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A 4-day backpack on the Florida Scenic Trail through Big Cypress (named
for the swamp’s size, not the size of the trees) National Preserve…how
could I resist? Four of us walked about 32 miles, south to north, from
Tamiami Trail to Alligator Alley. The excursion was promised to be very
strenuous, but well worth the effort. It fit both criteria.
The first 2 days we walked through wet and dry prairie among stands of
pines, Sabal palms, and palmetto. We thought about camping in a lovely
area with flattened grasses – until we noticed the smell. It was an otter
resting place complete with a toilet section of fishy smelling droppings.
We saw and birds of all kinds and the tracks of raccoon, deer, bobcat
and hogs. Leg-breaking holes, up to bushel basket size, were gouged in
the limestone by acid rain. The weather was perfect for hiking – around
70 degrees daytime and dropping to 40 one night. Bugs were minimal.
On the 3rd day, we started through the dwarf cypress swamp. A multitude
of smallish trees, leafless this season, stood in 1’- 2-1/2’ of very
slowly moving water. Wading through the water was tiring but not bad when
the bottom was hard. A muddy bottom was another story; it oozed over the
top of our boots, and clung to the treads, releasing with a plop. This
mud, along with grit and sand, collected in chunks between our socks and
boot soles and had to be periodically scraped out. Our boots never dried
and our socks were never clean for more than a few minutes. I learned
about "wet breaks". Nina and Daryl strung up hammocks to hold our packs
while we rested, or used bungy cords to tie them out of the water into
the trees. We all carried stools.
In the swamp, airplants such as ferns, orchids and numerous blooming
bromeliads cling to the cypress which stretched as far as one can see. I
almost stepped on a snapping turtle; tiny fish swarmed around our feet
during breaks, and frogs scattered ahead of us as we walked. Hawks, along
with warblers and other small birds, were abundant, and night we listened
to owls. Again, bugs weren’t a major problem.
Occasional dense islands of pine, palm, vines and other plants that
require dry land punctuate the swamp, along with pockets of deeper water
with taller cypress. Swampy vegetation grows here, and flocks of egrets,
storks, and other wading birds roost in the tall trees. We watched for
cottonmouths; but didn’t see any, nor any alligators.
Towards sunset, on the 3rd afternoon, we realized that we couldn’t make
it to the planned campsite and had visions of spending the night sitting
on stools in the water. Then we found a tiny island which Daryl dubbed
"Bunkbed Camp". There was barely room for 3 tents, and certainly not 4,
so Nina strung her hammock above Daryl’s tent. She tied a line still
higher, and hung her tent on it, so that it draped it over her hammock.
She said she slept surprisingly well, probably better than those of us
who couldn’t find a flat surface for our tents
On the 4th day we realized we couldn’t make it out that day. We stopped
at sunset at a larger, comfortable island we named "Skull Camp", and left
the deer skull on a tree to mark the spot. We regretted being unable to
notify our families or Daryl’s parents who were waiting at the exit to
shuttle us back to our cars, but had no choice. Following the trail in
daylight was difficult; at night it would have been impossible. The next
morning, a small Forest Service search plane sent by Darl’s parents
wagged its wings at us when we were about 3 miles from our goal and
radioed back to let everyone know we were fine. We walked out about
We averaged 1 to 1-1/2 MPH on this hike because following the trail was
so difficult and slow. The orange trail blazes had faded or flaked off
the trees, and were often obscured by the rapid plant growth. In many
cases the fleck of paints were discernible only from a few inches away.
Often we fanned out, one person standing next to the last mark, and the
rest moving forward in different directions searching for the next blaze.
"Got it", we yelled triumphantly when we found a blaze and were move
forward a few more yards.
The FTA volunteers that maintain the trail hadn’t been able to get in for
nearly 3 years because of the extreme high water in ’98 and fires in ‘97.
Combine that with a batch of bad paint that faded and flaked soon after
it was applied to understand why the trail was in such bad shape. Trail
volunteers face difficult conditions nearly everywhere in Florida because
of the rapid plant growth, and Big Cypress is no exception. There are no
day maintenance trips here. Crews must be brought in by Park Service
helicopters, and camp out. During our trek, we reapplied two cans of
orange paint and three rolls of ribbon during the first 2 days before
supplies ran out.
We couldn’t have finished without our knowledgeable guide, Daryl Wells,
who has hiked this trail 18 times (but never from this direction), and
Nina Depry, FTA Big Cypress Section Leader and Trail Master. Fellow
Indian River Chapter hiker Swede Hansen’s navigational skills and good
sense were more than welcome. My contribution was an unexplainable
ability to spot almost non-existent blazes. After the hike, Nina closed
the trail past 6-mile camp. Until crews can be helicoptered in to redo
the trail, it is to be considered a "compass walk" only.
Would I do it again? Just tell me when…..
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