Monday, February 28, 2011 – Finished FT 2/23, working hard to finish AZT to GDT planning

Check out the final photos from Florida here, videos here, and my location updates here

About an hour after sunrise on February 23rd, I reached the northern terminus of the Florida Trail. There wasn’t much there: a FT trail marker, a trail kiosk describing the trail, and a parking lot for visitors to Fort Pickens. I couldn’t find anything officially describing it as the northern terminus of the trail but after triple-checking my databook and maps, I decided it was. When I finished the PCT last year it was surprisingly anti-climactic. Finishing the FT felt even less climactic: no monument and no friends or family to greet me. All I had at the finish was the 1,130 miles/41 days of hiking behind me and the relief that I was done with the Florida Trail.

The Florida Trail had sections that I really enjoyed hiking through. To name a few: Big Cypress, Kissimmee River, Ocala Ntl. Forest, the Suwannee River, the Aucilla River, St Marks, and Bradwell Bay. But these sections were connected by roads, bike paths, dikes and trails that passed through monotonous scenery and suburban sprawl. Some of these areas I can see being improved in the future to the point where they’re worthy of their National Scenic Trail designation, others I can’t. No matter how much work is put into some sections of the Florida Trail, you just can’t polish a turd.

So, is calling the Florida Trail a “National Scenic Trail” being generous? Yes. But that’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy my thru-hike. There were some really interesting areas along the trail that weren’t like anywhere I’d hiked before.  It got me into great shape for my next hike (I averaged 33 miles/day over the last 11 days) and it confirmed that I can enjoy hiking even when I’m not in a world class location like the Sierras. I wouldn’t recommend thru-hiking the Florida Trail for everyone, but it worked for me.

I’m planning to start the AZT to GDT on approximately March 20th. In the meantime, I’ll be holed up at home in Portland, OR: hammering out the final details of the trip, packing 6 months of food into resupply boxes, and bingeing on all the comforts of civilization. I’m leaving Portland on March 11th to spend some time in California and visit friends – before then I’ll update the homepage here to make following my hike on the AZT to GDT easier.

Saturday, February 5, 2011 – Update from the halfway point

Quick update before I head back to the trail: I spent last night in Gainesville with some old (as in, we go way back) friends. Got showered, laundered, fed, and socialized. I was originally planning to push on to Lake Butler and get picked up there yesterday but after passing the halfway point just before reaching Hampton, I decided to celebrate by taking a short day.

Misc. updates:

-The hiking through Orlando’s eastern suburbs was way better than I expected. I was envisioning walking through neighborhoods for hundreds of miles. Instead there was a surprising amount of trail through nicely forested areas mixed with suburban bike paths that weren’t too bad either. Although, I did have to stealth camp on a bridge during the bike path section of the trail (the local motel had no vacancy) and was yet again mistaken for a homeless man.

-I’ve had two exciting night-hiking experiences since the last update. 1) I was hiking through Tosohatchee WMA after dark and suddenly found myself at the edge of a swamp with the FT’s orange blazes leading straight into the watery darkness. I wasn’t about to turn around and hike backwards to make camp so I splashed through the swamp in the dark, the sound of frogs filling the night air and the glow of eyes reflecting back at me from the darkness. I was only walking in water for about a mile (at most) but doing it at night made it the hair on the back of my neck stand up a bit. 2) I was pushing past dark to reach a shelter in the Rice Creek WMA a couple nights ago when a storm rolled in. There’s a section in this area called Hoffman’s Crossing – it’s a 2,000 foot wood walkway through 9-Mile Swamp that’s made out of 2×6 planks laid side by side. It’s about a foot wide, several feet above swamp water, and slick with algae when wet. I reached Hoffman’s Crossing while it was dark and pouring rain and quickly but carefully made my way across it. It took me another 30-45 minutes to reach the shelter after that but I eventually made it and don’t think I’ve ever been so glad to have a roof over my head.

-On a whim I stopped by the 88 Store. My databook noted that it is a hiker friendly establishment so I figured it was worth a look. I walked in just before 9:00 pm and spent the next several hours watching Tombstone and drinking beers (it had a bar! ) with some locals. They had showers behind the store and at the end of the night let me sleep on a couch on the front porch. In the morning, they gave me coffee before I headed back out. There hasn’t been much of a ‘trail community’ on the FT like you’d find on the PCT or the AT and it was great finally finding a place that not only knew what the FT was but catered to hikers.

Time to head back to the trail – the last 50% of the FT isn’t going to hike itself.

