As usual, I got an early start today. The sunrise was beautiful over Bladebone Bay.
Remembering how quickly the packrafting went yesterday, I was in no hurry as I started down the west side of Kingsmere Lake, and I stopped for a long break at a solitary beach.
I left, paddled for awhile and then stopped at another beach, because why not? A fishing boat moved past far from the shore, but otherwise there were no boats or people in sight.
The wind had picked up substantially by the time I decided to leave beach #2. I felt worried – carrying a load of expensive backpacking gear on a packraft is uncomfortable, at least for someone with a fear of water. The wind was coming from behind me, so at least I didn’t have to fight the waves. It was just a rolling ride the rest of the way to Pease Point Campground, which has no beach and was therefore infested with mosquitoes. I arrived at the same time as a group of canoeists who had been worried about padding on Kingsmere Lake in the waves, and had instead paddled all the way through the Bagwa Canoe Route to get to Pease Point. They warned me about one of the portages, but the joy of a packraft is not worrying about portages.
Pease Point Campground also had another (ambiguous) warning:
This is the kind of verbage I would expect to see outside a McDonalds, not in the boreal forest (warning: mosquitoes in area). Perhaps the bear had stolen food though, or was scaring small children, since there was a bear trap in the campground. A bear trap closed on both ends (with no bear inside).
I ate supper quickly and fled into my tent. Goodnight mosquitoes! Goodnight mystery bear!
I woke up early and left camp by 7:00 AM, skipping breakfast to take advantage of the early morning period when Kingsmere Lake is beautifully still. Packrafts don’t track nicely like a canoe or kayak does, but adding weight to the front of the boat helps, and with my backpack positioned there I could steer more easily than in my practice runs on the tragic city pond.
Despite paddling leisurely, I arrived at my next campsite, Bladebone Bay, in only 2-2.5 hours. Coming from a thru-hiking background, I’m used to walking from breakfast until supper, so the thought of just lounging around for the rest of the day seemed egregious. I decided to investigate the decommissioned Bladebone Canoe Route, which leaves from a trail behind the outhouse, and to potentially camp up there if I found a nice location.
I don’t know why the decision to decommission the canoe route was made, but possibly it was when the other access point by road became inaccessible, because the portage from Kingsmere Lake is longish (2 km, according to a random website), partially uphill, boggy, and would be brutal with a canoe. With the amount of deadfall across the trail now, I’m not sure that it would even be possible with a canoe, but I try never to underestimate the power of human perseverance.
The nice thing about the trail was that it was still distinct the entire way.
Bad things: deadfall, heat, bugs, bog. I was up to my ankles in water a few times, and it was a delight to be wearing shiny (relatively) new hiking boots that were still waterproof.
After what seemed like a long time, I reached the first lake. A Parks Canada canoe was chained to a tree nearby, filled with water. The place for entering the lake looked sharp and pokey with submerged logs, and reeds impeded access elsewhere. I didn’t feel inspired to search for another launching place, and there were no obvious campsite prospects, so I decided to just have lunch and then return to Bladebone Bay Campground.
The trip down was miserable, and by the bottom I was thinking to myself, ‘this was a good experience, because it taught me that I don’t want to do the entire Bladebone Canoe Route’. I’m already doubting that decision though, because I hate leaving things unfinished. Nothing learned after all?
I saw more wildlife in Bladebone Bay than at the other campsites: a loon, a pelican, a beaver and dozens of shorebirds. The campground has three sites and is as nice as the others, except for how the path to the outhouse/Bladebone Canoe Route passes through one of the campsites. The people in the campsite had escalated the situation by setting up camp chairs on either side of the path. They were nice people, but by the fifth time passing through their conversations, I had run out of small-camping-talk-with-strangers topics and had to just smile awkwardly and scuttle past quickly.
One of the pros of the general bugginess (yes, there are pros!) is that it supports high numbers of spiders. When I returned to my tent for the night, I found that a spider had built a beautiful web between my rolled up tent doors, with three bugs already captured and one wrapped in silk (I felt bad for taking it down). Then when I settled in to sleep, a different type of spider came to lurk in the fold of fabric beneath one of the doors, and I saw it pounce on and kill multiple mosquitoes. ❤
I ate breakfast on the beach this morning to avoid the mosquitoes. I never ended up meeting the people camped in the other site – they returned to the campground after I went to bed, and were still in their tent when I left. The walking between Chipewan Portage and Sandy Beach was entirely through forest, and the mosquitoes were atrocious. I wore my mosquito suit, but had to resign myself to being bitten.
I took a long break on the lovely beach at Sandy Beach Campground in an attempt to postpone re-entering the forest until the mosquitoes went into hiding for the day (it didn’t work). Briefly I had the distraction of a random memory from a physics class in high school: we had to build something to protect an egg from breaking when dropped from the second floor of a building. My group placed it in a foam container that we coloured like Kenny from South Park, then when it hit the ground I called up at the teacher ‘Oh my god, you killed Kenny! You bastard!’. It was prime performance art and I still don’t understand why we didn’t receive a 100%.
Early in the afternoon I arrived at North End Campground, which is much larger than Chipewan Portage or Sandy Beach. Along with individual sites, it has a group camping area open to individuals when not reserved. I pitched my tent, collected water and set off on a day hike to Grey Owl’s cabin with my scented items. I’m only climbing that food storage ladder once, and yeah, I know that I’m a wimp.
