Friday, January 29, 2016

The Magic and the Tragic

Magic: Hoffman Crossing - a 1886 foot boardwalk through a tropical swamp.  Bromeliads were clinging to every tree, birdsong was echoing through the canopy, and for the only time all day the sun came out.
Tragic:  A two-mile gauntlet of continuous water pits on a maze of crisscrossing unmaintained woods roads through a poorly blazed pine plantation.  The game was to find a way around the obstacles while watching for weathered blazes hidden by vines and undergrowth without missing one of a dozen turns.  I did not win the game.

"Key West or Bust" - Day 102

Yes, it was a Jekyll and Hyde kind of day.  The good part -- the boardwalk through Rice Creek Conservation Area -- was so riveting that when the sun broke through in the midst of it, I was close to tears.  The bad part was torture by puddles, set in a dreary drizzling mist in an ugly man-made forest.

I am a technological dinosaur.  I've owned digital cameras that can take videos for years but have never attempted to take one.  Today I made my first crude effort.  I had to.  The best part about the boardwalk experience was the tropical sound of bird song amidst the verdant splendor.  But I made every mistake in the book--took the video in 'portrait mode' because I wanted to capture more of the vertical sweep of the bromeliad laden jungle.  Here's the clip.  I sure hope it works.

It was raining when I started my hike, so the mosses and lichens were radiant on the dark background of wet soil and tree bark.  This (the Hoffman Crossing swamp) was the first place that I saw bromeliads, and not just a few.  It was a veritable bromeliad city.  They were clinging to every tree from eye level to high in the canopy.  And they were sending out their bloom stalks.  Spring is upon us, it seems.  Here's a close up:

The tide began to turn from good to bad as I crossed Rice Creek on the Palatka to Lake Butler Greenway and was commanded by the orange blazes to ignore the newly posted "unsafe to cross" signs and pick my way across the freshly laid boards that were set on badly rotting century-old timbers.

Amazingly, later in the hike there was yet a more sketchy crossing of a railroad trestle.  These timbers felt mushy under foot.  It wouldn't have been a long fall if I broke through, but somebody's going to do that one of these days.

Then came the heart of the evil - the trail nobody cares for - the tale of a thousand water pits.  If the gauntlet of mud wallows wasn't enough, the vehicular joy riders left their calling cards thickly strewn about - beer cans by the hundreds.

Okay, enough of the gloomy stuff.  By the end of the day, the private plantation was showing its sense of humor.  I guess the magic was winning the day.  The trees were doing a synchronized dance.

And so another day on the Florida Trail came and went in memorable style.  Can anything outdo today's broad spectrum of emotions?  It's hard to imagine how, but then it was hard to imagine that I could have a day like today.  Onward into the unknown!

Here's a map of todays wanderings, with links to more photos.

Rice Creek Conservation Area at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Florida

Etoniah Creek State Forest

Old cabin deep in the woods with half a bicycle.  Oh the stories such places could tell.

"Key West or Bust" - Day 101

There was plenty of variety in today's hike.  I was glad to be in the woods after finishing the last three miles of road walk between Gold Head Branch State Park and Etoniah Creek State Forest.

It is sand hill terrain, where there are some high sandy areas that support only sparse forest.  It is not flat.  The sand is piled high in places, and there the scrub oaks dominate.  I passed three sinkhole ponds ...

... and a recently clear cut area and lastly a place with lots of big dead live oaks with no clear cause for the widespread death.

The weather had turned very pleasant after a morning low in the low 50’s. It was up to the low 70’s, calm, and fairly humid as I wandered the very different southeastern half of the State Forest and adjacent private hunt club lands along Etoniah Creek proper.

The hunt club areas had plenty of deer stands and plenty of evidence of gun activity.  Some wahoo had recently shot this tree dead.  The slugs of lead were there to prove it.  What an idiot.

Going south the trail comes out on Carraway Mail Route Road—I love that name. That road is gated for the northern two miles and open to the public south of that.  The gated part is very lightly used so almost felt like foot trail. North of the road, the trail is in the woods and follows Etoniah Creek for three miles or so.  Here's the view from the footbridge where the northbound hiker first reaches the creek.

This was a very pretty walk but with limited views of the stream and not very many outstanding photo opportunities. The trail rises up onto some high bluffs overlooking the creek.  Here I could make out a big sweeping 'S' curve in the creek.

North of there the trail leaves the creek at another footbridge.  There the Iron Bridge Shelter stands in a piece of deep woods and old trees that one writer, in the shelter log book, called 'a powerful place'.  I can't disagree.

