Going inside the Harold Store for breakfast, we realized we should have warned then we were coming. This was our rendezvous point for Day Five of the Panhandle Trace Hike, and after yesterday, everyone was hungry. The Harold Store is the only store around for miles, so when a group of hungry hikers swarms your limited supply of breakfast sandwiches, it does not leave much for the hungry locals.
As we hiked south, following the Florida Trail over a highway bridge across Interstate 10, they were busily cooking more. This was a new section of the trail, so we were looking forward to walking it and gathering the GPS data for the new Florida Trail Guide. After the bridge we turned to walk into a big open cut-over field. As we started across the field, Sandy noticed that many of the group was missing. We waited and waited and waited, and finally called Peggy, wondering where the rest of the group was. Probably waiting on those breakfast sandwiches!
When they joined us, we kept hiking south. Hiking across a clear cut field isn’t the nicest of walks, but here in the rolling hills we could look off in the distance and see ridge after ridge on the far side of the Yellow River floodplain. The Yellow River starts in Alabama and flows past Crestview on its way to this point, where it is edged with steephead ravines leading down to a tangled swamp forest along its shores. It empties into Blackwater Bay to the west.
After a long walk across the open area, we entered the woods. The trail quickly plunged down into a ravine with multiple switchbacks to the bottom. It never got level, but kept to a slope above a creek that formed at the bottom of the ravine.
Since Sandy and I stop to enjoy and photograph the trees and flowers, we eventually ended up behind the rest of the group. Taking a side trail marked with pink flagging tape, we found a view of the creek with 3-foot tall pitcher plants. Once we caught up with the group again, we learned that no one else had taken the side trail, or seen the pitcher plants. Hiking with so many female friends, I decided to tell Gail that the pitcher plants were over 5 feet tall. When she looked at me in disbelief, that I reminded her that being male, I was prone to exaggeration.
Walking on a forest road through a sand pine plantation, we became confused as to the trail route, as there were large orange dots on trees in addition to orange blazes. No one, of course, had a map, since this is a brand-new trail. More than once the group started to split up, with people following the unknown blazes. To add to the confusion, a new path seemed to have been cut through where we were going.
Once we got back into more natural habitats, we found a lot of stream crossings. Being a new trail, there were no bridges or boardwalks yet. Using fallen trees and logs, we crossed them like earlier hikers had done for years. With each crossing, I would bounce a little on the log first to test it. At one crossing, one of the logs felt a little soft, and I warned everyone not to put their weight on it as it would break. Later in the day, we would hear of a hiker who received a wet foot when the log finally let go.
We saw a lot of azalea in this section.
There was long section that reminded us of the Appalachian Trail, with pointless ups and downs into the gum swamp involving limbo under and climbs up and over and around tree trunks. Then it was back up and then to pines again, only to be taken back down again to the gum swamp.
Over and over we were lead up then down, it got tiring, and we kept wondering why they didn’t just guide us along a more level path. One bright spot was seeing all the blooming azaleas along the way. Both flame azalea and wild azalea brightened our day.
As we were grumbling over exceeding the “estimated mileage” for today’s hike, the trail emerged at a large open sand pit with trash strewn all around it. I started thinking about what a great service project it could be for a local Scout troop. From the pit we followed a clay road uphill to get to the paved road. Peggy was there waiting.
Before we returned to camp, we set out on another expedition from the Harold Store, looking for pitcher plants with Sandy as our guide, since she had found and written about their locations on previous trips to this area. En route, we found Blackwater Ray broken down on the off ramp of the Interstate. When we offered help, he thanked us and said a police officer and a couple of buddies were on their way.
After hiking all morning, the energy provided by our breakfast at the Harold Store ran out. So we stopped for lunch at a Dairy Queen located inside the last real Stuckey’s in Florida. It’s one of the big buildings like they had in the 1960s and 1970s, right off I-10 at the Bagdad exit.
After lunch, ice cream, and looking at all the tacky old-style goods and candy, we continued our quest for the elusive pitcher plants. More than once Sandy and I had seen pitcher plants along our daily hikes. But somehow, no one else had. So excitement was building: they wanted to see the the pitcher plants for themselves.
Sandy started pointing out along the roadside, but no one really saw them until we stopped at Yellow River Marsh Preserve State Park. It’s on a peninsula across Blackwater Bay from where the Yellow River flows into the bay. We got out of the car and walked around hundreds of pitcher plants in the ditches along both side of the road.
With cameras clicking away, Sally saw something move near the base of a pitcher plant. There, being as still as it could be, was a large leopard frog. His natural camo was so good that all of us had missed him. Only a slight movement when Sally was looking gave him away.
Next, we headed to Garcon Point, where we hiked out far into the pine flatwoods. Sandy had taken pictures of pitcher plants by the thousands between these pines, but not today. We were lucky to see the very few that were out blooming this year.
Our expeditions along the Yellow River complete, we headed back to camp, happy with what we’d seen. It was time to relax and think about dinner plans.