Grey Owl (or more appropriately, Archibald Belaney) is a polarizing figure in Saskatchewan’s history. He was an esteemed conservationist, but pretending to have an Indigenous background. This was discovered during his lifetime by certain individuals, but people in the 1930s weren’t as keen on cancelling people as contemporary society, and the truth was published only after his death. The cabin in Prince Albert National Park is where he lived with one of his wives and pet beavers, wrote multiple bestselling books, and was buried.
The hike to the cabin begins with a trek up the beach from North End Campground. Near an inlet stream, I followed a path into the forest. Up until then, the Grey Owl’s Cabin trail had been perfectly maintained, so I was surprised by how rough it was… until it crossed the inlet stream on a log and headed back towards the lake. Taking the trail consumes more time than just removing your boots and wading through the stream at the beach! Don’t do it!
The actual trail into the forest begins at a picnic area and outhouse at the end of the beach. The (well-maintained) trail soon splits in two, with one path providing access to Ajawaan Lake for boaters and the other providing foot access to the cabin. I slogged through the mosquito-ridden forest to the cabin, which was beautifully located on the shore of the lake, and rested on the picnic bench for a snack. A friendly breeze from the lake was blowing the mosquitoes away.
When I returned to the picnic area, I met a family who had come there by motorboat to have a barbeque. Motorboats are allowed in Kingsmere Lake, but they must be portaged in using a rail cart, which is impressive dedication. Back at my campsite, I had a less appealing hiker supper of peanut butter and pasta.
Backcountry campsites around Kingsmere Lake and the Bagwa Canoe Route are reserved first-come, first-served on the day of departure. Never having booked sites in Prince Albert National Park before, I didn’t know how crowded the campgrounds might be, but since most are small (some only have two tentsites), I was hovering outside the visitor centre at 6:45 this morning. That made me second in line, and I managed to book:
Night 1: Chipewan Portage (6.7 km from the trailhead) Night 2: Northend (16.8 km from the trailhead) Night 3: Bladebone Bay (mysterious paddling distance) Night 4: Pease Point (etc.) Night 5: Lily Lake (etc.)
I wanted to camp at Sandy Beach today, which was full, but Chipewan Portage is fine too. One of the reasons why I chose to start with the hiking portion of this trip is flexibility in campsites; the other is that hiking is my comfort zone. If I start paddling and something goes horribly wrong, I’ll reassure myself with the thought that at least I got to hike for a few days. It will warm my heart as I sink into the cold depths of a lake ❤
I drove with my parents, my niece and my nephew down a well-maintained gravel road to the Grey Owl Trail trailhead beside Kingsmere River, which flows from Kingsmere Lake. We located the start of the trail and my family walked with me for a few minutes, my mother spraying my niece with natural mosquito spray that only worked as long as it was wet (they ended up hiking the Kingsmere River Trail, and she used the entire bottle of spray during that one hike). I braved the mosquitoes for awhile without defenses and then put on my mosquito suit, my trusty mosquito suit that worked so well in clouds of mosquitoes along the Oregon section of the PCT…
NOPE. I don’t know whether it’s related to their physiology or their behaviour, because I’ve learned that mosquitoes behave differently everywhere (united only by their evilness and lust for blood), but these northern Saskatchewan mosquitoes are experts at breaching the mosquito suit. The suit didn’t prevent all bites in Oregon, but I never received more than a handful every day. Today I got a handful just on one elbow. It looks like I have some strange skin disease that everyone who hikes frequently in this national park could probably identify with a bitter laugh.
Anyway, the one good quality of these mosquitoes is that they avoid the beach. Today’s hiking was mostly flat ambling along in the woods, but there were a few beach sections, and around 10:30 AM I settled into some sand for a mosquito-free break and watched hordes of dragonflies, my new heroes, killing insects above the water.
Having such a short distance to walk today, I lingered on the beach until noon. By the time I returned to the trail, the mosquitoes were gone! Hallelujah! I assume that the heat drove them into hiding, since today was scorching and the rest of the week is supposed to be the same.
The mosquitoes and initially calm water (the wind picked up around 11 AM) had almost tempted me to pull out my packraft, but I was worried about missing Chipewan Portage Campground. That turned out to be a non-issue, since upon arrival I found that its strip of beach was marked by a big white X for paddlers. It’s a nice campground, with two sites separated by enough vegetation for privacy. I looked around for any signs of trail for the historic portage to Chipewan and Crean Lakes, but saw none. Bear storage is a wooden platform with a removable metal ladder. I would have preferred a bear pole or cable or box, but dodgy ladder it is.
Not long after my arrival, I encountered two women about to head into the campground and introduced myself as their neighbour. Not my neighbours! They had no reservation to camp. They had gotten dropped off by boat at Sandy Beach Campground, camped there last night and planned to walk the rest of the way to the trailhead today, but after 6.1 km they were already exhausted. I didn’t ask how heavy their packs were, but they were carrying at least one camp chair. A good rule of thumb is that if you’re carrying camp chairs, you’ll need camp chairs.
I invited them to rest in my campsite and camp there if necessary, though they wouldn’t have been very comfortable since I had the single tentsite and they would have struggled to wedge in a tent. When I left to collect water, I discovered that my filter wouldn’t produce more than a dribble. How frustrating – this is the first time I’ve ever left on a trip without testing it, and it refuses to work. The campsites have fire pits, so I went to collect some beach debris for building a fire. When I returned to the campsite, I heard some plaintive calling, ‘Help me! Help me!’.
