In the early morning’s darkness of December 13th, I was dropped off at the Oasis Visitor Center by my good friend Dave who had come all the way from Colorado to visit me and hear about my progress on the Eastern Continental Trail (ECT). After having zeroed near Everglade City where we took an airboat ride through the Everglades, I was ready now to touch the rocky monument of the southern terminus and begin my thru-hiking experience of the Florida Trail (FT). Walking along the boardwalk and onto the dew-saturated grass of the trail, I knew Florida would be seen in a whole new way. From alligator-inhabiting swamps to picturesque savannahs to aromatic sugarcane fields, the Florida Trail would take me into an unaccustomed environment that would nonetheless shape the early part of my broader ECT journey.
After walking alongside the barbed fence of the runway by the visitor center, one is immediately struck by how quickly one’s ankles are submerged into the water of the Big Cypress Preserve. By this time, I had sufficient practice with swampwalking, having hiked the watery and “unmaintained” eight-mile Robert Lakes Trail from Loop Road up to Highway 41. Although I had been forewarned that the first thirty miles of the FT was largely under water from Oasis Visitor Center to I-75, I had no idea just how sustained these waterlogged stretches would be. But this is what I signed on for and, if I wanted to get to Canada, this was a crucial part of the hike. You know what? I was like a kid again splashing about in the water! The shoe-sucking mud cut my mileage down substantially as each step was placed carefully and slowly. The suction effect could easily take a hiker’s shoe right off his trail-abused foot; therefore, tightening laces is a requirement for a successful swamp walk. Trekking poles also play an important role and keep the hiker from stepping into the notorious “condensation holes” disguised by the mud and debris. Despite employing my usual two-sock system, silt managed to work its way in, requiring an occasional sand-dump—taking my shoes off, banging the insoles together as if clapping madly.
The FT association did a remarkable job at painting the distinguishable vertical orange blazes (stripes) on the trees, which makes finding one’s way foolproof. Reaching I-75, I took a much-deserved break at the rest stop on the north side of the highway. Two ice cream sandwiches and a Dr. Pepper later, I jumped back on trail. The north side of the interstate was completely dry as if someone turned off the spigot. It was only the second day on the Florida Trail and I set up at Nobles Campsite at dusk just as the mozzies were coming out for their evening blood feast. I had survived Big Cypress National Preserve. The Florida Trail, despite some temporary unpleasantness (e.g., humidity, condensation, moisture-related nuisances) was becoming part of my story. The interior of Florida is not just resorts and condominiums, for there is an untamed jungle that one may see and explore on foot. The Florida Trail is just that, and I’m glad to be on this most remarkable footpath even though, and especially because, it’s hard.