Thursday, December 31, 2015

Hiking with gators - the outer dikes of St. Marks NWR

"Key West or Bust" - Day 79

Today rates three headline photos - it was that memorable.  I hiked in fog all day, never saw the sun, and yet the impression left on me sparkled like light through diamonds.

Until today I had never seen an alligator in the wild.  Today I lost count at about twenty-five and saw as many more before the end.  Here's just a sampling of a few more of the best shots:

Totally relaxed, this one looks like it's smiling
Young one, four or five feet, still with yellow eyes and skin pattern
Big ol' fat'n

This big guy surely approaches record size - he was easily twelve feet long, probably much more:

All the gators I saw were in the dike-regulated wetland areas of St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, barely a mile from the open Gulf of Mexico.  A stiff south wind was bringing fog in from the Gulf, and with it came the soft briny scents of the sea. The trail comes out of the woods and follows the open dikes through marsh-grass wetlands for several miles.

Out there the wind kept the mosquitoes away.  Within the 'protection' of the forest, they were rampant.  This shot only shows the ones that had landed.  For every one of the blood thirsty little suckers on my leg there were twenty more buzzing around me from head to toe.

Inland the trail through the Refuge follows gated service roads most of the way.  Even in the wilderness areas it followed former roads.  Yesterday on Port Leon Road I spotted two Lynx, also called Bobcats, but didn't get close enough to get a photo.  Today this deer on the East River Pool Levee Road was more cooperative.

The main east-west road through the Refuge is FR 105, Tram Road.  The trail follows an arrow-straight section of that for a couple miles, including crossing a tidal stream on this decaying old bridge.

But for me, the most memorable part was when I was out under the open sky on the Ring Levee.

The Ring Levee arcs through the open marsh grass, its course marked by the scattered palms.

There's a campground in the middle of this, accessible to both the long distance hiker and the long distance paddler, but four or five miles from the nearest place the public can reach by vehicle.

Because it is out in the open, amid a sea of marsh grass, yet wonderfully remote, this gets my vote for best campsite on the Florida Trail, at least so far. I'd have to share it with the gators and the 'skeeters, but it would be an honor.

Below is a map of the day's hiking, with links to many more photos.

Eastern half of St. Marks NWR at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking near Tallahassee, Florida

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Dodging raindrops and mosquitoes

Looking from the wilderness side across the St. Marks River to the town of St. Marks and the start of the Rail Trail portion of the Florida Trail.

"Key West or Bust" - Day 78

It was time for a day off.  The trail had been getting under my skin--or more literally, the mosquitoes had.  They had been rampant as I slogged through wet areas of Apalachicola National Forest, getting my feet wet frequently and dreading the prospect of stopping to change into dry socks.  They had been a constant nemesis as I passed through the Cathedral of Palms and the eastern Part of St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.  When I stopped for two seconds to take a photo, they would swarm me.  Something about the unusually warm, damp weather had brought them out - hatched a new crop and made them lust for my blood.

The forecast was providing me with a good excuse to take a zero day.  Rain looked like a sure thing for Tuesday and Wednesday.  I knew the mosquitoes would love that, and I didn't feel like walking with wet feet some more, so I took Tuesday off and accomplished some off-trail business.  I was planning to hike only a little on Wednesday - I would do part of the non-Florida-Trail road walk I needed to do around the St. Marks River.

That was the plan, but the weather had taken an unexpected turn.  I'm going to let my personal journal account cover the story from there:

"I got up and checked radar on the laptop and found that there were no radar echoes coming in from the Gulf of Mexico and none appeared to be threatening for at least several hours. My meteorological ‘sixth sense’ told me that today might be almost rain free despite a long-standing forecast for lots of rain. So I decided to head straight out at first light, do some hiking and keep going until rain stopped me.

