Saturday, 27 February 2010

"Deliverance" at Swift Creek campsite

 Many of my friends want me to watch the movie "Deliverance" when I tell them I will hike somewhere in Southeast US - but I always refuse. And I know why: On each trip I have some scary experience and having seen that movie would probably even make it scarier. So here is my "Deliverance" experience on the Florida Trail:

Trail on old tramway
I planned to camp at Swift Creek designated camp site which had been highly recommended to me and arrived pretty late in the day - only to see that a pick-up truck was parked right on it! I could not believe my eyes: I usually do not see anybody for days on end and now there is a truck parked right where I want to camp! The truck looked like a typical hunter's vehicle: Lots of ammo boxes inside and a "Lulu hunt club" sticker on the back. Great - this is just what I needed at the end of a day: Me lying alone in my tent at night and a guy with a gun out there returning from hunting. I know that hunters are usually harmless and friendly people but I still did not like the idea and decided to hike back a bit and hide somewhere in the forest. I had just found a hidden camp spot when I heard the shooting. It was pretty close and scared me horribly. Did the hunter see me or mistake me for a deer? And what was he shooting at anyways? This was NOT hunting season at all!

Campsite on the FT
I set up my tent and tried to relax a bit when I heard some animal in the bush. This happens quite often and usually the animal smells me and runs away. This did not seem to smell anything (despite me stinking pretty badly) and came closer and closer. I could not see what it was from inside the tent and made some noise to scare it away. But that worked to well: Whatever it was, panicked, tripped over my guylines, tore out 2 tent stakes and ran away OVER my tent! I don't know who was more scared: It or me! It must have been something pretty small like an armadillo (Guerteltier) because I did not get hurt in the process, but I did not feel very comfortable.... Luckily I could at least hear the hunter stop shooting, starting his truck and driving away when it got totally dark. Now I was eventually hoping for peace and quiet - but I was wrong.

Campsite/Trail register on the FT
Shortly before midnight I heard more noise: A truck came down the forest road!!!! These roads are difficult to hike through when they are flooded like they are now and I could not understand at all how a truck could go down these roads in the pitch dark. But things got even worse: Whoever it was had brought dogs who were barking fiercely and he was yelling at them even fiercer. And on top of that he parked very close to me. I could hear my own heart pounding and wondered what to do if the dogs came after me - but luckily they did not. I could hear the dogs barking further and further away for more than an hour and the truck going down the forest roads splashing through the water. It totally eludes me what this guy was doing in a truck with dogs in a flooded forest at midnight outside hunting season and all possible explanations make me think that hiding in the forest had probably been a very good idea....

Anyway, for all FT hikers: Maybe you better avoid Swift Creek camp site....But at least I learnt later on what all that noise and dog barking at midnight had been all about: The guy had probably been racoon hunting! Racoons are nocturnal and when they are hunted by dogs they flee up trees - where hunters in trucks can spot them with their car lights and shoot them.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

The weather and other obstacles

A not so very happy hiker
 Seems like I am very, very unlucky with the weather this year. I had hoped that after the record cold during our paddling trip in the Everglades the weather would return to normal. No such luck! As one local said: This winter is just one long cold spell. I have had several days of below freezing temperatures! This is not what they tell you in the tourist brochures about Florida... Yes, I had to get up and get into frozen socks and shoes in the morning. I had to roll up a frozen tent until my fingers where frozen, too. And the water in my bottle has turned into ice. This is NOT what I had expected in Florida!

On top of all that there has been a lot of rain- not only here in Florida, but also in Georgia. And that has caused a lot of flooding. Everything is muddy and soggy. And unfortunately, my next upcoming section the Suwanneh River is flooded. Some hikers who are hiking ahead of me have already either bailed or flipfloped or skipped to other sections. On Friday I will be in White Springs. My guidebook says that the trail will be impassable if the water level of the Suwanneh in White Springs is over 60 ft. Right now the water level there is 66 ft. and that does not look good. I will see what to do once I am there.

VIP treatment

Hiking around the Orlando area included a lot of road walks, but it also had a wonderful side: I met a lot of trail angels! I slept in a bed for nights in a row! Jon and Joan treated me like a visiting royalty. They even invited my to their monthly chapter meeting where I was given the opportunity to give a little talk about my thruhike. Most interesting for me about that was actually meeting the people who create and maintain the trail and hear about their problem and challenges. I still do not like roadwalks, but now that I have learnt about the reason behind some of the roadwalks and the efforts to put the trail back into the woods, they seem to be less awful. Thanks a lot to all the FT volunteers who look after such a challenging trail!

