Backpacking the Suwannee River

I recently asked for, and took the last of my vacations before I quit to go hiking for 6 months (I start in about 11 weeks.) My manager is about as fed up with me going backpacking as you could be with a guy who takes a few days off just about every month. But I played the game, I followed the rules! He can’t legally stop me! Not even his tears, old man tears, could stop me.

This time I decided to do something different. I decided to not hike the 63 mile trail I’ve already done 14 or so times, and head north! I chose the Suwannee River section of the Florida Trail. Arguably one of the most beautiful segments the FT has to offer, although there are very many.

My good friend Longwalker lives up there so I prodded him for information. Before I knew it he took off 5 days, made a plan, and I now had a hiking partner! Before I knew it I now had 3 hiking partners. Chris, from the deep south came for the 5 days, and my friend Madeleine who joined for the first day and night. My original plan was to knock out some 30 mile days and see as much as I could in the 5 days I had off, but with the addition of more happy hikers that was toned down to 20s.

So here it is, a couple weeks late, my trip report straight from the Suwannee River!

This was my final “shake down” hike. A trip specifically for the purpose of testing gear and food, for bigger hikes ahead. In my case, a 5,000 mile walk across a continent. If I didn’t already mention, 5,000 is the new 4,400. I don’t know where Nimble came up up with that number, but I’ve added up all my data from the most recent guidebooks, and the Eastern Continental Trail from Quebec, to Key West is 4,963.5. That last half mile is what really gets people.

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Day 1: Ocean Pond to Madison Shelter – 21.9 miles

The 5 hour drive to north Florida was long and filled with storms so bad I should have gotten off the road, if only I could have seen where the road was. An ominous beginning of sorts. The next morning bright and early we would meet at the trail head in Osceola NF and start making our way north… or west. I don’t know. The first day we started off quite fast. Most of my training hikes are around 30 miles so I guess I was in that mindset. I’ll take a break when I’m finished, kind of mindset. We hiked through a matrix of pine trees, over little boardwalks, dodging water moccasins, and for the only time on the whole trip, through standing water on the trail. Osceola was very pretty, and I had wished it wasn’t overcast so I could see the light shine through all the trees. Everyone was doing well, and we plodded along the trail a rather fast 20 or so miles to the first campsite, making it there around 3pm. This was Randy Madison shelter, or as we later learned, also known as the “love shack.” It is reserved for FTA members only, and yeah there’s a good chance someone will come down to talk with you, and check! It was a beautiful little home along a river with a bridge to get there. A small screened room with a fire place, a table, a bunch of chairs, with animal skulls hanging from the wooden interior. If I were hiking solo I probably would have slept inside, to save myself from setting up camp, but due to the season the floor was bright yellow with a layer of pollen. Not to mention, I really love sleeping under my tarp outside, at least for now, while im just out for a few days. The shelter was complete with a privy. One so fancy it even had toilet paper inside, which is great because I’m constantly forgetting to pack my own, and a window from the thrown viewing the forest outside. We set up camp, ate, talked, and went to bed as a light shower started to fall just after dark. I was safe under my little shelter.

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Best friends.

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Day 2: Randy Madison Shelter to somewhere along the Suwannee River – 20.8 miles

