It's been a few days since I last posted, but I feel it was a well deserved rest. I did go for more than a year without missing a day (except the planned day of rest on Leap Year Day), so I don't think anyone without personal issues begrudged me the rest. However, I'm sure that after a year's worth of daily updates on my life, you've been waiting with baited breath for me to come back to my blog and update you on just what the hell I've been doing so far this year.
The good news is that K and I got to do our Florida hiking trip. I even made it to the Ocala National Forest and back without even once getting a speeding ticket. If you've never driven in Florida, be forewarned. I partially convinced that the police in Florida have nothing to do but enforce speed limits as the state's population is mostly retirees, leaving them without much else to do.
You can probably tell that I have a low opinion of Florida in general, and it's true. It's hotter than where I live and I hate hot weather. I'm not a huge beach fan, unless I'm somewhere cool like Maine or Alaska where I really like hanging out around the ocean. I hate theme parks. I really get uncomfortable around high concentrations of old people. Unfortunately, there's really not a lot left of Florida when you take all of that away. Besides, what the hell is a densely populated state with that many major cities and college towns doing with a beer scene that would embarrass Idaho? I mean, seriously, make some fucking decent beer besides St. Somewhere. Metro Atlanta has more good beer coming out of it that your entire state.
The hike was pretty cool though. The Ocala is pretty big, and, while it's relatively close to a bunch of population centers, it seems like it takes forever of driving through completely empty forest before you get to the center. We hiked through the Juniper Prairie Wilderness, the largest wilderness area in the national forest. I was kind of worried it'd be like hiking through the woods behind my house (similar climate and soil types), but it was much more interesting than that.
K sets off on her first backpacking adventure. Notice how white the trail is. That's because Ocala, at least this portion of it, is basically the beach without the ocean. Underneath all the green is a fairly fine white sand. There's a reason the government was able to turn this large chunk of north Florida into a national forest. I don't think there were many people living here back during the early 1900s when it was created. The farming would have totally sucked and I doubt there were many natural resources to be found outside of wood. For you city folk who are baffled by how I could assume that from the color of the ground, here's how I know: Sand sucks as agricultural soil. It doesn't hold water and there aren't a lot of nutrients in it, especially if it's that white. It also occasionally made for some tough hiking. There was a short patch early on and a longer patch just before where we made camp that looked like it had once been a bunch of dunes where the loose sand stretches were longer and occasionally something approaching uphill. In case you've never walked any significant distance in loose sand, it basically makes you work twice as hard to move forward on flat ground. Instead of redirecting the force of your back to you to help send you forward, it absorbs most of the impact. On top of that, it also shifts forcing your stabilizing muscles go into overdrive. Luckily, most of the trail that we hiked was pretty well packed.
If you're going to hike the Juniper Prairie Wilderness section of the Florida Trail, and you're not passing through from other sections, you'll have to park in one of the recreational areas at either end. From Juniper Springs Recreational Area at the south end, you're about a mile from where the trail crosses into the wilderness area. Here, we have the lovely K posing with the sign. Again, despite appearances, we're an hour from the nearest seashore.
Given that this was my first backpacking trip without Mickey, I thought I'd keep up his theme of including a picture of a "stupid flower" from every hike. The only problem is that this was the middle of winter. Even though every single plant is still green and it was in the high 70s at one point, there were no flowers. Seriously, even the oak trees where I live and all places south are evergreens. Live oaks get their name because they are never without green leaves. I took a picture of some prickly pears instead. At least they're red. Still, only an idiot would call an edible fruit stupid.
Our first prairie! Obviously, given that this is east of the Mississippi, trees are going to grow anywhere they are allowed to grow. The prairies that give Juniper Prairie its name are actually ponds that have silted up to the point that they're too wet for the trees, but don't really have much standing water. They'll eventually fill up entirely and turn into forest, but it's a slow process. There were a couple of ponds along the trail that were obviously well on their way to becoming new prairies.
This is me walking past one of the larger prairies. It doesn't show from this angle, but it went on in one direction for almost as far as I could see.
