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[at-l] TRIP REPORT: Bradwell Bay Wilderness [long]
- Subject: [at-l] TRIP REPORT: Bradwell Bay Wilderness [long]
- From: ATnavi@aol.com
- Date: Sat, 18 Mar 2000 22:46:17 EST
Many thanks to our own Earthworm, who let me know about this hike, arranged
the shuttles, sat around all day in the National Forest to pick me up, and
let me stay with her to do this! Now if only she had a hot tub.... :) --
A DAY IN BRADWELL BAY
What I wouldn't give for a good foot rub right now.
My shins ache. My legs, covered in a mysterious rash, itch. My soles throb.
Muscles in my back and legs, muscles I'd forgotten I had, cry out, stiff and
All this from a day hike. A seven mile day hike. In Florida, of all places!
But not like any other day hike I've experienced, anywhere on this planet.
"This trail *sucks!*," I muttered, as I hopped over a slippery blowdown , one
foot caught in thick mud over my boots. Then the other. Standing in water
knee deep, water the color of coffee with cream. A giant sucking sound as I
freed one boot, then the next. Thwock! Thwock!
"It's the mud that sucks," said Kent Wimmer, our trip leader, as the next
victim struggled through the sticky stuff, slyly hidden under the sullied
water of the slough.
This is the Florida Trail--in Bradwell Bay.
Backpacker Magazine called it one of the ten toughest hikes in the United
States. I won't argue. I feel sorry for the trio of backpackers plus
pack-laden dog we left behind us an hour ago. I'm *so* glad this is a
"It's the lowest I've ever seen it," said Kent, who's on his fifth traverse
of Bradwell Bay. He'll be returning this Tuesday to chaperone thru-hiker Joan
Hobson through the wilderness. He runs an annual hike for the FTA Apalachee
Chapter, and always manages to sucker...I mean, convince...a few neophytes
along each year.
I have no excuse. I asked for this. I've been warned. I knew what I was
getting into. Or so I thought.
"This is low?" I question, watching as Ralph, behind me, slips and plunges
into a mudhole up to his waist.
"Yup," says Jerry. "Wait 'til you see The Pond. That's where you take photos
to impress your friends."
Bradwell Bay's swamp -- deep in accumulated layers of humus, the waterlogged
rotting remains of leaves, mosses, and grass - often blankets the entire
plain in water ranging from knee-deep to chest-deep. We're lucky. Even with
the rain a couple days ago, there are dry patches between the mudholes; that
is to say, little islands of slightly harder muck accumulated around tree
roots. Cypress knees jut out of the dark water. Sweetbay magnolia towers
It's an obstacle course. Winter blowdowns force us into deeper water. We
clamber up and over and through tangles of brittle branches and thorny vines.
Bloody gashes appear on bare skin.
And then there's the muck.
The sucking muck.
The muck that oozes into tennis shoes. Linda is in front of me, making funny
noises. "Ewwww. Goooo." Squish. Squish. Squish. I'm glad I wore my
high-topped, double-tongued Vasque boots.
The muck that grabs so tightly at heavy boots that you have to cantilever
yourself against a tree and reclaim your foot with a resounding "thwock!"
The muck that coats the swamp floor so deeply that only a foot of my
fully-extended Lekis peeps out above waterline as I probe ahead for footing.
The muck that sucks so hard on my hiking poles that they become disjointed; I
see the inner workings, the springs, for the first time. I require help to
push my poles back together again before they are ruined. I probe less deeply
after learning *that* lesson.
Water seems to gravitate to the trail corridor. Or did some diabolical trail
builder blaze the trail right into the deepest sloughs?
"Keep right! Keep right!" Ann yells back.
Big splash. Another hiker down in a hole. Looks like Tom this time. "Watch
out! There's a big hole on the left!" he yells.
I'm glad I'm second to last in line.
