Slipping into Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park in the early morning hours of our second day of backpacking, you could feel the distinct change from Starvation Slough. No more fenceline keeping us off a rancher’s property. Wide open spaces. And not a lot to go on.
It was good Lori was with us. I kept thinking, what did the thru-hikers do, not having even a map to go on? She knew some of the turns even without a blaze, but we got flummoxed – and separated from our group – in the heart of a ancient live oak hammock, trying to follow the orange blazes from tree to tree amid the broad open understory. A foreshadowing. I showed everyone how their Osprey packs had a built-in whistle. Turns out four out of the five of us were carrying Ospreys.
Kissimmee Prairie Preserve is vast – 54,000 acres – and it feels like it swallows you up. “We had to blaze it in a day,” Lori said, and that made it tough to pick a route. They settled on the easiest thing to do, follow the firebreak / buggy trail along the Kissimmee River floodplain. Unfortunately, the churned up soil and deep buggy ruts made for difficult, ankle-turning walking, with soggy places we just couldn’t avoid. Back to wet feet, but this time with wet sand ground in, too.
Kim and I would occasionally diverge from the group to walk in the shade of an oak hammock. It was during one of those side trips that we were downright startled by an explosion of hogs out of the river grasses. They were a blur, cutting our little group apart for a few scary seconds as they ran past.
Despite the frequent non-palatable puddles, there is only one decent water source on the route: Duck Slough. I had to make a side trip to pump a liter of swamp water, keeping a wary watch for alligators, for which this park is renowned. A little while later, we reached a very old boardwalk with tannic water laying in a basin below. It made a good perch for lunch, with a limpkin picking through the shallows for company.
With some of us curious about a more direct route on the map to the park campground, we split in two groups after lunch. Lori and I lagged behind, as I was getting GPS data and moving a bit slow. As the sun climbed in the sky, we emerged from the last of the hammocks along the trail route to greet the unending prairie.
The prairie is immersive. It makes you feel small. It makes you realize just how inconsequential you are on this planet, especially when you can see your destination on the horizon and it takes you over an hour to get there. It plays with your mind. Add in the lack of signage along the route – none of the trails are marked, save for the pavers that Lori created to help orient Florida Trail hikers – and you can get disoriented easily.
The sun is relentless. It was not a hot day, but it didn’t matter: the constant glare of the sun made for heatstroke conditions. I was hoarding water, since the last thing I wanted to do was pump water from a trailside alligator hole. I thought I had enough for the 12 mile trek. As we approached the 12 mile mark and still hadn’t reached the spot I’d day-hiked out to the month before, I knew I’d be in trouble. The mileages on the park maps didn’t match my GPS.
We trundled off trail and sat in the half-shade of an oak hammock where every tree had a paintball mark. I’d been told last month that these trees were slated for demolition, since “hammocks aren’t natural in this habitat.” Remembering the ancient oaks at Long Hammock, I had to wonder: why isn’t the succession of natural habitats natural?
This prairie has seen its share of succession, including the unfortunate disappearance of the Carolina parakeet. A statue at the park office commemorates this as being the spot where the last bird was seen. Another fragile population, the grasshopper sparrow, is under the care of the park. And whooping cranes roam the land. The urge to preserve this landscape to prevent more extinctions is strong.
As we pulled the last two-mile stretch to the campground, sinking into soft sand in tire ruts on the Military Trail, I’d passed my daily limit for walking, and my feet let me know. They broke into a bouquet of blisters. There would be no more backpacking for me this week.
Back at the campground, I didn’t have the energy to put up my tent. So it was a surprise and delight to see John show up. The night before, when I’d called him from No Name Slough, I’d been hit with a rush of emotions that he wasn’t there to share in filtering water, making camp, cooking dinner. He could hear it in my voice. It was my first time to feel half-empty on a backpacking trip, like a part of me was missing.
Our friends who took the other trail didn’t arrive. Finding their cars in the parking lot, Lori rallied the rangers to start a search. Sure enough, as overheated and disoriented as I was, they had the same issues and took a wrong turn. It was an anxious two hours waiting for everyone to be found and brought back safely to the campground.