Thursday, January 27, 2011 Lake Okeechobee, Kissimmee River, and other updates

Currently taking a double zero in Tampa with my Uncle John and Aunt Suzanne

I’ll start off this update with a riveting tale of my night spent in a storm, then work backwards and visit some other experiences from the last week of life on the trail. Hopefully the ‘dark, stormy night’ piece will provide the narrative hook that’ll keep you reading through the other updates, which should be pretty good on their own, and all the way to the end, where I’ll probably lapse into complaining about the amount of road walking. Or the sections are labeled so you can skip the lengthy account I’ve written of the storm and skip to the shorter updates of other events.

The Storm:

So, it was a dark and stormy night… but not at first. At first it just a fairly cloudy afternoon with a few short rain bursts that my poncho had effectively repelled. I was walking along the large grassy shoulder of CR 419, a two-lane roadway that heads north out of the Bull Creek Wildlife Management Area and towards the eastern suburbs of Orlando. I’m no fan of road walks but I will say this: they’re great if you want to log some serious miles by hiking past dark. Much of the FT is difficult to follow at night because there isn’t an actual trail, just a series of blazes to follow through the forest. If the small scope of your headlamp misses one blaze, you’re lost and have to waste time searching around or just camp and wait for daylight to show the way. Not so with road walks. If the road walk is 20 miles long, you could walk that 20 miles in near total darkness. So, with that in mind, I was hiking the CR 419 with plans to hike for at least three hours past dark so I could log an above-average mileage day.

Earlier that day, a local couple had warned me that a storm was coming in sometime in the afternoon and that I should set up camp and hunker down somewhere sheltered. I basically laughed it off and replied that I would probably just throw on my rain gear and keep hiking (the unspoken implication being that I’m a hardcore hiker and a little rain isn’t going to stop me from hiking). They gave me a “whatever you say” reaction and the conversation moved on. That afternoon, about when their forecast had said the storm would come in, I got hit with some rain showers. They were comparable to the rain showers I’d experienced in Florida so far – enough to get you wet but over quickly. I assumed that this was the fearful “storm” that I’d been warned about and kept hiking, proud of my hiker-intuition that stopping to set up camp would have been a waste of time and miles.

Right around dark, I started to see intra-cloud lightning in the skies to the west of me. The terrain I was hiking through consisted of open pastures sparsely dotted with oak trees. Being in such open terrain with nearby lightning made me a bit uneasy but there were also enough trees and a series of towering high-voltage transmission towers on the opposite side of the road that I didn’t consider it dangerous to keep hiking. Soon enough, however, the lightning began getting much closer and I decided to pull off and hunker down for a bit. There was nothing in the way of a campsite (I was still hiking alongside a road ) so I simply pulled off at the first oak tree I saw and began to lay out my things in its leeward side. Had lightning hit my particular tree, I probably would’ve been melted into an organic ooze but I made a judgement call and decided the risk was low enough that I’d take it over assuming the lightning position for the duration of the storm.

I had barely gotten my sleeping bag out, let alone begun to set up my tarp, when the storm descended upon me. To say it came on suddenly is an understatement. Partly I’m used to the Pacific Northwest where storms are slow in arriving and slow in departing but regardless even of that, the storm’s brunt force arrived with surprising quickness. Sheets of rain began to pour down on me as I hurriedly ensured that my belongings were in dry bags. I abandoned any hope of pitching my tarp and instead crawled inside of my sleeping bag, which was inside of my bivy sack, and then tucked my tarp in under my feet and sides – making a waterproof (at least in theory) hiker burrito. Torrential rain continued to pummel me and by this time the lightning was flashing directly overhead. Even with the tarp pulled over my head and my eyes closed, the lightning flashes were bright enough to illuminate my vision with wall-to-wall explosions of white and purple light. As is usually the case with any rain gear system, my hiker-tarp-burrito was beginning to fail in the face of the sheer quantity of water (I later heard the storm dropped 1-2 inches of rain) that was still falling and now pooling underneath me. I remained relatively dry in many areas, damp in some, and downright wet in others. My head, for example, spent most of the night resting in a puddle that formed under my sleeping bag.

I wasn’t particularly comfortable at this point but, aside from my small concerns about lightning, I wasn’t worried about my safety. Then the wind arrived. There had been wind throughout the storm so far but it hadn’t been the dominating feature of the storm, the rain and lightning were. That changed when the wind picked up with an astounding rapidity and began to howl through the tree limbs above me. The sounds coming from overhead were enough to convince me that the wind was terribly strong but the sensation of it tugging at my legs (which were the most exposed part of my body, the rest being more tucked away under some branches) gave the distinct impression that a tornado was possibly descending upon my head. What do you even do in that situation? Do you peek outside of your tarp-burrito, peer into the inky blackness and pouring rain, hoping to actually confirm or disprove the existence of a tornado? Do you tie yourself to a tree and hope to ride it out, a la Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt in Twister? Do you remain huddled under your tarp and hope it will pass? Put your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye? I figured it was in the hands of fate at this point and remained burrowed under my tarp. The winds disappeared as quickly as they had arrived and, to draw this story to a close, the rest of the night passed by relatively uneventfully.

