed limestone it was ankle-high scrub. Not too difficult to walk in, but it definitely slowed the pace. During the day I made two water drops for Beerman.

While I was hiking this last stretch, Judy got a call from Moon Shadow/Edna, the woman who hurt her ankle on the levee the other day. She was now in Clewiston, in a hotel, recuperating and waiting for her hiking partner to reach her. She had learned we were going to be in town tonight with a car and asked if we could take her to Wal-Mart to pick up supplies and her prescription. No problem, as I wanted to go to Wal-Mart, too.

So we picked up Edna, a lovely woman, and I got to have my first scooter ride! (I had to bring the scooter out to the curb so she could hop on and not have to walk into the store and to the pharmacy.)

That night we got back to our room pretty late, and just ate take-out. Still, it was a wonderful day.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Day 4: Billie Swamp Safari to Deer Fence Canal

Jan. 10, 2017

It was cold out last night, and cold in our little chickee, which isn't heated and has screens, not windows. I put my sleeping bag on top of the light blanket that was provided and fared well, but poor Judy was pretty frigid. We filled up on a hearty breakfast of pancakes with strawberries and whipped cream, then set off.

The trail here leaves Billie Swamp and winds through an adjacent town, then along a highway for about 10 miles. After that, you're taken up on levees that run along the area's extensive canal system. I did a little jogging with my hiking to get the road miles over as quickly as possible. It didn't help that there was a head wind, too.

Met a nice hiker named Lt. Dan; boy, could he hike fast! Ran into another hiker I dubbed Mr. Know-It-All because apparently Dan and I missed a blaze and should have gotten off of the highway at one point and onto an adjacent gravel path. Mr. Know-It-All kept showing me where I went wrong on his map, and at one point said condescendingly, "You DO know you're supposed to be following the orange blazes, don't you?" He wouldn't let me get a word in edgewise, so I finally said, "Well, if you would LISTEN a minute, I'm telling you that I simply missed the blaze, and that my map shows the route along the highway." He left in an huff.

The levee walk was flat and pleasant. There are so many beautiful birds here. Great blue herons and egrets, plus a whole bunch of others that I can't identify. But they're all over the canal. The only downside is that you're out in the open sun.

Judy met me where the levee crosses Deer Fence Road. She said a woman named Edna/Moon Shadow had been hiking with a friend and was having knee problems and so the EMTs came and took her away. Oh no!

We made it back to Billie Swamp in time to take an airboat ride (think "Gentle Ben") around the swamp. That was fun and beautiful as well. The boat operator spent a lot of time telling us how alligators aren't vicious at all, don't go after humans, etc. Then, when we said we were hiking the Florida Trail, he said, "I'd never do that without a gun and a dog." Huh.

Tonight wasn't so cold in our chickee.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Day 3: Oak Hill Camp to Billie Swamp Safari

Monday, Jan. 9

My friend, Judy, was scheduled to meet me today at I-75, where hikers emerge after the swamp. I'd told her to meet me at 10-11 a.m., based on me hiking out of Ivy Camp. But our group had stopped earlier at Oak Hill Camp the previous night, so I knew I'd be a little late. No problem, I thought. I can make up a lot of time once I hit Ivy Camp, as all of the intel we had said the swamp pretty much ends at Ivy Camp.

Boxcar, Pyrite and I headed out of camp early today, leaving the rest of the gang to follow. It's four miles to Ivy Camp, so we thought we just had four miles of swamp left. The day was beautiful and sunny, and we slowly made our way through the swamp. It's hard work, but gosh is the scenery beautiful. By the time we reached Ivy, we were all spent. We were hiking about 45 minutes/mile again. The guys decided to take a long break here, but I was anxious to move on since I knew Judy was waiting. I took a 5-minute break and then plunged back in, expecting the swamp to quickly dry up.

It didn't.

Basically, I had another 1.5-2 miles of swamp to go through, then lots of really deep mud that was possibly even harder to negotiate. So much of long-distance hiking is mental, and facing those conditions when you think you'll be on dry land was very disheartening. I thought I'd never reach I-75. Of course, I did. And when I did, I realized I'd hiked through part of the swamp solo. I'd been so afraid before to be in there alone, but I was just fine.

Judy planned to hike with me a few miles once I emerged, then hike back to her car and drive to Billie Swamp Safari, our lodging for the night, then hike back in to meet me. Well, we hiked only 5 minutes or so on the trail north of I-75 when she spotted a huge alligator sitting on the side of the road. Its snout was almost touching the trail. She didn't want to continue on, mainly because she didn't want to have to pass it later, alone. So she turned around and I scooted past. A few minutes later I saw a coral snake slither across the path. Yikes! That was the extent of the excitement, thank goodness.

Judy met me coming into Billie Swamp Safari (a multi-purpose entertainment venue with primitive sleeping accommodations), and we settled into our "chickee," a traditional home once used by the Seminole. The best part for me: A SHOWER! Real, cooked food in the cafe was pretty sweet, too.