There were large chunks of this forest that had burned a few years ago. I'm not sure what exactly made these two walking-stick-like bugs doing the nasty catch my eye. It was probably that they were doing the nasty. Sex, even invertebrate sex, just catches my attention. Otherwise, they're incredibly well camouflaged.
It's really sad to see a forest burned to the point that even the older trees couldn't survive, but it made for a breathtaking vista in a couple of places. The thick shag of life squeezing into every available space and scraping at my arms and pants from the sides of the narrow trail were reassuring though. Perhaps that is what made something that should have been depressing quite beautiful instead.
This is just a really cool burn pattern on a dead tree in one of the burn fields.
This is where we camped for the night. We were actually in a designated group camp area, but we couldn't even see the other campsites from ours, and we were the only ones there that night. The terrain on this trail was really interesting. At one point we would be strolling through a shady stand of scrub pines with a thick undergrowth of palmettos, taller palms, and young scrub oaks that seemed to have been untouched by the fires only to pop out into a large kill zone where nothing living was taller than six feet. Other sections had been cleared by the fire, but the larger trees had lived. Then there were the prairies and sections, like our camp, that were stands of oaks instead of pines. According to the National Forest Service sign at the trail head, the scrub pines only have a life expectancy of about 50 or 60 years. After that, they start to die off and are replaced by the oaks that started off in their shade and then prevent the pines from returning with their own shade. The camp was particularly cool because the sites were scattered between a couple of large ponds that were ringed by mostly oak forest. What surrounded the oak forest was kill zone from the fire and big sand hills that looked like they may have never supported anything as big as a tree as the area lacked even burned trunks on the ground.
This is the larger of the two ponds that framed our camp site as the light began to fade on the evening of New Year's Day.
I was thrilled when K and I were driving into the parking area and saw a trio of sandhill cranes walking along the side of the road. It would have been even more of a thrill to have seen whooping cranes, but this was enough of a high point for one trip. Even better, we got to see this pair of cranes feeding in one of the ponds along the side of the trail. These are absolutely stunning birds in person. I wish we could have gotten close enough to get a better picture with our little point-and-shoot. K got this shot, the best one we took.
This is one of the areas less affected by the fire. There was some char on the bottom of the tall pines and the underbrush had been completely wiped out by the fire, but obviously had been thrilled at the chance to make a come back.
This was one of the areas that had inexplicably been missed. I understood the areas around the ponds and prairies that hadn't burned. They had been protected by the areas of high moisture they bordered, but some of these sections seemed to have been islands in the fire for no discernible reason.
A tree with a tumor that looks like a butt. Why wouldn't I take this picture?
Oatmeal the morning after our hike in. My camp stove had worked wonderfully. We had been warm and dry that night, and K had been in high spirits the entire time. I was feeling pretty good around this time. The only bad part had been the animals that moved around in the leaves around us all night. We had no idea what they were except that they weren't that large. I kept thinking rats or raccoons. It wasn't until a couple of days later after seeing an armadillo on Cumberland Island that I realized it may have just been armadillos digging around in the leaf litter. I'm just glad it wasn't the black bear that was spotted on the trail by another hiker later that morning or the panthers that inhabit the area. It would have sucked for K's first backpacking trip to have included a close encounter with a large predator.
I had been a little surprised that we hadn't seen any snakes on the trail. The weather had been spring like (like it has been for almost the entire winter so far after that short cold snap around Thanksgiving). It wasn't until about we were about a quarter mile from the trail head to finish our trip that we saw this little constrictor (probably a corn snake) stretched out across the trail. He politely posed for a couple of photos before slithering off into the scrub so we'd stop bothering him.
Even though the hike turned out to be a good bit shorter than I had originally planned, I ended up being really happy about it. On my last hike, a lot of things went wrong. It rained the entire time the first day, everything froze solid over the night, and I screwed up my knee on the hike out. I was miserable and came off the trail loving backpacking even more anyway. This time everything went right. The weather was perfect, my new gear worked perfectly, K had a great time, and I came off the trail loving her even more.