At sunrise, and a beautiful one it was, I ate breakfast, broke down camp, and took my first few steps along the Florida Trail.
The steps were cautious ones, with limestone rocks poking out from slick, wet mud, but the tread wasn't bad. But I wasn't lulled into a false sense of security. No, I'd heard the horror stories, wading through alligator-infested waters up to one's hips. This was Big Cypress, where hikers come to die. Or at least come out of it feeling like they lived to tell about it.
The trail quickly became muddy, but nothing worse than I experienced on the Appalachain Trail. The mud did suck one of my shoes off, which I managed to extract and put back on, tightening the laces as far as they could go.
The thing that puzzled me most--with a name like Big Cypress, I expected a lot of BIG Cypress trees. All I saw were endless, scrawny little trees which I assumed were cypress.
It was near Roberts Strand that I finally got to experience Big Cypress. I reached a point where water blocked the trail and the next orange blaze was on the other side. Nothing to do except plunge in!
The water came up to my ankles, and my initial reaction was, "Wow! That feels relaxingly cool on my feet." I'd almost forgotten how hot and sweaty they were until my feet were plunged into the cool, soothing water.
The water level varied for the next couple of miles, at its deepest going up to my knees. It was a strange and exhilerating feeling, but I was careful about my footing so I wouldn't slip or fall. Falling into the water with all my gear seemed like a decidedly bad idea.
At one point, the trail was so overgrown, I had trouble finding the next orange blaze, and alternated between two possible paths--one heading away from the water, and one going directly into it up to the knees.
I scouted the path away from the water first, but after seeing no blazes in the first 50 feet, decided to check the water route instead.
And yes, there was the blaze, hidden behind some palmettos on the far side of the water.
Further away from Roberts Strand, the water was just an inch deep at times, and the water's surface rippled with activity, like tons of little fish fighting over the little water that was left.
In fact, looking closer in the water, there were fish jumping around with fury! How many of those had I just killed on my hike? Hiking through fish? That was a new one, even for me.
The trail never actually dried out after that, but the water did vanish leaving shoe-sucking mud behind. I slipped and slided through, until reaching the Oasis Visitor Center along Highway 41. I had traveled just 7.8 miles.
At the visitor center, I looked through their displays about the region, learning it was called Big Cypress because the region was big--not because the trees were big. How stupid is that? Next thing you know, Texas will want to be renamed 'Big Texas.'
I approached the ranger at the information table to inquire about the trail conditions ahead and weather forecast.
"The trail is closed today," she told me.
"What?" I was stunned. This was news to me.
"There are prescribed burns going on north of here, so the trail is closed. It might be back open again tomorrow, though. Let me find the person who can get you that information."
I read more of the displays while waiting for my ranger to return.
"Okay, I found the guy I needed to talk to. He's just about to go on a fly-over to check out the situation from the air, which will take about 35 to 45 minutes, at which point he'll return to give you a definitive anwser.
I nodded respectfully, then went outside to a picnic table to make lunch and wait for the flight to finish.
I didn't finish a moment too soon, either, before it started raining.
I went back inside to find out the results of the fly-over and wait out the rain.
The fire guy hadn't returned yet, but the ranger said that there was a LOT of chatter about me over the airwaves. They knew I had walked in from Key West and wanted to support me on the hike, but they didn't want me burning to a crisp along the way either.
"The rain outside," the ranger said in a hopeful-sounding tone, "should improve your chances."
For once in my life, I wanted it to rain on the trail. I wanted rain, by the buckets, to drop from the heavens.
I decided to watch a short video they had to kill some more time, about the history, wildlife, and future of the area. It described how fish and other animals congregate in the small puddles of water as they dry up, reminding me of the fish I walked through earlier. During the rainy season, the video explained, nearly everything is underwater--just one enormous river--and during the dry season, it all dries up. January, the time I'm passing through, is the start of the dry season. Things aren't *completely* dry, but the worst of the flooding is over.
When I exited the theater, the ranger lady asked if I learned anything new.
"Yes!" I told her. "I forgot there were water mocasins out there! Just something else for me to worry about now!" =)
And it's true, I did forget about them. What, with gators, shoe-sucking mud, wading through water up to my knees, and prescribed fire dangers, I kind of forgot about the lowly water mocasins.
Finally, the fire guy arrived, introducing himself as Jack, and asked if I had a cell phone. He didn't seem to like my answer of no, but gave me the scoop. I should not hike more than a mile or two up the trail that day, but if I could find a place to camp within that first couple of miles, that would be fine.
In the morning.... it was hard to say. He showed me a map of the area covering the prescribed burn, which the Florida Trail went right through the middle. "There are still hot spots flaring up, and it would be nice if we could call you with the results of our fly over tomorrow morning."
I shook my head. No cell phone.
"Well, go ahead and continue on the trail in the morning, but if you see smoke, turn around, okay?"
Seemed like a reasonable request.
"There are some buggy trails you could go around the fires with, if necessary," he continued.
Sweet! I had official permission to continue through in the morning, and because I had no cell phone, they couldn't call me back in the morning!
"Don't be fooled by the rain either," he said, waving outside, "it hasn't been raining on the fires.
Jack let me keep the map of the burned area, and I started preparing to leave. I filled up all of my available water stores, made some phone calls, and headed out.