The one unfortunate thing about this campground, besides the dodgy food storage, is that you can get locked in the outhouse. The exterior lock on the door, which is there to keep out animals when the outhouse isn’t occupied, can slip into the locked position by itself. This is ominously scrawled on the lock itself, but one of the women had gotten locked in there, and I ran to free her. They had decided by this time to continue hiking, but before they left, I received some instant karma in the form of chlorine tablets for treating my water! One of the women had been carrying dozens (at least they were prepared for an extra night of camping, or doomsday), which is more than enough for my entire trip.
I’ve always used a water filter before, and had some trepidation about how well a bandana would work for filtering out floaties. I was very impressed. The water also doesn’t taste as much like a swimming pool as I thought it would, but maybe that’s because of the absence of children’s urine. The mosquitoes besieged the beach around 7:00 PM and I went to bed at hiker midnight (9:00 PM).
Her: You’ve never paddled anywhere in your life!!!!!!!
That’s untrue, by the way. I had a very unpleasant sea kayaking experience once.
I bought the necessary gear, battling low stock in a year with everyone trying to paddle away from the pandemic. After some difficulties in inflating the raft initially (giving me bad flashbacks to my childhood when I was unable to blow up balloons), I took the boat out for several test runs on Lake Diefenbaker and an artificial pond near my house. The most important thing here is that I successfully avoided touching the murky pond water when getting in or out of the boat, but the packraft working well is also noteworthy. I’ve also figured out an arrangement for adding all the gear to my backpack, a tricky job given the bulkiness of the packraft and the PFD. I was surprised that the packraft actually fits into one of the side pockets. Well done, backpack!
This trip will be to Kingsmere Lake and a handful of smaller lakes nearby. No random backcountry camping is allowed at Kingsmere Lake, so I’ll have to reserve sites, which is tricky when I don’t know how long it will take me to paddle anywhere. I’m going to plan for short days, that being preferable to not getting to my campsites in time and guiltily illegally camping, so my itinerary is currently:
Day 1: Kingsmere River Trailhead to Sandy Beach Campground (hiking along the Grey Owl Trail)
Day 2: Sandy Beach Campground to Northend Campground, then a day hike to Grey Owl’s Cabin (still hiking)
Day 3: Northend Campground to Bladebone Bay Campground (paddling)
At this point I have the option to investigate/complete part of the Bladebone Canoe Route, which begins with a notorious portage and is now decommissioned. What’s the purpose of having a packraft though if you’re not using it for canoe routes no longer suitable for canoes or anyone?
Day 4: Bladebone Bay Campground to Pease Point Campground (padding)
Day 5: Pease Point Campground to Lily Lake Campground (paddling)
Day 6: Lily Lake Campground to Kingsmere River Trailhead (paddling, then hiking, then paddling again)
So, decision time came and went and I decided to cancel this hike. The question of thru-hiking in 2020 has been debated so intensely that it’s garnered the long-distance community more attention than we’ve received since Wild (see the New York Times, Washington Post and this amusingly titled LAist article), so I feel no need to rehash all those points here. Suffice it to say that Saskatchewan is still asking residents not to travel out of province, and I want to respect that. I also have serious concerns about the logistics of hiking the GDT right now, namely how I would self-isolate for two weeks in one of its ultra-expensive trail towns if I did develop symptoms.
‘Bane, what are you doing in your spare time if you’re not planning for one of the hikes that you’ve already planned for and had to cancel?’ I’m glad you asked! I’ve veered in the strange and exciting new direction of packrafting, and can say that I’ve never felt more irritated trying to choose a piece of gear than when looking for a PFD. I’ve also been playing an old video game and taking pictures of scenes that remind me of the pandemic, and you can see them below!
Your apartment after weeks of lockdown:
Hoarding some more:
The battle for PPE:
Hitchhiking in the back of a truck since the driver doesn’t want your COVID-19 ass in the cabin:
The GDT uses a patchwork of shorter trails, some of which are well-maintained and popular and some of which are the complete opposite. In most of the parks, camping requires permits that may be of two varieties: 1) random camping permits for less popular trails/areas without maintained campgrounds; 2) campsite bookings for popular, high-traffic trails with maintained backcountry campgrounds (e.g. Skyline) or trails that limit campers to minimize the disturbance to wildlife (e.g. Maligne Pass).
Though I love random camping, I’m a big supporter of the permit system. Limiting campers and herding them into designated campsites, especially campsites with toilets, is the best way to minimize impact on the environment (especially delicate alpine environments) and wildlife. When I’ve walked through heavily used areas that allowed random and unlimited camping, they often featured catholes everywhere, ragged vegetation and absurdly located tents destroying the feeling of wilderness. If you hate permits, if you must be free to roam and camp wherever you like, there are many, many long trails other than the GDT for you, or perhaps you can identify alternate routes to skip areas requiring campsite reservations, or rush through them in one day. If I meet you on the GDT and you’re not making a good faith effort to obey camping regulations, I will not be friendly to you. I may report you to Parks Canada in an attempt to get you fined, taking pictures of you as you shout obscenities and try to shield your face. Yes, I am that person, whatchoo gonna do about it?
