Wednesday, January 29, 2020

FT Part 2: Lake Okeechobee to Orlando

"This is what I've been waiting for".

I think I said it out loud upon entering the woods. After 180 miles of mostly roadwalking, much of it paved, I finally entered the forest, and immediately the Florida Trail fulfilled its promise. On most trails, the forested sections are the boring part, and I enjoy it more when I emerge from the trees and come to a vista or pop above treeline. Forests change slowly, over the course of hundreds of miles, and the result is monotony.

On the Florida Trail, it's the exact opposite. When I'm not in the woods, I'm often in civilization, surrounded by strip malls and angry people yelling at their speakerphones. And when not in civilization, I'm walking across endless levee systems or trudging through wet, muddy marshes. But the woods are special. I enter an environment reminiscent of a fairy-tale enchanted forest. The forests are incredibly varied - oak here, pine over there, cypress just a little bit yonder. The trees spread overhead, branches interlocking into one hammock-like canopy. It really is a green tunnel, but it's far from boring. Walking is pleasant and easy, the plants are constantly changing, and the canopy offers shade from the intense sun. Forests? I'll take 'em!

Feet Falling Off: This trail has been murder on feet. I've seen more people sidelined with foot issues - from infected blisters to stress fractures - than on any other trail (with the possible exception of the AT, where everybody's a rookie). It's easy to see a trail that's dead flat, 3mph walking almost the entire time, and assume it's going to be easy. It's just not so. The limiting factor on the Florida Trail is not muscular strength, cardiovascular fitness, or backpacking know-how. Instead, it's repetitive stress. On a flat trail like this one, you step exactly the same way, over and over, tens of thousands of times per day. Woe to those whose feet aren't toughened up to take the pounding! They may have busted out twenty-mile days a few years ago on the AT, but unless they've keep it up between then and now, they're in for an unpleasant surprise.

Lest I let myself off the hook though, I too am definitely guilty of crimes against my feet. In particular, I started the trail with a pair of old, worn-out shoes. I decided to go through the first 30 miles of swamp in old shoes, which would certainly get torn up, and then replace them afterward. Solid plan, until you realize that "afterward" wasn't until the  230-mile mark. So, for the first couple weeks of my hike, I was walking on largely hard surfaces with a pair of shoes that was almost completely worn through. By the end of each day, my feet hurt so badly that I had to sit down several times in the last few miles before camp (when I'd otherwise be a man on a mission to get there) just to give them a break. Once I picked up my maildrop and switched to new shoes, the problems evaporated instantly.

So, for the 427th time, don't go cheap on shoes. Don't try to wear them after they've worn out their welcome. And if you think I'm preaching mostly to myself here, you're right.

Billy Goat Day: I recently took a couple days off to attend Billy Goat Day, an annual Florida Trail get-together. It ostensibly celebrates the birthday of the legendary Billy Goat, who's hiked something like 50,000 miles (many of them on the FT) since he retired twenty years ago. Now north of 80 years old, he's still going strong. Really though, it's a convenient excuse to get everybody together - thru-hikers, section hikers, trail angels, and related hangers-on - for a big shindig. It's a potluck, held at a park in a somewhat central location. The trail was abuzz for weeks with talk of Billy Goat Day and how everybody was getting there. Trail angels did a marvelous job of picking up folks wherever they were along the trail and bringing them to the celebration.

I tend to be a bit skeptical of trail get-togethers - I'd rather hike that sit around talking about hiking - but this one was a lot of fun. In addition to Billy Goat himself, there was a whole host of hikers with a ton of experience, and it was good to pick their brains and make friends. Oh, and there was an outrageous amount of food, which didn't hurt either.

A Buffet of Surfaces: After Lake Okeechobee, the trail dove mostly into the woods for a long period of time. I also walked through sunbaked prairies along the Kissimmee River, slogged through some deep sand, and contended with my least favorite type of terrain on this trail - grassy areas that have been torn up by hogs rooting around. It's really the only type of terrain that really slows you down on this trail. It's mentally taxing - imagine trying to walk on a giant, human-sized egg carton for hours on end and you'll start to get the idea.

Through the Orlando area, it's been a strange mix of incredible forest walks - the best on the trail thus far - and long stretches of unpleasant pavement with high-speed traffic. 

