I had the pleasure of joining the four hikers who completed the Over 80 Across Florida – ages 80 to 90 – for the final yards of their walk to Withlacoochee Bay, capping off their coast to coast hike of Florida in 2007.
Fast-forward ten years. Only one of these final four is still with us: Cliff Moody, who was the oldest of the bunch and celebrated his 100th birthday this past April. Noticing that both the Ocala Star-Banner and the Florida Trail Association have removed the articles about this unique endeavor, I’ve posted an article I edited written by two members of the team about their journey and their successful endeavor below. It appeared in the March-April 2008 edition of the Footprint.
The Over 80 Across Florida Hike
by Kenneth Smith
The concept of having a backpack trip across Florida for a group of Florida Trail members over 80 began approximately 10 years earlier in casual conversation between Kenneth Smith and Charlie Monson.
The idea grew, and in late 2006 planning began for a trip that would be in late 2007 when both Charlie and Kenneth would be over 80. It was in-tended to be a multi-faceted trip – for fun, exercise, promotion of health for hiking for older individu-als, and outreach for the Florida Trail Association as an organization that provided trails and infrastruc-ture to facility hiking in the Florida outdoors.
Exploring a route for the journey involved study of maps, and guide books, visiting waypoints on possible routes and looking for resources along the way. We need places to camp, even along the road routes from the Atlantic Ocean to a point where we could intersect the Florida Trail. Those explorations were a lot of pleasure. We met nu-merous individuals and explained our idea of a backpack trip and asked for ideas and assistance in putting the trip together.
There were more than 40 people that we considered as friends of the trip, contributors to our needs, Trail Angels in waiting to help when called upon, and it turned our that there were others who came forward as they learned of our trip. They responded without being asked, and surprised us with various acts of kindness and help for our com-fort and pleasure. We had snacks, coffee and cold drinks, energy bars, cook outs and extra meals, as well as the comfort of placing our sleeping pads indoors, with indoor restrooms (which we called porcelain). We had this comfort 10 of the 14 nights
All four who finished the hike were members of the Florida Trail Association and between 80 and 90 years old.
by Charlie Monson
I’m a lifetime member of the Florida Trail Association, and over the past 25 years I have section hiked the entire trail. Ten years ago, my long time friend Ken Smith – born in 1927, like I was – and I began thinking about doing a cross-Florida hike when we turned 80. Whenever we talked during those ten years the subject would come up again. During this time Ken had moved from Miami to Central Florida and was working with the Cross Florida Greenway developing an east-west portion of the Florida Trail on their land. He began to look for ways to use this newly established trail and connect it with road walks so a backpacker could go from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico by foot. Ken faced the task of not only finding where to walk, but where to spend the night and resupply food and water while backpacking. Gradually, through the many friends he had made in the area and a lot of research, he developed a feasible 132 mile route and we set a tentative date in late October 2007 after Ken’s 80th birthday. We had already decided that any other member who was 80 or over and was physically fit for the walk could go along.
When the announcement was made, we quickly had seven participants willing to give it a try. Ken and I both turned 80 this year. Ernie Baldini from Melbourne had turned 81 and so did Al Kisarewich from Ocala. Our only female, Loretta Copeland was 83, and the oldest member was Clifton Moody at 90, both from Ocala. The other member wanting to go was turned down by his doctor. We all had the approval of our doctors but knew we would have to tune up these old bodies some if we expected to complete the walk. My own routine consisted of early morning walks in the neighborhood, increasing the mileage each day and gradually adding weight to the backpack. My treadmill filled in on some days. I also used exercises for the shoulders and arms using dumbbells. I felt my legs would be okay, but I worried about my feet due to painful calluses and a loss of padding.
In other preparations some of us bought new gear like the lightweight boots I purchased, but I had used all the rest of my gear before and felt comfortable with it – a mistake I’d find out on Day 4. Ken had located water sources along the way or left a cache of gallon water jugs when needed. We each carried and cooked our own meals, using freeze dried meals in the evenings that had been donated by Brasington Adventure Outfitters. Each of us carried our own tents and bags, although we planned to use cabins with bunks one night and a motel toward the end of the hike. We planned for two resupply points, so we divided some things like our food in three portions.
