The Florida Trail not only offers a winter hiking option for non-snow inclined outdoor enthusiasts, but a unique chance to traverse a new ecosystem not found too often in the US – a true swamp.
We rung in our 2020 checking our lists twice (and 3 and 4 times) to make sure we were set to spend 3 months walking across the state of Florida. Then a flurry of planes, trains, and automobiles to get to our start: my mom took us to Springfield to catch a train to St. Louis, to fly to Fort Lauderdale, to stay with Steve’s parents, who then drove us to the campground on US 41 for the kick-off shindig.
The Florida Trail Thru-Hikers Association’s annual kick-off party is held the first weekend of January for the past 10 years. The beginning of January is the optimal time to start the Florida Trail to coordinate with hunting seasons, cooler temperatures, and promising water levels – not too high to walk through, but not too low to still find drinking water. Day time temperatures are still cool enough to be tolerable (85ﾟ) and evening temperatures are manageable around 60ﾟ. All in all, quite a pleasurable time to go for a 3-month walk.
Kick off was a lovely event, including 2 nights of dinner cookout and two mornings of breakfast. Friday night hosted a Q&A session around the camp fire with the association leaders, the writers of the Florida Trail guide book, and hiking community veterans. Hikers, hiker supporters, friends, & family gathered in a supportive event to help the 2020 hikers get off to a positive start – an evening of socializing and commendatory, which is especially great for the FT, as it is a much less populated trail, making social interactions among hikers infrequent.
Everything we were told in preparation for traversing the swamp was completely true: endless sun, knee-high water, sucking mud, and a torrential onslaught of mosquitoes at dusk. But for some reason it’s hard to understand what that means until you are literally knee-deep in the Florida Everglades. I can’t say we were surprised by anything, yet everything was a new experience.
We left the kick-off campground in Big Cypress National Preserve mid-morning on Saturday, ferried to the Southern Terminus by one of the wonderful trail angels who comprise the FT Thru Hikers Association. We filled out permits, geared up, took our kick-off photos, and off we walked towards the first orange blaze. About 15 other hikers had started earlier that morning; some with the goal to hike the whole distance (1100 miles), others hiking until time ran out, and some just out for a nice jaunt through the swamp!
Steve, for good reason, was very adamant about maintaining very low mileage to start the hike to give our couch-potato bodies and dainty feet a proper build-up back into thru-hiker condition. The goal was to maintain a 10-mile per day pace for the first two weeks and slowly build miles until we reach 20-mile per day averages for the last two months. Our first 7-mile day was met with learning just how much the tannin in the swamp water can clog our water filters. Luckily we carry two filters, each with a different purpose, so we were still able to filter water even when one opted out of participating.
Though Florida is known to be surrounded by water and Southern Florida is covered by marsh, the beginning of 2020 came in fairly dry. Therefore, a majority of our water sources are in cypress stands, which basically looks like a giant puddle in the middle of some trees. We were fortunate enough to have a rain come through recently so we didn’t have to dig for water, like some pre-Christmas hikers had to do. We also were happy to see the trail maintenance volunteers for this section were having a work weekend, so a majority of this first section was freshly trimmed and marked.
During our 2nd day on trail, we ran into another hiker from the kick-off, nicknamed Slip ‘n Slide. The 3 of us have been a trio since. Some of the photos in the post are courtesy of her. Together, we conquered the swamp on the 3rd day, with our motivation being to get to the I-75 rest stop by 4:00 p.m. to get Slip ‘n Slide’s clean shoes from a trail angel who was posted up there for two days with food and drinks for weary swamp-soaked hikers. We all knew the swamp would decimate our shoes, so most hikers go through the swamp with junkier shoes, and either pack their good shoes, or send them ahead.
We left camp at first light. With 10 miles to go through difficult terrain, 10 miles could easily take 10 hours (versus 4-5 hours on a normal trail)! The first mile was an easy starter to get our legs moving and stretched before we hit the mucky muck. A low water year means we won’t have waist-high water, but it also means the trail has become nothing but mud. And not the mud you play in to make mud pies as a kid, but rather the mud that you step in and never see your shoe again type of mud. When we weren’t high-stepping with muddy ankle weights, we were blindly shuffling through shin- to knee-deep water, often quite ungracefully, finding many cypress roots and solution holes to trip on along the way. To walk through this area without the aid of trekking poles could be quite detrimental to your knees, ankles, elbows, and pride.
Three times through the swamp, we came across high ground where a person could camp if need be, or at least take a snack break and empty the sand that had built up under your feet. Each break would bring relief to an overly filled shoe and also lose a couple pounds of tag-along dirt. The bonus to this troublesome substrate was by the end of our 10-mile swamp stretch, our feet had been exfoliated well beyond that of a overly priced nail salon. All it cost was a bit of our sanity and part of SnS’s trekking pole. One section of the swamp was described in the guide book as ‘an area that has probably heard more profanity than any other location in this country’. And as we made our way through that section, we quickly you found ourselves contributing to that declaration.
Having seen no living creature other than some hearty air plants thriving above the swamp water on the cypress trees and a few lonely vultures soaring above, we were quite surprised when caught up to some fellow hikers halfway into our day. It was good to see some other crazies trudging their way through this ‘beautiful’ landscape. After a couple more hours of leap-frogging with that crew, we all made our way to dry, sandy land to finish the final mile to the rest stop. Steve & I let the ‘finish-line fever’ kick in to make sure we got to SnS’s shoes in time. Finally, we see the gate. Steve sees the angels, almost set to leave and waves them down, as I sign the hiker log, signifying we survived the Swamp!
Fresh fruit, soda, and pizza awaited the 6.5 hikers emerging from the swamp (0.5 being Pup, the 4-legged, furry hiker companion of Turtle, who gracefully got to ride on his shoulders through a good part of the mud & water). Also, some high-powered water spigots located next to picnic table are found at the rest stop, giving hikers a chance to get round one of sand out of their shoes (a seemingly fruitless task, since as I write this post 7 days & 70 miles later, I’m still shaking sand out of my shoes). But nevertheless, it felt good to power wash our shoes and ban together with the other 7 hikers getting cleaned up and aired out at the pavilions.
Now the challenge was to let our freshly softened feet dry out and toughen up enough to conquer the upcoming road walks along the levees and dikes through the farm fields. This was an important piece of advice given at the kick-off by veteran hikers, and we would be naive to not take it to heart. No foot problems to us — we’d had enough of that last trail!!