I grabbed some breakfast on the fly and then drove the ten miles to the Tallahassee-to-St. Marks Rail Trail crossing at US 98 and was hiking before sunrise. Weather was foggy and breezy and warm and humid—temperature and dew point around 70. I hiked the peculiar 2.6 miles of trail back to where the car was parked. This is ‘single track’ footpath cleared in the woods, but it is entirely within the US 98 right of way, so it’s never more than 25 feet from the shoulder of the road.

This roadside trail was wet and somewhat overgrown so I got my socks and lower pants wet quickly. There were strange sections of this trail where they had painted blazes on telephone poles on the south side of the highway and yet there were blazes in the woods just off the north side of the highway.  Some of the woods sections were through deep bog and had clearly not been maintained for several years, though the blazes were fresh and frequent.  Other parts looked like they were still meant to be hiked. I guess it’s up to the hiker to decide.

Anyhow when I got to the car I changed into dry socks and drove on to Newport and parked by an old fire tower at the junction of US 98 with Lighthouse Road and hiked the road back to the van. This is not part of the Florida Trail, but a necessary connecting hike to keep my Personal Continuous Footpath continuous as I bypass the boat ride that the Florida Trail requires across the St. Marks River.

The weather remained the same – rain free but cloudy and warm and very humid. The mosquitoes were out but most of the time they weren’t so abundant that they felt like a plague. The road walk was uneventful and I used the time to make some phone calls to begin to formulate plans for a visit with my family around New Years when both my children will be back from extended stays overseas.

When I got to the van I drove it down to the St. Marks Nat’l Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center and parked there and walked the 3.6 miles back to the car along that paved, mostly straight, very lightly used Lighthouse Road. Only a dozen or so vehicles came by. I walked the middle of the road in order to keep away from the foliage where mosquitoes seem to lurk – even in the grass right beside the road. And it worked. I rarely saw a mosquito during this leg.

Weather continued basically the same, though there were moments of sun and one brief misty fall of a few drops of rain. It was now feeling truly steamy, with the temperature up to the mid 70’s. The wind was now light, so it felt pretty stifling when the sun came through the clouds.

I moved the car down to the parking lot at the visitor center, right beside the van, and went in to the visitor center with a note telling the ranger on duty there, David Moody (who I met yesterday), that I’d be parking the car there overnight tonight. Then I got out my bicycle and started hiking the five mile leg that I need to do out-and-back in order to get to the river crossing point across from the town of St. Marks.

The first three miles are along Port Leon Road - the gated tram road that goes arrow-straight WSW to the ghost town of Port Leon at the end of the old railroad grade. That part I would be able to ride back on my bicycle. Beyond that the trail goes into the woods in an area designated as Wilderness and follows the railroad grade NNW to the St. Marks River.  There were some nice views of grassy marsh areas that line the river.

Mosquitoes were a bit of a problem and there was one very brief but strong rain shower that wet the foliage, but otherwise conditions remained the same.  I was committed by then to hike this leg. I stowed the bike where the trail left the road at a ford of a flowing stream and hiked the 1.8 miles up to where the Florida Trail crosses the St. Marks River. It would have been easy to hail a boat—a couple of them passed while I was in the vicinity of the river crossing. Then I hiked back to the bike and rode the bike back to the visitor center parking lot.

It began to rain steadily and with increasing intensity just as I was arriving and stowing the bike in the van. It turns out that I was rather lucky, as radar showed much more rain coming on shore to the east, hitting the town of Perry, and a smaller downpour rolled through just to the west, which would have thoroughly soaked me if I had been out in it.

It was just before 4PM as I stowed the bike in the van. Ranger David Moody came out of the Visitor Center. He was locking it up—4PM is closing time. He asked if I needed anything before he left and I said no and pointed to my car just to confirm that it would be there overnight. He had received my note, and said he ‘had it on his radar’.  Good to know."

*** end of personal journal account ***

So because the rain held off I accomplished all of the necessary "extra-curricular" hiking to fulfill my 'Personal Continuous Footpath' rules for hiking the Florida Trail.  Tomorrow it will be back to 'normal' hiking, continuing to push east-south.

Below is the map of today's route, and there are a number of additional photos available.

