FIRST ON FOOT

Updated: Sep 12, 2019


Detailing a lengthy and exhausting two days of hikes and swamp tromps. Sunday, September 08, 2019



As one of the first twenty cars to enter into the state park, I took the immediate right towards an empty parking lot that was directly across from the entrance gate. I watched as the vehicles continued to flood in, bicycles adorned. From the parking spot I could see the trailhead with the burnt orange "FT" insignia for the Florida Trail Association's marked paths. They maintain and operate these trails. All of this made me assume I was in the right place for the meetup group going on a hike today.



Yesterday, despite having spent four hours in a park and managing to soak my lower third, ended the day without having made very many footsteps. Today I had hoped to rectify that, by joining with a more adult-themed meetup group that intended on putting down some miles. In that first hike, I did however, get the chance to spend it with a dozen, wild, stick-wielding, animal-catching, motor-mouthed children who were attending a county-sponsored wildlife event.


"Where is the poop? Who has the poop!?"

The "Adventure Awaits" program is one I have been attending for some years now. Its sponsored by the Environmental Resource Management or ERM and consists mostly of birding walks, kayak tours and trail runs. They have been offering kids events and I chose to go to this one in particular because it was in a natural area I've not yet visited. They had staged activities set up for the kids, like microscopes with different flora, fish traps and jars for catching different critters. The fun came in seeing these children leading each other along in the day's different aspects. Some knew quite a lot about the varying ecology of our wetlands and marshy scrub areas.


A few staged items along the trail were set out to grab their attention and serve as talking points and provide environmental information. The parents however, timid of their wild child's antics, feared the worst when they came running back with snake skins, birds nests and even fake scat (animal waste), not knowing it was intended to be found. One lady came running into the crowd exclaiming, "Where.. where... where is the poop? Who has the poop!?" Others, feeling the relief of it only being a "staged" item, say this with assurance out loud and instantly the kids are in on the hoax. "It's not real, its staged," they would go around telling each other as they found things.


Now, needing to up the fun ante, the leader hands out the nets and decides its time to wade out into the water and try our hand at catching minnows! A group activity at first, it inevitably became the release of a dozen kids out into the watery swamps. The sheriff, who was there assisting, walked with myself and three other kids, plus one of their mothers out to a patch of high ground. We trudged through the knee-deep waters and he pointed out different "spoors" or tracks left by wild animals. It could be the knocking down of grasses, holes cut through foliage, tracks along the ground, etc.


We circled the mound and about halfway through a big buck that had been in there hiding took its chance to escape. It went bounding through the water, kicking up its hind quarters high into the air as it went for the next nearest patch of solid ground. And moments before we had set off into the waters, I'd seen a big bald eagle take flight and swoop off into the distant tree line. Those two sightings alone were some of the best big game sightings I've ever had in Florida!



Today, however, I knew I would not be too enveloped in wildlife. I've hiked this park a few times and don't notice much by way of wildlife. There's a lot of foot and bike traffic, campers and such, and its hot, intolerable and predominantly sand scrub terrain makes it difficult for finding, let alone hosting wildlife. There's plenty of it spread across the 11,500 acres (I would cover 11.5% of it today), but its not as easy to to come across as in some of the denser habitats, like oak hammocks (my favorite).


As with most terrains in Florida, the plants and animals had to become especially adapted to fit into the tight, overlapping ecosystems. Due to the harshness of life in the scrub, plants have taken on special properties to avoid being eaten, survive fires and deal with the lack of water and abundance of heat. They are prickly, spiny, often waxy and quite aromatic, containing strong chemicals to make them less appetizing. This waxy coating and curled shape allows them to avoid water evaporation and in turn, provides nourishment for the thicket-loving birds like warblers and jays.


