After several hours solo on my first day of backpacking the Florida Trail in Big Cypress, I was determined to have a buddy for the next piece of trail. While standing in the tracks of a swamp buggy road, sharing my water filter with my friend Bill, I outlined my concerns.
“It’s better to partner up out here,” I said. “It’s so remote, and there are so many hazards.”
As we returned to our backpacks at 10 Mile Camp, we saw the rest of our group depart. We hurried to get packed and on the trail. Gray, weighty skies threatened rain and spit a little. Rounding a curve, Bill up ahead, I lost track of the next blaze. One of the best reasons to hike with someone through Big Cypress is way-finding.
The other is when they alert you to the large rattlesnake near your feet.
I’d pivoted and walked off towards the blaze I’d found without ever realizing I’d been that close to a coiled diamondback rattlesnake. When I finally could hear the rattle, I still couldn’t see how well it blended into the pine flatwoods until Bill pointed it out.
From a far safer distance, I watched it slowly unfurl and start sliding through the grass towards Bill. He made a wide arc around it. We both got some great pictures, and a tale to tell. But more than anything, I felt grateful that I wasn’t alone.
Not everyone has backpacking across a swamp on their life list, but it’s been on mine for a long time. The reason, of course, is the Florida Trail, our 1,400-mile National Scenic Trail in Florida. My first splash onto this soggy section of trail was to hike the southernmost portion of it from Loop Road to Oasis Visitor Center on a group hike, a tale recounted in my (out-of-print) book Along the Florida Trail. Now that piece of trail is no longer part of the Florida Trail. That’s another big challenge to section hiking the Florida Trail (and writing guidebooks to it, for that matter). The route of the Florida Trail is always in a state of flux.
Big Cypress is no ordinary landscape. There is nothing else like it in the world. It is a place where water and land are one, indistinguishable except for the rise and fall of the rain-fed plain. The sheetflow is a natural extension of the Everglades across Southwest Florida. The slightest of elevations and different densities of soil make for swings in habitat that flow from wet to wetter. But while neighboring Everglades National Park is known for its “River of Grass,” the million-acre Big Cypress Swamp is known for its strand swamps, rivers of deeper water that nourish linear cypress forests.
I’d gotten to know the beauty of those strand swamps thanks to multiple expeditions deep into the Fakahatchee Strand, into Picyune Strand, into Collier-Seminole State Forest, and into Robert’s Strand, the watery wonderland that surrounded that former segment of the Florida Trail and still laps at the edges of the Big Cypress Gallery. Back in those swamp-tromping days, I struck up a friendship with fellow nature lovers Niki and Clyde Butcher. Over many years, I hiked with them and others on slow, insightful wades deep into the Big Cypress. But those were day hikes. Planning a three-day journey across thirty miles of swamp was another thing entirely.
Plans made and plans executed are two different things. On that early visit to Big Cypress, more than sixteen years ago, I’d tackled everything south of Oasis and north of Interstate 75. Getting back to that core 30 miles of wilderness, the toughest stretch of the Florida Trail, eluded me. There are only certain times of year it’s even sensible to hike it, and that’s pretty much December through early March. I’d made plans a dozen times and had them fall through year after year. Even John managed to get out there and do it – critical for our launch of The Florida Trail Guide – while I felt reluctant to be that far from home with my mom fresh out of surgery. Eventually, I realized that all I had left to do to complete the Florida Trail end-to-end were those danged roadwalks, and the Big Cypress Swamp.
Rather than end on a roadwalk, I decided that splashing through the swamp should be my official finish to the Florida Trail.
At the Big Cypress Gallery, driving down the narrow road into “Loosescrew” felt like coming home. I’d spent so many meaningful days, weeks, and even months in this very special sanctuary, the home that Clyde and Niki Butcher had made for themselves out of a former orchid nursery. A swirl of fascinating people always gravitated here, enabling me to meet and befriend many fellow creative folks over the years: artists, writers, photographers, musicians, filmmakers. During the years that the Big Cypress Gallery hosted the annual Muck-A-Bout on Labor Day Weekend, I was a regular fixture leading swamp walks. It was there that I learned from botanists and naturalists so I could instruct the people I was taking into the swamp on what we were seeing, from the stretchy webs of periphyton to the delicate dingy-flowered star orchid and the bobbing ramshorn snail shells.