St. Marks River Wilderness area at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking near Tallahassee, Florida

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Cathedral of Palms - I got religion!

"Key West or Bust" - Day 77

What a splendid day!  I made it to St. Marks by the end of the day, walking through the west half of the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.  This Refuge covers many miles along the Big Bend area of the Gulf Coast, and it contains a long list of interesting sights.  The Cathedral of Palms is at the top of that list -- a half mile of trail where Sabal palmetto dominates.

The sense of being in a cathedral is real--the ground cover is minimal, so it feels like an open space with vertical columns and a high dark 'roof'.  By the time the half mile ended and the obscuring underbrush returned, I had heard the sermon - I had been converted to the 'way of the Palm' :-)

But there were other signature sights on today's agenda.  Among them was one that somebody clearly set up just for a photo-op.  Normally the full sized FT signs are only at road crossings.  This one was placed out in the woods at a well-built boardwalk.  If they didn't get enough PR from it yet, I'll give them another shot:

Then there was Shepherd Spring - first of what I expect will be many more of these deep clear pools with a blue cast to the water.  This one didn't photograph well, but at fifteen to twenty feet deep, the bottom was as clearly visible as if it had been a mere few inches below the surface.  I should have taken the time to plunge in, but I honestly didn't think to do so until I had left.

There was another of my favorite subjects -- a 'trail tree' dripping with personality:

Then I passed a cypress bog in which the light on the knees and buttressed boles just seemed magical.

I walked on well-groomed trail through a mature pine plantation with straight long rows of big mature pines.

Normally I find plantations to be dreary hiking, but this one was fun, and it was followed by a long stroll through some ancient natural forest, with many a huge tree.  My head was turning from side to side constantly as I marveled at this congregation of old lords and earls of the deep woods.  Inexplicably in the middle of this was a hill of sawdust--eight or ten feet high, covering half an acre.

I guess the stuff didn't decay, because there was no evidence of any logging in this area for the best part of a century.

I was entering an area where the limestone bedrock comes right to the surface.  Florida had been one long sandy hike for the most part, so rocks along the trail definitely caught my attention.

And then I headed into 'downtown' St. Marks via three miles of the new rail trail that runs all the way to Tallahassee.

It's all open now, and there are two rest rooms just on the three-mile Florida Trail part.

And at the end is the St. Marks River where, across on the other side, a Florida Trail sign beckons.

Most hikers hitch a ride across on a boat, but not me.  I have a strict 'CONTINUOUS FOOT PATH' rule for this hike - no other mode of transportation other than my feet.  So I had a road walk bypass to do.  That and much more in my next report.

Below is a map of today's route, complete with links to many more photos.

St. Marks via Rail Trail and the Cathedral of Palms at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Florida

Spring Creek is closed, here's the best of the rest

If it hasn't become apparent up to now, today's post will make it clear - I'm a tree person.  The highlight of my day was 'discovering' the artistry of a common southern oak species that was never on my radar until today--the Shumard Oak

"Key West or Bust" - Day 76

For today's report I'm tapping into my personal journal again - need to save some time:

"It was the coldest morning of my winter of hiking.  As I drove to my first trailhead parking spot I could see that there was a general frost on all the grassy areas. I parked at Purify Bay Road at the start of the closed section of trail where the Spring Creek Boardwalk had been washed out by a hurricane. This would have been a pretty place to hike—long boardwalk through a wetland with views out to the open Gulf of Mexico. I took a photo of the closure/reroute sign

and then walked the other way back to my other vehicle, about 3½ miles through some of the prettiest dry land forest I’ve seen. There were mature palms mixed with the Longleaf and with various twisted and struggling oaks - took lots of tree photos.  Here's the best of them: a live oak in a dry sink

All the oaks in this ecosystem are dwarfed in scale by the Longleaf Pines.  The Shumard Oak--a species I've never paid any attention to until today's 'discovery' of the artistry of its leaves, seemed to be more robust than the others.