FT bridge near Oviedo
When I left Oviedo on the (paved) Seminole bike path I had some very unexpected trail magic: I ran into two guys who looked like a mixture out of homeless, hikers and workers - and turned out to be bird watchers! We chatted for a minute when one of them offered me his gloves! (It was very cold that day...). Very nice knitted gloves! I felt I could not accept that offer but the bird enthusiat just told me to put them into the trail register mail box in Seminole Forest - he would retrieve them some other day on a bird excursion.

And more trail magic later that day: I was on the final stretch of the road walk when suddenly a car stopped and out came Carl and Lynn, local FT members who had heard my little talk at the chapter meeting. This is a small world. We chatted a bit and they left - just to come back a little later to bring me some backpacker gourmet food! I usually eat Lipton side dishes and Idahoan mashed potatoes, but that was real dehydrated gourmet food! I was eating very well the next days. Thank you Carl and Lynn!

And still more trail magic: A couple of days later I stayed with Ken Smith, another FT trail angel in Belleview. He picked me up on the trail together with a local hiking friend of his - and it turned out that I had met his friend in 2008 on the AT! Again, this is a small world.... Ken Smith is 82 years old and a truly amazing guy. When he had turned 80, he organized a hike called "Over 80 across Florida". This was a 110 miles hike across Florida and you had to be older than 80 to participate. Their oldest participant was 90 (!) and I was told that he married his 80-year old girl friend after finishing the hike. How amazing! I stayed with Ken's daughter overnight and Ken brought me back to the trail after a very hearty breakfast. Life can be good on the Florida Trail.

How to get myself into trouble...

Well, first the good news: After my scary experience at Avon Park Airforce Base I obediently called Camp Blanding, which is a National Guard training ground, whether I could hike through. I was cleared and had a nice and uneventful hike across the camp.

FT trail blaze
Now the bad news: Just some days before that I was hiking through Ocala National Forest - 70 miles without road walk! I was thoroughly enjoying it when I suddenly came across a tape across the trail and a sign saying: Area temporarily closed due to prescribed burn. There was no date or detour given, I could not see or smell any smoke and the tape and sign looked pretty old anyways. So I decided to do what probably most thruhikers would have done: I thought this is an old sign and hiked on. Of course I checked for signs of forest fires, but I could not see or smell anything for 2 miles and came to the conclusion that it probably HAD been an old sign. But I was wrong, terribly wrong. All of a sudden I saw smoke and then I saw the fire directly ahead of me. And I heard the helicopters above me which monitored the prescribed burn. I started feeling decidedly uncomfortable. I did not feel in any danger -the fire was still almost 1 mile away -, but what should I do now?

Forest after a prescribed burn

Exactly at that point the trail took a 90 degree turn away from the fire and I could see a big forest road with a truck on it about half a mile away. And so I decided to hike on - away from the fire, still feeling uncomfortable, but not in danger. I had not even hiked a quarter mile when the helicopter spotted me. The pilot sounded a siren and I was shouted at with a megaphone from out of the helicopter. This is when I started to feel very uncomfortable.... I could not understand what they very shouting at me but the whole situation was pretty scary: Here I was illegally in the middle of a huge forest with a fire not even a mile away and a helicopter hovering above me. Maybe I was in danger? I started running along the trail and for sure there was another little fire coming up just next to the trail. It was just a patch of fire and still some yards away from the trail but I got very scared at that point - and almost immediately exited onto the forest road, where a fire truck was already waiting for me. I was rather shaken! I had never been in any real danger, but I realised how stupid I had been. The rangers just asked me about other hikers and told me that there was no fire on the other side of the forest road - and so I just hiked on and tried to recover fromt the shock.

I learnt a lot from that experience and will never ever ignore any signs warning against prescribed burns. Unfortunately, I have become too cautious now: Whenever I hear some helicopter overhead, I think there is a forest fire - and there are a lot of helicopters here.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

A rest day in Oviedo

Eventually, after almost 3 weeks on the Florida Trail I am having a rest day. I definitely should have had one earlier, but as always early in a trail I just want to hike.
I am staying with a trail angel in Oviedo, FL, who is exactly the same person who sort of lured me into this whole trail with a presentation he had given at the Gathering in 08. And now, 1,5 years later I am staying with him and his girlfriend.

