Vagabond in America 2016 travel blog

Pa-hay-okee Trail

Ranger-led Bike Trip

One of the natives

He decided to leave

Ranger-led Canoe Trip

Panther crossing sign

Old Ingraham Trail

Florida National Parks

Last year, I wandered aimlessly visiting random towns. I was constantly amazed that there were so many interesting places to visit and experience. It didn’t matter where or when I traveled. There were interesting places around every corner.

This year, I’ll be planning my travels more with specific destinations in mind. My first was Walt Disney World, here in Florida. Next, are the National Parks.

There are three National Parks in Florida: Biscayne, Everglades, and Dry Tortugas. (There are also National Preserves, National Memorials, National Monuments and a National Seashore that are also managed by the National Park Service. I might visit some of these but my initial emphasis is the National Parks themselves.).

The largest of the three parks and the most famous is Everglades National Park. This place is huge! 1.5 million acres. Most of the area is technically a slough not a swamp. It’s essentially a very wide (50 miles), very slow moving river from Lake Okeechobee to the ocean.

My last trip to Everglades NP was in 1986. At that time, Halley’s Comet was visible from southern states but not from New England. Since I had a client at the time who wanted me to make an on-site visit in Miami, I arranged to have that visit be during a new moon, when the night sky would be dark. After visiting the client, I drove my rental car to Everglades NP and stayed at the Flamingo Lodge inside the park. (The lodge closed in 2005 after being trashed by two hurricanes.) I was surprised how many other sky watchers were staying at the lodge. I was further surprised when I heard that they were taking us tourists out at 3am to an even more desolate section of the Park, called Snake Bight (ominously similar sounding to Snake Bite). They took all of us out using one of the park trams. While the group of us were intently watching the skies, I heard a woman crying. She didn’t sound like she was in pain but she was definitely crying. She called out asking if anyone had a flashlight. We had all been told previously that flashlights were forbidden on this trip because they would ruin our night vision. I did carry a red flashlight because I know that red light doesn’t affect night vision. When I approached her, she held out her hand and asked me to shine the light on it. She was wearing a new diamond ring. Apparently, her boyfriend had just proposed to her at 4am under the light of Halley’s Comet. Memorable!

The Everglades haven’t changed much since that visit thirty years ago. The National Park Service has been trying to remove some of the invasive species and restore the Park to its native ecology. They have had only limited success due, in part, to the fact that the cities have diverted much of the water that used to flow through the Everglades.

I thoroughly enjoyed a ranger-led canoe trip out into one of the wilderness areas of the Park. There were only four of us on the trip: the ranger, one other couple and me. As a result, we had a slow, quiet outing. It was so quiet, in fact, that we came upon a six-foot alligator directly in our path. There was nothing that we could do except wait. Fortunately, he decided to swim off in other direction.

Yesterday also started out perfectly. I had signed up for a Ranger-led bicycle tour. Unfortunately, the normal tour route was flooded from all the rains we’ve had recently here in Florida. The Ranger said that this is the most water they’ve had in the “dry” winter season in nearly 100 years! We had to take an alternate route, most of which was on paved park roads. Again, there were only four of us on the ride: the Ranger, a different couple, and me. They rode bikes provided by the Park Service; I rode my fat bike. They had difficulty with the wet, muddy areas. I just rode casually through the mud! We rode five, leisurely miles.

After I waved good-bye to them, I prepared for my second adventure that I had planned for the day.

When I originally packed my RV back in April of 2015, I loaded a complete set of backpacking provisions: tent, sleeping bag, air mattress and backpack. I had planned to camp in the Green Mountains in Vermont but it rained every day of the week that I was in Vermont. I also planned to camp in the Black Hills in South Dakota but, instead, I answered the call to volunteer for the Red Cross to cope with the forest fire disaster operations in California.

Ernest Coe Campground is currently the only open campground in the Everglades that can be reached on foot but not by vehicles. That was my goal for last night.

I purchased a “backcountry permit” to allowed me to hike into the protected areas of the everglades. I had to provide details of my exact route, where I’d be staying, when I’d be returning, etc. I even had to provide my son’s phone number in case of emergency. I wrote that my plan was to backpack five miles out to Ernest Coe Campground, spend one night there, and return in the morning. The Ranger said that very few people travel to this campground, implying that I would likely be alone out there.

Several Rangers assured me it would be safe. They had not heard of any recent reports of bears in the area. However, there had been sightings of panthers. And, I was almost certain to see alligators. It was a bit of a surprise to me that the greatest danger would be snakes. There are four types of poisonous snakes often seen in the area where I’d be hiking. Everyone assured me, that if I didn’t intentionally annoy the wildlife, they wouldn’t be any threat to me. I had to hope that they were correct. They also warned me that there were several types of poisonous plants in this part of the Everglades.

As I started out my trek, it was wonderful. The sun was out; the temperature was pleasant (lower 80’s). The trail was wide and straight. The trail was actually the remnants of the 1920’s-era Ingraham Highway. This was a “highway” only in the original meaning of the term. It had been a single-lane dirt road that was “higher” than the surrounding area. Since the surrounding area was a sawgrass prairie with water a foot or more deep in all directions, it was a good thing that the trail was several inches above the water.

The primitive campsite was about five miles due south of where I parked my truck. I was carrying my fully-loaded backpack: tent, sleeping bag, air mattress, food, water, clean clothes, and emergency supplies. There was no point in carrying my cell phone since there was no cell phone coverage at the trailhead, meaning there would be none on the trail or the campsite.