The hiking poles are a necessity-the first time I've found them of any use in
Florida. Some of these blackwater troughs have pits deep enough to swallow
you whole. Especially The Pond. Here, it's water in every direction. Trail?
What trail? Look for the bright orange rope. Follow it closely.
"Left side." Someone yells from far ahead; I can't make out who, through the
dense brush. "Switch to the right in the middle..."
"Aaaaaaaahhhh!" Splash. Repeat twenty times.
I'm one of the lucky third of the group who's managed to keep dry from
mid-thigh up, despite the frequent splashes of my comrades. Even with poles,
it's easy to slip in the unseen muck and lose your footing. Or wrench your
foot under a hidden root, break an ankle. Or step on a slimy log. Or plunge
into a deep hole. It's not a place to visit alone.
And I'm so glad I'm not carrying 35 lbs of gear on my back.
It's easy to get lost in this wilderness. You spend so much time looking
down, blazes can be miseed. In a couple of burnt-out areas - "forest fire of
'98," says Kent - there are NO blazes at all, just a faint footpath, or a bit
Looking down, you see the subtleties of the swamp. Delicate sundew plants,
glistening with droplets on reddish-orange leaves; a box turtle, its shell
rotten with algae. Three hikers manage to wade by a baby snake, its slight
black and red frame drawn back into a pose saying, "don't mess with me, I
mean business!" before I point it out, ready to strike at ankles. Another
more colorful box turtle cowers in a mudbank. Oddly veined in deep crimson,
bladder-like cups of green line one section of trail-"pitcher plant," says
Linda. Delicately fringed bursts of white bog buttons break up the greenery
of the marsh.
Kent points upward. "This is what's special about this forest." Towering
above, a centuries-old loblolly pine, from its height and circumference
likely one of the oldest in Florida. Around it, many similar neighbors. "The
loggers never made it back here," Kent says.
After four hours of slogging, wading, slipping, we reach the hammock-another
victim of the forest fire, but lively with young shrubs, yellow flags of
Carolina jessamine, vivid buttery sprays of polygala. Lunch. Relazx. Pour
water from boots. A pointless pursuit, it turns out.
Tom's bummed that we're no longer knee-deep in water, the lush hammock - the
only place hikers can safely stop and camp in this section - thick with
sweetbay magnolia and the elusive black titi. Small puddles begin to appear
in the trail; he stomps through them like a happy child, spraying squishy mud
on Linda, Kent, and me.
"Bet *your* mother never made you write 'I will not stomp in mud puddles' one
hundred times," I grouse, as he gleefully stomps onward. Water deepens, rises
over boots again. This part of the swamp is different, though-these stretches
are clear, the bottoms a solid limestone base; white sand sparkles through
water tinted in hues of iced tea.
We reach the pine woods. No more swamp! Collective sigh of relief. Only two
more soggy obstacles ahead-the branches of Monkey Creek. Water flows swiftly
through the first crossing. "Watch out for that dark spot!" Kent warns. "It's
a deep, deep hole!" I stop mid-stream in the current to take a photo,
fascinated by the layers of color in the water, hues of brown, golden orange,
yellow, like a parfait.
In the uplands, fringe trees turn the distant woods to a white mist, a
brilliant backdrop for the sand pine scrub. We follow an old road, pausing
frequently to muse at bear scat.
"Bear aren't stupid," Kent says. "Looks like this is a bear highway, all
right. Would you crash through palmetto when you could amble down the trail?"
It's been a good hike, a tiring hike. Unlike last year's crew, who lost a
cell phone and a watch in the murky waters, the only tribulations today have
been the loss of a water bottle - "Aaaaaaahhh!" yells Tom, falling in a hole.
Glug. Bottle sinks to bottom. - and a forgotten camera, retrieved by the
hiker who'd left it behind at lunchtime. Still, my muscles ache. My boots
feel like lead.
"You earn every step here," Kent said.
And I did. Whew!
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