We were lucky that the Swamp Cottage – Clyde and Niki’s former home – wasn’t already booked for when I’d hoped to assemble my crew of invited backpackers, since we couldn’t firm up plans until a week or two in advance. Joining me were old friends and new. Tami “Trailtalker” Jicha was by my side in 2001 when I completed my very first big section of the Florida Trail, the “Big 360” loop around Central Florida. In 2015, I was doing some trail research in Okeechobee with my friend Phyllis “Shortcut” Malinski when we heard that a thru-hiker needed a ride to Central Florida to get halfway home to the Panhandle. That’s how we met Mary “Denali” McKinley, who was the first woman to complete the Florida Trail southbound. Mary joined me on a wild ride home as my Jeep was dying a slow death by oil leak. We started hiking together soon after, and she joined me to complete my Florida Trail gaps in the Western Panhandle. The night before Mary and I headed to Alabama in 2017 to speak at a hiking conference, Carl “Moose” Jenus met us for my birthday dinner. When I was visiting Mary again while knocking off the roadwalks in the Panhandle, Carl decided, even though he hadn’t backpacked in 20 years, that he wanted to tackle Big Cypress too. And then there was Bill Detzner. He did his first long distance hike, as “Marshmellow” on the Appalachian Trail, in 2016. I’d met Bill and his wife Ginny on my first Big O Hike in 2002, and we’ve been friends ever since. Bill met John on the Florida Bicycle Safari after John retired, and suggested that John come hike the Big O Hike as part of his preparation for his planned Appalachian Trail hike. John and I met at that Big O Hike, the stars aligned, and led us to where we are today.
If you’ve never set foot in Big Cypress but want a “wow” immersion, the Swamp Cottage is where to have it. Clyde always had a camera set up on the porch. The swamp is full of texture, color, and life. With its picture windows, this perch above the pond – the center of a cypress dome – is a perfect place to watch sunset and sunrise unfold. Cormorants, ibis, and herons flutter into the trees, while young alligators cruise across the surface. Until we arrived, I hadn’t realized – for all the times I’d stood here before – that this was John’s first time in this oasis.
Bill quietly let us know it was Ginny’s birthday, so we made plans for a group dinner and surprise dessert. While Phyllis couldn’t join us hiking, she was there for the celebration. The hours of talking, as hikers and old friends do, stretched well into the night, making for a slow start in the morning. Conny and Carol, who help oversee the property, were there to see us off in the morning and take photos of us while were were still shiny and clean.
Wading Right In
With the government shutdown over, two park rangers were poking around the boardwalk at Oasis Visitor Center with nets. Knowing the size of the alligators that lounge around there, I was a bit startled until they explained that they were trying to catch a black-crowned night heron that had gotten itself between the fences under the boardwalk. John walked up and saw them.
“If you’re wrangling an alligator with those, you’re meaner than I am!”
Once permits were in order and gear checked and rechecked, it was time for the official terminus photo. Mary had originally suggested we hike southbound, as she did, so we’d end at the terminus marker. I said no. I was deeply concerned about the lack of water I’d been hearing about for weeks. Reports from fellow hikers of hiking 21 miles before finding surface water they could filter to drink had us prepared to pack in as much water per person as gear.
While friends in the Midwest dealt with record-breaking subzero temperatures, the tail of that “Arctic Vortex” swept across us and deposited desperately-needed rain across South Florida, where a months-long drought had dried the swamp to puddles in its deepest spots. Instead, we found that three days of torrential rain had rehydrated Big Cypress, so much so that we hit our first wade within sight of the Oasis Visitor Center, just beyond the airfield.
As a veteran of many swamp walks, I expected perpetual wet feet. What surprised me was the diversity of habitats that could all be wet. An open prairie with a thin sheen of water atop slippery marl mud. A stretch of limestone pavement, which I’d previously hiked when it was visible, was now a treacherous thing with its Swiss cheese holes in the rocky footpath hidden under waters churned up by my fellow hikers. The grassy forest floor of a pine rockland. The spongy bottom of a cypress strand with trees not much taller than me. Swamp buggy tracks through the pines. A corridor of sawgrass marsh. The edge of a flag pond. A cypress slough with majestic trees towering overhead. A perfectly round prairie with a flag pond in the middle. Water-filled cracks and crevices in rocky outcrops.