I waited for about twenty minutes for any sign of the meetup group, but I'd clearly put myself in the wrong place. Rather than drive around to find them, I decided I would go off on my own as a solo expedition. Hitting the trail at 0822, the temperatures were already soaring. Already in mid-eighties (31C) with a 65% humidity, we were on the back side of a recent heat wave. Sweat started to pour at an alarming rate.



Traveling along Florida's oldest plant community, the sand scrub, it lead me up towards the observation tower. Delta flower beetles created a roaring hum as they whizzed back and forth. On either side of me, dense thickets of scrub palmettos. When the trail occasionally opens up, patches of prickly pear cacti and tufts of Florida rosemary pop up. In the still shaded, dewy sections cotton-ball size perforated lichens lay about. The native, but invasive love vine wraps itself around most everything. Its dried orange hue looks toxic to the plants pinned beneath its sprawling grasp.



By 0900, the first person to summit the 86 feet of Hobe Mountain was the solo, dog-less, group-less trekker. More of a hill than a mountain, it was created as a natural dune back when sea levels were much higher. Now, it stands as the tallest point south of Lake Okeechobee. I gaze around at the different vistas: the harsh, blinding intracoastal with ocean beyond, the flat horizons in every other direction, with small bumps of elevation in the distances. To the south, the sand scrub continues. To the west, lowland pines segmented by series of water catchment areas. I had considered a long loop that went out and around the lowland pine area, but thought it may be too far. But as often as the stories get told, these are the routes I commonly find myself upon.


Today would be no different...


Lowering myself back down the steps I pause in the shade of the middle level of the tower to spy on a pair of blue jays, seemingly levitating through the air as they move up the bare branches of a sand pine. With the binos, I also spy the railroad tracks, that I would venture towards. It would remerge as my trail guide later on. Behind me, I see a couple park their jeep and start making their way up the boardwalk towards the tower. I exit out through the backside and descended the "mountain" in thirty seconds flat before the tower's second guests could arrive. And so begins the cat and mouse game I play while hiking, of moving in and out of detection. I try to solo into new and unfamiliar spaces, and that often entails a bit of trespassing.


A black racer darts out in front of my crunching footsteps and I pause to watch its long tail slither into the thick grasses never to be seen again. It was as if my requests to see more snakes had been heard! I would go on to see one more racer for the day.


It will all unfold, straight from the soul

By 0930 I was to the train tracks and the sweet smell of cabbage palm berries wafted through the air as I trekked along the loose gravel tracks. I could barely wear my sunglasses due to the amount of sweat pouring off my face. Once off the tracks and onto the trail, the loose, blinding white sands were of no reprieve from the harsh sun.


Let the truth be told, eyes on the goal

You might be asking yourself, why would I be out here torturing myself? Well, the answer is, I am considering doing the Ocean To Lake (OTL) trail and a large portion of that trail system covers terrain similar to this. Actually, I would be walking on a good bit of it today. Granted, I would not undertake this trail in the dead of summer, I still wanted to experiment with how well I fared with longer distances and what sort of things I might encounter along these trails. The OTL is 61 miles that goes through every single imaginable ecosystem the state of Florida has to offer.


Gotta lay my claim over the lake

Up ahead I took to some shade to listen to the shrieking calls of four red shouldered hawks, soaring high up in the air. It actually took me by surprise that the calls I heard were coming from the birds seen circling overhead. I can't say I'd ever seen hawks out in the open and soaring so similarly to the vultures I commonly see in their place. But sure enough, the brown and white banding of coloration from their feathers illuminated brilliantly by the bright sunlight explained everything perfectly.


The trail was tough, so I checked the map periodically to ensure I was not making any wrong moves that would result in having to double back, costing me time and energy. The trail I had looked at previously, the longer, seemingly implausible one now for some reason seemed feasible. I guess I had covered a good amount of ground in a relatively short amount of time so I decided I would go for it. I pushed on, into the pine lowlands, hoping that it would yield a more solid ground and potentially cooler, more shadier environment. I popped two shot bloks (caffeine filled energy chews), attempted to smudge some more sunscreen into the boiling streams of hot sweat coming down my face and set out for the trail head that was a stones throw away.