All things appearing to be ready, we gathered in Belleview to make last minute preparations. Ken’s wife Norma Jean served us an excellent dinner and also provided breakfast on Friday morning, Oct 26, 2007 before we left by van for Flagler Beach. To our knowledge, no Florida Trail member had backpacked from one side of Florida to other before and there was much excitement as we each filled a small zip lock with Atlantic sand to carry to the Gulf!
From the Beach to the Forest
We started west on SR 100 over the Intracoastal Waterway bridge walkway and on under I-95. The first of many “Trail Angels” soon made an appearance when a man walked out to the edge of the highway and asked if we were the guys hiking across Florida. He had read about the trip in the morning newspaper and as he was driving to work saw us walking. He co-owned Buddy’s B-B-Que and invited us to stop for a cup of coffee, on him. We ended up having lunch there, on us.
Loretta was having some physical problems going over the bridge and it soon developed that it would be better for her not to continue with us. Ken located another trail angel, the foreman of a roadwork crew, to drive her into Bunnell where she waited for us at the State Street Diner, our supper stop. After dinner we all walked on a few miles to the property of Fred Goldstein where he had agreed to allow us to camp and use the restroom in a garage he had. It ended up with all of us sleeping on the floor of the garage, in case it rained.
The next morning Loretta felt much better and we left at dawn. She worsened as the day went on and sorrowfully decided she would have to stop. At a highway intersection we talked to a lady driving a pickup and explained the situation. This trail angel took her to a fire station where they checked her vital signs and then on to the State Street Diner where Ken called another person to pick her up and take her home. The rest of us continued west toward Bull Creek Campground, our camping spot for the night. Before we got there however, Ernie lost the sole on one boot and our best efforts to duct tape it back failed. When we arrived at the campground we were greeted by a group of the residents holding up paper plate signs wishing us good luck. Ernie was given a ride into town and came back with a new pair of boots from Wal-Mart. Our host at the campground was Charlie McCraney and his wife Margie who allowed us to sleep on the porch of the restaurant which was closed. Ron Johnson, with his family gave us a wonderful cookout, fixed breakfast for us and ferried us across Dead and Crescent Lakes the next morning in his pontoon boat.
Even with the boat ride, we still had ten miles of highway to hike. None of us liked to walk beside the highway because of the traffic, but it was also the traffic which added the waves from people who had read about the hike in the Ocala Star Banner. Our continuing story made the front page twice that first week so lots of folks recognized us as we road walked. It was interesting to me how many people carried cameras in their cars and would stop to get our picture. We made a second water crossing that day at Fort Gates Ferry. This historical ferry site has been used since Civil War days. We had a water stash there to take across the St Johns River to a primitive campsite in the Ocala National Forest and we had to bear bag that night for there was much evidence of bears in the area.
Wet and Wetter
On Monday, as we broke camp, we put on rain gear when it started to drizzle. We walked on forest roads with no vehicles. Shortly into the morning, Ernie realized that his back (which had bothered him some the day before) was getting worse. He decided it was smart to terminate his hike. Ken made another cell phone call and got someone to come pick him up. We were now down to four people.
The rain continued and when I started to set up camp that night. I found that not only had my rain jacket not protected me during the day, but my pack cover had also failed and everything was wet. One reason for using a sleeping bag with synthetic fill is that even when wet, it insulates. That night I crawled into a wet tent with water puddles on the floor, changed into wet but clean clothes, crawled into a soaking wet sleeping bag, zipped it up, and slept well all night!
Although things were packed up wet the morning of day 5, our spirits were high, for it was a short mileage day ending at The 88 Store. Here was lots of junk food, but more importantly sunny, breezy weather so we could hang things out to dry. There was also a washer/dryer to use, hot showers, porcelain potties and our first resupply boxes delivered by Deb Blick. Cliff, who had served on submarines in the Navy in 1934, found a local man who had been in the same service and they had a good time talking about the old days. The owner of the bar-b-que beside the store opened just to fix us an evening meal which was much appreciated. The next morning we were treated to coffee and pastries by the store manager before we left, with the Star Banner video crew there to record our progress.