The second day came and Madeleine had to leave us early in the morning. This was her first time backpacking, and she did incredible! Not many could do a 22 mile day out of the gate, with a pack, at my pace! So then there were 3. A short roadwalk was first on the list, a quiet back road lined with old oak trees towering above us, and shielding the suns rays. We were soon met with the trail head at a dead end that would lead us to the Suwannee River. Kind of like magic we turned a corner on the trail and there it was. 50 feet below us this massive river, flowing fast. Very different from the cypress swamps and wetlands I’m used to down south. Very different from Osceola as well. The trail gave us a hint as to what was to come. We would be walking along the banks of the Suwannee for the next 65 miles or so, for the most part. Pink flowers lined the trail and showed the way. The path dipped, and rose up and over hills, I assume created by the river slowly cutting away at the land for thousands of years. Boardwalks, and bridges spared us the need to get our feet wet, and we hiked on. Today taking more breaks, as to not repeat the day before, and get to camp hours before dark. At some point we were greeted at a road crossing to the town of White Springs with a friendly sign that mentioned it being a “Florida Trail Gateway Community.” Very cool! You won’t see that often on the FT I imagine. It was a very beautiful town with a post office on trail(I love that.) We stopped at the gas station so I could get some chips, and high quality beer, King Cobra. A special occasion it was, as I rarely if ever drink. Here and there while backpacking. Continuing on we entered the Suwannee River State Park, and took a break at their amphitheater to rest the toes, charge some batteries, and eat some chips. Soon back to climbing the hills along the river, as a flat lander of the south a much desired change for my muscles. Somewhere along the way Longwalker was contacted by a Florida Trail maintainer named Janie, inviting us to come say hi at their camp site a few miles ahead. What luck! Apparently they were cooking food, and enjoying some time away from the city along the trail. The prospects of real food got the guys moving real quick! Along the way there we walked under massive oak trees, and around some beautiful rivers. Finally arriving at a freshly built bridge over swift creek, with a family swimming in the clear waters below. We took way down a side trail with the scent of food in the air, seeing tents and hammocks in the distance, eventually reaching a very large pavilion like tarp, with people under it. And food! The group was very kind, and we hung out and talked for a while. Me and Chris relaxed down by the creek and soaked our feet in the cold water while their dog dug up rocks to go add to his collection of other river rocks. Janie came down to talk to us and wouldn’t you know it, she met up with my friend Sycamore last year on his ECT thru hike! When he needed some shoes, she had him covered! Legend is, his old pair are on now on display at her home… Just in case he ever needs them again.

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Reminds me of a place I call home.

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Stephen Foster

 

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Thank you for the hospitality!!

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Day 3: Spot along the Suwannee to Holton Creek River Camp – 19.7 miles

We wake up along the river a couple miles beyond the friendly FTA folk. During the night we were greeted with heavy rain and flashes of lightning. My small tarp held up and I stayed dry. I slept on an incline and was somewhat sliding occasionally waking up to move back into place. Oops! Should have gone further for a better spot. This night we planned to camp at Holton Creek. After packing up and getting going the trail provided with some beaches along the river, many creeks, and even a small waterfall. At some point we took a blue blaze to check out disappearing creek which was a very beautiful spot for a lunch break. The water flows right down into and under the rocks, disappearing out of sight. The trail took us up and down, sometimes even requiring stairs, and at points taking us to places 90feet above sea level, and 90ft above the Suwannee. A beautiful sight to look down on from the ridge. This is Florida, that’s actually a rarity. The highest point on the entire 1,400 mile National Scenic Trail is just 270 feet. As we moved on we came across a home, where the owner was kind enough to let the FT pass through his yard. Included were some benches with a view! I sat and ate some asian style noodles I had been soaking in my pack, with some soy and duck sauce. Very delicious! I don’t cook food while backpacking so this was just noodles, dehydrated vegetables, some spices, and sauces that I added some water to and let sit for a good while as I walked. Longwalker hung out with my while I ate, until some rain prompted him to leave. I still wanted to enjoy the view of the river for a bit longer so I stuck around. Maybe too much time had passed since they left because boy did it take much longer than I thought it would to catch back up to them! High tailed it in their direction, and even ran with my pack a little bit to let my lungs know who’s boss. At this point it was now fully raining, me and Chris with our umbrellas out. Longwalker being a man… and getting soaked. Maybe he thought we were closer to shelter than we were because it wasn’t for at least another hour in the rain until we got to Holton Creek River Camp. Wooden screened shelters abound, fans, electrical outlets, bathrooms, and showers included. All for free. You can only get here by river or by trail. What a wonderful place. We were literally the only people there, with something like 6 other shelters the same as ours scattered around the grounds. Chris and Longwalker opted to hang their hammocks inside the building, which actually worked out pretty darn well. They took showers, and I chose to revel in my filth like a true hiker… I mean it’s just 5 days! Not a problem, no chafe, and didn’t sweat much the entire trip. How did I smell? Wonderful as always!!

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Too hardcore for a rain jacket.