If I was on my own before, now I am really solo-expeditioning. No bikes, no recent footprints other than one old set and no people I would see, except for possibly on my way out as I got back closer to the heart of the park. As mentioned, I would be covering close to 11.5% of the parks total expanse, most of it within the NE corner.


Put in work and just wait

I finally hit a terrain change, but it didn't last long. The subtle gain in elevation, marked a harder floor bed, and a thickening of the sand pines and sable palms. This meant we were now into the pine lowlands. Tufts of cutthroat grass emerge and start to thicken up along the trail. Its not quite a hammock, which is a stand of trees close enough together so that they touch and provide shade, but it does provide a much easier footing and the occasional tree to lean up against.


Having been following an older set of footprints, with accompanying set of dog tracks, I thought often of Coco and how much he'd enjoy this setting. How wild and alert his senses become, never missing a smell, sound or hole to poke his nose into. His seemingly inexhaustible source of energy. His spirt grows more wild and tangled with the thickening of the vegetation. His eyes lift up, high into the clouds as he watches the birds soaring up above. I truly miss him on every excursion he is not present. I was, however, without his tromping and rummaging noises to distract, able to tune into all different kinds of sounds presenting themselves. The squawks of jays, the throaty calls of grackles, the chicks of red-bellied woodpeckers, the chirps of mockingbirds and the crescendoing buzz of cicadas all reverberating through the air. The fallen and broken pine limbs distracted my eyes. My pace slowed as I got deeper and deeper into the story. I pause to write as the words come to me, but I don't stay long, ensuring I kept a fast enough pace so that no one on foot could catch up to me.


Our twisted limbs will shine on

I cross one more long, winding section of sand scrub with large, meandering ants and finally we were circling a hammock. Unfortunately for me, the trail would not take us into it, but instead, way out and around the northern end of the park for another few miles before curling its way back south. The sun intensified.


A small thrush controlled by a set of blue jays contained a good bit of bird activity. I stopped to survey the scene, but mostly spooked the birds with each move that I made. Near to there I found a delightful bush boasting a bounty of Tallow plums. The ones that had fallen, despite being warm, were perfectly ripe to eat. I popped a couple in my mouth and stuck two more in my shirt pocket for later.


Passing through the tall cutthroat grass sections, it began to wet out along the trail. It was covered from one side to the other, but I managed to either crawl through the high vegetation, using it as a platform or use the tall stumps of scattered bracken ferns to make my way across. It sounded like a flowing river each time I lifted a foot as the water rushed to fill in. This is why it gets its name though, Pine lowlands.


I took a little water over the top of the ankle and into the edges of my socks as I was occasionally testing out depth and footing, but otherwise the gore-tex trail runners were holding up quite well for not getting sopped. I thought again to how little Coco would be holding back in the event of finding water obstacles presenting themselves. He would splash around and come try to intervene as I maneuvered delicately across.


I was through a few of these sections and now gunning it for the Scrub Jay Campsite I'd seen on the map. It was nearing peak temperatures and I was ready for a break to rest and refuel. It was also about the mid-way point in the trail, but I still had a long meandering section afterwards to get through.


The marks of my predecessor continued on in the spoors of trampled grasses, following a similar intention of wanting to avoid the deep water. After taking one over the ankle, I gave up on this tactic and started marching through it, Coco-style.



I came up to the trail leading over to the campsite and I was shocked to see a complete stream running down the trailhead! I laughed and actually waded into it a bit just to get a sense for how much water was moving through there. A lot! So, I needed a new option. Leaning on the occasional slash pine to sip water and rest (write) was not cutting it. I needed shade where I could lay down and dry out. Back onto the scrub trail, I was forced to take whatever I could get. (Temps: 91º F // Heat index: 103º F)


I was invariably realizing why the OTL trail was not conducted during these months. Sure you had access to water, but too much of it! Also the heat. The intolerable, sweltering, sweat-sucking heat. It felt so good to lay down and stretch my feet out. My feet were wrinkled and I had plenty of time to let things dry out. I checked my water levels and was pleasantly surprised to see I'd only consumed half (1L) of my water thus far. I drew on the mouthpiece for a few long, much needed gulps of water.



