With an epic through-hike of the Appalachian Trail planned for next summer, my girlfriend Shalimar and I set out on our first backpacking trip together. Growing up I have been on backpacking trips, but for Shalimar this was all new to her. We loaded up our packs and headed north to Ocala National Forest for a 2 day, 1 night hike from Clearwater Lake Recreation Area to Alexander Springs Recreation Area.
We started the hike early in the morning as my grandfather dropped us off at the trailhead and took our picture. The morning was just cool enough to require the use of a lightweight jacket; actually it was perfect hiking weather. We started down the trail that wandered its way up and down the sandy hills of Ocala. The trail was mostly compact sand, but in places there was loose “sugar sand” as we call it due to its grain size. This area of Florida is actually quite hilly and has some of the higher elevations in the state. The hills of Ocala were created millions of years ago as the limestone bedrock eroded then uplifted, creating peaks as high as 312 feet (that is high for Florida!). During the last ice age, Florida was connected to what is now the southwestern region of the United States, which explains the cactus and other desert-looking plant life we encountered.
A few hours later and five miles down the trail we slumped on the side of the trail to take a break along a small creek. We were surrounded by brilliant shades green – new leaves of Hickory, Maple, Cypress and Red Bay – while our ears were filled with the sounds of the birds, insects, and the wind brushing across the leaves. I could make out the call of mocking birds and cardinals; then in the distance came the call of the large Pileated Woodpecker. As he flew closer, the woods filled with its call, giving us the feeling we were in the middle of a humid Jurassic Forest with the possibility of a dinosaur around the next bend of the trail.
Lucky for us the only blood-thirsty animals around were mosquitoes – oh, and the ever active Florida Black Bear. Every road crossing had signs warning about bear activity in the area, but these signs never provided any pointers to avoid an unwanted visit. The longer we sat there absorbing our surroundings we started to notice more – a mouse squeaking in the bushes, the fragrant smell of spring blooms in the breeze, and then Shalimar noticed it first… TICKS! They were everywhere! We quickly threw on our packs and continued northward toward Alexander Springs, adding “ticks” to the list of blood thirsty killers surrounding us.
Toward the end of the day we ran into two thru-hikers on the Florida Trail who had started a few months earlier down at Big Cypress National Park on the northern border of the Everglades National Park. The first guy was older – probably in his late 50′s / early 60′s and was resting inside his tent, probably to stay away from the millions of ticks that seemed to multiply the farther north we traveled. The second guy was a younger – in his late 20′s – from North Carolina. We crashed alongside the trail looking exhausted, back and shoulders sore and feet blistered.
At this point Shalimar and I decided we’re going to get ourselves “real” packs since we were using old external frame packs that my brothers and I used for Boy Scouts. I was never a fan of these packs and Shalimar was already planning how she was going to throw down the pack she borrowed from my dad and give him a piece of her mind on his choice of such a heavy, uncomfortable backpack. We loaded up our packs one more time then went down the trail a little farther and found the spur trail to Alexander Springs to fill up on water for dinner, then returned to the trail to set up camp and eat.
Our dinner consisted of freeze-dried food that asked for too much water and turned into more of a soupy slop than actual food, but it was warm and had flavor so it was somewhat enjoyable. With over 10 miles under our feet today we decided to call it an early night. I dreamed of ticks and bears all night long. In the middle of the night we woke to coyotes yelping and howling in the distance. As we lay there in silence listening, Shalimar thought they sounded like they wanted to play; I on the other hand was wondering how fast I could get out of my sleeping bag and what I should arm myself with in the case of an attack. All through the night we woke up hearing the same things – a mouse squeaking from the general location of our bear bag, the occasional breeze, and a few times eerie silence which invokes the feeling that someone or something is lurking outside.
After a rather uncomfortable night we packed up our gear and headed back to Alexander Springs to wait for a ride back to our car. While we waited for the rangers to finish their meeting we took a nap along the spring and enjoyed a wonderful spring day in Florida. The temperature was in the low 80s and sunny, all around enjoyable. The spring water was nice and cold and felt good on my sore feet, but was just little to cold for me to submerge my grubby body.
With a ride back to our car we were back to civilization after an adventure in the woods. We were glad to be inside, away from the millions of ticks with running water and all the food we could eat. After we cleaned up and had dinner with my grandparents, Shalimar admitted she had fun, but we both decided to invest in new backpacks, hiking shoes, and to adopt lightweight backpacking techniques for our next adventure to make it a little more enjoyable.