(A note of warning, no, there’s no bicycling in this report. I had planned to make this trip with the bicycle, and it was a good thing I didn’t bring it. You’ll see why in the story. I did find some interesting service roads that would make excellent riding paths. So this ended up being a scouting trip after all.)
I didn’t know there would be hogs. Of course, I know they’re out there, I’ve seen plenty of them hiking in other nearby areas. I just didn’t think that I’d cross paths with any on this trip.
Let me first explain why I was out “there”, and where “there” is.
I recently started finding my way back outdoors. I took up trail biking (I can’t call it mountain biking, not down here in Florida.) with the intent of doing overnight and longer trips in the woods. It turns out I wasn’t the only one interested in doing this, it is a growing activity called bikepacking.
My friend Mat invited me to join him on one of his expeditions. Even after that misadventure, I still was interested in doing this. Just on my terms from then on.
I then did a scouting trip for a potential area to do our next ride at. This one went pretty well, but I caught myself jumping at sounds in the night, as well as some the next morning.
I don’t remember myself as being a skittish person while camping alone. I used to do this quite often, in the mountains of New Hampshire. I can’t recall staying up all night, listening to the sounds of twigs breaking, or birds making whatever sounds they make. Yet that’s what I found myself doing, and I was only ten feet from my truck, and in a dedicated campground.
My next trip, I journeyed into the woods by bike, and set up camp far from any designated location. This one was just as bad. I didn’t sleep all too well. I kept my ears perked for any odd sounds. I listened for any sign that some creatures was more interested in me than I wanted it to be. Yet I had fun. I couldn’t wait to get back out in the woods again. It didn’t make sense. I discussed this on an internet forum about hammock camping. It turns out I’m not alone in this. I proposed that maybe it’s a need to conquer our fears, but in a “safe” environment. We’re sure, in the bright light of day, that nothing is out to harm us. Yet, as the sun sets, and the sounds begin, there’s this little voice in the back of our heads starts saying, “what was that? It sounded like a bear coming to sniff you like you’re a nylon wrapped burrito on a string.”
So, this brings us up to this particular outing. I wanted to test my theory, in a safe environment. Somewhere nearby, that I could do a quick hike in, hang my hammock, check my fears, and hike back out the next morning. The place that best fit that criteria was a section of the Florida Trail that cut through the Lafayette Creek WMA, and along the Nokuse Plantation conservation area. The trailhead I used can be found at the north end of JW Hollington Rd in Freeport FL. I was heading for a trail shelter that should have been within easy reach of my hiking abilities. That’s where my assumptions for this expedition, started to break down.
I slid into the shoulder straps of my bag, and I headed for the trail.
It started off well enough, high dry ground, a easy meandering path. I quickly found a pace I could live with, and get to my destination, maybe with time to spare.
The trail descended into a small wet area, that soon lifted back up to a service road, and a bridge that crossed a creek.
Well, there were signs that there might be trouble ahead, but I failed to take heed. No, really, there was an actual sign…
I didn’t actually read the sign, I did take a picture of it though. I was sure it wouldn’t apply to me, we hadn’t received that much rain lately, had we?
The trail crossed into the Water Management Area. At this time of year it’s a fairly safe area. But in another couple months, you are running the risk of being shot out here.
The first section of this trail followed a service road. This made for easy walking, if a less than purely natural experience.
Even though I was walking along a “road” there were still plenty of things to see. One of which was this beauty berry bush. The berries are not very tasty right off the branch, but with enough sugar, they make a very nice jelly.
This was certainly a longleaf pine area. This was a very nice looking stand. A few dead trees are left standing, which make for good habitat for animals such as woodpeckers.
Woodpeckers weren’t the only wildlife I was seeing signs of. This was not some local domestic puppy dog’s track…
In my treks of the area, I’ve found a few of these erosion pools. This is not the most dramatic one I’ve ever seen, but it was interesting enough to catch my attention for this shot.
As I hiked along, I started to notice a certain smell. It was a rather earthy fragrance, but it had a hint of something. A sort of farm feel to it. I soon realized what I was smelling. It was pig poop. The visual evidence of hog activity was soon impossible to ignore.
Even with this new addition to the trail, it made for a pretty path to follow.
The only downside to this trail so far was all of the spiders. I kept encountering large golden orb spiders. And when I say encounter, I mean, walk along until at the last second see a few lines of something in front of your eyes, then realize too late, flailing your hands in front of you while the sticky transparent sewing thread lines wrap around your head and you end up with a face full of web. To make matters worse, it seems the spiders like to position themselves right at face level but just off to one side, on the web. So that as you walk headlong into their trap, the webbing forms around your head and shoulders, and the spider, dropping to avoid whatever destructive forces just ruined his dinner catcher, lands somewhere on your chest or shoulders. This guy was on me for a while, before I flung it off, onto this palmetto bush.