Aside from my camera, the only electronics that I brought was my InReach. It’s a small, hand-held device that can determine my GPS position and can send and receive short text messages using satellite technology. It does not use cell phone or wifi technology. It communicates directly with the Iridium satellite constellation and works anywhere that has a full view of the sky. (Well, technically it doesn’t work at the North Pole but I don’t plan to go there any time soon.) I carry the InReach so that I’m assured of some limited communication capability no matter where I go. It even has a 911-like capability. If I push two specific buttons in the correct sequence, it sends a Help message with my GPS co-ordinates to the International Emergency Response Coordination Center (IERCC) who will send out a Search and Rescue team. But, that’s only for life or death emergencies.

I carried a printed map but it was fairly useless since the trail was a straight as an arrow. Accidentally leaving the trail was impossible since I was surrounded by water on both sides. There were no signs or mile markers. I had to estimate my distance traveled. Based on my walking speed and the time (which I estimated from the sun’s location), I had a reasonably accurate idea of my current location.

The first three miles of the trek were fantastic. I was alone in the wilderness. Nothing but a sea of grass in every direction. The third mile was a bit more difficult. The trail had many wet or muddy sections which I had to navigate around.

The fourth mile was significantly worse. The ruts in the mud were deep. There was standing water blocking much of the path. But, I managed to walk around puddles without getting too wet. As I hiked along the trail, I kept an eye out for snakes. Fortunately, I didn’t encounter any. At one point, a startled alligator jumped from the trail into the water and slithered away. I’m guessing it was about five feet long. I’m glad that it was afraid of me! Another time, I heard an alligator jump into the water but didn’t see it. All I saw was a splash. I began to notice many places along the trail where matted grass and an opening in the bushes indicated favorite alligator sunning spots. These spots were empty but kept me vigilant.

The fifth and last mile was problematic. The puddles now were completely across the trail, from the bushes on one side of the trail to the bushes on the other side. I had to push back the bushes and inch my way along the edge of the trail. There was no possibility of finding an alternate route since the vegetation was so thick. And, the land dropped off into the water-filled sawgrass prairie after that. What concerned me was that several of the bushes looked suspiciously similar to the poisonous ones that the Rangers had shown me earlier. The puddles were also getting longer.

Eventually, I had to resort to stepping into the water occasionally to get through. My socks were definitely getting wet. I only had one spare pair of socks in my backpack.

I kept hoping that this puddle would be the last puddle. But, there was always another only a few hundred feet further.

Finally, I said to myself: “This is too much. One more puddle and I turn back!”

Of course, there was another puddle. The difference is that this next puddle seemed to be near the campsite. I could see signs of human activity along the side of the trail. I was definitely getting close to the campsite. I didn’t know the GPS co-ordinates of the campsite. The map was useless for getting any clue as to how close the campground was.

I stopped and considered my options. If I continued on and managed to get past this next puddle, I might be lucky and soon reach the campsite. But, I might be unlucky and get scratched by one of the poisonous plants among the bushes. The mud might be deeper in this puddle getting me even more covered in mud. And, there might be more puddles after this one.

On the other hand, I could abandon my goal and return to the safety of my truck. I made a quick estimate of the distance back to the truck and the current location of the sun. I concluded that I’d reach the truck right around sundown. But, I’d already hiked five miles. Another five miles back would make this the longest backpacking trek I’ve ever made in a single day. Plus, I’d ridden five miles on my bike in the morning. Would I have the strength to hike back?

Forcing a path through the poisonous plants was a constant threat. What if I developed welts or blisters from them? My emergency first aid kit had limited ability to fight an allergic reaction. At least if I were heading toward civilization rescue would be closer.

I had to make my decision quickly. If I hesitated, the decision would be made for me. There wouldn’t be enough time to hike back out before nightfall. I wouldn’t risk hiking at night with all of the potential dangers out there. I’d be forced to get to the campsite regardless of the depth of the water.

I decided that the courage to abandon my plans was more important than achieving my goals that day.

Before turning around, I took a GPS reading using both the built-in GPS on my camera and the GPS on my InTouch. It was impossible to tell at the moment how far away the campsite was. But, back in my RV, I’d be able to use the GPS co-ordinates to determine how close I actually came. Using the InTouch, I sent a text message to my son and a copy to a friend so that they would know the change in my plans. The message contained my coordinates and the brief text “Giving up. Heading back.”

While hiking back, I began mentally working on new contingency plans.

What if it took me longer to hike back that I expected? I did have a headlamp and several flashlights in my backpack. This would give me an hour or more of dusk to complete the trek.

What if I didn’t have the strength to carry my full backpack the full distance? I could easily abandon some of my gear and fetch it the next day. Bikes were forbidden on this trail. But, in an emergency, I wouldn’t hesitate to use my bike to return to fetch my gear. There were plenty of truck and bicycle tire marks on the trail. Many others have ignored the rule.

To lighten my load, I dumped several liters of water. I had more water back at the truck. I no longer needed to carry water for tomorrow.

As is my custom, I had marked the location of my truck as a “waypoint” on my InReach before starting this trek. I couldn’t determine how far I was from the campground. But, I could determine how far I was from my truck. I checked every mile or so to confirm that I was making good time.

I arrived back at my truck just before sunset as I had predicted. Once back at my truck, I packed up and headed for the comfort of my RV.

When I got home, I looked at the GPS co-ordinates that I had recorded. I had been within a few hundred feet of my campsite. I was almost there!

During the night, there was a downpour. If I had reached camp last night I might have gotten water in my tent from the storm. In the morning, there where huge puddles at the RV park. Certainly the puddles on the trail would have been deeper and longer, if I’d made it to camp last night.

Sometimes not completing the adventure is the best option!

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