I didn’t want to get my feet wet.
We were barely a mile in on a multi-day hike. Standing at the edge of the creek, looking at all the day hikers around me shedding their shoes for a wade, I thought, it figures. This is South Florida, after all. Just a month before, John was joking as he stepped out of the van into the parking lot of the nearest Publix to this trailhead into a giant puddle, “I know I’m in South Florida! My feet are wet!”
But this was my first backpacking trip in six months and wet feet in the first hour? Please.
I could have shed the shoes. But watching some of the barefooted ones slip and slide, I thought, not with a pack on! So I grimaced, hit the water, and thankfully had my trekking poles for balance as the mud was a bit slippery for the knee-deep wade.
This was my introduction to the new Starvation Slough section of the Florida Trail on the east side of the Kissimmee River. Accompanied by a large group of day hikers from the Tropical Trekkers, five of us were making our way along this new trail on a two-day journey to the headquarters of Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. Nearly five years ago, Lori Burris started the process of building a new footpath through this South Florida Water Management District land, knowing that the Florida Trail would someday be forced to switch sides of the river due to the ongoing flooding caused by river restoration.
We never stepped in another puddle – or creek – the rest of the day. While there are those who mourn the loss of the beautiful hammocks of Hickory Hammock and Avon Park on the former route, let me assure you now: Starvation Slough will amaze you. And unlike the west side of the river – where I have waded for miles through the hammocks – it’s higher ground.
In the first few miles, you circle around some large wet prairies, but most of the trail is in the shade of well-established oak and palm hammocks.
Lori dubbed one of them “Cathedral South,” comparing its beauty to the renowned Cathedral of Palms along the trail in St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.
Nearly five miles into the trip, we took a side trail out towards the Kissimmee River for a peek at a potential future camping area in an oak hammock. Nearby, remnants of human occupation hint at there once being a work camp here in the late 1950s – early 1960s during construction of the ditch that the Kissimmee River became.
It was here that our day hikers turned around for the day, leaving the rest of us to tunnel deeper into oak hammocks with even grander and more ancient live oaks.
Eventually, we caught sight of the river floodplain. And were pressed up against it. Much like the landowner boundary issues on the west side of the river, the east side has them, too. Fortunately, the boundary fence didn’t push us into the marsh, but it sure got close. It was a tight squeeze in places between barbed wire and a dropoff into a willow-lined slough.
The fence line continued for many miles, but that didn’t take away from the beauty of the oak hammocks along it.
In fact, we settled in for the night under spectacular oaks with a sweeping view of the river, just south of the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park boundary line. It was one of the easiest places to reach the Kissimmee River for water, with a fast flow and a nice grassy promontory in the sun.
Breaking camp amid swirls of fog in the early morning hours, we walked a short distance before entering the state park.