Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Florida Trail - canals without end

After getting out of Big Cypress, most of the FT is walks along canals. I have been hiking canals for 4 days now and there is still no end in sight....
First problem with canals is: water! Yes, water is always available in the canal, but you pay a high price. It can be very steep to get down to the water and you definitely do not want to fall into it after hearing alligators splashing into every 10 minutes. And when you eventually have found a good access spot and want to scoop out water, all you see is DEAD FISH! They are still everywhere. Killed by Florida's record cold they are  now slowly decaying in the water. I am used to pretty nasty water, but this is a bit too much. I share my water sources with alligators, poisonous snakes and thousands of dead fish. Great - I love it. I am very much surprised that I did not get more dehydrated.

Second problem is that the scenery gets a bit monotonous. It is dead flat and the canal dead straights. Sometimes there is a little palm tree, but beside that it is sugar cane fields as far as you can see. As we do not have suger cane in Germany I first did not even realise what that stuff is. I still have not understood why the farmers burn the fields which looks like mini A-bomb smoke clouds. But I do understand now that you need a lot of trucks to transport the stuff and that I have to share the road with them.

Which brings me to problem three: Unfortunately, most of these dykes are paved now. My feet hurt like hell and I even had 2 blisters - and I never had blisters on the whole PCT or CDT!!!

Shelter near Lake Okeechobee
But there are positive sides as well: I am right now hiking around Lake Okeechobee, which is the seond largest fresh water lake in the US. And I come through lots of little towns on the way. Floridians are not used to hikers and I have already been mistaken for a homeless person a couple of times - although tecnically I am a homeless person.... I was asked in a cafe by another patron whether I really had enough money to pay for my breakfast. I was stopped by the police while roadwalking - and ended up chatting with the guy for 15 minutes about his military time in the army in Germany. Today I passed Uncle Joe's Fish Camp and politely asked for a shower, which I was granted for FREE. And I am eating a lot of Mexican food.

But the easy times will soon be over. On Saturday I will do a last big resupply for 9 (nine!) days and will not hit civilisation again before February 10th.

The Florida Trail - Big Cypress

I have almost fnished my first week on the Florida Trail - and it has been quite an adventure.
I had thought that there is not much new for me as an experienced hiker, but I was wrong. The FT is full of surprises and new challenges...
First I thought that I know what strenous hiking is: Postholing in snow, climbing over blow-downs or rock-hopping. So far, I did not know much about wading..... and this is what the first part of the FT is all about. You walk or better wade through Big Cypress. The first 20 miles were sort of ok and I was even averaging almost 2 mph. There were very swampy areas with water up to the knees, but half of the trail was on dry land. Ok, the humid heat was killing me, but it was still ok. And then I hit the swamp - with 1 hour of daylight left and 1,5 miles to go. Swamp means knee deep water ALL THE TIME. Yes, all the time. There is not even a spot were to put your backpack down, not to mention sit down yourself. All you can see is water and cypress trees. And in my case the setting sun. Some other desperate hiker had slowly gotten rid of his equipment. An old sleeping bag was floating in the water. 10 minutes later and empty daypack was hanging in a tree. I almost panicked. It was too late to go back and I did not know what was ahead. And I definitely did not want to be in this in the dark. I could not even make 1 mile per hour because underneath the water surface there was muck. I was sinking into all the stuff up to my knees. And I was starting to wonder whether in this high water the designated campsite would be dry. I had no choice and just sloshed on - and just made it to a lovely and very dry island with the last rays of sunlight. To say I was relieved is an understatement....

The next day did not improve. I waded through swamp for a whole day and nearly stepped on a water moccassin, a deadly poisonous snake. Don't get me wrong: This was really beautiful and a unique experience, but it was very tiring as well. But finally, after 3 days in the swamp I made it to I 75 and civilisation. Restrooms, drinking water, even cell phone reception for the first time in 2,5 weeks!!!! Wow, I was impressed. Things improved even more after that. The rest of the trail through Big Cypress is on old abandonded roads and very dry. But the next problem came up quickly: The road was dry, but on both sides of it was swamp and swamp and swamp. And about every 5 minutes I could hear a big splash - when I had awakened an alligator and it had jumped into the water. Alligators were everywhere around here - and I had to sleep somewhere in the middle of all that.... I know that alligators are usually shy and pose no threat to humans, but it still scared the shit our of me. But as you can see, I survived the night and the whole Big Cypress experience. I had never seen anything like that before and I can highly recommend that hike to anyone - just bring a lot of time...

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Florida - where things are getting worse and worse

Before you read all this I want to emphasize that I really ENJOYED this trip. It may not sound like it, but we had a lot of fun..... So what happened? Basically anything that can possibly happen to you on a canoe trip happened.

