I slept quite well lastnight with my full belly of meat, courtesy of Chris and Liz (two awesome trail angels). It was what my body needed and helped me get an early start this morning. I knew that the Buckman Lock tender was going to get to work at 6:30am, so I set my alarm for 5:45 so I could be at the gate when he showed up. The forecast for today was for all day rain, so I packed my gear accordingly, and made the short walk to the Lock and waited for the Tender. As luck would have it, the lock tender was a friendly old man who loved hikers and hearing our stories. He talked about how the tenders spend a lot of time working the water locks to let hikers across the top and shuffling manatees through below. They record each time a manatee moves from the Rodman lake to the St. johns river (and back the other way), and last year they recorded over 400 manatees passing through the lock (the tenders have to close off the lock and move water up or down, depending on which way the manatees are going). It’s like the Panama Canal for the sea cow :).
Since the forecast was calling for rain, I scheduled a short day of 11 miles to a shelter called the ‘Rice creek Hilton’. I figured a short day would do me good and allow me time to dry my clothes before tomorrow’s hike. Little did I know, but the trail on the other side of the Buckman lock was an un-maintained, poorly marked trail through wetlands.
The trail started out just fine despite being wet underfoot. It was an old logging road for a few miles that was only a few inches above the surrounding swamp. I spent most of my time trying to walk on the squished up mud on either side of the wheel ruts to keep my shoes dry. It was futile effort as I was getting cut up and tangled in the thorny vines and dence scrub brush and I finally gave up my efforts to stay dry and had to barefoot hike the sandy road through the sometimes knee high water. I was thinking that it wasn’t that bad because it wasnt raining yet, and it was still only an 11 mile day, after all.
As the trail turned off the wet road, it went right into the wetlands and through a barely there, poorly marked trail for a few miles. It was marked so bad, and so hard to follow the trail that I had to use my map app for navigation more today then any other day so far. It was on the border of unpleasant and miserable and I was surprised at how easy the Ocala Forest was to hike just yesterday, compared to this nearly impassable trail system of today. My speed of travel was less than 2mph and by 9am, the temps were climbing to a muggy hot and the swamp flies were taking advantage of my salty sweat.
As I got to highway 20, I was well aware of the waist high bog that was waiting for me (from the comments on the map app). The trail leads to a fence along the highway with a gate to allow hikers through. The water at the gate didn’t look that deep, until I tested it with my trekking pole. Sure enough, that water was going to get me wet no matter how I crossed. I took my shoes and socks off and rolled my pants to above my knees, thinking with my long legs, that should do it, and instead of going right through the middle, I’d try and walk where I could see plants growing underneath to stay in the shallows. Well, the “shallows” were thigh high, soaking my rolled pants and I emerged on the other side of the narrow bog, standing at the 4 lane road crossing looking like a wet Huck Fin, and I walked across the highway with my head hanging low, still barefoot and dripping wet.
I sat on the far side of the road crossing to dry my feet and take a little break. I checked my map to see that I still had 4 miles to go and it was already after 10am. If the trail kept up its poor conditions, it would be after 1pm before I made camp, but I was still thankful it was still going to be a relatively short day.
What I found on the otherside of highway 20 was a whole new trail! The ground was really muddy, but at least it was a marked and obvious trail that didn’t need constant map checking to make sure I was on it. It was actually a really cool section of trail with a long, narrow boardwalk over the swamp water that has been there since the late 1800’s (repaired and maintained, of course). The boardwalk was so long that there was even a bench halfway through it to take a break on (which I did).
I finally made it to camp around 1pm and it is a mighty fine camp indeed, deserving of the name of the “rice creek Hilton”. It is a small screened in, lofted shelter perfect to ride out the coming rain, protected and dry. I took advantage of the rainless time frame I was currently in and I made a big lunch and filtered a few liters of water. I also had enough cell signal to call home for chat with the kiddos before the clouds wiped out the signal. I spent the rest of my lunch break checking weather and trying to decide if I should stay at the “Hilton” or press on a few more miles before the rain starts. The weather app keeps pushing the rain out further and further, and I had a few hours now before it (could) start. The map app didn’t show anything viable from my search, infact it looks like tomorrow will be a 25 mile day, so I decided to hang my hammock in the loft area and take a load off until morning.
The rains did finally start around 7:30pm, and as I layed in my hammock, once again under a tin roof, I was happy with my decision to hold tight here and rest my body. The forecast for tomorrow is once again calling for all day rain… But we will see :). Hopefully the trail isn’t as hard as it was today.
The wet logging road. Thats a pond to the right. Most (if not all) of the road was this wet
A section of old railroad that I hiked today
The barely there trail (actually marked well here) the next orange blaze in the center of the picture
The Hoffman’s Bridge from the 1800’s through the swamp
the Rice Creek Hilton (sleeps 12, it says) big enough for maybe two 🙂