The good news is that the permit system is not some crazy, insurmountable obstacle to hiking the GDT. Most of the campgrounds open for reservations in January, and despite getting my permits for them almost two full months later in March, I was able to make it work with some flexibility. That was also my experience when I lived in the Rockies and spent some of my three-day weekends (thanks, awesome bosses) on the popular backcountry trails in Jasper and Banff. I obtained most of my permits last-minute, but always managed to get a stray campsite from a cancellation. I never got more than one along a trail, mind you, but the popular trails are well-maintained, which enables quick hiking.
Therefore, there’s certainly hope of obtaining last-minute permits and modifying your itinerary if you get slowed down. Logic tells us that giving yourself a reasonable itinerary that will absorb short delays is wise, and unless you’re trying to set a FKT, why would you complain about an extra zero here and there? I recommend checking out the sample itineraries put together by Dan Durston to aid hikers with their trip planning.
‘I hiked x miles per day on the PCT so I should be able to hike x km on the GDT’ may not serve you well as a tactic; hiking on a well-maintained trail requires vastly different amounts of time and energy than bushwhacking and route-finding, as I learned on the northern Heysen! Dan’s itineraries give a rough idea of where the trail may take more time than the distance would suggest, as well as providing information about how to obtain permits for each area.
More detailed information can be found in the recently updated (2018) guidebook by Dustin Lynx. It’s excellent and glossy and I feel sad at the thought of chopping it up to put into my resupply boxes. I’m also sad whenever I see the word ‘Greyhound’ in its transportation descriptions. At some point I’ll need to investigate how to actually get to Waterton.
Due to COVID-19 – my apologies to anyone hoping that I wouldn’t mention that word again until 2.5 months from now, that’s my intention as much as possible – permit bookings for the parks are now closed and will remain closed until at least May. I still have some permits to obtain, so I’ll be waiting for that email stating that reservations have re-opened, or I suppose the alternate grim email stating that the parks will be closed all summer and my reservations have been cancelled. Maybe Parks can use this opportunity to rebuild the bridge over the Athabasca on the Fortress Lake Trail? Just needed to squeeze that in somewhere~
How things change in just a few weeks! On the day that I cancelled my Grand Enchantment Trail hike, there were no confirmed COVID-19 cases in Sasky, none in New Mexico, and I believe eight in Arizona. Those three places still have a (comparatively) low number of cases, but numbers are ballooning elsewhere, millions of Americans have been ordered to stay in their homes, and Canada has closed its borders to all non-essential travel. I’ve gone from feeling bitter about the cancellation to feeling grateful that I didn’t fly to the U.S. and start my hike only to be forced to return home anyway.
It’s tough timing for thru-hikers. Along with the GET, northbound hikes of the Pacific Crest Trail, Arizona Trail, Appalachian Trail and Continental Divide Trail are begun in the spring, and many hikers had already started or were just about to start walking when the pandemic began escalating in the United States. ‘So what, it’s just a vacation that you have/had to cancel,’ you say? Thru-hiking, or any long-distance hiking spanning multiple months, is comparable to moving to a new city. You give up your job, you sell your house or end your lease, and you put your faith in the arrangements you made beforehand for new accommodations and work. But then you get to the new city, and uh oh – there’s nothing for you there after all, and you return to the old city but you have no job or home there either, and everyone else is losing their jobs and looking for work at the same time you are.
It seems like everyone is on edge nowadays. Not sitting in their closets and rocking back and forth on a big pile of toilet paper, but their emotional baseline is higher and they’re more easily agitated. That’s understandable considering that there are no good options for us now – we can steer the boat into one iceberg or a different iceberg in the other direction. I have no idea whether I’ll be able to hike the GDT this summer, but I’m going to maintain hope. That’s what we need to get us through these times.
Let me suggest a scenario. A seemingly normal human being opens his bathroom cupboard and methodically counts the eight rolls of toilet paper inside. He frowns. He drives to the supermarket. He fights another shopper for a cart. He rushes to the toilet paper aisle, bowling over several children on the way, and claws the last three packages of toilet paper into his cart, howling triumphantly when he successfully purchases 90 rolls. If this is you, GO SIT DOWN YOU’RE PART OF THE PROBLEM.
This is a strange time to be a thru-hiker (or any human being living in this world). The chance of actually contracting COVID-19 (I’ve added a hyperlink for future readers not seeing this word in the news every day) in North America is still low, but backpackers are feeling its impacts because suddenly everyone wants what we want. Hand sanitizer. Unappetizing dehydrated meals. Equally unappetizing rice to which more appetizing ingredients can be added. It’s like there’s a band and at one point you were the only fan and could always get tickets to their concerts, then some other fans came along and also bought tickets – fine, we’ll allow that – but then some other fans came along and started buying 200 tickets each due to irrational fears that they would lose 199 of those tickets, and then scalpers began buying huge chunks of tickets to resell at higher prices on eBay. Where does all this leave us? In a tragic state of irritated minds and unsanitary hands.
I won’t delve into the hoarding of toilet paper and bottled water, which fills me with equal portions of laughter and contempt. It’s the hand sanitizer that’s the problem, since washing your hands properly as a solo hiker without contaminating your water bottle is virtually impossible. I’m a germaphobe to start with, so my thoughts when I circulated around the stores in my city and failed to find any hand sanitizer for my Grand Enchantment Trail hike – there are zero cases of COVID-19 in this city or province, just in case you’re wondering – were grim. Luckily for me, my family came through. My mother found me 90 ml (3 oz) of Purell, which is extinct in the wild, and my sister’s partner found me an entire 950 ml (32 oz) bottle of foam sanitizer! The latter is tricky compared to gel since it needs to be used in a specific bottle to foam, otherwise it’s like pouring water over your hands, but I was able to order some 60 ml (2 oz) foamer bottles to repackage it in. The only problem is that a 60 ml foamer bottle is bigger than I thought it would be when looking at my empty 60 ml Purell bottle, so it doesn’t fit in a pants pocket well. It will live in my backpack hipbelt.
