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[ft-l] TRIP REPORT: Bradwell Bay [long]

Many thanks to our own Linda "Earthworm" Patton, 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.... :) 
-- Cheers, Navigator 

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.

Thwock. "Aaaaaaahhh!"

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 
of string.

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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