Two Shumard Oaks, left and center, and a Turkey Oak at right with the Longleaf Pine behind it

This turned out to be the only enjoyable section today. Next I drove the car down to the Trailhead and parked beside the van in order to transfer my cold-morning gear to the van. It had warmed up and only required a sweat shirt by then, and even that would begin to feel too hot later in the day as the temperature reached 70 under ongoing sunshine.

I drove the van out to Joe Crum road and began the five-mile boardwalk bypass road walk to the road crossing on Spring Creek Road where the closure sign is posted on the other side. I did that without incident or much interest, then drove the car on to a busy trailhead farther up Spring Creek Road.

By then it was mid-afternoon and people were out walking their dogs and enjoying the Sunday afternoon’s perfect weather. So the parking lot was nearly full—I got the last space of five or six. This leg was in the woods but the first mile was right beside the paved road, I think it’s called Shell Point Road. The trailhead is at the intersection of this road with Spring Creek Road. The scenery was just trashy looking forest—not dense and tropical but not open savanna either--too much underbrush for my liking.

After crossing the paved road the trail continued to follow it for a bit then struck out westward toward Spring Creek Road. The interesting thing about this section were that it was the first place where there were a significant number of tall mature palms mixed in with the rest of the forest, and there were some pothole ponds. But the ponds weren’t pretty like the one secret little pond I had photographed in the first leg this morning,

and the trail was poor, hard to follow, overgrown and with deadfalls, and on lumpy up and down footing where it went through a big plantation of pines planted in monstrous machine-made furrows. The other complaint (if I need another one) is that the mosquitoes were back now that it was warm and approaching evening. So I was just enduring this section. I got to the van with an hour and ¾ to sunset, having hiked 13 miles, and that was enough for today."

The map of today's route is below.  Included are links to many more photos - more trees included.

Walking around the closed Spring Creek boardwalk at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Florida

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Sopchoppy River - a primeval wonder

I half expected to see a Brontosaurus come ambling around the corner

"Key West or Bust" - Day 75

Hiking the rest of Apalachicola National Forest today, I passed through two special sections - the dry part of Bradwell Bay Wilderness, and the high sandy banks beside the deep, dark Sopchoppy River.

What I particularly loved about both sections were their distinctive trees.  In Bradwell Bay, the pines in the open stands of savanna almost seemed to be identical - clones of one another, repeated over and over, or some sort of fractal holograph in which the creator took one tree and 'pasted' it into the scene over and over.

The model for all these trees was this lone sentinel in an open 'field'

It was a pleasure to tramp through here and not worry about getting my feet wet.  I was not so fortunate going through the rest of Apalachicola National Forest's trail.

Actually, along the Sopchoppy, once you ford a hefty tributary where there is no bridge, there were no more opportunities to get wet.  Every wet spot and gully had a bridge.  Most impressive was the bridge over Monkey Creek.

But as I said, the trees stole the show here.  In particular the massive buttressed trunks of the bald cypress that populate the river bed.  Each one has its particular character and is often accompanied by 'knees' and angry looking twisted roots.  Here's a sampling of my favorites.

It was a bright, sunny, clear day that started out frosty and never got to 60F.

Excellent!  The result was that I did not encounter a single mosquito all day, which was another welcome change from my typical Apalachicola National Forest experience.  But by the end of today I had reached the eastern end of this 'unit' and had passed into St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.  There a completely different form of tree was the star.  Watch for the next posting.

Below is a map of today's route with links to many more photos.

Sopchoppy River and Bradwell Bay Wilderness at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking near Tallahassee, Florida

The Bogs of Bradwell Bay - closing the book

The short, deep ford of Monkey Creek

"Key West or Bust" - Day 74

As reported previously, I hiked the bulk of Bradwell Bay's bog during an advance scouting trip.  Today it was chilly, so I was glad I had that section finished and could bypass it - the section between the South and West trailheads.  Instead I hiked Forest Road 329 around the rim of the wet part of the wilderness area.

