On January 5th, we loaded up Primrose and headed south, traveling parallel to the Florida Trail for much of the trip, starting out at Christmas. Driving south of Tosahatchee, we continued through the Deseret Ranch where we spotted our first two Florida Trail thru-hikers walking up the highway. Although they are not keeping online journals, David and Ethan were known to the “hiker grapevine,” having caught a ride around the closed lock on the Kissimmee River.
We took US 192 to US 441 heading south past Forever Florida, with a stop in Kenansville and a wave to the Desert Inn in Yeehaw Junction. Grabbing lunch at Cowboys in Okeechobee, one of our Big O favorites, we continued down the west side of the lake. It was here we parted paths with the Florida Trail, the roads leading us around and down into the Fakahatchee Strand and Big Cypress Swamp, where our campsite awaited at Trail Lakes, just behind the famed Skunk Ape Research Center. We never spotted a Skunk Ape, but it’s hard to miss the huge Florida panther beside the building.
Chuck and Tigger were already there along with Chenango, M&M, and two new friends, Singing Sister and Mister Blister. It didn’t take long to pile into their van for dinner at the Seafood Depot in Everglades City. Afterwards, we stoked a roaring campfire and talked trail. There’s no better way to start hiking season! With bit of chill in the air we all settled in for a peaceful night’s sleep.
The next morning we caravaned to Oasis, all wearing our bright orange 2014 FT hiker kickoff t-shirts. It was an idea of Sandy’s that grew into a custom designed shirt. Using requests from a few of the 2013 FT hikers, she added a gator, a water moccasin, and a few other surprises to a photo I took last year while walking with the group in the swamp, and made it a work of art.
Oasis was surprisingly busy, despite the ominous skies overhead. Our first hiker to arrive was Lynn, aka Nutty Buddy, who got her trail name at the Big O Hike this past year. Within the next hour, several cars showed up with folks dropping off hikers from states as far away as Michigan. Our friend Phyllis, aka Shortcut, dropped off Chase (from Virginia), Acorn (from Illinois), and Iwalk (from St. Augustine, but with recent Colorado roots). She’d picked two of them up from the airport in Miami.
Seeing all the thru-hikers armed with The Florida Trail Guide was wonderful, especially knowing that after it had only been in print for a few months, they were putting it to good use!
It was great to see the new FNST Southern Terminus marker in place. It looks wonderful mounted in a large piece of Florida limestone, and certainly much better than last year when I last saw it sitting on a two wheeled dolly being wheeled around at the beginning of the 2013 hiking season.
Friends brought hikers and snacks to share to the trailhead. With more than a dozen hikers itching to head off into the swamp, we celebrated our own little kickoff and reunion. After plenty of photos around the new marker, our group of 2014 long-distance hikers walked off on the trail.
We took the opportunity for a visit to Clyde Butcher’s Big Cypress Gallery, where they insisted we sign all the copies of The Florida Trail Guide they had in stock. After lunch at the picnic area at Oasis, we watched Elam Stoltzfus’ movie on the Big Cypress Swamp that they show at the Visitor Center. And wouldn’t you know, when we walked out the door to leave, there were three more thru-hikers – late arrivals – whose pictures we took before they walked out into the swamp.
The next morning Chuck and Tigger, Sandy and I went back to Oasis to share snacks and wish luck to any additional hikers. Checking the register we were able to confirm that there were at least 26 hikers on the Florida Trail so far, and another five headed this way walking up from Key West on the Eastern Continental Trail route.