This spot of shade would have to do

Finally able to give my feet a break

Forgot I had these in my pocket!!



THE LOX ENDS HERE


The final four miles were an all out assault. Driving hard, my breathes were hard and rhythmic. I made a few stops, but only very quickly. Passing by the northern tip of the Loxahatchee, I was back amongst the park-goers. Instead of walking the final distances along the park road, I hopped back onto the FT straightaway and dug back into the harsh, sand trail... yikes! It made sure to let me know where all the aches and sore spots were. Another endless amount of flooded out trail sections and I had to give up. I was so tired and frustrated with crawling through dense vegetation trying to reach dry land and save soaking my feet once again, that I doubled back a mile or so to where I had seen a clear path to the train tracks. I push through the scrub over to its rocky, sun-beaten tracks and let it guide me down the corridor once again. At least there were no rumbling muscle cars or diesel truck fumes. I even found some odd tucked to the sides of the tracks. Wonder how they got there?




I venture back off the tracks and into the park trails once again. Now conjoined with the off-road bicycle course it would take me up the final lengths towards the entrance. With each subtle rise in elevation I knew I was getting closer. I had sucked down my last sips of water, so it was do or die now. I made a massive push at the end, running up the loose sand hills to reach the start of the trail head. Completed! 1358 // 12 miles I went for some quarters from the truck to grab an ice cold soda from the ranger station. Inside I chatted with the gang a bit. Told them where all I'd gone today and they said, "Ohhh wow! We hadn't been able to get over there to the campsite... Our trucks wont get through it's so bogged down." I showed them the video of the water flow coming out from the trailhead and they laughed saying they wished that mister who wouldn't listen and wanted to camp on it would have gone out there for himself. They thanked me for the info so they could say with certainty it wasn't accessible.



When I say, "going into uncharted territory," I truly mean going out as far as I am prepared to go. Often further, in the case of today and most trail days. Like all those times prior, I unknowingly set out to test myself. Pushing further into the places where doubt, frustration and feelings of quit reside. How I handle myself along the un-even surfaces, stumbling through the steps while losing the motivation. See where my mind goes and hold onto these lessons for the next trip, the next venture out. Some learnings get overlooked, maybe forgotten entirely if I didn't get the chance to write them down, while others go directly into the catalogue of my hiking evolution.


I wonder when it was first discovered that I could walk across the top of plant roots to save soaking my feet in the wetlands? Or how I can reinvigorate the mind, during an endless crossing of rough, unexpected terrain? Today I learned a great practice to solidify the mind, while encountering those long, dull stretches. I tried horse braiding a piece of the cutthroat grass and it gave me the realization: Pick up a piece of nature, whether it be a rock, leaf or flower and hold it in your hand. Whatever interests you.


Take it in... Study it... Give it your attention


Don't miss the markers along the way, obviously, but allow it enough presence in your mind and chunks of the trail will get covered without your noticing it. Some things, like polished river stones are quite meditative and all the while, this object is doing the very thing you set out to do: practicing the nature connection. Thanks for reading!


Nature will bear the closest inspection. She invites us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain. {Henry David Thoreau}

Written from the trail. Edited during the long-awaited, post-hike eatery. {mandog}





"Songs, I think, have to be anatomically correct. I always believed you gotta put a change of clothes in there, you have to put the names of towns and its good to put something to eat in there as well. And some weather. You just never know, because folks, you send them out there and people take those songs and they do things with them. And they need to have... it's like a Swiss army knife." {TOM WAITS}



#nature #hiking #mindfulness #trailrunning

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