Splashing through these wet places made for an interesting hike, but it also meant slower going than my normal walking pace to avoid slipping and sliding. Having two trekking poles made keeping my balance easier. They saved me from a spill over and over. The deeper into Big Cypress I went, the more I felt absolutely terrible that I’d sent John out here with just one wooden hiking stick. The more frequently that either I or the friend I happened to be walking with had to search for blazes, the more I felt so bad that I’d forgotten to hand John a map before he took off on his hike across Big Cypress back in 2013. John’s hike not only gave us the details for him to write up the swamp for our guidebook, but also set up the baseline track in our Florida Trail App (Atlas / Guthook Guides), which I found myself checking every time I felt uneasy about finding my way through a burned forest.
Freaks of Nature
If you don’t live in or around the Everglades, things look weird here. First, there are the gnarled pond cypresses that look like oversized bonsai. With limestone so close to the surface, their roots can only go so far, so they are stunted. I’ve seen them on short walks and on long drives, but have never before spent nearly a half day among them. I walked through forests of trees that were sometimes shorter than me and probably triple my age.
I saw thatch palms, smaller and bushier and far stranger than cabbage palms, that looked straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. I recognized periphyton – the primary biomass of the Everglades ecosystem, a complex mix of algae, fungi, bacteria, and other living organisms – but had never been around enough of it to discover it could be in multiple forms even when wet. In some areas, it stretched out in sheets like crispy dried kale under the crystalline, rain-nourished waters, or looked like bark chips. In others, it hung like webs across aquatic plants, and sometimes it rolled up and floated around, mimicking bobbing poop.
I’d seen both limestone pavement and surface karst before on day hikes in the Everglades, but here, it was weird to walk among uplifted slabs of limestone shot through with crevices and rounded holes. Some looked like thick chunks of Swiss cheese. Others felt like you were balancing atop a rock maze. Unnervingly, many of the solution holes that were the perfect size to capture a foot were well-hidden under mounds of pine duff or tufts of tall grass, the roots of trees, or a layer of silty mud.
The solution holes, an erosional feature, came in every shape and size and usually trapped water. I kept on the move so I didn’t pause long enough to see if any cottonmouths or water snakes were coiled up inside them, until I spotted the alligator. Thanks to other hikers who’d been through, I knew one would be coming. I just didn’t expect it to pop its big head out of a half-hidden water-filled hole the size of a small hot tub. I was about to take a picture of it when it hissed and lunged, so I kept moving and yelled “Gator!” back to Bill and Tami. Later on, I found out that Mary had stopped long enough to get a series of photos of it, which is probably why it was riled up at us.
Timing is Everything
With a late start, we made it to 10 Mile Camp that first night. It was hard to pick a spot because of the unnerving number of dead pines. Over the past two years, Big Cypress National Preserve has been on a mission to burn vast swaths of the swamp, when dry, for habitat rejuvenation. There have also been massive wildfires. But far more of this wet landscape seemed to be suffering from the burns rather than rejuvenating. Tall pines were crisped. Cypress domes were scarred. Navigation became difficult, with both blazes and footpath missing.
Our second day, I’d talked everyone into going to Oak Hill Camp to stage ourselves to cross the deepest swamp. That meant more than 13 miles between campsites, generally not a problem. And our pace was looking great until we reached an old barbed wire fence and a bunch of swamp buggy roads. I figured these signaled an in-holding and hunting access, as the trail made its way gingerly around it, plunging in and out of swamps and pine forest and back into swamps.
Only Mary had been out here before, and she was well ahead by the point I realized that the trail had led me into a vast swamp and wasn’t going to hit dry land again until camp. As I lagged to take pictures, I lost Bill. And then the going got crazy. If you’ve ever postholed through snow, you know how exhausting it can be. My pace slowed to a mile an hour or less as I slid my feet across the silty bottom of the swamp and felt little purchase. I started dragging myself forward using my arms and hiking poles. It was the only way to keep moving. At the same time, blazing faded away. I’d see a fleck of orange on a tree and make my way towards it.
The skies became leaden as daylight slipped away. I was genuinely concerned about finding Oak Hill out in this vast watery wilderness where everything looked the same and clues to the trail were minimal. If the water was still, a faint trace of a deep track was obvious. I quickly learned that being in that track meant sinking up to my knees in muck, so I – as many others have – finally gave up and walked other tracks parallel to it. In this landscape, 35 years worth of feet pounding a rutted trail makes for a long, linear mudhole when it’s under water.
