When we pulled into Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park that stormy Saturday morning, the last thing I expected to see was a long line of people under leaden skies. We’d been told that registration for the annual I Did-A-Hike opened at 8, and it was 8:02. Clearly, the crowd was eager to get going. Even more surprising, a busload of hikers had already left, and more people were streaming in!
It had been a decade since I’d joined an I-Did-A-Hike. Randy Madison, a long-time member of the North Florida Trailblazers chapter of the Florida Trail Association, came up with the idea of putting on a hike as a fundraiser, with encouragement from his wife Melissa. It was modeled after the Suwannee Bicycle Association’s I-Did-A-Ride, complete with shuttle support, a marked course, and aid stations. He got it rolling out of pocket and about 40 people showed up that first year, intrigued by the idea of hiking a brand-new (and not opened until a couple of years ago) section of the Florida Trail near Big Shoals. After the success of the first hike, Janie Hamilton jumped in to help spread the word about it and expand it to venues beyond White Springs.
The number of people here, especially on such a dreary day, was a testament to how popular this annual event had grown. For a $20 donation, participants are shuttled to the starting point and have volunteer support in case they have to bail out on the hike. Volunteers also offer food, water, and hydration drinks at stations along the way.
Each year, the hike has moved around a bit, showcasing different pieces of the Florida Trail between White Springs and Keystone Heights. This year, they decided to push farther north, with an 11-mile section from Jerry Branch to Suwannee Springs. I knew this as a very scenic part of the trail, but hadn’t hiked all the way across it in 15 years. I wanted to see how it had changed.
Standing in line, greeting old friends, and waiting, I realized that time was slipping past and I was no closer to being on the trail. I’d confirmed that the section I wanted to hike in Eglin the next day -- all the way out in Milton -- would finally be open, so we needed to cross the Panhandle immediately after this hike. Doing the math in my head, looking at what the hiking conditions would be, I decided to trim down my planned trek. I got out of line and flagged down John.
“I’m going to have you drop me off along the trail.”
I figured that would be the quickest way to get going, and that the shuttle ticket I had would stay in my pack in the event that I needed a ride back from somewhere along the route.
As we drove along CR 25A towards Camp Branch, where I planned to start, we spotted an “FTA Event” sign at an unfamiliar road. I saw a car parked down at the end of it, so I directed John to head down there. We saw a couple setting up an aid station and walked up to talk to them. Something was familiar about both the place and their faces. Over the years, we’d crossed paths with Kevin and Gloria Sedgwick at ALDHA Gatherings and occasionally in Florida. But it was a surprise to me when Kevin told us where we were.
“This is the top of Devil’s Mountain!”
As it turned out, a kind landowner allowed access to it for this special event for the day, as this was the last possible take-out point for hikers who’d run out of steam. After pulling out the app and checking the mileage back to Suwannee Springs, I told John that dropping me off here would be fine. We had to be in Crestview before nightfall, so I knew I couldn’t take on the whole hike today. I was going to backtrack to Crooked Branch Ranch on foot and then head north along the hike route.
Only I didn’t.
John had left to go back and find our friend Linda. We’d had dinner together the night before and she talked about doing a few miles back to Suwannee Springs. He went to check to see if she wanted to join me. Meanwhile, I headed downhill towards Greasy Creek. In my eagerness to get on the trail, I’d only taken one hiking pole with me. The trail was wet and slippery on this slope, where I picked my way around deep mud. The farther down Devil’s Mountain I got, the steeper and more slippery it became. I realized that without a second hiking pole, coming back up this slope would be mighty tricky. I decided to turn around and start my hike to Suwannee Springs.
When I got back to Kevin and Gloria, the sky fell. Thankfully, they’d set up four chairs under their tent, so we settled down to chat. I called John and he confirmed that the weather was even worse at the registration desk, so Linda had no interest in hiking. I told him I hadn’t made up my mind yet.
As Kevin and Gloria and I caught up on old friends and places we’d hiked, Randy showed up. He coordinated the on-the-ground support for this hike as well as the trail maintenance, so we talked about logistics. The day before, a group of volunteers had hiked the course to put up signs at points of confusion. There had also been a flurry of creative work, including making some nifty new signs to put along the trail and the creation of a few log crossings over flowing tributaries. Randy’s crew had gotten caught in storms, too.
The rain kept pouring down. The wind picked up and the skies turned darker. Then the thunder and lightning came. We braced ourselves more than once.
