The mud-riddled, wet swamp walk put us at 30 miles into the 1100 mile trail. Challenge 1 – done! The next part was a whole new obstacle to most trail dwellers. Out of the 11 National Scenic Trails in the United States, only 2 are complete trails on designated ‘trail land’ (public lands, easements, or purchased): the Appalachian Trail and Arizona Trail. That means the other 9 trails have sections of road walking that connects the designated sections. Here’s a breakdown of where the FT roams as of 2019. The Florida Trail Association is constantly working to gain more property or easements to get the trail off of roads and into some form of safer nature.
The next 120 miles would travel over dikes, roads, and levees. Meaning, 120 miles of hard packed trail, whether it’s gravel, paved, or packed dirt road. This “easy walking” can bring problems like shin splints or other sore parts from the very repetitive gait, compared to the dynamic ground of a natural path with bumps, holes, roots, etc.
We were still very focused on letting our bodies ease back into hiking, so we maintained the 10 miles per day pace, even if that meant getting to our campsite by lunch time. We knew if we pushed too far, too soon, we could easily hurt ourselves. A few in our group had foot problems brought on from the swamp. We were starting to wear out our junky swamp shoes, which aren’t meant for long-term walking. But our good trail shoes were on the coast at Steve’s parents, awaiting our arrive for his friend’s wedding in a week. We quickly regretted not carrying the extra weight through the swamp to have supportive shoes for these roads.
Our first stint from the interstate rest stop was along a dirt road, with views of lots of alligators and scat from some grande black bears! It was a very pleasant, casual reprieve from the arduous swamp trek the day before. We could mindlessly stroll along to the nearby campsite. The only stress was, there is a game camera somewhere along this road, as seen on FB before the hike started. Anytime I needed to use the restroom, I was paranoid I would be in camera view! Lol – guess we’ll find out if they post the January footage. Stay tuned in February – we’ll share if we’re there!
Our first major destination was in reach. We arrived at Billie’s Swamp Safari the next day, sadly with no sightings of panthers or bears. Our first resupply point on trail, about 40 miles in. We had allotted for ample time to get through the swamp, not wanting to rush it if the water was treacherous.
Since we passed through without hiccup, we had a bit of extra food from our box, but fortunately there were about 8 hikers staying that night, so we could all ban together to share and mix & match for the next section to Clewiston.
Billie’s Swamp Safari is a privately owned business who has graciously opened it’s doors to hikers, where we can camp for cheap, along with showers! Get that swamp gunk off!! Bonus – we get to see all the animals living on property, including a Florida panther, wolves, bears, otters, capybaras, and George, the resident goat that just meanders around, taunting the wolves and panther as unattainable prey. The staff was all very accommodating and sweet. It was a great oasis in the wetlands.
We hiked out through the Seminole Reservation, which had beautiful new buildings in the downtown, and was hosting a big fair & rodeo event that weekend. We were just 2 days too early! Dang. This would be our last civilization until Clewiston on the south side of Lake Okeechobee in 50 miles. The next stint was all canal & dike walking among the sugar cane fields. This windy walk out of town, along the road, was too breezy for my big sunhat, so I had to convert to ‘outlaw bandit’ form with my neck gaiter to get my sun protection. Apparently the wind had wreaked havoc on a load of green beans too, because every 3 feet had a fresh green bean laying on the road side!
Our first night among the canals brought beautiful trail magic in the form of not only a water cache from Ari, but also Oreos, Hawaiian punch, and a watermelon from Sean & Joe! Trail communities are a beautiful thing!
Another big difference for this trail compared to others are the mosquitoes. Yes, mosquitoes are a very common pest all over the country, but not like this. Being surrounded by marshland and water canals means extensive breeding grounds for the lovely bugs. We have quickly learned, no matter how much bug spray you have on, you must be in your tent before the sun goes down or else you’ll be sucked dry. This puts our ‘bed time’ at about 5:30, 6pm, thanks to the winter sun. Through the cooler, damper parts on the night, they aren’t as troublesome, so late night potty breaks don’t always result in an all-you-can-eat buffet like a sunset bum-exposure would.
Since we’re asleep by 7pm, early mornings aren’t actually ridiculous. Mentally, waking up at 4am seems crazy, but in reality, we’ve been asleep (not always soundly, thanks to noisy sleeping pads) for 9 hours. We usually wait until day break to avoid the mosquitoes, but if it’s been dewy, they can’t fly very well, so we take our escape opportunity and hit the trail to get our miles done before the sun gets too troublesome.
The first full moon of the year, Wolf Moon, allowed for some very cool and easy trekking along the sugar cane field roads one morning at 4am. We shared the road with numerous truckers, hauling their crops from the field to the processing plant. They seemed to work through the night during this harvest time. After the initial surprise of seeing people walking down the dirt road in the middle of the night, they worked safely around us as they made their rounds back and forth.
Clewiston (“The Sweetest Town in America”) was an opportunity to resupply food, get new temporary shoes for the upcoming levee walk, and for our friends to see the clinic about their feet. Some were able to get the go ahead and some foot care advice, while some were instructed to take a break and take meds. No one wants foot problems, and hearing you need to take time off for recovery can really throw a wrench in your plans and your enthusiasm.
Lake Okeechobee is the first decision point in the trail: East or West around the lake. This year, over half of the East side was under construction and closed, making the West side, with its two smaller closures, the preferred route. This was also a parting point for our group that had been loosely formed in this section. BonBon took a few days for foot recovery and work engagements; Slip n Slide, Mountain House, & Splash continued north along the recommended west side of Lake Okeechobee. Steve & I planned for the East side for easier pick up for the upcoming wedding in Orlando. We opted to jump to the north end of the lake, then hike the open section of the East coast.
A trail angel, Betty, was already shuttling some hikers to the north end for some foot recovery, so we joined to continue hiking as efficiently as possible. The levee walk around Lake Okeechobee has its pros and cons.
Pro: one side is the lake, one side is a canal, so it’s kind of like having a moat to protect you from the outer world at night.
Con: it’s paved and wide open to sun. The pavement makes for an excellent bike path, but pretty hard hitting on the feet.
We made our way along the levee over a couple days, find a few places to hammock for the first time on trail. (More on those in the next post, along with Steve’s AT reunion at his friend’s wedding.) We watched the locks operate, met some locals, and did some early morning walking to beat the sun. We stirred up our first wild pig around 3am, then were greeted by a little fox around 5:30am (solving the mystery of ‘Who left that poo?’ all over the path).