We headed back out into the Everglades and actually had a very nice half day. Ok, the mosquitoes were coming out and all the dead fish were unnerving, but it was quite nice. The next day the wind came up. First we thought that this would not be a big deal because we were paddling on inland bays, but little did we know. We ended up paddling 10 hours straight to make 18 miles and were pretty much dead at the end of the day. That day brought us through alligator creek and true to its name there were loads of alligators on the river banks. Of course this is when Birdnut wanted to take a picture. And of course his camera has no zoom (so he claims at least) and we had to get close. And then he stopped steering and we more or less ran into the damn alligator - which just disappeared under water: maybe due to my screaming or maybe due to nearly being run over. At least we survived it.....At night we learnt how to tie in a tent onto a chickee (which is a freestanding tent platform on the water) so the whole thing does not get blown away, but of course that wind cannot last several days???

Little did we know: Next morning the wind was stronger than ever and we had to make another 18 miles. I should mention at that point that Birdnut has been in the military. Luckily he still remembered those military cadences they used for drills, so whenever the wind got really bad he just yelled at me "repeat after me" and we were paddling across the bay singing happily:

Two old maidens lay in bed
One turns over to the other and says:
I wanna live a life of danger\
I wanna be an airborne ranger...

I want to mention at this point that I am a pacifist and Birdnut used to be a paratrooper... But as his drill sergeant used to say: You have to practise to be miserable. Our sufferings where not over yet.

Note the channel marker
At the very end of this day with still 6 miles to go we had to go across a channel where the wind was especially bad and we would just not move at all no matter how hard we paddled. We just wanted to rest for a second and stopped paddling when it happened: We drifted backwards in the strong current, ran into a channel marker - and capsized!!!!! Everything seemed to be in slow motion when I went into the water head forward - together with Birdnut. Luckily the water was not deep and we could stand up. Our boat was still there but about to sink. We quickly dragged it ashore and tried to save what was possible. We only lost one bucket of water and our bailing bucket. We dropped everything onto the mucky shore, turned the boat around to drain the water and took a deep breath - I mean you do not capsize every day!!! I was soaking wet, but luckily all my valuables and camera where waterproofed and did not suffer.

But one thing was clear now: We would not make it to our appointed and reserved campsite that night, so we decided to paddle to the next chickee and hoped whoever stayed there would let us stay as well. We were lucky: It was a double chickee and only one party was staying there.... But the wind was so strong that we actually had to use our canoe as a wind break in order to set up our tents - but it also dried our clothes in no time.

Next day we were back on schedule - and were turning back. And with us the wind turned again, so that we had to paddle into a headwind again. Isn't that lucky? But we had a very funny incident that night. We had a lot of drinking water left and decided to take a little camp shower with it. In order not to get our feet mucky we showered on top of the picnic table. Of course it was just my luck that when it was my turn to shower and I was standing on top to the picnic bench stark naked a sightseeing tour boat passed by.... Birdnut was laughing his socks off and happily waved to the captain (who probably has some story to tell to his customers now about that particular campsite....) At night the stench of decaying fish became overpowering. Plus myriads of mosquitoes.... We retired to bed early.

Dead manatee
Next day we just wanted to get away from that smell..... We decided to stay our last night on a key (which is a little island in the ocean). Nice pleasant last day with an easy paddle - at least that is what we thought. Of course everything went a totally different way. As soon as we got out to the ocean we had to fight the tide (which of course came against us). In the small channels between the islands which worked like bottle necks it took us 15 minutes to proceed 200 meters. And things went worse: Waves came up - really bad waves. I was shit scared and we were even considering turning back. Maybe having capsized a couple of days before had not really help our confidence.... After fighting for 2 hours we finally made it to our little key. I could hardly sleep that night because I thought we would never made it away from that island again.

Luckily next morning the sea was as smooth as a baby's butt - but of course the tide was against us. Birdnut said that during the whole trip we had the tide or current WITH us for only a single time....

But as I have mentioned at the beginning of this entry: We really enjoyed that trip!!!!! We suffered record cold, were marooned for 2 days, capsized and got nearly eaten by an alligator - but we loved that trip.

And tomorrow I will start my Florida Trail thruhike - I have already heard that I section hiker has died out there because of hypothermia, Big Cypress is wet and the water up to the waist - but I am sure that I will enjoy that trip as well....

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Florida - a trip surpassing anything I have imagined


Birdnut at the start of our trip
I left Berlin after a very sleepless night being very, very excited. Would I get a 6 months visa for the US? Would my luggage show up? Would it be undamaged? Would Birdnut be at MIA to pick me up? Loads of questions on a very cramped flight to Miami. But the answers to all these questions were: YES!

All flights were on time, the immigration officer was nice, all my bags and boxes were there and even Birdnut was already happily awaiting me. Very good start indeed!

