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Warmer in the Wintertime: The Florida Trail

By Johnny Molloy • Feb 11, 2018 at 7:15 AM

Looking for a warmer wintertime destination for an extended backpacking trip? Try the 60-mile segment of the Florida Trail (FT) as it traverses the Apalachicola National Forest near Tallahassee, Florida. It is beautiful, challenging and unforgiving, nature out for nature’s sake.

My friend Bryan Delay and I arranged a shuttle then set out on this 60-mile traverse through the Apalachicola National Forest. The surrounding pine woods had been recently burned, wearing shades of brown, copper and black. We made 8 miles in the national forest before making camp just beyond a creek spanned by a plank walkway.

The area near the creek was not burned, enhancing its “campability.” We sat in the creekside grass and absorbed this gorgeous sunny day. After dark, coyote pups howled beyond the campfire, adding an eerie aspect to this moonlit night.

The early sun hit quick in this open pine country. The fresh burn also obscured the orange blazes of the Florida Trail and made the footbed less visible and harder to follow. The smell of sun-warmed pine needles wafted through the cool morning air. I looked up and marveled in the colors of a crystal blue sky contrasting against the white sand track speckled with bronze needles. If only an artist could find that on his palette.

Ahead, the Florida Trail cruised along the west bank of the Sopchoppy River on some hilly terrain, dipping down to ravines. Pink azaleas bloomed along the river and in the adjoining woods. We reached another bridge, then turned left on a forest road to reach the Bradwell Bay Wilderness trailhead then entered the fabled wilderness, largely regarded as Florida’s toughest hiking experience.

The first few miles, however, were easy, as they traced an old logging road through open land. The sun beat overhead and the afternoon temps were approaching 80. Water was ahead and swamp slogging was imminent. The trailside brush was high, but not high enough for shade, only high enough to scratch my legs.

The sun beat overhead. The whole place had a raw rough look to it. Waves of heat rose and shimmered in the distance on the palmetto prairies, bordered by the titi thickets, where water flowed. Places like this were shaped solely by the forces of nature — lightning, sun, wind and rain — each sculpting the landscape in their own way.

Bryan and I decided to make camp before the really wet and deep part of Bradwell Bay Wilderness. We dubbed our camp The Oaks, located just east of the serious wet-footing, where a dozen or so scrub live oaks grew, patching together a bit of shade on level land with a light grassy floor and opposed to the dense brush that covered the rest of what little dry land was around.

That night Bryan and I lay still underneath the netting, listening to mosquitoes buzz under the cloudy sky. Restless sleep was broken by a late rising moon. Cloud cover diffused the light, making it seem as if dawn was here, but it was only 2:30 a.m.

The dark morning made the area seemed more foreboding as we entered the heart of Bradwell Bay Wilderness, crossing burned over, wet forests open to the dark sky. A misty drizzle increased the gloom as we reached the full-blown swamp, the heart of Bradwell Bay, named for a hunter from yesteryear who got lost and went around in circles for days, slogging through ancient swamp forests, ragged pinelands and the snake-like titi thickets.

We pushed forth under a tree canopy of gum, cypress, pine and other trees. The water looked black as I felt forward, testing the swamp bottom with each step, expecting to go in up to my thighs, and I would, when the previous 10 steps had held me up fine. It was just the nature of this swamp, and the reason for it notorious reputation.

We made Bradwell Island — a small dry pineland, yet the swamp gave no quarter, and the Florida Trail returned us to the slow depths where ancient trees towered in strength, laughing at a land-locked passerby attempting to navigate the waters where it thrived.

The deepest part was just ahead, and where the biggest trees were still getting bigger. We picked our way forward, plunging deeper, then broke on through to the other side, reaching a hellish area — still in mucky and sometimes murky water, but open to the sky, with fallen burned trees everywhere, a result of a fire, followed by hurricane. Every now and then I would find a blaze on a fallen tree, and proceed on.

Suddenly we popped out on Forest Road 314, a little blacker, a lot dirtier and carrying half our body weight in shoe muck. But Bradwell Bay was behind us.

Ahead, I took a side trail to the Langston Homestead, an old homesite. The dilapidated wooden structure shaded by massive live oaks was falling apart. Azaleas still bloomed in the yard, forgetting no one lived there to enjoy them. The tin roof had been peeled back like the top of a sardine can, no doubt from wind.

Bryan and I found a suitable camp for our 3rd night out. This time of day was always welcome. We had completed the day’s mileage. We had scrubbed the black soot from our faces. Now we were examining our packs to see what there was to eat, simultaneously filling the gut and lightening the load in the backpack.

Then came a map check to roughly sketch out the next day. Finally I would lay back and watch the sun dip lower, make a fire and have some coffee as soon as it was cool enough.

I sat still, half slumped against the pack, head still high enough to slurp coffee, watching mosquitoes maneuver around, seeking uncovered skin, drifting into my ears and onto my pants. I was covered in a long sleeve shirt and long pants with socks and bug dope on exposed skin. The sun shot a few last rays between the pines, not wanting to relinquish its influence over these remote Florida woods before night won the day.

Next day, Bryan and I made Vilas, an abandoned turpentine town. All that was left were old fences and concrete and rock piles. The trail spanned the New River on a bridge, then went upstream along it. Today, again, we saw no people, no cars, though we had crossed a couple of logging roads. The Apalachicola National Forest is huge, with few people living nearby.

In times of solitude like this, my simple hiking existence seemed so disconnected from the rest of the world, even my own world back home. Home was something I dreamed up. Backpacking became life itself.

The forest had its offerings. Pink azaleas brightened the morning woods. The morning sun did glint through the trees, sometimes illuminating a titi branch so heavy with tiny white blooms it overhung to the ground. Several long boardwalks wound through Shuler Bay, where red and green blooming pitcher plants bordered grassy seeps. The path opened and became easy, and we reached the junction with the Trail of Lakes. Bonnet Pond, ringed in cypress and dotted with lily pads, lured us for a stop.

A few hours later, we reached Camel Lake, a campground near the forest’s northwest corner, thus ending our 60-mile backpack in Florida’s Apalachicola National Forest. Bryan’s car was waiting, and we sped off, back toward the hills of East Tennessee, another adventure under our belts.

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