I woke up this morning to much more tolerable temperatures, but a heavy fog had filled the air around us, and even the inside of my rainfly had water running down it. It was good motivation though, as I broke down camp and was ready to hit the trail with Gray Beard and Mickey before 7am.
The first 6 miles were tuff as we hiked along side the Sopchoppy river and headed towards Bradwell Bay (a massive swamp we will cross later today). With the trail traversing up and down over several steep gullies that ran along the river and across a few small feeder streams, I could already feel the burn in my legs. Luckily for us, the first half of the trail stayed dry (for the most part), but it became noticeably softer as we got to our lunch spot at mile 9. As we sat there discussing the upcoming swamp, “Grits” came down the trail and joined us for lunch. He is 72 and has hiked this section many times before, and let us know that we were about to be in waist high water for about 5 miles! Mickey took his warning seriously, and opted to take the road march around Bradwell Bay, while Gray Beard and I decided to take our chances with the swamp. (For the past 800 miles, when folks warn of high water, it’s been for only a few steps, so, “let’s risk it”).
I left the lunch spot early to make my way down to Monkey Creek so I could filter water. Grits said that the water levels are the same at Monkey Creek as they are in the swamp, and it’s a good judge of how the rest of the day will be. Well Monkey Creek was sure enough over thigh deep, and not just for a few steps, but for most of the 30 yards across! As Gray Beard and Grits approached, I was still making my way through the flowing black water, when Grits said “well that’s a good sign, it’s passable”! ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ I thought, as I scanned the waters for snakes and alligators all while trying to stay upright on the uneven bottom of the hidden creek bed.
When we finally got to the swamp, it was instantly obvious that this was going to be real challenge, and it was also obvious that Grits hadn’t stretched the truth at all about the conditions. Now, since I’ve started this journey 52 days ago, I’ve crossed many swamps, bogs, sloughs and wetlands, but each one has been relatively short across. This swamp however was a true 5 mile wide Cypress swamp with deep black water. An alligators paradise if I ever saw one.
As Gray Beard and I entered the swamp, we immediately began stumbling over cypress knees hidden below the water, and falling into the many deep holes. our pace was painfully slow as we tried to adapt to the conditions, but things were as they were and they were not about to change. There also isn’t a trail to follow through the swamp (it’s all water), except for the random orange blazes (that are often found on fallen trees), and we were having a hard time knowing exactly where to go. Grits was taking it slow and not hiking with us, but he knows the route well and was a good ways behind us pretty quickly. He was also planning on seting up camp right after the swamp, so he had plenty of time left in the day. Gray Beard and I on the other hand had five miles to go before meeting back up with Mickey, and nine miles left until reaching camp, and it was obvious by our 1mph pace that it was shapping up to be a long day.
About halfway through the swamp, we began to get worn out. It had been a few hours of slogging through thigh high water with its mucky bottom and the end of the swamp was a few miles, and a few hours away. Somewhere deep in the swamp, Gray Beard stumbled over a hidden Cypress knee, and he broke one of his trekking poles. It was torturous trying to stay upright with two poles, and being down to one just wasn’t working for him. I found a decent sized Cypress stick and broke it to size for Gray Beard, but it didn’t really speed us up any as the orange blazes became sparse shortly after. It was getting to be late afternoon and on many occasions, either Gray Beard or I would have to stand at the last known orange blaze while the other would wade in a large half circle around the swamp until the next distant blaze was found. We also had a few times where we got out of sight of each other, and had to play Marco Polo with our voices to regroup. As we made our way forward, we eventually lost sight and sound of Grits, but he’s very experienced through here, so we kept on pressing forward in hopes of getting out of the swamp and meeting back up with Mickey. Our new goal was to try and make it to camp by dark.
As we finally finished the 5 miles of Bradwell Bay swamp, it was agreed that today was the hardest, most strenuous day on the trail, and it wasn’t over yet. As we emerged from the woods, soaked, muddy and tired, Mickey was just showing up at our meeting spot. She had road walked 12 miles to our 5 and was worn out just the same. We all took a break after meeting up and mentally prepared for the last four miles we still had left before reaching camp. We thought that those four would be easy miles (and the first one was) but we quickly learned that the swamp wasn’t done with us yet. We had to finish the day trudging through shin to knee high water, and that same mucky mud that was filling my shoes, until we finally got to the van at 6:45pm! It had been 12 hours since we started the 20 mile day, (with very few breaks) and we averaged a slow 1.6mph overall. My body is worn out and my brain is shutting off, so I must get to sleep and refresh before tomorrow’s 22 mile day through the swampy Apalachacola Forest!
Gray Beard and Grits getting into Monkey Creek
Gray Beard leading the way
A random license plate, miles from the nearest road
Monkey Creek, where you find out how deep the swamp will be
Lead me into to swamp, I hear it’s nice
You can see how wet my pants are, Gray Beard took this picture as I climbed out of a hole