Sunday, December 13, 2015

Hiking Bradwell Bay Wilderness - the deep swamp

Big old swamp tupelos in the gnarliest section of Bradwell Bay swamp.  Every step here was a challenge.

"Key West or Bust" - Day 70

It's a dangerous place - Bradwell Bay Wilderness.  The Florida Trail sends the hiker into the depths of this swamp in order to show him/her a stand of pristine virgin forest - a place too remote and too treacherous even for heavy logging equipment.

I wasn't going to hike this.  I was going to skip it because winter is here and the water is cold.  The guide says you'll be hiking 3.9 miles at less than a mile per hour in water up to your waist.  That sounded like a prescription for hypothermia to me.

I wasn't going to hike this because the guide says there are deep mud holes that can suck off your shoes and pull apart your retractable hiking poles.  The guide says there are hidden submerged logs you'll be scrambling over.

I wasn't going to hike this because the guide said don't hike it alone.

But I did hike this.

Why?  Because I could.  First of all I had a unique weather-window - warm and dry. Second, I have the transportation.  I'm still thirty or forty miles shy of reaching Bradwell Bay on my linear west-to-east hike, but I can drive anywhere I want and do a circuit hike.

The conditions were right today, but the window of opportunity was going to close.  It hadn't rained in a couple weeks but rain was in the forecast.  Today was forecast to be sunny and in the low 80's, but much cooler weather was promised in coming days.

I figured it was now or never.

And still - even with this window of opportunity - I was only going to go to the South Trailhead and 'check it out' - stick my toes in the water and see how it felt.  My plan was to hike just a little way in and turn around and come back out--hike only as far as I felt confident and comfortable.

Well, that turned out to be all the way.  The water wasn't as deep as advertised.  I stumbled into one of those nasty holes and got wet up to my knee.  I stumbled and nearly fell when I hit another hole, and splashed water on my butt.  But other than that the water never got more than calf-deep.

And since it was that shallow, the cold wasn't a problem.  So I just kept going.  I never felt uncomfortable or scared - only worried about staying on the trail, because in the middle, where it's deepest, the blazing isn't the best.  You can hardly blame the maintainers.  It's hard enough just to go through, let alone stop and paint trees on the way.

So here's the breakdown of the deep swamp as I experienced it hiking east to west.  The access is on very lightly used forest road - passable but with a few big potholes.

The trailhead is a nice fenced grassy space with a friendly sign.

After a short walk through dry savanna you plunge into the dark growth.  It reminded me of Fangorn Forest from 'Lord of the Rings', or Mirkwood from 'The Hobbit'.

The water becomes continuously ankle deep, but the footing is solid and there are no holes.

Then you come right back out onto dry ground - Bradwell Island, where you can camp.  I thought this was in the middle of the swamp, but it's much more on the east side, before the deep stuff.

The first of the deep stuff was really fun.  Here's where the big trees are.  The guide said there are 'champion girth' cypresses, but I missed those.  The big trees were tall and straight and huge,

and some of them were sitting in calf-deep flowing water.  Flowing, and with a solid, very firm sandy bottom.  This is a stream.  I didn't expect a stream.

Then there's a bit of a break, almost dry again, then comes the tough part.  It's all swamp tupelos here.  Here's where there are holes in unexpected places.  The real reason to water-proof everything you carry is not because the water is deep but because you're prone to losing your balance and falling in.

Finally, the trail suddenly becomes straight, the big trees disappear, and you realize that on either side of you the ground is often dry.  You're now hiking in an old road or tramway.  The water is deep but it is not natural swamp.  It is a rutted road made by the machines.

Here I came across one of the denizens of the deep.  I think it was a Florida Cottonmouth.  I saw it about the same instant that it saw me.  Standoff.  Then it warily slithered out of the water and into the brush.

Not long after that I was out at the west trailhead with another friendly sign.

I switched to my spare pair of dry socks and started down the road--the swamp walk is not quite five miles but the road walk back was nine, and the scenery was much less varied.  The area was burned in the last month or so.  This stand of slash pine and saw palmetto caught my fancy.

But mostly I was just counting the miles.  I'm going to have to hike this same road again when I 'officially' pass through.  That's what I was going to do anyhow.   I was going to skip the deep dark swamp because it just sounded too daunting.  I thought I'd come back someday and join a scheduled group hike in order to fulfill the 'end-to-ender' requirements.  I'm so glad I didn't put it off because 'someday' is first cousin to 'tomorrow', and you know what they say about tomorrow.

Below is a map of the circuit hike, with a link to more photos.

Bradwell Bay Wilderness - the swamp section at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking near Tallahassee, Florida

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