But I still had a bit of unfinished business with Bradwell Bay's wetlands: the bit between the South Trailhead and the Monkey Creek trailhead.  That 1.7 miles was the only piece of Florida Trail I hiked on this short day, because I got a late start.

A short day means a short report.  The boggy bits I bagged today were brief at best.  There was the crossing of a tributary to Monkey Creek.  That was a ten-foot ford.  I only brought two feet with me today so I had to use each of them five times.

Then came the main event, featured in the headline photo above.  Fording Monkey Creek was fun because this is a flowing stream, so the footing is firm and sandy.  There were deep places - thigh deep or more - but by judicious choice of a route, I never went in over my knees.

After that there were just two sorry looking boggy spots not worth mentioning - normally - except that they provide this prose-peddler a place to press a pair of particular points.  One patch presented a puny purple pitcher plant perched precariously on the path, prone to pummeling by plodding pedestrians.

... and secondly these two insignificant bog patches are notable simply for the fact that they were the sole additional representatives of this 'wet part' of the Bradwell Bay wilderness hiking experience.

It was far less than 'advertised' and it was all over in three quarters of a mile - the wet stuff, I mean.  The rest of the 1.7 miles of this little leg of Florida Trail was through dry forest and savanna.

Next, as I continue east/south, comes the dry part of the Bradwell Bay wilderness experience.  It was indeed bone dry every step of the way.  Look for that report next.

Below is a map of today's hiking, mostly road walk along FR 329.  There are a few more photos to see in the EveryTrail report.

Monkey Creek in Bradwell Bay Wilderness at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking near Tallahassee, Florida

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Hiking where the sun don't shine

View from the bridge over the Ochlockonee River near Porter Lake Campground

"Key West or Bust" - Day 73

This was not a 'Chamber of Commerce' Florida day - cloudy in the 'Sunshine State'.  Worse, because it was warm and humid the mosquitoes were out in force.  I didn't find much to photograph, although I did walk a section along the banks of the Ochlockonee River with hills and venerable old trees.  Trees among other trees don't photograph well.  The incessant plague of mosquitoes kept me from stopping except for the most interesting sights.  Anyhow, today I'm 'copying and pasting' the report from my personal journal where I basically list details rather than write prose.  Here goes:

"I drove down to near Porter Lake Campground and was hiking a leg of about 4½ miles before sunrise. It was a different geography than I’d hiked through yesterday, even right across the highway. Here the streams had no bog and cut fairly deeply into the ground. The woods had a lot of live oaks too, something I didn’t see yesterday at all.  Lately I've been paying attention to 'witches broom' growths on pines, and here I passed one that was right on the trail and photographed well from below.

The weather started out mostly clear and chilly but got warm and humid and cloudy pretty quickly, and with that the mosquitoes came out in force. It appears they love cloudy humid weather. They were a significant problem for most of the rest of the day, though perhaps not quite as bad as two days ago with similar weather.

Next I moved my car to an official Trailhead on CR 375 and hiked a fairly short but very interesting leg that included a section along the banks and slopes of the Ochlockonee River. This walk was unexpected because my official map shows all road walk here, although the trail guide book and my DeLorme map book have it right. The off-road piece is apparently on private land.

There were lots of big trees, plenty of diverse species, a look at one channel of the big river, and even a walk around the rim of a deep narrow steephead.  Here's a shot of one of the big trees, an American Beech - a tree that grows along the entire length of my continuous footpath from Maine to here in Florida:

When I got back to the van it was about 12:15PM. I then had to do a whole lot of driving to scout ahead and decide if the forest roads are good enough for my passenger car to get through. I drove down to the town of Sopchoppy then up Oak Park Road to the trail crossings along the Sopchoppy River.

This access is on excellent road—about as good as a dirt road can be. Then the more remote woods roads connecting from there to the western end of Bradwell Bay Wilderness turned out to be of  tolerable quality—firm, no loose sand, and no significant mud holes. I decided that the car could make it through—there’s only one mud hole that I worry about, and of course I worry about the effect that the coming rain will have on the road. But there’s no evidence that it gets soft at all when it rains.