Now that I’m not hiking until July, my hand sanitizer situation is in flux. Maybe Amazon and eBay will crack down on reselling and individuals with 500 bottles will pause and reflect and think to themselves, ‘Do I really need 500 bottles of hand sanitizer and 8372 rolls of toilet paper?’, and in that case, I could purchase travel-friendly gel sanitizer.
A final word to the hoarders: if you’re going to stock up on pasta sides, please buy the ones with cheese. I don’t like those.
As a hiker I drift between extremes. Too much easy hiking provokes a mental backlash; too much difficult hiking provokes a different kind of mental backlash; they must be measured so that by the time I return to one or the other I’ve forgotten whatever boredom or frustration I was feeling before. After two years of LASHing the Pacific Crest Trail, about which I have no criticisms other than its mental ease in conditions not including dangerous snow or torrential fords, I find myself needing to drift in the opposite direction to get my blood hot and pumping again.
Up until a few days ago I was planning to spend this spring hiking the Grand Enchantment Trail, a route connecting Phoenix and Albuquerque. Often I think of the Heysen Trail as a route since there was so little actual trail, but the GET is a proper unmarked route that also has a generous amount of trail – according to the GET website, 56% of its length is trail. The rest consists of 4WD dirt roads (20%), 2WD dirt roads (11%), cross-country walking (11%) and paved roads (2%). Sounding fun yet? Unfortunately, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Canadian government issued a global ‘avoid non-essential travel’ advisory on Friday… one day before my flight to Phoenix.
I was of course wildly upset, but it is what it is. After trying to cancel my flights and travel insurance et cetera with varying degrees of success, I began researching Canadian hikes in search of a viable alternative. Canada has a lot of wilderness but not a lot of long hikes in the wilderness, so options were limited. I decided on the GDT starting in July (and possibly a warm-up for the GDT, but more on that later) because it’s a nice length, challenging, covers a gorgeous section of Canada, and has been on my bucket list for some time. Like the GET, the GDT uses a mix of established trail, roads and cross-country walking, and only a few areas have GDT signage.
The GDT is a gnarly trail and I would be lying if I said I had no concerns about it, particularly the fords. I trust my judgement though, and my amygdala which is the opposite of Alex Honnold’s, so… pretty sure I won’t die. I’ll try to update this journal often enough to avoid the ‘are you dead?’ emails.
The mosquitoes were thicker overnight than those in the Diamond Peak Wilderness during my 2017 PCT LASH, and that’s saying something. Those that crowded into my vestibule were easy to kill by pressing my tent mesh against the doors, so Florida played witness to a bloodbath in the morning when the mosquitoes and a burst of rain had dwindled and I wanted to start walking.
More wading in the morning and showers throughout the day, but the sky was mostly blue. I repeatedly put up and took down my umbrella. The weather was hot and walking through the deep, cool water of the cypress domes was pleasant.
I saw frog (?) eggs hanging cloudlike around stems in the water.
The main buggy road in Big Cypress marked a transition from wading to periods of wading interspersed with walking on dry ground. My wading footwear had worked perfectly thus far – Altras, Superfeet, no socks – but the no socks part started to irritate my skin when I was walking partially on dry ground and no water was flowing between my flesh and the gritty interior of my shoes. I tried to wash them out well in the puddles a few times as I walked the rest of the way to the interstate.
The northern rest area has spigots where I cleaned my muddy feet and shoes before contacting an Uber to return to Miami. Coincidentally there was a driver only a few minutes away, so I quickly gathered up my gear and hoped that I didn’t smell too much of swamp.
What a fantastic hike! I love seeing new ecosystems and this one was very different from most of the others I’ve visited. I’m not sure whether the entire Florida Trail is on my radar yet, since it includes lots of road walking and clean water is scarce in areas, but if I have the opportunity to do more swamp hiking I definitely will.
Beautiful weather today! Soon after the mile 27 marker (which actually marks 21 miles from Oasis Visitor Center), the route became 99% wading with a few sections of mud. The mud was more difficult than the wading, having incredible suction.
The water level was below my knees most of the time, but still made for tiring walking that required a lot of concentration. The swamp bottom is a layer of muck covering limestone karst with solution holes, so every step requires careful foot placement.
Sliding my feet forwards was most effective, then I could detect whether one was going to enter a depression. The muck infiltrated my shoes and built up on the insoles, but they were easy to clean by removing them at intervals and swishing them around in the water.
Oak Hill Camp, which is located on one of the strand’s densely vegetated pine islands, had daytime mosquitoes and they were atrocious. I only stopped long enough for a short rest and snack.
Black Lagoon, a cypress dome that perhaps got its name from the inkiness of its water in the shade, was gorgeous.
The Black Lagoon contained alligator flag, which by growing only in deep water indicates where water will remain and alligators will retreat to in times of drought.