I was unaware of how much time had passed until the first hiker, who’d started at least 4 or 5 miles up the trail, walked by us quickly. She had no pack and no water bottle, and wanted nothing. “Runner,” I said, as she moved quickly across the landscape. The rain was still coming down, but no longer in buckets. Another small group was just behind her.
I thought of how slippery Devil’s Mountain was already, and how many more people would be traversing the trail, making the creek crossings and hills even more slick. The sky lightened up a bit, so I called John and told him I was heading out. He seemed surprised I’d waited this long and pointed out the time. If I didn’t get going immediately, I wouldn’t be back by lunchtime. So I said my goodbyes to Kevin and Gloria and hit the trail.
My recollections of this landscape date back to hiking it with a group of friends on the Suwannee 100, a group hike in the early 2000s that the Suwannee chapter of the Florida Trail Association did for a couple of years to encourage people to section hike the length of the Suwannee. Rain-drenched, the landscape was even more beautiful than my faded memories. The descent off this side of Devil’s Mountain was not as steep, and led into rolling hills created by river erosion, with a series of creek crossings and sinkholes.
Somewhere before I popped out on the first beach, the skies fell again. I pulled my rain jacket back on, but realized that it wasn’t helping all that much. I slowed my pace as I still wanted to shoot photos with our waterproof camera. Another group of hikers caught up, and I let them by.
At one bend in the river, I saw the effects of the flooding that thru-hikers had to work around earlier in the year. The trail looked like it was a plow line through deep, soft sand on the river bank, with a steep slope canted down towards the water.
The thunder and lightning started again as the next group caught me. This time, I recognized someone. I’d hiked with David Waldrop last year to check out the expansion of Tiger Creek Preserve south of Lake Wales for our 50 Hikes guide, and here he was all the way up at the Suwannee River with a group of friends, tackling the I-Did-A-Hike. We crossed a few slick ravines together while the rain kept coming down.
I tried to keep pace with them for a while, but the scenery was too compelling for me not to slow down and pay attention to it again once the thunder stopped. The rain kept pattering on.
One more set of hikers caught up to me as I reached familiar territory. John and I had hiked out from Suwannee Springs a few years ago up to this point, when everything was dry. It surprised me to have to pick my way across a small but roaring stream on a couple of logs. The water rushed between saw palmetto along a long trail corridor. I didn’t recall a waterway here before.
The rain started coming down harder as I drew closer to the blue blaze up to Suwannee Springs. As I scrambled up to the bridge, Randy was up ahead with a group of volunteers, walking down to check on Sugar Creek. He yelled back to me. “Is there any flooding yet?”
“No!” I said, and then thought a moment about that last waterway. “But the creeks are rising.”
When I got to the top, it was a shock to see the Old US 129 bridge covered in colorful grafitti. The first time I’d crossed it, it was as pristine a historic site as the Old US 90 bridge over at Suwannee River State Park. Three years ago, we’d seen it like this, but in the pouring rain, it stood out even more in contrast to the winter landscape.
The last of the volunteers along the route stood near a tent whose roof had come off. He still cheerfully pointed me to where the exit was over to Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park.
I was spared that last soaking stretch by John’s arrival at the end of the bridge. He’d had the good sense to spread towels over both my seat and the spot where I’d set my gear and rain jacket. I had not been this soaked to the skin since our last backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail six summers ago, when we came into Hampton, Tennessee through a thunderstorm, and a lightning flash blinded me for a few scary heartbeats on the descent.
Back at the registration area, the tents had been consolidated as the ground turned to puddles. I looked frantically for my name on the roster and realized I’d signed some random form, not the one corresponding to me alphabetically. There were hundreds of names.
This was a huge effort. In all, at least 238 people participated in the hike. REI helped with sponsorship and had a booth, where John spent a lot of time as I was hiking. Local landowners worked with the Florida Trail Association to allow special access for the event, and the local community provided shuttle buses. While the North Florida Trailblazers coordinated the event, at least 30 volunteers pitched in from four FTA chapters, with a great deal of support from trail maintainers who keep this portion of the Florida Trail open. As Randy told me afterwards, $5,400 in profit was raised from this event to support FTA.
We said our goodbyes to old friends, and hit the road. Before we left Live Oak, I slipped into Busy Bee to make use of their over-the-top sparkling clean and shiny restrooms to strip off the sodden clothing and dress like I was less of a drowned rat. Only my soaking wet hair gave me away as we stopped for lunch before the long drive west.
Here’s my visual recap of the hike between Devil’s Mountain and Suwannee Springs. Don’t mind the raindrops in some of the photos. I didn’t. We did have to dry out my iPhone afterwards, however, as some moisture managed to creep in through the otherwise water-resistant case.