Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Florida Trail: Tamiami Trail to I-75

This past weekend I joined a group of hikers for a 3-day backpacking adventure through the section of the Florida Trail that crosses Big Cypress between the Oasis Visitor Center on Tamiami Trail to Mile Marker 63 on I-75.  We were a group of 10 hikers with 2 others joining us just for one night who were then heading back to Oasis.  The weather had been pretty warm leading up to the trip but temperatures dropped quickly a few days before, which meant we wouldn't have to worry about bugs!  We met early on Saturday morning at the Oasis Visitor Center and finished some quick packing and making sure everyone was prepared with proper footwear and hiking poles.

We finally started hiking around 8:30 AM.  The trail was a lot easier than we thought it would be with water never being higher than ankle deep.  We stopped for lunch at 7-mile camp.  After eating, one member of our group who had hiked this section over 25 times took us into a cypress dome nearby to see the remnants of a Marine Bomber plane that had crashed there in the 1940s.  On the way there, we saw a Fish & Wildlife officer on a swamp buggy and invited him to join us in the dome.  It must have been a bad plane crash since pieces of the plane were all over the dome.

We headed on for the last 3 miles to 10 mile camp, some of which had some very sticky mud that wore us out.  10 mile camp was very large.  It was nice, flat pineland with many scrub palmettos with many tent sites available.  We pitched our tents then headed to the nearby cypress dome to filter water.  We were able to collect lots of firewood for that evening since we knew it would get down to around 40 degrees.  We had a relaxing evening around the campfire.  Because the site way fairly open we were able to view the stars and watch the moon rise.  We were all in bed by 9:30 though.

Relaxing at 10 Mile Camp

Our tent

Being fashionable at camp

Sunset at 10 Mile Camp

The next morning we got a bit of a late start at 9 AM.  According to our maps, we had 12.2 miles to get to Oak Hill Camp.  The plan was to stop at 13-mile camp for lunch.  13-mile camp is actually 7 miles north of 10-mile camp but is 13 miles from I-75.  The first bit of trail was very muddy and wet.  But the whole morning we were in and out of cypress/mud and pines/grass.  The neat thing about hiking in shallow mud is being able to see all the animal tracks.  We saw panther, coyote, deer, and raccoon tracks all along the FT.  At one point we were on dry land for quite a while which allowed us to pick up some speed.  We got to our lunch spot at around 1 PM.  13-mile camp is quite overgrown and not very large.  It is dry, though, with some palms and pines.

Heading out from 10 Mile Camp

Trail at start of Day 2

We were under the impression that it was only another 5.2 miles to get to Oak Hill Camp with a halfway point at what was marked as "Barbed Wire Fence" on the map.  Leaving at 1:45 PM we figured we would get to camp in plenty of time.  Unfortunately, we did not know what type of terrain lied ahead.  I ended up hiking mostly with my dad in the afternoon and the first section wasn't too bad but we kept wondering why it was taking so long to find the fence.  We finally got there around 3:30 PM.  That meant we still had 2.6 miles to go with sunset being at 6 PM.  After leaving the fence, you find yourself in complete cypress forest walking through knee deep, uneven sticky mud and water.  

Very wet trail

This slowed us down tremendously.  I had chosen to wear Keen sandals which was not smart since the mud was pulling them off my feet every 10 steps, slowing me down even more.  We were already tired from hiking so this section just sapped the rest of our energy.  What else was frustrating was that the sun was slowly getting closer to the horizon and there were no pine trees or dry land in sight.  Finally around 5:45 PM when we only had about 15-20 minutes left of day light, we saw some pine trees up ahead.  We figured we could at least stop there and retrieve our headlamps to navigate in the dark.  You can imagine our excitement when we realized that this was our campsite.  2 others from our group had already arrived and had the fire going.  However, there were still 6 other hikers way behind us.  We collected water and tried to have things ready to help the others when they arrived after dark.  The last group finally arrive at 6:15 PM.  Just as the last rays of sun disappeared.  According to our trip leader's GPS, we had hiked 14 miles that day, without ever leaving the trail.  This meant that the map numbers were not accurate for that section.  Exhausted and dehydrated, we ate dinner and sat around the campfire.