I finally saw another hiker! He was heading past Oasis Visitor Centre to Loop Road, the old southern terminus of the FT. After two years on the PCT, I keep expecting hikers to jump out of nowhere, but that’s not the FT experience.
At small Thank God Island I decided to camp.
Wading through the swamp was such an intense experience that I kept remembering my body movements while trying to fall asleep.
The trail was suddenly dry this morning. I encountered no water until a notorious alligator hole located directly beside the FT, where a small amount of water was visible. Guthook claims that the alligator lives underneath a ledge inside the hole, so despite no alligators being in sight, I wasn’t going to stick my hand in there. I continued along, reaching a wet cypress strand when I had about 300 ml of water left.
The route was confusing in the vicinity of the gator hole and within a forest packed with long grass. I heard a strange sound that I thought might be a black bear vocalizing – they don’t hiberate in Florida, where they can find food year-round, and I’ve seen their droppings along the trail – so I backed off and shouted ‘bad dog’ and clacked my hiking poles to scare the beastie away. Without determining its identity, I regained the FT’s orange blazes.
Rain on and off throughout the afternoon. I brought my sunbrella for this hike, and while I haven’t needed it for the heat, Florida is the first place where I’ve found a sunbrella effective for the rain. It’s hot so you don’t want many rain clothes, there hasn’t been much wind, and the weather does this thing where the sky is innocently blue with sporadic white clouds but every cloud passing overhead rains on you. Wearing rain clothes would require constantly putting them on and taking them off, as opposed to an umbrella that’s easy to take out and stow away throughout intermittent rain.
For the first time I saw other people, two men passing in a swamp buggy along a swamp buggy road. They asked whether I needed anything, but I was doing fine with my umbrella bobbing cheerily overhead.
I random camped just before the big cypress strand, which will require around seven miles of wading broken by a few islands to rest on. For company at supper I had butterflies and a variety of birds, including a downy woodpecker, cardinals, a brown version of a cardinal (?), and warblers (?). After I got into my sleeping bag, something small hit the bathtub floor by my waist hard, then tried again halfway down my legs and hit hard again before leaving. Rodent? Snake?
Day two on the FT. Everything was misty and wet this morning and I felt little incentive to get up, but get up I did. The sun emerged just before I entered a section of wading.
I don’t know what I was expecting from the swamp water, but I was surprised by how lovely and clear it is. I read that one shouldn’t go near the water at dawn or dusk because alligators can sometimes mistake people for prey, so I’ve been abiding by that advice. No alligators seen yet.
In places, the trail was only a channel of flattened grass. I imagine that beating back overgrowth is an endless task in this lush ecosystem, and the FT doesn’t get many thru-hikers. I’m not sure how many hikers the section from Oasis Visitor Centre to I-75 receives in general – I didn’t see anyone today or yesterday, but that could be the time of year.
I random camped. A bird and the vegetation are being noisy outside my tent. I’m taking great satisfaction in seeing the mosquitoes batter my tent mesh and being unable to access my soft appetizing flesh.
On December 21st, I flew down to Florida to hike the first thirty miles of the Florida Trail and engage in some touristing. Aside from my working holiday in Australia, I’ve taken no winter holidays since childhood, but this year the stars aligned with a work vacation and my antipathy towards facing another commercial Christmas where people exchange unnecessary bits of plastic. I told my family that if they wanted to give me presents they could make charity donations, furthermore told them that I would not be getting them (except my sister’s kids) presents aside from charity donations, and escaped to somewhere with a surprising general absence of Christmas decorations.
After purchasing supplies and downloading the southern FT segment on Guthook, I took Lyft out to the Oasis Visitor Centre, the FT’s southern terminus in Big Cypress National Preserve. The reason why I chose Florida as a destination is obvious: heat. I chose the first thirty miles of the FT because they were supposedly extremely difficult and involved wading through swamp, and swamp-wading is an essential activity for any tourist in Florida. I chose Lyft because it was substantially cheaper than Uber.
The Lyft driver was wary about dropping me off at the isolated visitor centre; I think he thought I was engaged in the ‘young person in Europe’ variety of backpacking, since he seemed unable to register the information that I was walking to I-75. He continued hovering around as I rearranged my backpack on the curbside, as if he thought that I would change my mind, but finally he drove off. The visitor centre was small, but its displays were interesting and it had a short informational film that I sat and watched before filling out my hiking permit at the desk. The employees warned me that they had heard the trail was extremely dry, which is what I had heard as well – no water for over twenty miles. Parts of Florida had seen heavy rain over the last few days, so I was hoping to encounter a decent amount of water, but I was carrying five litres just in case.
I quickly discovered that, as predicted, the trail was fairly wet and I encountered water across the trail multiple times during my first day of walking. The deepest was in a cypress dome and reached my mid-calves. Usually when my feet are wet on trails I’m fording and trying to get across an unpleasantly gushing watercourse as quickly as possible, so the wading through calm, clear water was novel and I enjoyed it.
I had devoted a lot of thought pre-trip to what kind of footwear I would use for the FT. Boots seemed out of the question, especially for wading, and I had read trail journals where people mentioned throwing away their shoes after passing through the swamp, so I didn’t want to wear new ones. I decided to use my old Asics trail runners + my orthotics for dry hiking, and an older pair of Altras + Superfeet for wading. I didn’t want to bring two pairs of shoes, but I learned in Mission Canyon on the PCT this past spring that my orthotics don’t take kindly to prolonged submersion, and I wanted to wear them as much as possible to ensure I had no foot problems.