Sometimes the orange blazes are in unlikely places
What's next: Ocala National Forest awaits, one of the highlights of the FT according to pretty much everybody. I don't really know what to expect from it, but I'm hopeful it's going to be more in the "pretty forests and rivers" bucket, and less in the "high speed traffic" bucket.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

FT Part 1: Big Cypress to Lake Okeechobee

Well, that was jarring.

In early January, I boarded an airplane in the frozen upper Midwest and three hours later, landed in southern Florida. Since then, the temperature has never dropped below 70F, even in the middle of the night. I've only been on trail for a week, and I already feel grosser than ever before in my life. The tropics of South Florida are sticky, slimy, almost saccharine. What a wonderful climate to be a bacterium!

Calf-sucking Mud: On January 8, my good buddy Blue Moon dropped my off at a visitor center in Big Cypress National Preserve that marks the southern terminus of the Florida Trail. The FT doesn't go quite to the southern tip of mainland Florida, but only because that's all Everglades country, which definitely blurs the line between "land" and "water. And after all, who in their right mind would hike through a swamp?

You. You would. At least if you were hiking the Florida Trail. While Big Cypress may not be named "Everglades", it's very much still the same ecosystem. As such, there's a ten-mile stretch within the first couple days that is described (with more than a twinge of exaggeration) as "the toughest stretch of wilderness hiking anywhere in the United States". While I tend to think that whoever penned that statement needs to get out and do a lot more hiking, there's no doubt that it's difficult travel.

The entire stretch is underwater. I found the areas of deepest water to make for the easiest travel. While splashing through knee-deep water around trees and logs and roots isn't exactly quick, it's definitely preferable to the thick, gloppy, shoe-sucking mud that the shallower water is paired with. Extracting my foot after each step became a chore. Imagine hiking with 30-pound weights strapped to each foot. Yeah, good times.

But while it's easy to complain about swamp-sloshing, it was a really unique experience and one that I'll remember for a long time. Florida doesn't have any mountains - or even major hills, really - but the swamps make for a roughly equivalent obstacle. Big Cypress is reputedly the longest and toughest swamp section, but it sounds like there's a few more along the way to contend with.

Canals: After leaving Big Cypress behind, I traveled across a vast area of mostly farmland. That farmland is still in the swampy everglades ecosystem though, and stays dry enough to cultivate only through a massive waterworks project involving dozens (hundreds?) of canals and pumping stations. I walked for days atop dikes bordering canals. At one point, I walked due north for twenty miles, perfectly flat, perfectly straight. Progress is quick when everything you encounter is 3 mph terrain!

That easy walking atop the dikes does come with a couple downsides though. First, there's not a lick of shade to be found. As mentioned, South Florida has seen record high temperatures (85-90F) for much of the past week, and combined with lower-latitude sun intensity and 100% humidity, the result has been sweltering. Second, there's water everywhere, but it's all agricultural runoff - full of pesticides and who-knows-what. While it's certainly not the worst water I've ever drunk, it's certainly to be avoided if possible.

Caches: Thankfully, it's been pretty easy to avoid canal water thus far. There have been somewhat frequent outposts of civilization (towns, country stores, freeway rest areas) along the way where I can water up. In addition, the Florida Trail has a robust network of trail angels and supporters who have helpfully cached water at convenient spots along the way. Water caches as a rule cannot be considered reliable (and indeed, one of them was dry and another had only one gallon left), but it's always nice to draw nice clear water from a jug rather than ginger ale from alligator-laden ditches.

Oh, speaking of gators, I've probably seen at least a hundred, mostly laying in wait in canals or along the banks. As long as you stay comfortably above/away from them, up on the dikes, they're really no concern at all. But wow, have I seen some whoppers!

A friend remarked a while back that if we want to see the CDT completed, we should really rename it the "New Mexico Trail". All the state-specific trails that I've hiked thus far (Arizona Trail, Colorado Trail, Florida Trail, the exception being the mostly-imaginary Idaho Centennial Trail) have excellent networks of volunteers and a lot of civic pride behind the trail-building and maintenance efforts. It's really cool to see locals throwing themselves into a project and obviously taking a lot of pride in it. Go Floridians!

What's Next: Walking around the perimeter of Lake Okeechobee at the moment (which claims to be the second largest lake entirely within the United States - which okay, whatever. You're still not a Great Lake). That's all on pavement, which is unfortunate as my shoes are pretty close to dead and offer no cushion anymore. Then things get a little more remote for a while.