The hike on day 6, Halloween, was mostly on the Florida Trail’s new Western Connector and ended with our arrival at the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Youth Camp at Lake Eaton, where we an-nounced ourselves with a “trick or treat” shout at the office door. This night we enjoyed hot showers and bunk beds before leaving in the early morning to hike on the trail and a short road walk to reach East Marion Athletic Association Park. Ken had arranged to have a key left for us so we could use the concession toilets but the key could not be found. A couple of hours and several phone calls finally got us in and we were told we could also sleep in the building, another plus for there were two upholstered couches. A couple of us used back cushions on the floor while the other two tried the seats. No one could sleep on all that softness and we all ended up on the floor.
Most of the next day was the last major road walk and took us to the Office of Greenway and Trails at the Marshall Swamp Trailhead. Trail angels can show up anywhere and Cliff was in need. He had been doing without his hearing aid since the rain and then broke his glasses, and who should show up but Ken’s daughter Kay bringing new batteries and Ken’s son from Hampton, Va. who was an optician in the Navy. He found a local store where he could buy plastic frames that were heated and then cooled around the old lenses. These two trail angels helped Cliff to see and hear again! There was also massage therapist Norma Jean Barker who brought her table and massaged all of the hikers – not only here, but also at Santos, 49th Ave and briefly at the Dinner Bell Motel in Dunnellon.
On the Cross Florida Greenway
For the weekend, the public had been invited to hike with us, even camping overnight if they wished. So on Saturday morning, we were joined by a group of about 25 who hiked the Marshall Swamp trail on the Greenway with some enjoy-ing a pizza party that night at Santos Trailhead campground.
Judy Trotta brought our stuff for the second resupply and Sunday a smaller group continued on with us on the Greenway, with a lunch stop at the Land Bridge Trailhead (including ice cream brought to us by Dr. Doug Sherer, DVM, one of the equestrian leaders). The Greenway has three trails – hike, bike and horse – that are separate but join together on the Land Bridge to cross over I-75. The trail on the Greenway was the nicest one on the whole hike. Our stop that night at 49th Ave Trailhead was primitive but included potable water brought out by Norma Jean, and made enjoyable with a tasty spaghetti dinner cooked and brought out to us by Kay.
Our 11th day took us along more of the canal diggings to the Cattle Pen area where a picnic shelter and potable well had recently been installed. While having our freeze-dried dinner we had a visit from a game warden who had not been told we would be there. He had his dog with him, who could locate lost keys and other things, by scent.
On to the Gulf
The next morning we left the woods and walked the road into Dunnellon, where we had all made reservations at a motel and enjoyed a restaurant dinner. This was a chance to cleanup and get ready for the last push to the Gulf of Mexico. It started the next morning with eleven miles of road walk to get to Inglis Lock. It is a still functioning part of the original barge canal system. We were invited to stay in their building that night. They also lease some land along the canal to a model airplane club who operate a little concession during meets. They had offered to provide dinner and breakfast for us and both were delightfully accepted. You can just find wonderful people wherever you go.
After that last breakfast of the hike, we headed west along the north side of the canal to a point near US 19 bridge over the Withlacoochee River which flows through the canal to the Gulf. That bridge is not safe to walk over with all the traffic, so Ken had arranged for a boat to come down from the lock to ferry us across, our fourth water crossing. Then it was on to the Gulf!
There is a road that runs almost to the water paralleled by the Withlacoochee Bay Trail, a paved hike/bike/skate trail that follows the barge canal, and that is what we used. We knew there would be some family members meeting us at the end along with some media, and the anticipation built as we approached the end. I had not expected anyone to come all the way down into Florida to meet me and was surprised when I looked over at the side of the trail and saw my son, Bruce. He had come down from South Carolina the day before with his kayak and enjoyed the Gulf waters while waiting for us.
Hugs and congratulations were passed around as we four picked our way to the water and dumped the Atlantic sand in the Gulf of Mexico, completing our 14 day, 132 mile trek across Florida.
Would I do it again? Why? There are still other places I have not hiked. Oh yes, if you are wondering how my feet did, well, sore and tender as they got, they also got me across… so I can boast that I am the only Florida Trail member I know who has hiked not only the length of the state, but the breadth as well.