A cement alligator surprised me in a lush area where the vegetation was growing easily and enthusiastically and wildly and loving life.
I random camped, not difficult since my surroundings were flat as a board. Supposedly the mosquitoes in Florida can tortuous, so I was delighted when they didn’t emerge until after dark, when I was already in my tent.
Overland Track complete! I would recommend it to anyone in this part of the world, especially if you have a decent chunk of time to take advantage of side trip opportunities. The area is lovely and the trail less crowded than I thought it would be, probably because of a lucky pick of start date. If you have a flexible schedule, I recommend waiting to book and selecting a date with fewer people (or hiking in the off-season). Or maybe you’re a different personality type and want to zoom through the trail and party every night with a huge group of people. That’s cool too.
1. Someone always snores in the huts. Always. If you’re alone in the hut, you’re snoring.
2. Often the trail is rocky to the point where you start questioning whether dirt exists. Choose your footwear accordingly.
3. If in need of entertainment, read the hut journals. Consider whether you really want to write awkward poetry in the hut journals.
4. If not planning to climb Mt. Ossa, consider camping at Frog Flats.
5. Order from the Lake St. Clair Lodge lunch menu, and there are free campsites nearby if you don’t want to pay $25 for more amenities.
6. If a guy comes into a hut to get a cloth and a bottle of disinfectant and tells you it’s because he found animal **** at the edge of his tent platform, don’t laugh at him. Remember the disgustingness of camping amidst cow patties on the AZT. Remember and sob quietly.
I woke up, dried most of the condensation off my tent, ate the dodgy couscous for breakfast, mulled over the possibility that the dodgy couscous had already been cooked, and set off towards Narcissus Hut.
I had decided pre-hike to take the ferry to Cynthia Bay instead of walking around the lake, doubting that the scenery of a forest walk would be rewarding enough for more kilometres and more food weight with an aching foot. After eight days of hiking, the status of my foot has actually improved – the pain subsides with a certain stretch that I now do often, though I don’t know whether that’s treating the problem or a symptom of the problem. Maybe I should consult a physiotherapist with this new information. Or just chop off my foot! Wheee!
Forest walking. I arrived at Narcissus Hut around 1:30 PM, investigated the pier, returned to the hut and saw a sign stating that the minimum ferry charge is 240 AUD. With six or more hikers each hiker pays 40 AUD, but with fewer hikers the charge gets divided, so one person would pay 240 AUD and two people would pay 120 AUD and so on… and I was the only person waiting for the ferry. The booking website said $40, but maybe I missed the fine print.
Even if I had been willing to pay 240 AUD for a boat ride, which I wasn’t, I wasn’t carrying anywhere near that much money. The obvious solution was to walk out; the problem foiling the obvious solution was that my only food remaining was a few spoonfuls of peanut butter, a small amount of granola and gross cashews flavoured like everything else in my food bag.
Not fancying another day on the trail with those provisions, I sat down outside Narcissus Hut and waited for more potential ferry-goers to arrive. Two hikers were arguing loudly inside the hut about something one had said about the other in front of other people and whether or not they felt the same way about completing the hike together and independence and so on. I have problems, they have problems, everyone has problems. Problem Hut.
The first new arrival was a German woman who said that she was planning to take the ferry out, but not until the following morning. She kindly offered to share her food if I wanted to spend the night at Narcissus Hut, but I didn’t like that idea – I would have done the same in her situation and not considered it a big deal, but hikers shouldn’t have to bail out other hikers, and I wasn’t going to starve on what I had. Next came three women who started considering whether to spend the night at Narcissus Hut or take the next ferry. I can do 60 AUD! I can do it! While they were considering, a fifth woman arrived. She was planning to hike out and offered me food if I wanted to do the same. I didn’t want to accept that offer either, but we ended up talking for awhile and she was a potential long-distance hiker, which was cool. Often I meet people who say it’s awesome that I hiked the AZT, but rarely are they interested in doing something similar.
The group decided to take the ferry, so I was saved. Two Parks employees joined us sans fare, and two tourists were already on the ferry, so we only had to pay $40 each. Despite some rain, I enjoyed the ride. The boat stopped at Echo Point for the tourists, and we all got out and looked around. The hut was dingy but there was a nice sandy beach with clear water. The guide(?) pointed out a tree with blossoms that taste like honey, and suggested that some of us taste them. I tried one (how hungry was I?) but it didn’t taste sweet at all. A ploy to trick tourists into eating plants…?
I ended up having supper with the ferry women, who were also interested in the Larapinta Trail. I had been warned about the food at the Lake St. Clair Lodge, but it was worse than I thought it would be. The menu after 5:00 PM is very limited (there’s also a ‘fine dining’ option) and tasted like fast food at a 800% markup. I bought a pizza off the lunch menu the next day though – there’s nowhere else to eat – and it was good, so if you eat at the lodge, go with the lunch menu/pizza. The German woman I had met at Narcissus Hut showed up at the restaurant after dark, having decided to hike out that day. She informed us about a free campground for hikers with no showers but also no fee. I was paying $25/night + coin shower, so I was disappointed that I hadn’t known about the free one.