Relaxing at Oak Hill Camp

In the morning we were able to appreciate the beauty of Oak Hill Camp.  There are oaks, palms, and many other types of trees on this small area of raised land in a sea of cypress swamp.  There are a few tent areas with a main trail going through the "island".  The best place we found to collect water from was right on the trail.  There isn't a whole lot of privacy here and when nature calls you end up having to bushwhack through some brushy areas.  Luckily, the weather was chilly because had it not been, this would have been mosquito heaven.  Overall, I would recommend camping at Oak Hill Camp, but if coming from 10-mile camp, make sure to get an early start.  On our last day, we packed up camp and got a bit of an earlier start at 8:30 AM.  Our pickup time at I-75 was set for 3 PM and we didn't want to make anyone wait.  It was 7-8 miles back to the highway.  We agreed to meet at Ivy Camp for lunch.

First part of trail on Day 3

The last morning was by far the worst part of the trail.  I didn't know there were that many types of mud. Throughout the trip we hiked through sticky mud, dry mud, shallow mud, cottage cheese mud, squishy get the picture.  The 4 miles between Oak Hill Camp and Ivy Camp were through knee deep water with squishy/sticky mud and uneven ground underneath it.  Not being the front, you can't see the bottom so you have no idea if the ground you are stepping on will be 4 inches under the water or 12.  The best way to described it is that you feel like a drunk, blind person trying to walk on sand with bricks tied to your feet.  Normally, I only use one hiking pole but I think I would have been better off with two since I kept my pole in my right hand and was grabbing onto any small cypress tree I could with my left.  To fix my shoe situation, I had wrapped the tightening elastic around my ankles, which caused the plastic piece to dig into my skin which hurt a lot but it was really the only choice I had.  We were exhausted after 1.5 hours of hiking and found we were only doing about a 45-minute mile.  It tooks us 3 hours of non-stop hiking to get the Ivy Camp.  Ivy Camp was very small with almost no privacy but it did have to beautiful cypress domes nearby.

Stopped for lunch at Ivy Camp

Seven of us had our lunch there while waiting for the last three hikers.  After 45 minutes, we called them on our hand held radios and they said they were stopping at a previous hammock we had seen for lunch since they were too tired but would get back on the trail soon.  We told them we were going to head out and that instead of taking the trail the whole way, we were going to take a service road to shave off 1/2 mile.  The service road was mostly underwater but at least the mud underneath was a bit firmer and easier to walk on.  We were able to blast through the last 3-4 miles in no time.  The FT eventually merges with this road and we arrived at I-75 around 2:45 PM.  The 3 hikers in the back had only reached Ivy Camp at 2 PM due to water filtering issues and assumed the afternoon was going to be as difficult and radioed to us that they probably wouldn't be out until 6 PM.  We told them to take the service road since it was much easier and it wouldn't take them that long.  Unfortunately, they missed the road turnoff and followed the trail back, but got there around 4 PM.

We made it!

The Florida Trail makes the Appalachian Trail seem luxurious with all its shelters and picnic tables.  On the Florida Trail, you're just happy to have dry land.  This was one of the most exhausting trips I have even been on.  I haven't yet decided if I would do it again.  For anyone interested in doing this section, here is some advice:

Footwear:  Do not wear Keens or any other type of sandal that allows in debris.  The first 2 days, I wore Keens with no socks and I was constantly stopping to pull twigs and rocks out of my shoes.  These types of shoes also build up a 1/2" layer of mud between the sole and your foot.  On day 3, I wore socks with them and this kept out most of the debris but they were still full of mud.  Keens are just not built to withstand this kind of abuse since mine were brand new when I started and by the time I finished, a lot of the glue and stitching had come undone.  The hikers in our group who had no problem at all were all wearing minimalist sneakers.  Even my dad just wore a basic pair of Reebok sneakers and didn't have any issues with the mud.  Also, I highly recommend socks because we found that those without socks were getting bitten by black water beetles.

Pants:  Wear long pants!  Yes they were get a bit heavier from being wet, but if you don't your legs will be completely cut up from the sawgrass.

Weather:  Most of the campsite would be insanely buggy if it were not cool out, especially Oak Hill and Ivy Camps.  Make sure to pack bugspray if it is not going to be cold out.

Pack weight:  Walking on that kind of terrain already throws your balance of tremendously, so having a light pack is key.  No one in our group had a pack over 30 lbs and no one had problems with their weight.