Day 4: Holton Creek River Camp to Cooper’s Bluff campsite – 17.4 miles

The day before had been incredibly beautiful. It’s no wonder why this is a lot of peoples favorite section of the Florida Trail. This day would be no different. Although something new, poison ivy. Everywhere. Lining the trail and whipping at my ankles. Shoot. No worries, somehow after the trip I was only slightly itchy! Although I really had to choose my bathroom breaks much more wisely. It had rained most of the night prior, but we were safe underneath the wooden roof. The trail was damp but not flooded, and for the first time this entire trip, the sun shown its face, no longer to be obscured by clouds. Chris got a head start on me and Longwalker, I already knew it wouldn’t be so soon until we caught him. It wasn’t until halfway through the day actually. At times the trail would take us away from the river, and then back again. At times we crossed roads. At times a land manager isn’t so cool, and the trail has to be routed around a natural area on a dirt road, instead of the forest adjacent to it. No matter, the woods are consuming and ever present. We passed many sink holes along the way. Some of them small, some of the quite deep. Like a battle field, they littered the landscape. Some point later we catch up to Chris, I make a few wrong turns on a roadwalk, and the peanut gallery quickly put me in place. Com’on! I forgot my guidebook and my phone was dead… How far could I have really gone! Soon we reach the point where there is only 2 miles to go till camp, with promise of french fries and onion rings along the way. Or for Chris, the best damn hamburger you ever got from a gas station. No matter the place, the fries and rings were delicious and welcomed. The store was just down the road from a hen house, the opposite direction from the trail, so employees wearing face masks to protect themselves from what I assume would lead to slow death caused by the farming flooded in for their burgers as well, while I sat and stared aimlessly. Carrying as many fries as I could to the campsite a half mile away, we got there with just enough time to set up camp, and watch the sunset down by the Suwannee.

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Roadwalking, not always a bad thing.

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Passing under the railroad. Very lucky to see a beautiful train pass by. Something I very much love seeing.

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Suwannacoochee Springs, where the Suwannee and the Withlacoochee meet.

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The road to fries.

 

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More high quality beer.

 

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Day 5: Cooper’s Bluff campsite to Winquepin Rd – 11.4 miles

The last day was short. No more 20 miles, just 10 to go with maybe some bonus at the end to get back to where we had a vehicle staged. I got up late, thinking they could get moving and I would catch up. They waited. Oh well. After 4 days and 80 miles my partners were facing some physical pain. I’ve been there, but it’s a process. The next time it’s always easier, you’re always stronger for it. Sometimes you have to endure to really get the most out of an experience. In this case, for Longwalker, a lesson on why Superfeet insoles only work for some people, not most. Chris, maybe a lesson on what best to combat chaffing. Not Desitin. For me it’s always been when I pushed passed what I was used to was where I learned the most. When I stepped out of my comfort zone, and went for something I had never tried before. With each opportunity arose new doors to be opened and eventually what you see here in the way I like to hike, and what I like to carry in my pack. Experience has gotten me there, and now experience has taken me to the Suwannee River. The day had begun, none of us with anywhere to be, we took the last 10 miles slow. Longwalker showed me some super cool stuff, and we talked a lot about backpacking gear. He’s really into the do it yourself crowed, who make their own gear, and I think within the next year he’s going to have himself some really cool home made stuff to take camping. Along the way there was an old cemetery we checked out, graves dating back to the early 1800s. For some reason I really liked seeing this, someone lived their life in that area, we were probably hiking on what was their land. Now 200 years later. Time is precious, and not to be wasted. Something I’m still working on. Later that day he also took me off trail to the site of an old homestead. A house that has been there since before the civil war. It was incredible. The remnants of a chimney, and from what he said just a month before the home was still standing. Apparently the elements finally brought it to its knees. Still magnificent, old turpentine clay pots and all. Pushing on we find Chris hanging out in the back of Longwalkers truck. The trip had gone as quick as it came. Hopefully on my thru hike south I’ll be back in this area again by December.

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My memory is hazy, probably smoked a few to many sandwiches back in the day, must be messing with the short term. So I apologize for leaving a lot out, or messing up parts of the days. I can’t help it! Some things are like a blur. It helps to take a lot of photos 🙂

I hope you enjoyed reading. I certainly enjoyed hiking! Thanks to Longwalker for giving me the grand tour of the area! Thanks to Chris, and Madeleine for joining the fun! I’ll be back soon. In 84 days from now, on July 1st I start walking south from Quebec. For now I continue to amass food, and finalize plans.

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Jup

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