I’d been planning to meet up with my Uncle John in the next few days but after the pluvial clobbering I’d taken I decided to call him the next morning and go dry out in Tampa, which is where I am now. The experience with the storm obviously ended well for me but there were certainly moments when I felt more vulnerable than I have in a long time. The news reports following the storm reported that multiple tornadoes had touched down and caused various forms of damage. I’m not sure where they were in relation to me but the point remains.

Other Updates:

-The trail travels along Lake Okeechobee for about 55 miles (at least on the west side, the east side is some other distance). The “trail” is along the dike that the US Army Corps of Engineers built some years ago, ostensibly to contain Lake Okeechobee but more likely because they need to justify their existence by creating water management plans and grandiose earth-moving enterprises. The dike-walking was better than following paved roads through sugar cane fields but still a relatively mindless activity. Turn brain off, activate legs, follow dike for 55 miles. Lake Okeechobee’s border towns also appear to be solely populated by RV resorts for the 55 and older crowd. Not making any judgements there, just an observation.

-Just north of Lake Okeechobee, the trail (real trail, this time) follows the west side of the Kissimmee River. I loved this section. The trail follows a narrow strip of oak hammocks that border the river for tens of miles and, once you look past all the cow crap, it really is a beautiful environment. Enormous multi-trunked oak trees with limbs covered in ferns, moss, and bromeliads, vines as thick as your wrist hanging down from the canopy, palm trees of all shapes and sizes filling in the understory. The trail also passes through the Avon Airforce Base in this area, where hikers must checking the bombing range’s schedule before entering and can only camp in three designated areas which must be safely outside of the range’s margin of error in bombing accuracy. The cows, it appears, are allowed to freely roam the range and one wonders if they are ever accidentally bombed. BEEF – it’s what’s for dinner…

-North of Kissimmee the trail passed through several WMA’s (Wildlife Management Area) which provided more of the same scenery I’d been seeing. Very nice but nothing new to report. Following those it returned to roadways, which is where I was when I got hit by the storm and fled to Tampa. Continuing north it remains on roads for a bit then uses a network of trails/roads/urban bike paths to skirt through the eastern suburbs of Orlando.

-Wildlife sightings: I’ve seen loads of armadillos, a skunk, an opossum. These are all very strange animals, when you actually examine their physical makeup. One is encased in a hard shell which can be rolled into a ball. One shoots noxious chemicals out of a gland under its tail, an act it performs while doing a handstand. The last is, perhaps, not quite so strange but nonetheless still has a bifurcated penis and can involuntarily enter a physiological state resembling death when threatened.

Back to the “trail” tomorrow morning. Despite my earlier promise, I won’t finish this post off with complaints of road walking. I’m still marveling at how much better my body is doing physically on this hike than when at the comparable stage of my PCT thru-hike. The limiting factor in how far I’m hiking per day seems to be the number of daylight hours, currently about 11. New photos and videos should be up in about a week, not sure when I’ll get on a computer again for a written update.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011 – Finished the Paddlers’ Waterway/One week into the FT

After paddling 100 some miles and hiking another ~130, I’ve finally found a computer in Clewiston, FL. I shared a motel here last night with some other FT hikers and stopped by the local library on my way out of town. Here’s a recap of the past few weeks:

The Paddlers’ Waterway & Everglades National Park: This was such a terrific trip. The decision to tack on this canoe trip was made around the 11th hour in my Florida Trail planning and just as easily could have never happened. The first day that I set out in my canoe from the Flamingo Ranger Station, I was reminded of all the feelings that draw me to these long-distance trips: the anxiety of setting out into the ‘unknown’, the thrill of starting a trip that is definitely outside of your range of experience, and, eventually, the sense of accomplishment (and relief) when your belief that “Yes, I can do this” becomes a reality and you achieve what you set out to do. I’ve done enough backpacking at this point that it’s a very comfortable activity for me; sections of terrain or weather conditions might put me on edge but overall it’s an activity that I’ve come to know pretty well. Canoe trips, on the other hand, were almost completely foreign to me before this trip. Just as hiking the PCT redefined ‘backpacking’ for me, I think that my trip through the Everglades has done the same for canoe trips and water travel in general.

