With our switcheroo on the previous day – skipping the burned zone of the Jackson Trail to walk the Juniper Creek Trail back to the campground – Day Four of the Panhandle Trace Hike had us headed northbound for the first time on this trek. Peggy had hikers going in all directions and for different lengths of walks, but we all had a meeting point for the morning: the Harold Store.
Trekking north, our group included Ruth, Linda, John and myself. Another group was headed south to Harold from Red Rocks, and yet another was walking south from the campground. We’d cross paths with most of them along today’s hike.
For years, I’d been hearing about the Florida Trail through the Hutton Unit of Blackwater River State Forest. It didn’t exist on my last visit here, and yet when it was established, it included the high point of the Florida Trail. I was looking forward to finding that, along with the pitcher plant bogs I’d been told about.
From the Harold Store, we followed the orange blazes west. I’d expected them to be along US 90, but they were on the road behind the Harold Store through the tiny village of Harold itself, leading us past an old boarded-up church and its graveyard encircled by a concrete block wall. Instead of crossing US 90, the blazes led us into a rough path through the woods paralleling the highway. We popped out at a road crossing for the railroad and quickly crossed over road and railroad and into a sand pine forest.
In much of the Panhandle, paper companies planted sand pine for easy pulpwood. As Blackwater Ray told us, Blackwater River State Forest is actively clearcutting the sand pine plantations to allow eventual restoration of the natural habitats. In the meantime, as sections of the forest vanish, Ray and the other volunteers have to keep moving the Florida Trail. When Linda and I compared maps later on, we discovered each of our data sources gave very different mileages, varying 2 miles in overall distance!
After a walk down a power line, where showy sprays of Gulf Coast lupine rose from orange sands, we found a little shady nook with a bench. The trail made its way across pine flatwoods into planted rows of pines as we worked our way around large clearcut areas. Wildflowers were abundant amid the wiregrass. But everything was dry, with no signs of surface water. I began to wonder about those pitcher plant bogs.
Finally, after dropping down along an eroded drainage, we came to an outflow from a titi swamp. No pitcher plants, and no bridge. Rather than let us all get wet shoes, John quickly built a bridge out of loose logs to cross the small stream. The climb commenced. We’d reached the first of the hills of Hutton, which the trail scrambled up, through the sandhills. Up the slope, near a forest road, a thoughtful trail maintainer had built a bench. It was a perfect place for a snack break, especially when we knew we’d continue walking uphill towards what my map said was the high point of the Florida Trail. Linda’s map didn’t claim it as a high point, which is why we compared our maps. Mine was much older.
While we were resting, Marjorie appeared, her backpack on her back and her tent in her hand. She wasn’t sure how far she’d come, since she’d camped the night before in the woods somewhere near the state park. And she hadn’t seen any pitcher plants, or a high point sign. Soon after we parted ways, we ran into the next wave of hikers, this time with Helen – the local chapter chair – among them. She, too, knew nothing about pitcher plants in this area. I was getting discouraged.
As Blackwater Ray had promised, we hit a stretch of recently-burned forest. Green grass carpeted the forest floor; char covered every other surface. We realized that we’d gotten to the top of the hill, and what a hill. You could properly call it a knob, as it was rounded and had views of distant ridges in almost every direction. This had to be the high point! But there was no sign, and I knew I’d seen a photo of Johnny Thunder at a “High point of the Florida Trail” sign this very season. Maybe we weren’t there quite yet.
Coming down the knob, I saw a path leading off to the left. Maybe it led to a pitcher plant bog? I sent John to find out. As he was making his way back, having no success, I noticed something among the ferns to our east. It was the pitcher plant bog! While a little tough to see from a distance with all the soot and char, once we stepped off the trail and found it, we were amazed. Thousands of young pitcher plants, some in bloom, swarmed down the seepage slope. There were so many we had to be careful not to trample them as we took pictures.
The trail continued up and down some serious sized hills, so I kept looking for that high point sign. We crossed a bridge over a small ravine, and up the slope, we could see clay cliffs and sandstone with iron in it. One piece of sandstone intrigued me, but when John couldn’t move it with his foot, he said “I’m not carrying that!”
We circled another steephead ravine that had flagging tape down to a spot well off the trail. I wish we’d followed the tape, as I found out later that it led to a small spring, a great water source for backpackers. The ups and downs were tiring, so we took another rest stop at a sooty log. Linda and I searched for more pitcher plants, with no luck. When a truck went by within view, we discovered we weren’t all that far from Deaton Bridge Road after all. As it turned out, the actual trail mileage for the day fell halfway between what my map and Linda’s map claimed it would be.
Once we reached the road, it was an easy roadwalk to cross Deaton Bridge, which provides a nice panorama of the Blackwater River. A short walk along the Blackwater River led us to the restroom area and trailhead where we’d left off the day before. Several of our friends were here, getting ready to head south the way we’d come.
We told them – just as we’d stopped and told every hiker we’d met – where to find the pitcher plants. I even offered to give them GPS coordinates. Back at camp, we discovered that not a one of them managed to find the bog. Perhaps it was our own little Brigadoon. At least we had the photos to prove it. As for the Florida Trail high point? It moved. It was here when my maps were printed, but on today’s map, you’ll find it down on the (much newer) Nokuse section.