Wednesday, March 5, 2008

To Die by Fire or Water--That is the Question!

I swear the whole state of Florida burns at least once each year. Before this hike started, I'd never witnessed a forest fire. At least not close up and personal, and already now I've witnessed several. Not to mention the prescribed burns I could see at a distance, such as yesterday, and the sugar cane fields. Florida sometimes seems like one giant fire.

Even when the trail isn't actively burning, you can often tell it had been recently where everywhere is burned black except for recently fallen pine needles.

And now, once again, walking down the trail, I found a sign hastily put up warning of a prescribed burn in the Panacea Unit. Which, unfortunately, was my goal for the day: Panacea.

I thought I had escaped the prescribed burns in St. Marks, but apparently the Panacea would burn as well. The note did not say that the trail was closed nor was it dated, but I kept my eyes on the horizon for new signs of fire and continued along the trail.

I finally spotted a large plume of smoke near the Marsh Point Campsite. I pulled out my compass to get a precise bearing on it and determined it was well to the south of the trail, but very much in the direction of the town of Panacea. I was just happy the trail wasn't burning this time. I couldn't tell if the fire was before or after Panacea, but I felt confident they'd leave the main road into the town open and I could walk to town with no problem.

Walking into town, the dark plume of smoke seemed to bellow out from the center of town, but that was just an illusion. The town, of course, was not on fire, but rather, the burning was going on behind the town.

I checked into the Panacea Hotel, rather a luxury really since I had come clean out of Tallahassee just the day before. I was so clean, in fact, I didn't even bother with a shower until the next morning when I hit the trail again.

The main reason for my side trip to Panacea was to resupply food. I could have gotten plenty more while in Tallahassee, but chose to resupply in Panacea so I could carry a very light pack for those first two days out of St. Marks. My guidebook showed an IGA (Amanda wasn't too happy about me calling it IAG earlier. *wink*) in town, which I figured was good for resupplying.

I never did find the IGA, but I did find a Big Top Supermarket where it was supposed to be with a large banner proclaiming 'Now Open!' It would have to do.

The store generally worked well for resupplying, but I was rather surprised that the vast cereal section did not have one, single type of granola available. Even CVS has a better selection!

Actually, calling the store a 'super' market is giving it more credit than it deserves. It's just an average, run-of-the-mill market. Generally good for resupplies, but not a lot of choices. For instance, there were no frosted cherry Pop Tarts, but that's okay because they did have the frosted cinnamin Pop Tarts which I like too. They didn't have granola cereal, but I found an intriguing banana nut something which looked promising.

I had about 80 miles to my next resupply point, which normally I'd plan to do in four days. I planned for five days, however, knowing the swamp tromp was just around the corner. I didn't know how easy it would be (or not!), but I was giving myself a whole day to do it--just in case. So five days, four nights I'd be out in the wild. Plus a couple of extra meals which I like to carry just in case I'm slower than expected.

And I picked up a handful of items for dinner that night and breakfast in the morning before retiring back to my hotel. Room #4 for those keeping track. And get this--no bugs! =)

The next morning, I headed out early, determined to get as close to the Bradwell Bay Wilderness as possible so I'd have the whole of the next day to get through that swamp.

The day was beautiful, crisp, and cool. A perfect day for hiking!

Until, a few hours later, I noticed smoke on the horizon. I didn't see an obvious plume where the smoke originated, so I could only tell that the fire was, vaguely speaking, somewhere northeast of me. Which, alas, was the direction I was hiking.

Throughout the rest of the day, I worried about the fire. I had little doubt it was another prescribed burns--they were really enjoying themsevles burning everything up, I thought. I kept my eyes open for notes pinned to trees or another information about where precisely the burns were happening.

But there was nothing. Near the approach to the Sopchoppy River, I could tell the smoke was getting visibily thicker and starting to obscure the sun a bit, casting a reddish glow across everything like it was sunset. Except sunset was still another five or six hours away.

Then I smelled the smoke. It was close, but by this point, the bulk of the smoke seemed to hover towards the west and at this point, the trail curved north to follow alongside the Sopchoppy River. Whew. It was getting close there, and I had no desire to hike through the burn area.

A couple of miles further up the Sopchoppy River and the smoke largely disappeared. I could see it on the horizon, but it was no longer covering the sun nor could I smell it anymore.