Everglades National Park was amazing. Highlights include: alligators (pics and video soon) on river banks, dolphins in the Gulf, dolphins in rivers, dolphins 20 feet from my canoe, so many birds that at times they just became a part of the background, wide-open seas on the gulf, mangrove-choked channels on the ‘inside’, raccoons that tried to steal my electronics, and seeing very few other paddlers. I saw seven other paddlers (all in sea kayaks versus my canoe); 5 were doing a southbound trip through the Everglades and two were doing a loop route of of Flamingo. In two places I was stopped by mangroves which had follow over the waterway and blocked my path. I had to carefully step out of my canoe, balance on mud-slicked tree trunks overtop of murky waters, and pull my canoe up and over the fallen trees. My uncle Wade came out on his boat and met me at Oyster Bay chickee and the Lopez River campsite. Aside from the fact that he brought beer and delicous food, it was great to have his company since there were fewer people in the Everglades than I expected.

First ~100 miles of the Florida Trail: It’s been a trail of extremes so far. The first 40 miles was through Big Cypress Natural Preserve. About 20 miles of that was swamp tromping through cypress forests, ankle-deep mud and knee deep water, but the rest was through dry grasslands spotted with fan palms and pine trees. It was slow going at times but totally unlike any hiking I’ve ever done, so the experience of doing it was good.

From Big Cypress to Lake Okeechobee (about 60 miles) is road walking through rural Florida. Sure, parts of the trail are technically along dikes that can hardly be considered roads… but it’s effectively roadwalking. The scenery in this section consisted of: canals, dikes, roadways, sugar cane fields, and hot, beating sun with no shade. Every so often I would see a “Florida National Scenic Trail” marker planted in the ground – surrounded by grass stubble, vegetated canal water, and fields of sugar cane, I found the “scenic trail” designation to by slightly undeserved. Fortunately, I ran into four other FT thru-hikers at the beginning of this section and had their company to help break up the monotony of the hiking.

I feel like I’m in much better ‘trail’ shape than when I started out on the PCT last year. On my fifth day of hiking the PCT, I staggered into Warner Springs and took a zero because my feet were so sore. On my fifth day of hiking the FT, I hiked 20 miles, then got up the next day and hiked a little under 30.

I’ve spent half the day almost running errands in town – time to get back on the trail and make some miles.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Well, it’s coming down to the wire. I fly to Florida on January 3rd and it’s effectively nonstop from then until I finish hiking the AZT to GDT Route. My schedule in 2011 should look something like:

January 3rd, 2011: Fly to Miami, FL

January 4th to 14th, 2011: Canoe trip through Everglades National Park from Flamingo Ranger Station to Chokoloskee

January 15th to late February, 2011: Thru-hike the Florida National Scenic Trail

Late February to early March: Return to Portland, OR and finish last minute planning for the AZT to GDT Route

Mid March, 2011: Spend about a week traveling through California and visiting friends before heading into the wilderness for ~6 months

Mid March to early September, 2011: hiking the AZT to GDT Route

My level of excitement about these trips is running pretty high right now, especially with my departure getting so close. But the closer I get to leaving, the more my pre-trip anxiety also increases. My primary concerns relate to the challenges I’ll face on the AZT to GDT Route: cross-country travel constituting a significant portion of my route, an earlier-than-recommended arrival in Colorado and the many miles of snow travel that I’ll encounter, the necessity to finish by mid-September or face dangerous weather conditions in the Canadian Rockies. But I also can’t help myself from wondering if this is how I should be spending the next ~9 months of my life (shouldn’t I be, like, pursuing a job right now?) and where these trips are leading me in life.

Whatever concerns or anxiety I’m having, though, are tempered with my confidence in my ability to execute this trip and the enduring belief that life is best lived in pursuit of our passions, not idly complying with what we “should be” doing.  My experience tells me I’m capable; my intuition tells me the rewards will be unparalleled.

Sometime after I finished the Pacific Crest Trail, 2010

The summer after my graduation from the University of San Diego, I completed a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. I had decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail as a kind of post-graduation vacation for myself, to make some time when I could decompress before searching for a job and settling down into “real” life after college. After years of working hard in school, in various jobs, in my fraternity, I was sufficiently burned out when I finished college and thought that a 5-month backpacking trip through America’s West would be the perfect remedy to what ailed me. I thought that it’d be a cathartic experience from which I would emerge having gained personal insight and reinvigorated to re-enter the working world. I was… naïve.

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail was the best 5 months of my life and I emerged from it with not only a passion to pursue further adventures but also enough money left in my bank accounts to finance them. Before I even finished the Pacific Crest Trail, I had begun planning another big hike for 2011. One of the main reasons I hiked the PCT was to challenge myself. Yet, on the PCT, I repeatedly felt that I wasn’t challenging myself enough: that civilization was often too close and too frequent, that too many other hikers shared my footsteps, that the time constraints were too lax. I sought to rid myself of that feeling and create a truly challenging experience.