Variety exists in numerous forms. Walking the ECT is no exception. There are roadwalks, bridgewalks, canalwalks, and also, as one might expect in the southernmost reaches of Florida, swampwalks.
Upon exiting the Keys were a series of linkages that connect the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail (FKOHT) with the Florida Trail (FT). These connectors are unique because they generally are not proper hiking footpaths but merely transitional connecting points to provide a continuous ECT experience. The canal portion was a pleasant relief from the ear-piercing highways that can be overwhelming and dizzying to the hiker. Brackish channels, which apparently serve an agricultural and water regulative purpose, are able to be controlled by “locks”—bridge-like dams that also function as the means of crossing the wide canals.
While hiking alongside the engineered water systems I heard the distinct growl-like sound of an alligator. Actually, I heard the sound belted not once but twice, although I was not able to spot the creature from my position. It’s interesting, the more I learn about alligators, the less fearful I become of them; in fact, these semi-aquatic animals really do not want any association with people. One should still exercise caution and respect the local wildlife with reverence for their awesome strength and instinct. My two general rules, which may be applied to an encounter with almost any wild animal, are: 1) maintain a wide birth, viewing wildlife from a distance and 2) never provoke the animal.
Once Highway 41 was reached, I took a much-anticipated side-trip to Miami. Side-trips are never against the traditions of any thru-hike; indeed, they are encouraged for their rejuvenating and restorative effects! After turning off my tracker at the point I left off, I hailed an Uber to take me to an international traveler’s hostel. From the hostel I was just a block away from the all-too-recognizable South Beach. Think CSI: Miami or, if you’re my age, your mind may cling to the scenes of the police procedural called Miami Vice! The beach in Miami was quite nice as one would expect; the white-colored sand was a soft grainy texture and the water’s temperature was inviting. After taking a quick plunge in the ocean water, I lay my Colorado farmer-tanned body in the direct sun and shared the afternoon with some seagulls who put on a graceful, low-flying show. The day was restorative yet also productive as I was able to resupply with some food and upload photographs using the hostel’s Wifi in the common area. That evening I scheduled an Uber ride for the following morning to get me back on trail at the exact spot that I had gotten off to take the zero day. The pickup was at 4am and by 5am that morning I was booking it westbound down Highway 41.
The walk on Highway 41, although not proper hiking trail (merely more linkage to connect to the Florida Trail), made for a most unusual day. Off to the side of the highway was a solemn memorial built for Valuejet Flight 592 that had crashed in the Everglades on May 11, 1996. Proceeding west I was taken through the Miccosukee Indian Village, a town with its own Indian police force and tribe-led community buildings. The general store in the village made an ideal stop to briefly escape the sometimes-oppressive afternoon Florida sun. I sought shade under a tiki hut with picnic tables and had a throat-cooling beverage along with something to eat. Then I was back on the highway but not for much longer.
The ECT turns off the highway dipping south on the much-talked-about Loop Road, which connects the Miccosukee Indian Reservation with Big Cypress National Preserve. It was here, on this secluded dirt roadway through the preserve that I spotted my first alligator. He was a big guy just hanging out on the roadside ditch. You know what he did? Nothing. Nada. And I was okay with that because I wanted my first encounter to be a pleasant one. Despite being uncomfortably close to such an enormous animal with a sharp overbite and jaw strength in the thousands of pounds (all because of the narrow shoulderless roadway), I was developing an affinity for these short-legged, armored-bodied reptiles. Heading on Loop Road I saw numerous other alligators, most of which would jump into the swamp water at my first site, producing a big splash—the sound one hears when the husky kid at the public pool bellyflops from a diving board.
Although Loop Road “loops” south of 41 and eventually all the way back up north to 41 again further west, I was to exit on an eight-mile northbound trail that would cut directly across the swamp and end right at the Oasis Visitor Center where I was to start the Florida Trail portion of the ECT. This trail, known as the Roberts Lakes Trail, was damaged heavily after Irma hit some years back. The footing on this trail was sketchy to be sure with what may only be described as “hiker land mines.” The eight-mile Robert Lakes Trail took me the better part of the day despite its deceivingly short distance. The trail was almost completely under water, ankle deep mostly but waist-deep in sections. This thru-hike was turning into a full-blown adventure as my hiking sneakers sunk deep into the swampy water. Mud spattered at my face and before long I was like a pig playing in the mud. The place was “boobytrapped” with shoe-sucking sinkholes, thorny branches that bounced back like a spring, spiders building intricate webs at face level, and the notorious “wooden stalagmites,” which are short stubby cypress stumps perfect for tripping face first into the watery preserve. At times I was wading in waist-high water wondering if there were any species down below that could bite my leg off. Would a strangling python come along and pull me under such that I would never be found again? This “underwater trail” is navigated by following a blue blaze which is spray-painted periodically on the cypress trees. Sometimes it was just blue marker tape, easy to miss if not paying careful attention. At one point the brush was so thick and overgrown on this unmaintained trail that I had to crawl on all fours for several yards. At one point I thought reflectively, “my goodness, just what have I gotten myself into?” But I was like a kid having the time of his life. This was not a conventional trail; indeed, this was a hiker’s playground! Finally, after hours of trudging through the swamp, I reached the highway, poking my head out from the thick mangroves. Getting my first glimpse of Oasis Visitor Center I knew another ECT milestone had been reached and I would soon step foot on the 1,100-mile Florida Trail.
In the visitor center parking lot, I met up with my good friend Dave who came all the way from Colorado to drop some “trail magic” and explore the area with me for a couple days. As much as I am a stickler about maintaining a twenty-mile daily average, I knew that this was a chance that should not be passed, and that mileage-making would come in its due time. There are more than miles to a trail—there’s memories—and these moments ought to be grasped. After loading up in Dave’s rented van-chassis RV, we set up at Midway Campground and made a steak dinner inside the RV’s compact kitchen. The following morning, we took an airboat ride at Captain Jack’s and learned about alligators at a demonstration that was put on by the staff. One impressive piece of information, among other things, was that the jaw strength of a grown alligator is usually around 2,200 pounds! Also, after “charging” in the sunlight, an alligator can run some 12–15 mph on land and swim approximately 25 mph! As an Everglades hiker, this not what I needed to hear. One cannot outswim an alligator. One cannot outrun an alligator. But maybe, just maybe, a hiker could “out-turn” an alligator taking sharp turns and taking advantage of an alligator’s true weakness—the lack of quick turning radius! Apart from these angle tactics and zigzag techniques, I knew deep down that these half-submerged crocodilian animals have no real interest in a guy like me. My alligator fears have been largely assuaged and I anticipate many “big splashes” up trail. This adventure I’m on is as if I’m at a zoo, only on the other side of the bars. I knew from the moment I touched the southernmost buoy in Key West that my life would be shaped and enriched as never before.
Well now, I’ve made it to the terminus of the Florida Trail. Florida is not all beaches and resorts you know? It was once thought that Florida was an uninhabitable wasteland, a land of swamps that could not be drained for civilized human settlement. There’s a whole jungle out here and I intend to explore this magnificent land. The milky white egrets of the Everglades with their long slender legs and dagger-like yellow beaks take off from the waters in a truly magical way. This place is remarkable—an impressionable reminder of life’s fragile and ever-fleeting nature.