I heard a man’s voice behind me, which wasn’t one that I recognized, and that made me nervous. It turned out it was Tami’s audiobook narrator. She shut it off as she found me and we made our way slowly through this unfamiliar place, catching up with both Tin Cup – a section hiker and trail maintainer from Richloam who’d caught up with us on our first day – and, soon after, Mary. When Mary had taken off from 13 Mile Camp as soon as we sat down for a rest break, she mentioned being worried about daylight running out. Now I understood why. Being shorter than me, she had to push even more water out of the way to make any forward motion through the swamp.
With daylight waning, Mary was worried we might have overshot or missed Oak Hill. Tami checked the app. She was braver than me to have her phone in her pocket. I’d put mine in a drier place.
“It’s another quarter mile!”
More than two hours ago, back on dry land, we’d cheered that we only had 2.5 miles left to camp. We had no idea what craziness lay ahead, with wading, slipping, and sliding. It ended up taking us longer to hike than the previous five miles, in which we’d also taken a lunch break. At the end of a 13.2 mile day, pushing our way into the deep shade of the tropical hammock island that is Oak Hill, we barely had enough light to make camp and collapse.
I didn’t notice until I got ready to get in my tent that I’d set it up so I’d crawl out into a patch of poison ivy. The last of the day seeped away as, frustrated, I undid all the guy lines and moved the tent on top of the poison ivy since there was nowhere else to put it. When I plopped down with the others to eat dinner, mosquitoes started dive-bombing my bare ankles. I gave up being social and had dinner in my tent.
As night fell, fireflies drifted through the air, like a dream.
A yell in the middle of the night woke me up. I wasn’t sure where it had come from, but I knew it was one of my fellow campers. And I knew that unlike the night before, I hadn’t put my bear canister outside my tent. I’d used it to prop myself up and read. I made sure it was tightly sealed, unzipped the tent just enough to get it out there, and used my hiking stick to push it as far from the tent as I could.
In the morning, two of my fellow campers described something trying to get at their food and into a tent. And I thought, this is an island. Where else is a mammal going to find food in this massive swamp?
Once again, Bill and I were filtering water as everyone else was leaving. We’d run into a little problem. I’d brought coffee filters to put over the intake of the pump, but the pump wasn’t pushing water through. There was so much silt on my first try that I had to go get another one. I moved the intake from the deeper water of the trail to the shallows in the weeds and presto, it worked. Lesson learned: even though no one had stirred up the silt in more than twelve hours, the shallower water was less silty. We each pumped out two liters for the day before the crowd came by. Then it was off into the Black Lagoon.
As it turned out, the Black Lagoon is simply the edge of a cypress dome inside the larger swamp. As soon as I saw the alligator flag – signaling deep water – I knew to steer clear of that area, and only had knee-deep water to contend with. Up until three days before we left, hikers were reporting that this was the only remaining water source along the entire 30-mile stretch we were now backpacking. It took those three days of torrential rains to fill up the swamps again. But even as we walked, water levels kept dropping. The water marks on the cypresses were a good six inches above my knees. A six inch drop in three days across this vast landscape just speaks to how very, very thirsty the land is.
At times, I felt like I was skiing. There was just enough water that the mud wasn’t sticky, but it was slick. I knew from previous swamp walks that the safest way to avoid falling in a hole was to slide my feet ahead, like the stingray shuffle. Not lifting my feet out of the water avoided fighting gravity, too. Using the trekking poles, I could propel forward. A few times I had to catch myself from sliding right into the swamp.
The night before, we peppered Mary with questions about today’s hike. She was the only one of us who’d been through here before, and this was her fifth journey, which is why I was very grateful she was willing to come out here with me. She was coy in her answer, however.
And it was. It was the same as the last two hours of the previous day for a while. Bill and I caught up to her. She pointed out floating black masses that looked like egg clusters. We’d seen lots of white foamy, stringy masses in the water the past two days, which we all assumed were eggs from frogs or insects taking advantage of the brief infusion of water back into the swamp. Out here, however, these black masses kept appearing. I took a photo and almost fell in. It’s almost impossible to pull your attention away from balance and simultaneously do anything else when swamp walking unless you come to a complete stop. I made a lot of complete stops the rest of the day for that very reason.
Mary had warned us about solution holes that she’d gotten caught in. I was feeling pretty good about my underwater skiing routine when my right leg slipped into a hole and I suddenly sunk up to my thigh. I called back to her. “Found one!”
Thankfully, even with a backpack on, I was able to extract myself with the help of my hiking poles. Within five minutes, it happened again: the bottom of the swamp gave way and my leg fell in.