The webs these guys produce are very strong. You’ve often gone two or three feet past where you made contact, before the lines will break. On some bike rides I think I add about five pounds of web, from start to finish.
I had started coming up on cleared areas. I’m not sure if they were doing logging, or trying to restore the habitat to what it would have been like before people settled the area. Naturally, fire would keep the pines spread further apart, but humans have been keeping forest fires out of these forests for a while now.
The ground got wet, and kept getting wetter. I soon found myself past the logging area, and into the creek bed. The trail followed this for quite some time. Sometimes the trail would hide from me…
Sometimes there were things that I wished stayed hidden… as long as they didn’t hide under where I was stepping. Once I had seen this guy, I slowed down and started paying more attention to where I was placing my feet…
Just try picking which one of these tangled roots are safe to step on, or which are actually snakes NOT to be stepped on. Quick, the water is getting deeper, and the sun is sinking lower.
I wonder who thought it would be a great idea to blaze a trail through a swamp. I was also wondering what was on that sign, and if it had described a detour I should have taken. It’s ok, any time now I’ll break from the swamp, and I’ll find the shelter where I can spend the night.
I don’t trust these types of bridges anymore. Some of them are slicker than snot. Walking along out there with nothing to think about but not stepping on snakes, and trying to find the next painted blaze, one gets to thinking. This IS a bridge, bridges have trolls, maybe this troll has an allergy problem, and is nasal excretions is what I’m slipping on as I try to walk across these things…
Finally, the trail began to climb back up out of the swamp. The shelter must surely be close now. A quick check of the GPS, and, no, not quite to the camp site yet. I’m only halfway there. Well, now that I’m in the open again, and not so worried about stepping on a cottonmouth, I can make up some lost time.
Being out of the oppressive swamp, I was able to see sky again, and what a sky it was. I was out just in time for sunset!
It’s a good thing I wasn’t supposed to cross the creek here, since the bridge seemed to be taking a dip…
I couldn’t help but think of the Ding-A-Ling song when I saw this sign.
At about this point in the trail, it was getting too dark to take pictures. The flash was reflecting off the moisture in the air, and was leaving a very blurry and grainy image. Also, not too much longer after I took this picture, I got lost. The trail, winding through the swamp, was obliterated by the high water. There were piles of debris piled here and there from where the creek had risen above it’s banks. I tried using the flashlight feature on my phone to find the orange blazes on the trees that would tell me I was on the right path, but there were none to be found. I turned around and fumbled my way through the inky darkness. Only knowing I was on the trail, because I knew it followed the bank of the river, and that was the only ground that was mostly above water at that point. I finally found my way back to an intersection I had decided would be my alternate route if something like this had happened. I broke free from the swamp to see a large, and I mean LARGE cage trap next to the trail. It was big enough, I considered shutting myself in it, and hanging my hammock inside. Although I thought that if I didn’t wake up before whoever owned it came to check on it’s contents, I might have a hard time explaining why I was in there. I walked on.
I finally picked a path along one of the service roads that led to a high spot covered in a longleaf pine stand. I thought it would make a great place for camp, because it had a fairly clear understory, with trees spaced right for hanging my hammock. But most importantly, it had a thick enough understory, that if anything tried to approach my sleeping area, it would make enough noise to alert me. I walked a short distance from my campsite and made a quick meal of a roast beef sandwich I picked up at Publix on my way to the trail head. I buried the wrapper, and made my way back to the hammock. I crawled in, and tried for sleep. The frogs and bugs were singing their song, but it was one I knew well, and it could have aided me in my quest for sleep, except that little voice in me started speaking up. I had checked the radar, and I knew that there was little chance of rain, so I left one corner of my tarp free of it’s stake, and I flipped it over the ridge line. This gave me a sliver view of the night sky, between the fabric of the hammock and the tarp.
It was a very peaceful and relaxing view. The tall pines were silhouetted against a somewhat starry sky. Highlighted occasionally by flashes of lightning from a storm off to the south.
Then I heard a whisper. Heard isn’t the right word, but the whisper was there. That little voice was back, and it kept suggesting that any time now I would see the head of Sasquatch peer in, blocking out that section of sky. I started to dislike that little voice.
