Thursday, December 3, 2015

The heart-aching beauty of Eglin

Big Fork Creek, one of half a dozen sandy creeks I crossed today on sturdy, well built footbridges

"Key West or Bust" - Days 57 and 58

I had been road walking for several days, then driving for several more, and now finally I was ready to hike about 45 continuous miles of off-road trail through Elgin Air Force Base, described in the guide as "one of the most challenging and satisfying sections of the trail".

I was *so* looking forward to it.  But Eglin is an active military base.  They have rules for hikers, and one of them is that we need to check their daily closure maps.

The map for this Monday, when I intended to get back on the trail after a Thanksgiving break, was pocked with red, which means 'no entry'.  So on Sunday I went out in the afternoon and explored a little piece of trail east of FL 285 - a bit of the trail I was going to miss - and there I met 'Spinoza' hiking east to west wearing a Florida Trail Association t-shirt.  We had a great conversation.  He had started at US 331 the day after Thanksgiving and was hiking the whole stretch--making it through before they closed it.  Spinoza lives in Pensacola.  He had thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail SoBo last year, so we had plenty to talk about.  I should have picked his brain about the trail ahead ... the stuff I was going to miss.  But perhaps it was best that I didn't.  It would have only made missing it that much more painful.

The section of trail I was going to hike Monday -- between FL 285 and FL 85 (upper middle of the map) was not closed that day, but the next two big sections, between US 331 and FL 285 (upper and middle right), both showed big chunks of forbidden territory.  And the maps for the following days showed even more closures.  The section I was to hike today would be closed tomorrow and for the rest of the week.

So today was going to be my only chance to hike Eglin.  Then it would be back to the road.  I plunged in with aching heart - knowing that every step was going to be precious.

It didn't disappoint.  The trail took me through great diversity.  There were sections that felt like tropical rain forest.  The mosquitoes were fierce and aggressive, but so was the raw beauty.  There was a quarter mile of bog bridge round Gum Creek, then a nice bridge spanning the creek proper.  I crossed half a dozen well-built bridges over big creeks.  My favorite was the bridge over the shallow silver sands of Silver Creek:

There was longleaf pine savanna.  I passed through clumps of spreading live oak that I call 'bowers,' and there were lots of white-sand uplands where scrubby oaks were the dominant tree.

I was surprised to find myself scrambling over big clumpy roots of ancient longleaf pine in the flood plain of Big Fork Creek.  Longleaf pine is a yin-and-yang species.  It likes fire but it also likes water.  There was a place where it was lining the shores of a wetland in the middle of a broad flat plain, yet had the telltale burn marks up the sides of its trunks.  It constantly surprises me with its adaptability to diverse situations.

There were a few 'steephead' ravines where fully formed streams spring out of the sand and go meandering away through dense thickets.  There were magical fields of 'cotton ball' lichens and sandy swales of a common summer annual that leaves its seed heads for winter distribution.

And in the middle of it all was man-made J.R. Walton pond.

The weather was ideal--mild and dewy in the morning and in the mid 70's during the bright afternoon.  My heart was still aching when I finished.  As I walk US 90 into DeFuniak Springs tomorrow, the trail that I am missing will be haunting me.  I will have to come back some day.

Below is a map of the day's hike, along with the little out-and-back five miles I did on Sunday.  There are links to many more photos:

Eglin AFB - FL 285 to FL 85 at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find hiking trails in California and beyond

1 comment:

  1. Key West of Burst??
    Take a day to go to Dry Tortugas National Park. Don't miss it!

    You'll love it.