The scouting took two hours because of all the slow driving on forest roads. I finally parked the van on the newly closed FR 314 and parked at the west Bradwell Bay trailhead. Only later did I learn why the road is closed (from yesterday to mid-February)—some sort of forest management project involving lots of heavy equipment. The signs specifically say the West Bradwell Trailhead is closed, but I didn't see them until later, and I got away with being parked there for a few hours today.

From there the section back to where the car was parked on the paved highway was exactly four miles and I thought it might be mostly on minor roads based on the straight lines on the map and on the guidebook. So I made the mistake of assuming there wouldn’t be much boggy stuff.

I should know better than to expect good trail. There were several long boggy sections with no structures to help me get across, with just this one exception.

I managed to get through all but one without getting my feet wet, though that required some creative bushwhacking and some very slow picking of footsteps. I still made decent time—there were, in fact, several road segments and not much to stop and see, with the exception of this clump of yellow pitcher plants with individual pitcher-leaves that were much smaller than normal for the species.

I then drove the car into FR 329, starting the gauntlet of minor forest roads, to the intersection with the closed FR 314—1.2 miles from the West Bradwell Bay trailhead. From there I walked up to the van and got it out of harms way, ending the day’s hiking at 5PM in a cloud of mosquitoes."

And that concludes my personal journal account.  Below is a map of the route hiked today, with links to the rest of the photos.

Appalachia Nat'l Forest west of Bradwell Bay Wilderness at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking near Tallahassee, Florida

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Tale of an ordinary day

Dew drenched morning in Apalachicola National Forest

"Key West or Bust" - Day 72

Not much to report today.  Fifteen miles of trail, and all of it was through 'ordinary' albeit eye-pleasing pine savanna.

Inevitably, the 'fields' of trees can't go on forever.  Today the trail presented about a dozen bog crossings, only one of which had any sort of structure to aid the crossing.  Most were undeveloped and required either getting wet or picking footsteps carefully and slowly.  There was one long boggy section where puncheon had been put in place but had washed out during a flood.

And that was today.  What makes a hiking day special for me are unusual sights and experiences, and today provided few.  The morning dew, featured in the headline photo, combined with overgrown trail meant wet pants and socks, and even wet arms, in the morning, and swarming mosquitoes in the afternoon.  Those didn't help my mood.  A patch of purple pitcher plants perked me up for a moment.

Growing among them were some robust examples of the diminutive little carnivorous sun dew plant.

But mostly what covered the trail was brush.  The trail through here hasn't been given any attention by maintainers in at least a year.  The overgrown trail did provide some 'christmassy' color.

But it also made for navigation problems.  I want to highlight one example.  In the picture below the trail changes direction.

It turns to the right, leaving the forest road just before the prominent tree in the center of the photo.  But because of the growth over the trail and because the only trail marker (which is on that prominent tree just right of center) had been scalded by fire and was no longer orange, but was tree-bark colored and impossible to spot on the shaded side of the tree, it was easy to miss this turn and continue ahead on the road.  Here's a closer look at that fire scalded marker:

I missed turns more than once today, and was forced to backtrack.  Usually it was my fault, and usually because the trail would cross a bog on a road and then abruptly turn off the road into the brush immediately after emerging from the bog, where the growth blocks the view of the turn until you are right beside it.

So it turns out that this report is full of complaints.  Every day there are things to complain about, but on most days I'm distracted by the array of new sights and experiences.  Today there just weren't enough of those pleasant distractions.  Tomorrow, as it turns out, would be even more mosquito plagued, and it would be cloudy and dreary besides.  But I was to have a bit of a break from the savanna-bog wash-rinse-repeat cycle.  I got to walk beside the Ochlockonee River for a bit.  Watch for that report next.

Below is a map of today's travels, with links to a few more photos.

Appalachicola National Forest west of Bradwell Bay at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking near Tallahassee, Florida