7: Hurricanes & the Fire Swamp

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The swamp forest of St. Mark’s Wildlife Refuge is a muddy mess. We slip and slide our way down the trail through the muck and over dead trees and fallen palm fronds. Lorax has already taken a fall while crossing a precarious “bridge” of rotting logs. Eventually, the Florida Trail transitions to a much easier, but less adventurous, levee walk along the vast coastal estuary of the Big Bend.

Making our way toward the visitor’s center, we pick out innumerable alligators and water birds. Suddenly, another hiker calls out to us from the Ring Dike campsite. Her name is Kato, and she is heading sobo. She cautions us about a habituated bear at the Indian Prairie campsite miles ahead for us. The bear circled her camp, alarming her so badly that she packed up and night hiked five more miles to sleep inside the pit toilets at Porter Lake.

Lorax, Kato, & Stetch at Ring Dike

The park is doing prescribed burns today, and several trucks decked out with fire gear pass us on our way to the St. Mark’s River. Upon reaching the shore of the river, the marina across the way seems uninhabited. This is not good since our instructions in Guthooks (the app we use to navigate) say to hail the boatmen across the way for a ford. We call out in vain across the river at the seemingly empty marina. Luckily, we have reservations at the Shell Island Fish Camp. After a quick phone call, they come to our rescue, ferrying us directly to the restaurant across the small channel for a food binge.

Lorax & RamboJuice waiting for the St. Mark’s Ferry

Pack o’ Pit Bulls

The next day is Valentine’s. All three of us, sit along the bar at The Shack eating chocolate-covered strawberries. We luxuriate over breakfast before walking to the Dollar General for resupply. Along the way, we pass a road called Hope Lane and laugh when we notice the sign adjacent it that says “dead end”. The Lorax is going into Tallahassee today, and we give him big hugs before we return to the woods.

Back in St. Mark’s Refuge, the ribbon of trail through the swamp forest continues in its muddy, overgrown manner. We walk on the Cathedral of Palms Trail, breaking at the lovely Shepherd Spring. A small alligator trolls the waters quietly and mosquitoes try to penetrate our wall of Deet.

Shepherd Spring

Upon leaving the Refuge, we begin the roadwalk north into Medart. Because it’s Valentine’s Day, we make for the Magnuson Hotel where there is a prime rib buffet tonight at the adjoining clubhouse. Hikers will do anything for a buffet. We are exhausted as we trudge along the bike path nearing to the hotel. The last thing in the world that we need right now is a pack o’ pit bulls.

Guess what though? That’s exactly what we got. Charging out of the woods comes a pack o’ 4 pit bulls hackles up, growling and barking ferociously. RamboJuice suddenly transforms into the scariest person ever as he yells and charges straight at the dogs. They turn on a dime and yelp, fleeing back into the forest. I jump, too, startled by the feral man next to me. I chuckle. Way to go, Rambo. P.S. the buffet was good.

Bluffs of Sopchoppy

We suffer from prime-rib hangover as we roadwalk out of Medart the next day. Disappearing into the Apalachicola National Forest, the beauty of the Sopchoppy River is both a delight and a curse. The sandy bluffs above the tame, tannic waters march us up and down continuously. Cypress Trees of immense age grow out of the river’s waters. Their roots, called “knees”, rise from the waters and banks. Over the years, the roots have intertwined intricately, creating awe-inspiring clumps of natural wonder.

Cypress Knees on the Sopchoppy

At the end of the day, we land at Martian Camp. Helicopters pass noisily overhead and thick smoke billows into the sky above the forest on the opposite side of the river. We sit on a sturdy bridge near camp to watch the controlled burn from a safe distance. The flames lick the trees. Popping and cracking sounds emanate from the woods. The fire disappears only to reappear five minutes later with renewed fervor. It’s better than watching TV for sure. We are perfectly poised to enter the infamous Bradwell Bay Wilderness tomorrow.

Into the Fire Swamp

Titi Swamp

Laden with anticipation, we enter the Bradwell Bay Wilderness early the next morning. After a few hours of hiking, I start to wonder if the Titi trees and waist-deep water I’ve heard so much about are a myth. Then, it happens. We’re immersed in the swampiest Titi thicket. Our first experience is to pass within a foot of an open-mouthed water moccasin. Whoa! I yell out in alarm at the snake.

Titi Swamp

This place is unreal. The Titi tree branches seem contorted, curving outward in all directions. It gives the swamp a strangely ominous feel. The water looks like weak coffee, and we begin our travels through this untamed, watery wilderness.