Our bomb proof tent
And this is when things started to get the way I did not expect. Birdnut and I were planning on doing a flipflop on the Wilderness Waterway - one week going northbound and another week going southbound doing some sort of a loop. Birdnut had already booked campsites and checked everything out so we happily departed on the 7th with 6 days worth of food in a brand new canoe. The first day was only a half day paddle and the sea was as smooth as a baby's butt. It was a bit chilly but still much better than Germany. Even our second day was very nice and we found a nice beach campsite overlooking the sea and a glorious sunset while we were sitting next to a campfire barbecuing brats and sweet potatoes (I have to live up to my reputation of cooking 3-course dinners...). We went to bed expecting another glorious day in the sun.

I woke up at 4 am that morning in howling wind and bitter cold. The tent was not doing very well - even as it was Birdnut's 2 person free-standing bomb-proof heavy weight car camping tent. All stakes had come off and I realised that I could not get out of the thing without it blowing away!!!! I yelled: "Birdnut, I have a problem!!!!!!" Birdnut being a perfect gentleman came to my rescue and with a fully loaded cooler and two full 6 gallons water containers we could eventually secure my tent. His was still doing remarkably well. At that point it was already apparent that paddling that day might not be such a good idea.... We were in a canoe after all and the sea was full of whitecaps.

To cut a long story short: We were marooned on that beach campsite for 2 full days. The sea was too bad to leave. Luckily I found a sheltered spot in the mangroves out of the wind. It was freezing cold. I am not exaggerating here: Florida - also called Sunshine State - had a record low. The beach was full of dead fish, literally hundreds of them. We later found out that they died because of the cold - as did most of the crops we saw later. I was wearing my warm cap and warm jacket almost a week straight. I was surprised out water containers did not freeze. Having company was great. We kept each other entertained by telling each other trail stories and I (being a German citizen) taught Birdnut (an American) all the America states which I had memorized on some very long days on my CDT thruhike. Birdnut then lost a bet and had to do the dishes for the rest of the trip. He had bet that there is no American state starting with R..... (for those of you who are not so good at memorizing: There is one American state starting with R: Rhode Island.)

Birdnut in Florida outfit
On the third day we finally left. It was still freezing cold, but the wind had calmed down at least a bit. When we launched into the white caps I was so shit scared that I forgot to scream. But we made it back in one piece with all our gear. Unfortunately hotels here do not have central heating, so we were still cold on our "rest day" - not that we really needed one after being stuck in tent for over 2 days.

So today I am in Everglades City and we are heading out for another 5 day paddling trip. So far it is really warm. I might even wear shorts today, but I do not really dare to believe it.....

Well so much for Florida, where it is always warm, even in the winter....

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Last post from Germany

This is my last night in Germany. I have already checked in my gear and bike at late evening check-in, had a last dinner with friends, said good-bye to everyone. Now it is just 6 more hours of sleep, off to the airport and start a new adventure.
But even after all my trips, I am still very nervous - although my friends have told me that I am getting better. They did not have to sedate me with cocktails tonight....It is also very helpful, that Birdnut will pick me up at Miami airport - so no hassles with a bike and lots of luggage. Just get into a car and off we go to the Everglades - that feels like total luxury.
Good bye Germany..... I'll be back in 2011!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Numbers and statistics

Before I leave for my next trip, I thought I better do a summary of the last one....

So in 2008/09 I did:

3.440 km on foot on the Appalachian Trail
961 km on foot on the Bibbulmun Track in Western Australia
135 km on foot on the Cape to Cape Track in Western Australia
2.220 km on bicycle in Australia, mainly in Tasmania and between Melbourne and Adelaide
2.803 km on bicylce in New Zealand, traversing both islands
3.982 km on bicylce in Japan on the islands of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu
1.290 km on bicycle in South Korea from Busan to Seoul

So the plan for 2010 starting January 6th:

318 km in a canoe on a flip-flop on the Wilderness Waterway
1.770 km on foot on the Florida Trail
1.287 km on the Arizona Trail
2.428 km on bicycle in Utah, Nevada and California
1.498 km on bicycle from Darwin to Alice Springs
223 km on foot on the Larapinta Trail in the Northern Territory in Australia
1.530 km on bicycle from Alice Springs to Adelaide
1.200 km on foot on the Heysen Trail in Southern Australia
440 km on foot on the Hume and Hovell Track
655 km on foot on the Australian Alps Walking Track

And then? All depends on who I meet, what the exchange rates do and whether I still like hiking and or cycling. But the rough plan is to get back from Australia to the US in winter 2010/11 and do:

5.086 km on bicycle on the Southern Tier from San Diego, CA to St. Augustine, FL
523 km on foot on the Alabama and Georgia on the Pinhoti Trail

And then back to Europe to start the big European thruhike early June 2011 stringing together some of the famous walks:

1.270 km on foot on the Zentralalpenweg 02 through Austria
350 km on foot on the Alpine Pass Route through Switzerland
674 km on foot on the GR through the French Alps
800 km on foot on various GR's through southern France connecting up to the Pyrenees
840 km on foot on the GR10/11/HRP through the Pyrenees
800 km on foot on the Camino de Santiago through Spain up to Cabo Finisterre

But everything will probably be totally different and I will end up God knows where... I will see!