Within a mile of the State Forest's central trailhead I ran into ‘BushWhacker’ again.  This will probably be a regular thing as he's hiking southbound and I'm hiking each leg northbound but also working my way southbound--that makes for ample opportunity to cross paths.   He wanted my trail report, hoping to go beyond the Iron Bridge Shelter that I had just passed so he could put in more miles. He wanted to know if there were good camping areas, and as far as I knew there weren’t, so I think he decided to stay at the shelter.

Anyhow, soon after parting ways with him I took the side trail to see the national Champion Loblolly Bay tree. Apparently Loblolly Bay trees don’t ever get too big. This was a big tall tree, but by standards of most hardwood species it was just ‘ordinary big’, not ‘champion big’.

It was less than four feet in diameter at chest height.

I ended the day hiking a leg between Rice Creek Conservation Area and Carraway Mail Route Road that is back on the Palatka to Lake Butler Rail Trail.  This is the place where the pavement ends.  The trail is grassy rail bed from there to Palatka and is wide beautiful paved greenway/bike path north to Keystone Heights.

The paved rail trail ends here at a big parking area used by lots of bicyclers.

It was a cloudy day, warmer and more humid than the crisp frosty days I've been experiencing for a couple days.  It almost felt as though winter had turned the corner to spring, and these deciduous azalea buds seemed to be responding--the flower heads were noticeably swelling.

By the end of the day I had put in eighteen extremely varied miles.  Love it.

Here's the map of today's route with links to more photos.

Etonia Creek State Forest at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking near Jacksonville, Florida

Thursday, January 28, 2016

A personal landmark achieved

Lowry Lake in Camp Blanding National Guard Base.  Morning fog was hiding the far shore of this two mile wide lake.  This scene is not visible from the Florida Trail.  I had to bushwhack down to the lake to get the shot.

"Key West or Bust" - Day 100

Today marks a turning point in my hike.  I passed through Camp Blanding in the morning, Gold Head Branch State Park through the middle of the day, and then started a road walk to Etoniah State Forest in the afternoon.  The turning point was along that road walk when I passed the home I bought last September. 

Hiking home - my Personal quest to connect every place I've ever lived, is the whole reason I'm hiking the Florida Trail.  From here on down to Key West I will not have that driving motivation.  What is keeping me on the trail now is the chance to hike in January but enjoy warm weather, the chance to see some of the best parts of the Florida Trail, and the opportunity to connect my PCF to the southernmost point in the US that a continuous footpath can reach.

Road walking past a house doesn't cut it in the scenery department, though.  The best of that (shown above) came earlier in the day.  The lakes in Camp Blanding were making their own weather on this chilly calm morning.  The warm water was creating a blanket of fog.  After leaving Lowry Lake I came to Magnolia Lake and watched the fog break up as I circled around its western shoreline.

Then I passed around Lost Lake - a little slice of heaven, seeming untouched by human hands and just as serene as the name would imply.

In Gold Head Branch State Park there are two features that most people come to see, and the Florida Trail passes neither of them.  It passes Big Johnson Lake, which is strewn with grasses and weeds from shore to shore.

But it doesn't pass Little Johnson Lake.  Everybody knows that Little Johnson is more fun than Big Johnson.  It has a majestic old CCC pavilion, a sandy beach, and a canoe launch.  If you want real fun, you seek out Little Johnson.  It's a well-known fact.

The other feature is the Gold Head itself -- a deep steephead ravine out of which Gold Head Branch emerges with water so clear it seems almost blue above its soft white sandy bed.

The steephead itself is a wild, tropical fern grotto that reminds me of the secluded valleys in the windward side of Big Island Hawaii, but minus the lava and the waterfalls.  Here's one of the springs passing through a bed of ferns.

The Florida Trail skips the steephead and stays in high dry sand-hill country.  I bypassed this section today because I had hiked it last August.  For that, and for more views of the magical Fern Grotto in summer, see this report.

As I finished up with Gold Head I ran into SoBo thru-hiker 'Bush Whacker'.  We had a nice conversation and I warned him that we would probably be running into each other in days ahead as we both continue southbound.

So Keystone Heights and my new home are now behind me, and Key West lies ahead, if the hiking gods will it.  Let the adventure continue.

Here's a map of today's hike, with links to many more photos.

Camp Blanding and Gold Head State Park at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Florida

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Rail Trail and Road Walk to Keystone Heights

"Key West or Bust" - Day 99

Today's hike got me to the town of Keystone Heights.  Half of it was on the old abandoned railroad bed that is on an undeveloped part of the trail.  Other parts have been spruced up and paved and given secure new footbridges over the various waterways.  Here the hiker has to rely on the old rotting wooden trestles.  The one above felt comfortable enough, but the one below had newly posted signs and a gap in the boards in the middle, yet there was the orange blaze--no bypass indicated--so across I went.