Hot Spring
It is heavenly to sleep in a real bed again - actually for the first time since I have arrived in the US. Jon and Joan are treating me very nicely with good food and great company. Jon even took me to a sightseeing trip today and we saw literally hundreds of manatees (also called sea cows und fuer die Deutschen Seekuehe). I expected to see a lot of stuff in Florida, but manatees were not among them. We also got a lot of organizational stuff done and then we even went to shop at an ALDI. What a treat - I felt like back home in Germany. Right now I am spoiling my appetite with real German Aldi chocolate.
Life is good again!

Law enforcement and the military

I had been warned by other hikers that I would be stopped by the police very often. There is a huge homeless problem in Florida and the police just want to make sure you are not going to cause trouble. So when I was (un)happily hiking along a road on a very rainy day a police car drove by, stopped, turned around and came up to me. I put on my happiest smile and prepared for the worst. Inside was a very nice police officer who immediately offered me help. No stupid questions, no ID check - just a offer of help. No, thank you, there was not anything he could do for me (he could not stop the rain, couldn't he?). But maybe he knew the weather forecast? No, he didn't. He left after offering help 2 more times - but came back 5 minutes later. So what was wrong now? Well, he said, he just went to a place with cell phone reception to call his mom (yes, his mother!!!) to find out about the weather forecast - and had come back to give it to me!!! I was impressed.

Stile into a military base
The FT crosses several military installations - the first one for me was Avon Park Airforce Base. This park is usually open to hikers on weekends, but can close anytime for military operations. I was supposed to call them and find out, but well, I did not. So I just arrived at the Southern gate's information kiosk to see a notice posted with this week's trail closures. And it was of course just my luck that at this very day from 1100 to 2100 it said: "Closures as required". So what did that mean now? Closed or not closed or closed in certain sections or what? I decided to play stupid and decided to hike on. I started to regret that decision when about 1 hour later two helicopters showed up and started practice shooting - about 1 mile from where I was hiking. "RATTTATTTATATTTA" and helicopters overhead all the time. I started to feel like in a Vietnam war movie - only that this was not a movie, but reality. The shooting would not cease and the trail did not veer from it either. First I was just scared that some military might stop me, but soon I was more worried about not getting killed. At that point I did not have much choice and just hiked on. The shooting would not cease until 9 pm and by that point I was pretty convinced that the trail had indeed been closed. But I had made it through alive without being arrested - and was rewarded with a free solar panel cold shower at the designated camp site that was predictably empty.

The Florida Trail - a love/hate relationship

First of all to all you who were worried: I am still alive! I have not died of water poisoning, have not been eaten by an alligator or shot by a Bushkie. I have just hiked a 9 day stretch without resupply - and now I am only half dead...

Trail in the swamp
What do I think of the Florida Trail now? I love it and I hate it - there is not much in between on this trail. The FT is one of the hardest trail I have hiked so far - physically and psychologically.
Physically it is hard because you are either walking for days on end on pavement creating blisters and God knows what foot problems OR you are wading through knee deep water with a speed of 1 mph. There is not much in between. I can only dream about nice graded trail like on the PCT and even the AT seems easy in comparison. I had to cut down on my daily mileage. Usually it is no problem for me to average 20 - 22 miles per day. Here - even with almost 12 hours of daylight - I am dead after 20 miles. I set up my tent, cook dinner and then immediately lay down because I hurt so much. It takes about 3 hours for the pain in my feet and hips to subside. I have a huge blister on my big toe for more than 2 weeks now... I cut down to 17 miles per day and things are a little bit better now.

Mummified fish
Psychologically it is hard to stay motivated on all those long roadwalks when you just hurt and want it to be over with. Water is another big issue. There is water everywhere - you just don't want to drink it!!! In the best of cases it is swamp water which is dark brown but at least tastes ok. Or it is tap water which is clear but tastes of sulphur. Unfortunately, most of the time it is river or canal water and there is still all these dead fish in it - now in a very bad state of decay. And to put it politely: This decay reflects in the taste of the water. Even the water in New Mexico on the CDT tastes great compared to that. So you have a choice of either dehydrate or drink stinky brown dead fish water.

Oak trees with Spanish moss
But there are the "love" aspects as well. I have never ever hiked through such an interesting ecosystem. Sometimes you feel like hiking through a fairy tale forest: Huge old oak trees covered with ferns and lichen, palmetto trees and saw grass everywhere - just absolutely wonderful. Or the huge cypress swamps: It is a pain to wade through, but they are just beautiful. Also the wildlife is pretty amazing: Bird everywhere, wild pigs, alligators, deer. I have even seen a black bear down in Big Cypress. Oh, did I mention the poisonous snakes....?