Saturday, November 21, 2015

Blackwater State Park and the dreaded road walk on US 90

The Blackwater River at Deaton's Bridge.  Trail walkers have their own dedicated walkway, then pass the sandy beach seen at left.

"Key West or Bust" - Days 54, 55, and 56

I've made it to Crestview, FL and am holed up in a motel.  I will be getting off the trail for the Thanksgiving break, taking more zero days than I'd like because of real world snags and snafu's.  I don't bother readers with this sort of stuff unless it makes an entertaining story.  In this case it doesn't.

So as usual I'll stick to describing the trail and my experience with it - who and what I saw and what they made me think about.

I saw Blackwater River State Park and hiked the last of the Blackwater Spur Trail.  The park was far more humdrum than I expected - really quite an anticlimax.  There was the view of the river from the walkway over Deaton's Bridge shown above, but otherwise there was just routine woodland and a boring walk along a service/maintenance road. The river was high but not so high that I had to get my feet wet anywhere.  It did, perhaps, help make this little hidden reflecting pool a prettier sight.

The most interesting part of the 'foot traffic only' part of this hike was the man-made stuff, specifically a freshly clear-cut Longleaf Restoration area with tiny little Longleaf seedlings getting themselves established.

Then I began the road walk.  Almost immediately, in the little hamlet of Harold, I came upon the first real orange blaze at the junction of the Blackwater Spur Trail with the honest-to-goodness Florida Trail.  Not much to look at, but this was a 'Florida Trail or Bust' milepost for me.

I had not been looking forward to walking along busy US highway 90 with its 60-mile-per-hour speed limit and the roar of log trucks and other eighteen wheelers, but there was a surprise waiting for me, and the orange blazes helped me to understand and utilize it:

There is a very wide public right-of-way beside the highway.  It's grassy and consistently well mown except in a very few wet spots.  It's level and easy to walk, and it's well away from traffic ... that is, from rubber-wheeled traffic anyway.

They're building a new bridge over the Yellow River, but getting through the construction zone was no hassle.  It appears that the new bridge makes no special accommodation for foot or bicycle traffic, and that's a disappointment.

The Yellow River

Finally I got to Crestview and walked their 'historic' downtown.  2016 marks the 100th anniversary of this city's incorporation - an interesting co-incidence with the 50th anniversary of the Florida Trail.

It's a quiet downtown - not a lot of tourist hype.  Honestly, most of the action is on US 90 and FL 85, and there's a big mega-church in downtown that treats Main Street as if it was a back alley.  But farther north they've spruced up the street with ornate lamp posts and nice brick paving.

The north end of downtown is where the government buildings are, and the war memorial.  It's the elegant part of town - for me it was the best part of the 4.2 miles of sidewalk walking that Crestview provides.

I'll be back in Crestview in less than a week, and starting the walk though Eglin Air Base - more foot-travel-only trail!  Yay!

Below are two maps of the hikes covering the western and the eastern half of the road walk, and there are a few more photos to see.

Florida Trail - Blackwater River to Holt at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find hiking trails in California and beyond

Florida Trail road walk through Crestview at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find trail maps for California and beyond

Forest Fire! Hiking the blazing inferno

"Key West or Bust" - Days 52 and 53

The Firemen of Blackwater State
Have a rather unusual trait:
It's their fondest desire
to set Forests on Fire!
(And to let the poor thru-hiker wait.)

Sandra Friend and John Keatley warned me in their Florida Trail Guidebook:  Beware the Firemen of Blackwater State Forest.  They're likely to burn the trail any time of the year with little notice.

That was their plan on this day, and I was totally oblivious to it.

I was hiking directly into a death trap.

Fortunately one of their advance-men - they guy with the bulldozer who's responsible for putting in the fire lines - passed by and noticed me parked in a spot that would be nothing but cinders and ash two hours later.  He guided me to a safe place to park and pointed me in the other direction along the trail - away from the prescribed burn - because the section I wanted to hike was going up in flames.

That was Day 52.  I hiked just five miles - all north of the fire zone that day - then checked out the progress of the Fire Men's work (photo up top and below), deciding to take the rest of the day to scout ahead and rest, so that I could hike through the fire zone the next day rather than do a boring road walk around it.

So the next day I got the reward - a hike through still-smoldering woodland. 

Longleaf Pine trees, as a species, depend on fire.  It suppresses their competition.  They've learned to tolerate fire better than most other tree species.  But this day I learned that not all individuals benefit.  I passed two mature Longleaf trees like the one shown below, that had some vulnerability near ground level.  They burned and fell over in the night.  They were still burning when I passed.

The occasional individual is sacrificed for the good of the community.  That is one of nature's tough lessons.