When not on bridges the trail was straight and flat and grassy.  It's not supposed to be used by any motorized vehicles, but the reality is that far more ATVs and even full sized vehicles use it than hikers.

 After leaving the railroad bed, the trail passes through this pastoral scene ...

... then follows a road past Crystal Lake, which is lined with small, neat homes.  I got this glimpse of the lake between houses.

Finally another peaceful pastoral scene ...

... and then I reached the north entrance to Camp Blanding National Guard Base.  That was it for today.  Tomorrow I'm back in the woods on some dedicated footpath and will reach a very significant milestone.

What milestone?  The hundredth day of this trek?  Well, that's an interesting coincidence, but it's not the milestone.  The half-way point of the Florida Trail?  No, not that.  I passed that without fanfare a few days ago.  Frankly I forgot to mention it.  There's no sign and it's not mentioned in the guide.  In reality it's hard to define the halfway point because it depends whether you hike the western or eastern corridor around Orlando.  No, this milestone is a landmark, and it is more personal.  You'll just have to wait and read tomorrow's entry.

Here's the track of today's hiking.  I showed all the photos I took here, but they are also linked to from the map.

Rail trail and road walk to Keystone Heights at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking near Jacksonville, Florida

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Sampson and Hampton via rail trail

"Key West or Bust" - Days 97 and 98

I've been a little out of focus lately--not hiking the normal number of daily miles.  The excuses have varied, but on these two days it was the weather - rain here and all-time record breaking snow in my former home town of Eldersburg, MD.  They were both caused by the same system.  Friday it rained here.  Friday night and Saturday morning the blizzard in Maryland was such an extreme event that I wanted to follow it closely, so I got a motel room and watched TV much of Friday night and Saturday morning rather than hiking.

Nobody was getting much hiking done in Maryland on Saturday either.  Baltimore's official snow accumulation of nearly 30 inches was an all time single storm record.

When I did hike, I was hiking unpaved rail trail--straight and flat and without much scenery most of the way.  It traverses quiet country, passing through the tiny hamlets of Sampson and Hampton, both south of the more substantial town of Starke where I holed up in a motel.  I did see another great example of the 'rainbow oil slick effect' in a swampy area - shown in the headline photo, and another view here:

And perhaps because of the rain the red lichens (Cryptothecia rubrocincta) were practically glowing on this small cypress that they had heavily inhabited.

Otherwise it was arrow-straight trail for mile after mile--grassy surface underlain by railroad gravel.

In the town of Hampton, people had used part of the trail as a dump--it was pretty unsightly.  But amidst the spoilage I saw an old house with a huge feather-leaf palm in its yard.  Was this house beside the railroad track once an inn?  Is the tree a Canary Island Date Palm?  I cannot be certain.

All I know is that I was in awe.  I'm a sucker for those specimen trees.  This one reminded me of something I might see in front of a 400 year old Spanish mission somewhere in the Caribbean, so suddenly the Hampton trash didn't matter any more.

Here's the map of these two short days of hiking, with links to a few more photos.

Sampson and Hampton, FL on the rail trail at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Florida

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Starting down the Palatka to Lake Butler Rail Trail

"Key West or Bust" - Day 96

When I got to highway 100 at the south end of the new trail through the Lake Butler private tract, I began to follow an old abandoned railroad right-of-way.  Some of it has been developed into paved greenway, some remains unpaved and 'primitive'--better for hikers.  Some is overgrown and not yet developed, and some is closed because the old trestles are torn down and/or unsafe.  The Florida Trail follows it all.

I started with an overgrown part - seven miles between Clark Saw Shop Road and the town of Lake Butler.  The right of way follows beside the highway through this stretch, and I hiked a few short bits of it, but most of it was an impenetrable tangle.  Where the track crossed Swift Creek there is an old trestle that is still sturdy enough that I hiked across it.

Most of the time I was hiking the shoulder of FL 100, and there I passed an old fire tower in a patch of Florida Forest Service property.

Next I hiked the four miles of paved greenway through and south of the town of Lake Butler.  I met a few bikers out enjoying this quiet trail (photo up top).  Most of it is well away from roads and homes and development, though it does pass a big noisy timber processing plant.

Flowers continue to bloom here in northeast Florida on the climatologically coldest day of the year.

The final section I hiked today was a five mile road walk around a long, high trestle that I'm told was rotting and falling apart nineteen years ago when legendary Eastern Continental Trail pioneer 'Nimblewill Nomad' hiked across it.  It is now closed.  The Google Satellite image shows that it is still there, but I didn't hike in to check, and I certainly wasn't going to risk a crossing of such a high, dangerous structure.