Orange blazes help us find our way. We look for them constantly, clinging to the security they bring. Pollen and oils from the trees settle on the pools, covering the water with pleasing green swirls and rainbow patterns like gasoline in the sunlight. Clouds of mosquitoes hang languidly in the air.

Secrets of the Fire Swamp

We travel deeper and deeper into the swamp. Sometimes the brush becomes thick and we clamber over blowdowns. Then the brush opens up to reveal the swamp’s greatest treasure ancient Cypress trees with bulbous trunks. The water becomes unnervingly deep. Under the darkness lies detritus and branches of all shapes and sizes.

Under the layer of dead leaves is soft mud. Each step is taken tentatively. Often what feels like secure footing isn’t, and you are suddenly plunged up to your waist, wading from one orange blaze to the next. The feelings evoked are a combination of disturbed and elation. We continue like this for miles, moving at a 1 mph pace. Gradually, the water retreats to ankle levels, and we are out of the thickest part of it. Still, we trudge onward all the way to Porter Lake where we set up our camp behind the very pit toilet visited by Kato. As I drift to sleep, one word comes to mind. Adventure. The Florida Trail is a weird adventure.

Great Wall of Titi

We begin to see evidence from Hurricane Michael while hiking through Apalachicola the next day. The trail becomes harder to traverse because of blowdowns. Titi swamps interspersed with drier spots cover the Florida Trail. We stop to empty our shoes of sand throughout the day and marvel at our legs, which are covered with mud splatter and bloody scrapes. Although we’re growing tired of muddy swamps, we marvel at the “walls” of thick Titi.

Pygmy Rattlesnake

As we near Camel Lake, our camp for the evening, the hurricane damage is incredible. It is clear that people have already been working to clear the numerous fallen trees at Camel Lake. We bathe in the lake, washing the caked mud from our legs. The water is turned off and the camp officially closed. We doubt anyone will kick up a stink for a couple of thru-hikers, so we set up our tent and collapse inside.

It’s a long, wet highway roadwalk into Bristol. We cinch the hoods of our rain jackets tight, put on our podcasts, and get it done. Stopping at a gas station, we devour some chicken tenders before hitting the Apalachee Restaurant for their comfort food buffet. We look like a couple of wet, muddy cats sitting in our booth grinning ear to ear. We have survived the fire swamp.

A Giant Angel

RamboJuice & Will at Hillcrest Baptist

Well, this is where the seemingly endless road walking begins. Hurricane Michael has devastated the Eastern Panhandle, closing areas of the trail. We cross the Apalachicola River and walk into Blountstown after a stay at the sketchy Airport Motel. The trees everywhere look like matchsticks snapped in half. Entire swaths of land are obliterated. Great piles of housing and furniture debris line the roads. We walk the roads around the Chipola River section amazed at the things we see along the way. Debris removal trucks buzz by constantly filled with trash. Roofs were ripped from homes. Trees lay on collapsed rooftops.

We’re having our lunch beside the Chipola River. A man pulls up and gets out of his vehicle. He is quite possibly a giant. Rambo is a big guy at 6′ 4″, but this man makes him look short. Can I take your picture? he asks. He posts the photo on the FT facebook page. I’m Will with Hillcrest Baptist. We have a hiker hut and food at the church, he explains. Do you guys need anything?

Hillcrest Hiker Haven

We tell Will that yesterday was President’s Day, so the post office in Bristol was closed. The motel was full there, and we were forced to move on without retrieving our new shoes. Will insists on driving us back to Bristol for the package, for which, we’re extremely grateful. We pass Lorax on the Apalachicola River bridge as we speed past and yell out the window at him”Hikertrash”! He laughs and waves enthusiastically.

Will takes us to the post and then drives us back to where he found us. We hike on towards the church where Will meets us again with cold water and hot pork chops. The church has a brand new Hiker hut, but it’s still early and we need to make more miles, so we press onward to Pine Lake RV Park. Hurricane clean-up crews fill the entire place. Taking pity on us, the staff give us a discount on a boxcar cabin. I’m feeling tired. Tomorrow we’re faced with an even more daunting road walk into Ebro, bypassing the obliterated Econfina section. Stay strong and hike on I think to myself as I drift into a fitful sleep.

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One Response

  1. Misti
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    I heard about Will a few days ago with Kelly Fairbanks posted about him. I’m so glad to know there is an option for camping during that roadwalk now. It was awful when we hiked through there, the Chipola section had not been completed so it was a complete roadwalk from Blountstown to Econfina, 30+ miles.

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