The rest of Day 53 was equally rewarding.  I hiked the Juniper Creek - Red Rocks section and encountered what surely must be some of the most rugged terrain that Florida has to offer.  This is Florida's answer to the Grand Canyon--thirty to forty feet of vertical drop!

I hiked past some late season carnivorous pitcher plants, still trying to lure bugs into their trap with gaudy coloration:

And I hiked many miles along the shores of Juniper Creek.  It is a wonderfully clear stream, with a white sandy bottom.

And the white sandy beaches abound - there's one at every bend in the stream.

It felt like a very rewarding day.  I felt fulfilled ... satisfied ... even lightheaded, as if I had crossed into some timeless realm where I could witness the master builder him/herself at their eternal work.  But in the end he/she brought me back to reality with one simple expressive sight.  "Be not content at what has been shown to you, for it is not the end of wonders.  Seek on, young pilgrim.  There are many more questions you must answer," declared this modest young Longleaf Pine.

And I walked on in silence.


Below is the map of these two days of adventure. 

Juniper Creek and Red Rocks, Blackwater State Forest at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find trail maps for California and beyond

Hiking Blackwater River and Hurricane Lake

Evening Primrose growing in Longleaf Pine Savanna, with glimpses of Hurricane Lake in the background.

"Key West or Bust" - Day 51

It's great to be hiking in Florida, finally, after anticipating it for so long.

And now that I'm here, Florida is delivering pretty much everything I expected.  The weather is Florida-like--warm and humid even here in mid-late November.  The flora and fauna are reminiscent of my coastal North Carolina haunts, but even more 'southern', the sandy 'geology', and the general flatness of the trail are typical for Florida.  But was not typical for me, after 180 miles of road walk through Alabama, was the chance to spend an entire day hiking in the wild, away from vehicles and civilization.

I hiked about sixteen miles today, and my path took me alongside Hurricane Lake, where the trail walks across the dam and provides views like this.

It's a peaceful place, surrounded by peaceful woods.  Here's my favorite view;

Then later in the day the trail came within touching distance of the Blackwater River itself. 

There were big cedars that seem to grow only along the river banks, and every bend in the River has big white sand 'beaches' - sand bars that invite the hiker to lounge and take a dip, though the water was a bit too chilly for me.

In terms of special interest sights, the fall bloom of wildflowers has not abated, as shown up top.  And I continue to be impressed by the sculptures that fire creates in the woods.  Here is nature's version of a 'Totem Pole'.

The Florida experience is just beginning.  I'm sure there will be ups and downs, sections that seem boring and tedious, and sections full of surprise and adventure.  But if the first full day is any indication, it should be a memorable walk.

Below is a map of today's route, with links to some more photos:

Blackwater River and Hurricane Lake at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find hiking trails in California and beyond

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Made it to Florida! - hiking Conecuh National Forest

Kiosk with Florida Trail information at the state line.  But there was no 'photo-op' - no 'Welcome to Florida' sign.  And the blazes were blue, not the famous Florida Trail orange - read on for a discussion of whether this is the Florida Trail or just a spur trail.  What's beyond dispute is that I'VE MADE IT TO FLORIDA!!!

"Florida or Bust" - Days 49 and 50

It took fifty day hikes for me to travel on foot from the Appalachian Trail at Springer Mountain to the start of the Florida Trail.

When I reached the state line I found no 'Welcome to Florida' sign so I had to settle for a selfie facing back toward Alabama where the first yellow blaze is accompanied by a National Forest Boundary sign.  South of there I'm in Florida's Blackwater State Forest.

The hike through Alabama's Conecuh (pronounced 'ka-NECK-uh' by the locals) National Forest was mostly on lightly traveled forest roads, and nobody here mistook me for a 'broke down' ne'er-do-well.  One gentleman driving by did stop, but only to declare "Great day for a walk!" to which I heartily agreed.

The best part was the 2.2 miles of real Conecuh Trail - a 20 mile loop of footpath built by the Youth Conservation Corps starting in the mid '70's.  The part that the Alabama Hiking Trail Society designates as part of the walk from the Pinhoti Trail to Florida passed through Longleaf Pine Savanna - always a pleasure to walk:

But the road walks in the National Forest were far better here than on paved residential roads.  I especially enjoyed very lightly used FR 355 near the north end.

When I got on FR 305, which I was obligated to walk for eleven miles, there were some very pretty places.  Take this 'oak bower' for example.

And there was a short side trip to picturesque Otter Pond

But by the time I got near the end, it just felt like a long, straight slog.

The next day, too, was just ordinary road, including a mile of paved road, before I reached the state line and the ... well, is it the Florida Trail or isn't it?