So my worries went back to the infamous swamp tromp I'd have to deal with the next day. To give you an idea of what it was, here are a couple of quotes from my guidebook:

"You will get wet crossing the Bradwell Bay Wilderness...1 MPH or less is normal. Keep gear as light and watertight as possible. Pack all gear that might be damaged by water into watertight bags before hiking this section. Hike with a companion if at all possible. Use hiking sticks, as the footing is unstable and each step ahead of you must be probed so you don't fall into a hole."

And my personal favorite: "It's not unusual to wade through water as deep as a tall man's chest."

This description made Big Cypress sound easy by comparison, so needless to say, I was a bit worried. And I sure as heck wasn't going to tell my mom about that 'as deep as a tall man's chest' bit until I was long done with that section!

So I kept my eyes open for Monkey Creek, which I knew I'd be passing soon. While the Swamp Tromp wouldn't start until tomorrow, the start of it is marked by wading through Monkey Creek. The trail today would cross over on a bridge, but I wanted a close look at the creek since I knew I'd have to wade through it further upstream.

And, according to my guidebook, Monkey Creek would be the deepest section of all. Consequently, I was very curious to get a good look at Monkey Creek.

And I did. I walked up to the edge of the water and studied the creek.


Debbie St.Amand said...

"It's not unusual to wade through water as deep as a tall man's chest."

Well, I guess it's a good thing that you're a tall man!

Meanwhile, out in Big Cypress, a man was bitten by a gator and had to be taken to the hospital yesterday!


momverf said...

The cliffhangers are killing me! What was the creek like???

Anonymous said...

Forest lands in Florida actually need to burn yearly to keep them in the pine forest ecosystem that are the natural ecosystem.

If they don't burn, oak trees take over.

Anonymous said...

Quote "Forest lands in Florida actually need to burn yearly to keep them in the pine forest ecosystem that are the natural ecosystem."

But if pine forest is the natural ecosystem how was it maintained before human intervention started regular burns?

Anonymous said...

I used to fish in that area as a kid! Sorry to be the one to say it but ....If I remember right I think that is where I learned what "Blood sucking Leaches where?!...........hope I am wrong? T :)

Anonymous said...

"But if pine forest is the natural ecosystem how was it maintained before human intervention started regular burns?"

Natural wildfires started by lightning.

The reason they are controlled now is because humans have taken over the landscape. Wildfires threaten our property, controlled burns don't.

Anonymous said...

You should see all those fires from a Cessna. You think, when you go flying on a nice clear day, that you'll get great views -- and all you get are fires and smoke everywhere.

A decade or so ago, we had a bad season where most of NE Florida burned in one huge fire. It closed down highways and caused all kinds of consternation. That brought renewed impetus to the efforts to prescribe burns.

Now since the forestry officials tell us that, in nature, all of these forests burn every few years due to lightning strikes (FL is the lightning capital of the world), we have been trying to simulate that with prescribed burns. It's probably not a good simulation since prescribed burns are supposed to be out by sundown and generally involve small tracts of land whereas the natural fires might burn up a couple of counties, but it's better than what we used to do -- fight every outbreak of fire until our forests were chock full of fuel and in a completely unnatural state, a tinderbox waiting for disaster.

-- Kirbert

Anonymous said...


And the ad today is for


Anonymous said...

glad you were able to stock up on food........however, sounds like you may need to carry it on your head one handed while poking around for your next step. that creates one interesting vision for a great green one stamp......

i guess saying stay dry really isn't words from a wise person at this point of your instead i am so glad you have new shoes........just make sure when you lift your foot out of the muck and sloosh that your shoe is still attached.......... :J

ps. pleasant dreams your going to need the rest.

Anonymous said...


What kind of monsters are they?!?!

BTW Bradwell Bay and Mud Swamp is where the FWCC dumps all of the misbehaving black bears (the garbage hounds, you might say). So watch your stuff closely or one of them might run off with it!

Anonymous said...

I went on a short day hike this afternoon and I saw your registration card (Along with Captain America's) in the box at the entrance to the Apalachicola National Forest. There were no new cards to fill out, just goes to show you how often they check and replenish them, lol.

Laughing Orca Ranch said...

Monkey Creek, eh? Wonder what the story on that is? Did they find a drowned monkey in it long ago?

The ad today is for FireFighter Classes. Maybe there is a real need for those down in Florida...

Hike on!
~Twinville Trekkers