I was surprised to not see a lot of wildlife out here. I’d expected hundreds, maybe thousands of birds, but saw perhaps a dozen egrets and ibis along with a handful of songbirds. The only crayfish I noticed were dead. Gambusia, the tiny fish that eat mosquito larvae, darted about, but not in the numbers I’d noticed on summer swamp walks. Perhaps it was the season, or the long drought. Or the chill. We’d started our trip with temperatures in the 50s and 60s, and it had been colder the day before. While I was sometimes chilled by the cool water and cool breezes, I was grateful that cool water meant sluggish snakes. Except for that rattlesnake in the pine woods, I never saw another snake along the whole trek.
After we’d broken camp, it took nearly three hours to slosh through this vast swamp to the next piece of dry land. Exhausted, we piled in to the tiny tropical hammock island, into a clearing no bigger than a living room. and pulled out our food supplies. Tin Cup let us know he’d be staying behind at Ivy Camp so he could take it easy to get out of the swamp the next day. I was already getting texts from John that he was at the I-75 rest area to pick us up when we got out, and I could finally give him an update on our slow progress. “4 miles to go!” I figured since he’d hiked this, he could better estimate how long that would take us.
I noticed on the app that the island was only called “Random Camp.” I looked around and said “give me a name for it. It needs its own name. The first piece of dry land today.”
Carl laughed. “Thank God Island!”
A Splashing Finale
Tami and I got ahead of the group so I could stop for photos of Ivy Camp on the next island. It was still a half mile away, and the swamp was just as slippery, but it was clear that the habitats were finally shifting. We saw a ridge of pines and cabbage palms, and suddenly we stepped up into a prairie, the soggy footpath a slash through it. It didn’t last long, but the swamp got grassy under the tiny cypresses as we approached Ivy Camp. A lot of work had been put into clearing tent spaces here and removing poison ivy, as well as building a path off the back of the island to access a cypress dome behind it for water. At 3.5 miles south of Interstate 75, this would be the most likely overnight destination for folks wanting to have a tiny taste of backpacking through the swamp.
True to Mary’s prediction, our surroundings kept getting different, but never dry. Tiny cypresses yielded to towering ones. Like wet highways, swamp buggy roads kept crisscrossing our path. Walking into a dense cypress strand, I was surprised to see bromeliads blooming. And after miles and miles of wintery colors – browns and oranges – green finally crept into the understory. The wet understory.
When we reached an island with tall pines, I thought there might be some relief from wading and we could speed up. But the muddy track just led around the edge of it and plunged back into the swamp again. The next island, however, was a surprise. It featured a long corridor under the tall pines. A long, dry corridor. A fallen pine made a perfect perch to sit and knock the mud out of my shoes. Carl and Mary joined me, and I sent John another update on where we were. “Getting closer!”
After the next swamp slog, I saw something that looked familiar. We turned at a double blaze and a trail sign onto a broad swamp buggy road. I’d seen that sign before, but from a distance. When the landscape around me finally felt right, I waited for Mary to catch up to me.
“This is it!”
I’d connected my footsteps from end-to-end on the Florida Trail. I’d day hiked out to this point more than a decade ago, and again just a few years back.
Mary cheered, and we took a picture before we kept slogging through the giant puddles in the road. I’ve never been so grateful to see a cell tower and hear highway noise as it grew louder the closer we got to the end. Then I saw movement in the distance, up ahead.
It was John, skirting around a big puddle. As he approached, I could hear him yell. “Who would blaze a trail through a swamp?”
I laughed and blurted out something I won’t put in print.
He gave me a hug and kiss. He offered to take my pack, but I was amazed he had made it this far in jeans and waterproof boots – now filled with water – and the leg trouble he’s suffered for the past few years. I was simply grateful for the company.
As we got closer to Interstate 75, a dog ran up to me. Behind it, I saw its owner, a familiar face. Phyllis! She and I and our buddy Paul had hiked the Big Cypress North section from this point, from the rest area up Nobles Road to Billie Swamp Safari, 17 years ago. That was back when there were more hoops to go through to get a permit to walk into the reservation. We’d seen a panther that day while shuttling our cars. So many memories. So many years of hiking. So many years of not hiking while life took me in other directions, away from this trail. And then, with John, it led me back.
After celebratory photos at the gate, we joined the rest of our crew in the parking lot for a cheery conclusion. Stripping off the muddy, wet shoes and socks and changing into Crocs never felt so good. Nor did any other sip of bubbly, as we toasted my completion of the Florida Trail.
See what it looked like to walk these 30 miles of swamp by watching this video.