There seems to be significant confusion about that.  I've started down the Blackwater Spur trail.  The trail itself is now blazed blue, clearly recently overpainted from the original Florida Trail orange.  And there's a significant orange blaze right at the state line, even before hikers reach the welcoming Kiosk, visible in the background in this shot:

All the signs along the way--and there are big diamond signs at every major road intersection--say 'This is the Florida Trail'.

What's more, according to the Florida Trail Association hiking the Blackwater Spur instead of hiking the final western section to Fort Pickens counts toward their 'End-to-End Certificate.'

And yet the blazes were changed to blue.  That makes me feel like it's not a legitimate part of the FT.

Feeling legitimate means more to me than it might to some.  My sense of purpose is what drives me.  I'm 'hanging my hat' on the fact that if I hike Blackwater and then pick up the orange blazes at the trail junction in the little town of Harold, and head east, skipping the orange blazed section west along the beaches to the western terminus at Fort Pickens, I will, in fact, still be considered to have thru-hiked the Florida Trail.

My next immediate goal is to hike to my new residence at Keystone Heights, about halfway through the Florida Trail.  But my hope and intent is to go beyond.  In fact I hope to continue past the end of the Florida Trail to the end of the Eastern Continental Trail - to the end of US land itself, by hiking the Overseas Highway to Key West.  So from now on, my introduction to these reports (the day numbers will continue the same) will declare:

"Key West or Bust"

This will be a new adventure.  If the weather continues wet, there will be significant wading through swamps--and there may be impassable sections.  Let the fun begin!

Below are two maps of the days reported here, with links to more photos:

The Conecuh Trail - Eastern Continental Trail portion only at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Alabama

Crossing into Florida via the Great Eastern Trail at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Alabama

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The LBWCC Recreational Trail - an alternative way through Andalusia

View of the Evans Barnes Golf Course and the Lurleen B. Wallace Community College Recreational Trail (foreground) as seen from the Andalusia, AL, Walmart parking lot.

"Florida or Bust" - Days 45 through 48

Andalusia, Alabama is a quiet southern town surrounded by beautiful farm and ranch country.  Its southern charm is infectious.  Hiking through here will be a pleasure no matter what route you take.  I chose to scout a route that was different from the one suggested by the Alabama Hiking Trail Society, and in doing so I found that I could include a true gem of a one-mile off-road trail in my thru-hike.

My logistics, traveling with two vehicles, favored a route that included the big Walmart in Andalusia.  And to my delight, this Walmart happens to be strategically located right next to Lurleen B. Wallace  Community College Andalusia Campus, and to the 1.8 mile Recreational and interpretive nature trail (tree species are labeled with signs) that loops around campus and around the Evans Barnes public golf course that is included on campus.

As you can see from the photo above, the views from the trail along the golf course are 'killer'.  Here are a few more views of and from the trail.

This off-road respite lasted about a mile, but it made the four day road walk I'm reporting in this post all worthwhile.  North of Andalusia I walked quiet roads along the 'official' route, passed through the little town of Dozier and down past Straughn School.  Then just before reaching US 29 I deviated to go down Sutton Road.  I've prepared a map of my route (in orange) and including the 'official' route (in green).  The official route also uses a bit of off-road trail through Robinson Park, but it's much shorter.

I've divided the above map into three more readable pieces:

Here's an areal photo view of the detail around the LBWCC Recreational Trail and the adjacent Wal-Mart parking lot.  The off road portion is in yellow dots, with the less attractive part of the 1.8 mile LBWCC loop trail, which goes around the sports complex, indicated in orange dots.

On the south side of Andalusia there are some beautiful homes and huge farms.  I met Tammy Wiggins Holt there, on Beaver Dam Road - her husband farms several thousand acres.  I passed a gorgeous cattle ranch with expansive pastures, several huge ponds, and a true work of art over their entrance gate.  There's even a tornado included in this sheet metal art work.  Can you spot it?

Then I really got out in the country.  The last mile of Bay Branch Road is not paved, and goes through a sand-clay canyon.

I spotted a pond turtle -- Eastern Painted Turtle, to be specific -- trying to get between ponds, so had to disturb him briefly to get a shot of his true colors, since his back was so featureless

And I ended that day with a spectacular sunset.  I will miss Andalusia!

Here are a set of four maps from EveryTrail trip reports.  They include quite a few more photos taken along the way.

Florida or Bust - Day 45, Hiking along CR 77 in Crenshaw County at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Alabama

Florida or Bust - Day 46, CR 77 to Dozier, AL at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Alabama

Florida or Bust - Day 47: Dozier to Andalusia at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Alabama

Florida or Bust - Day 48: Andalusia to the Conecuh trail at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Alabama