And so I did the road walk and crossed the New River on the Highway 100 bridge. 

The shoulders were narrow and the truck traffic incessant.  I hope they can resurrect the railroad bridge sooner rather than later.

Tomorrow I hike unpaved trail that looks a lot like the above shot of the closed section.

Here's the map of today's ramblings, with links to more photos:

Lake Butler - the rail trail at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking near Jacksonville, Florida

Friday, January 22, 2016

Hiking with a Friend.

When nature's beauty abounds, it's great to be able to share the experience with a friend.

"Key West or Bust" - Days 94 and 95

The friend I had the honor of sharing two days of hiking with was Sandra Friend, author of the Florida Trail Guide and of the fantastic Florida Hikes! web site.  I delayed my hiking in order to traverse the newly re-routed Lake Butler section of the Florida Trail with her.  I could not have had a more knowledgeable and experienced guide with which to tackle this difficult section, nor could I have had better company.

Sandra made what would have been a very trying day enjoyable.  There were a few pretty sections of trail.  An example is shown in the headline photo.  But there were some pretty gnarly sections as well.  The good part was limited to the southern couple miles, near highway 100.  In the middle of this ten mile traverse of a new permanent easement through a private tract, the trail went downhill fast--and I'm not talking about elevation.  It was blazed, but it was not trail.  There were bogs and ditches full of deep water.  There was thick brush over my head in the midst of the trail.  There were nasty furrows made by machine planting of pines.

It was trail built by non-hikers.  It looks like they made a single pass with an ATV about a year ago when the trail was created and haven't been back since.  The land is owned by (and if I understand correctly the trail was built by) the huge Plum Creek Timber company.

How huge?  They own six million acres of forest land in twenty states--415,000 acres in Florida alone. For comparison, Florida's national forest land is 1.1 million acres.

I will not burden this post with photos of ugly trail.  That's the precise opposite of the mission of this blog, and Sandra took hundreds of photos and waypoints for just that purpose--so she can prepare a comprehensive report that will be seen by people who can make a difference.  Here she is at work:

And here she is immersing herself in her work--a stream we had to cross on a frosty morning with the temperature in the 30's.  Brrrrrrrrrrrrrr!

The frost was magical.  We stopped to snap plenty of beauty shots.

Now ... here's an example of why it's great to hike with a good guide.  During a road walk I began to notice fragments of red clay amid the white sand.  I didn't pay much attention to them--I was thinking 'broken-up bricks thrown down to help stabilize the road'.  But Sandra enlightened me.  We were passing through a turpentine processing site, and the clay fragments were shards of broken 'Herty Cups' - cups nailed to Longleaf Pines in order to harvest the pitch and make turpentine.  Charles Herty, a chemical engineer, invented a system to collect pine pitch that didn't kill the trees, then he founded the company that manufactured the collection cups.  Here's a big chunk including the bottom of a Herty cup.

Here's a public domain photo from about 1936 of the cups in action.  Metal gutters were used to funnel pitch into the collecting cups.

And here's a photo I took along the trail a few days ago of a tree with the gutters still in place.

While I'm on the subject of sights and experiences I would have missed without Sandra, here is the big one--the 'psychedelic swamp scum' effect.

I was walking past these wetlands paying them little to no attention, not seeing, thinking 'just another scummy swamp' when Sandra stops and exclaims, "Look at the rainbow effect!  This only happens on bright sunny days in the winter."  And there it was.  Wow!

Decay releases natural cypress oils that float on the surface in a uniform layer.  It's a natural oil slick and it produces a kaleidoscope of pastel rainbow colors that change with changing angle of view.

Back to the routing of the trail.  We crossed over an old wooden bridge over Olustee Creek.  It's rotting but still sturdy. The marked trail clearly called for hikers to wade the substantial creek.

The trail corridor that Plum Creek granted the Florida Trail Association apparently makes no provision regarding hunting.  They lease their land to hunt clubs.  We passed several members of the local club out deer hunting with their dogs.  These cute guys were eager to get out and get started.

Every hunter we met was pleasant to talk to, and they radioed ahead to alert others that we were coming through, but with this much active hunting on the trail corridor, I would advise wearing blaze orange at all times throughout the year.  It is no longer deer season, but on private land apparently the regulations don't apply.

If you get a chance to hike with Sandra, do not pass it up.  Ask plenty of questions and expect to be amazed!  Thanks, Sandra.

Here's the map of the hike through the Lake Butler section, with links to more photos.

Lake Butler private tract at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Florida