Soon it gave up on trying to scare me with mythical monsters, and it reminded me of all the hogs that were obviously in the area. “Didn’t you see all those tracks?” “Hogs can be very mean when they feel like it, and your butt is at perfect ramming height in this hammock.”
I wanted the voice to shut up, but it wouldn’t let me sleep. “You know you can hear that squeal, that’s one of them hogs, just down the slope from here.” Yeah yeah, but they’re busy rooting, they don’t care about me, I thought. “I bet that grunt was a territorial male, and he just caught your scent in his area, and he’s not happy.”
I was really starting to hate that little voice at this point. “It isn’t too late to pack all this stuff and follow the service road back to your truck, it shouldn’t take too long to get there.” This actually sounded like a good idea. I was wondering why I was doing this to myself. I could be home in bed, comfortable and safe. But, where’s the fun in that, right?
I decided the best way to silence my little voice, was to get some reading in. This always helps me sleep when my mind gets racing on things it shouldn’t. I was about halfway through a book on my Kindle called “From the Back Acres, A Humorous Guide to Organic Gardening.” If that couldn’t help me get to sleep, nothing would. Oddly enough, it worked, for a little while.
At about two am, the howls started. I know they’re just coyotes, but they sounded like wolves. The howls were bad enough, but then they started in with this yipping sound. I’m guessing this is the young from the pack, joining in they best they can. Great, I saw the movie “The Grey”, I’m within the pack’s den territory, my little voice was telling me that any time now the howls would get closer, and I’d soon be taking a trip, through a coyote’s digestive tract.
Out with the kindle again, and I was back to sleep.
Until about three am. The pack I heard earlier had either gone around me, and was now to the south east of my site, or their calls were being challenged by another collection of coyotes. More howls and yips got my little voice stirring again. I could almost see the sadistic smile on it’s face, a face that looked like mine, but meaner, and with sharper teeth…
I had almost gotten back to sleep from this episode, when something large decided to make a path between my hammock and where I had stored my gear in between two trees on a rope. I got out of the hammock, flashlight in hand, trying to see what this intruder was. By the time I got clear of my hammock, the bug net, and the tarp, it had gone beyond the range of my light. Some folks have suggested it might have been an armadillo. If so, it had a bad case of asthma, because before I decided to get up, I could hear it breathing from several feet away.
I don’t know how I did it, but I managed to fall asleep again. I woke up the next time, at about four thirty in the morning. A terrible grunting, choking, gurgling type sound roused me from my sleep. This time it wasn’t anything to be afraid of though. It was just me waking myself up with my own snoring. I laid awake for a while, considering my night, the experiences I had, and how my imagination interpreted them and I thought about the morning ahead of me. I only had about an hour or so before it was light enough to call it officially morning, so I got up and set to making myself some breakfast. I had a new toy to play with. I had made myself a wood gasifier stove out of a paint can and a soup can. Tests at home showed it worked well enough, but I was excited to try it in the field. My alcohol fueled stoves were great, but they didn’t work if I ran out of liquid fuel. This stove would work with twigs, or slivers of wood shaved from dead branches. This meant I didn’t have to carry any fuel to cook with it.
The wood burns from the top down and produces a gas, which is sucked into the double wall chamber of the two cans. It then vents back out at the top and is ignited. You can see the gas flames in the image above.
I boiled up some water in no time, with just a few broken twigs from a dead branch. I made a cup of coffee and some very plain oatmeal. By the time I was done eating, it was light enough to take some shots of camp before I put it all away.
I love this little bag that is mounted on the hammock line. I just disconnect the clip from my tree strap, and I start stuffing the hammock into the bag. When I get to the other end, I unclip from that tree strap, and I cinch the bag down, and it’s ready to be put away. When it’s time to deploy the hammock, I just clip it from the open bag end, and walk to the other tree. The hammock (if done correctly) never touches the ground, and that way it doesn’t get wet, dirty, muddy, or covered in bugs.
I like it when you can’t even tell that I was camped there. A few crushed grasses is all that’s left to tell on me.
I packed all my gear back into my bag, just as a WMA truck drove down one of the service roads that bordered the stand of forest I was in. I don’t think he saw me. Stealth camping at it’s best! I would have liked to talk to him though. I’d liked to have shared my night’s “survey” with him. I’m sure they’re working on reducing both the numbers of coyotes and the hogs.
Well, it was time to hit the trail again. My phone’s battery was dying fast, and I wanted to get it charged back up enough that I could call my wife and give her the bad news that nothing had eaten me in the night.
Soon I was back at the trailhead and my truck. I made that phone call, and I headed home. I needed to find my bed, so I could finally get some sleep!