It poured during the night and my tent floor soaked through below my air mattress. The sky still looked ominous in the morning, so rather than hanging up anything to dry, I propped up my mattress inside my tent and hoped that everything would dry while I was gone (my tent would sooner commit seppuku than dry in the shade, but hope is healthy). Despite my puddle I was luckier than the campers beside me, who woke to a possum eating food that they had stored within their tent vestibule. ‘I thought the zipping sound was you unzipping your sleeping bag,’ said the wife to her husband. Nope. Beware the possums.
I was excited for my side trip to the Labyrinth because I had read that it was beautiful (a good reason) and because it has a cool name (not a good reason). The trail there didn’t involve scrambling, but it was steep. Is that a waterfall, or is it the path? On this trail, it’s both! I was using a dry sack as a daypack again, and (while acknowledging that I wasn’t using it for its intended purpose) not only was it totally useless against wet leaves, but it developed small holes. I’m not impressed.
The Labyrinth had beautiful trees, beautiful lakes and ponds, beautiful views. The sky cleared while I was up there, permitting both misty mountain views and clear blue sky mountain views. I didn’t explore much since my body informed me that it would need cheeseburgers for that, but I would have liked to.
I haven’t mentioned yet that I’ve eaten my extra food and also resorted to taking some odd-looking couscous from a free food box at Windy Ridge. Along with the couscous, there was mysterious brown powder and white powder/pale sticks that the Backgammon woman thought were powdered milk/bamboo shoots, but I wasn’t desperate enough to experiment with those.
Descending the trail was more difficult than ascending it. A man behind me fell on the waterfall section but didn’t hurt himself, luckily.
Back at camp I found that my tent hadn’t dried at all, but friendly sunlight had emerged to help. I spent the evening eating my last dinner food aside from the dodgy couscous and listening enviously to other hikers describe their fancy dehydrated meals.
I left the Overland Track at the Pine Valley junction and walked to Pine Valley Hut, where I’ll spend two nights with a day trip to the Labyrinth. The walk was mostly flat, crossing suspension bridges through meadows and a mossy forest as silent as a crypt.
The trail was most scenic near the hut, where it ran alongside Cephissus Creek. I saw a white-lipped snake and heard what I hope was a ‘common froglet‘, since that’s the cutest name ever. On a related note, ‘common death adder‘ should not be a name. Common + death adder do not belong together.
The hut is average-sized and surrounded by normal campsites without tent platforms. The toilet was almost full and stank horribly. Two douchey locals were sitting in the hut when I arrived and having no interest in their asshattery, I pitched my tent despite expecting rain. Happily those men left and were replaced by a friendlier group of Aussies who for some reason assumed I was Swedish and asked me how to pronounce ‘Trangia’. I said ‘Trahn-gee-ah’, which was apparently wrong since there’s no ‘gee’ sound in Swedish. One of the men recommended the Larapinta Trail. Sounds like a nice prospect for Australian winter!
A note in the hut indicated that it had mice and hikers shouldn’t leave food around. As I mentioned before, possums will steal human food (but not vegetables, according to an entry in one of the hut journals; smart little buggers) and hikers normally store their food in the OT huts. Having once lived in a mouse-infested house though, I’m more afraid of mice than possums, though those particular mice may have become supermice from eating my vitamins. I decided to store my food in my tent in an Opsak and hope for the best.
One of the other hikers got lost while collecting water in the dark. When I heard him shouting, I thought he might be a hiker from somewhere else who had gotten lost in the wilderness. It was reminiscent of that time I was sharing a hostel room with a woman who had night terrors (never again). In the end he saw the light from our headlamps and was able to make his way back to camp, so all was good. A few tense moments there though.
After breakfast I said goodbye to the Belgians, Ontario Guy and the French(Belgians?), who were planning to walk further than me today. The French(Belgians?) pointed out that they were leaving earlier than I was. You win, get-up-early-kings. My quads felt like they had been skewered from descending Mt. Ossa. I thought ‘oh, maybe I should have trained for this’. Too late now!
The trail was entirely through forest today. I encountered the tour group with Tour Guide B at Du Cane Hut, then the Backgammon couple and a pair who thought that I had hiked the Appalachian Trail. And thus my legend grows (incorrectly). The OT is easy to follow and was usually distinct in this section despite the ground being covered in leaves, but I lost it once and had to backtrack to consult a directional marker. The Backgammon couple approached and the woman said ‘I just go where I think the trail should go’ and they headed off… in the wrong direction. If there’s no snow on the OT and you’ve been walking for two minutes without seeing a clear path, you’re probably not on it.
I hung back before the D’Alton/Fergusson waterfalls side trail, hoping to admire the falls in privacy. Naturally, everyone was still there when I arrived at the junction. We passed each other on the short but steep spur trails rather than at the waterfalls though, so I got some time alone. Both were nice, but Fergusson was more scenic.
Tour Guide A was at Hartnett Falls with his tour group, giving the ladies some fan service by bathing in the river. Excellent job, Tour Guide A! I think it must have been awkward for him to be the only partially undressed person, though. Like he called ‘c’mon guys, join in’ and no one joined in.
The tour group left and I spent some time at the falls. On my way back to the main trail, I went too far along the river and ascended an animal trail, but got back on course after backtracking.
Forest, forest, forest. I arrived at Bert Nichols Hut, which was huge, especially in proportion to the number of people there (six). We talked about TV, that thing I haven’t seen in a month. ‘Heartland‘ is the only Canadian television show the Backgammon couple know. For Australian shows, I only know ‘Please Like Me‘ and ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here‘, which we agreed is terrible.