March break was a little longer this year due to – what else – Covid, and I was looking forward to walking another section of the Florida Trail.
The logistics of planning my walk every year is tricky.
I need somewhere safe to leave my car, someone safe to drive me 100 miles away, and sometime safe to arrive when the waters along the trail are at suitable levels so I won’t drown.
I had been checking the Snoflo app every day in the weeks leading up to my hike to determine the height of the Suwannee.
Because the trail runs along its banks for miles, the Suwannee must be respected; when its height reaches 60 feet or more, water will cover the trail, making it not only hard to follow but also crazy-dangerous. You don’t want to mess with the Suwannee, especially when you hike alone, as I do, and are already feeling vulnerable to the vagaries of the Florida backcountry.
I’m happy in the days leading up to my departure, as the Suwannee hovers below 60, at one point bottoming out at 53. I had arranged to leave my car at a canoe outfitters in White Springs and had scheduled a shuttle with its owner, who agrees to drive me to my stopping point the year before.
I’m relaxed driving down knowing that the hardest part – those difficult logistics – have been taken care of, and all I will need to do when I arrive is walk.
I’m incredulous when my phone rings somewhere in the Carolinas and it’s Trish from American Canoe. After three days of punishing rain, the Suwannee has risen seven feet overnight, making it all but impassable.
Do you still need a ride she asks, and I realize that all those well-researched plans will have to go out the window.
I pull over at a rest stop and check my maps. If I could get dropped 100 miles south instead of north as I had hoped, there is only a small stretch at the end along the Suwannee I’d have to traverse. Perhaps the river will cooperate and recede as I walk back toward White Springs; if not, it looks like there’s a high water bypass I could take to avoid the surge.
I call Trish back and confirm the new plan.
I’d like to report that skipping the Suwannee section meant that my feet stayed dry. Optimistic on day one when the trail wound through gently rolling hills in Gold Head State Park and Camp Blanding Army Base, I hummed along, covering 23 miles and passing not one, but two Sunoco (official fuel of NASCAR!) convenience stores along the way, where I sipped cold drinks and ate salty snacks.
At the second one, in a deflated little town called Hampton, a small shirtless boy approaches me, trailed by two younger companions. None of them has on any shoes.
Want to buy some eggs? he asks hopefully, holding up a wicker basket. Clearly he is the leader of this entrepreneurial enterprise.
I answer him seriously I don’t have any way of cooking them.
He seems to puzzle this a moment, then responds O, so you’re one of those walkers!
I wonder how many hikers this Sunoco has seen this season.
I am I tell him. He thinks some more.
Do they pay you to walk? he asks.
Now it’s my turn to think. Who are “they”? And would “they” pay me…?
I come up with the best answer I can: No, we do it for fun.
Unconvinced, he nods and disappears with his cadre in search of more willing customers. Wait, I want to call out, I’ll buy the whole lot. But they’re gone.
That night, I camp right on the trail as every spot suggested on the FarOut trail app is flooded.
It was the last time my feet would be dry.
The next day ends in a long road walk out of the town of Lake Butler; after gorging on Mexican food and a Shamrock Shake, I hug the shoulder of busy Route 100 when it starts to rain.
18-wheelers whiz by at 60 mph, baptizing me in wash and grit. It’s a miserable seven miles, and when I reach the next turn, I am soaked to the core.
What’s that over there?
Standing nobly in a grassy, flooded field outside the Union County Fire Station is a huge roofed pavilion with a cement pad underneath. They won’t mind if I just duck under there for a moment until the worst of this passes.
I take out my phone and check the weather. Rain, rain, and more rain. Then, thunderstorms. All night and into the next day. Yikes.
I call the station – it appears to be a volunteer operation, as there is no one around – and leave a message asking permission to spend the night. I don’t want to officially unpack until I hear back from someone, but I’m starting to shiver. I put on dry clothes, eat a soggy leftover taco, and gradually make myself more at home. Eventually, kind Fireman Mark calls me back and it’s a go! I burrito myself in my down quilt and tent footprint as the wind whips rainy pellets under the pavilion for hours.
I awake to calm, fog. Guess the weather app was wrong – no water falling from the sky, but there are miles of squishy dirt tracks ahead to traverse.
I hustle off in the dark, thankful that I didn’t have to pack up a wet tent.
Critters have been there before me, and I make good time until hitting a section of trail that crosses the Olustee River and two smaller branches. There’s a sketchy old railroad bridge over the Olustee, which has flooded the Jeep track. It’s been there so long that things are growing out of it – I gingerly tiptoe across holding my breath.
I ford the next branch in shin deep water, but the second one is horrifying. For about 10 yards, the creek has spilled over its banks and is rushing across the trail. There is no way of telling how deep the dark water is, so I stand there whimpering for a scooch, staring into the froth and trying to garner courage.
Finally, I secure my phone in my shoulder pouch, undo my hip belt, and set out with poles in front, trying to find the shallowest channel. Midway, the water is up to my chest and I try not to panic while praying it doesn’t get any deeper. It’s one of the few times I wonder if being out here alone is the smartest choice.
The rest of the day is no drier. It’s tiring to slosh through standing water, and I’m pretty excited to reach the turn off to Ocean Pond Campground late in the day, though the sign and I are standing in hip-deep swamp.
When I make the turn, I spot a snake just off to the right. Come on. Really?
Not wanting to touch it, I agitate the water in hopes it will slither into the underbrush. Instead, it streaks ahead – right into the water I’m about to walk through. Idiot.
What’s done is done so, near tears, I crash my poles into the slop and try to sprint though the gauntlet. I’m never more relieved to reach the dry pavement of the campground.
Osceola National Forest is much of the same the next day, though thankfully the water never gets more than thigh deep. I take the high water bypass around the Suwannee section, as the river is still too high, and plan on staying at a shelter on private land.
Finding this Shangri-la is the last challenge of the trip, as it involves ducking under barbed wire, crossing a muddy slough, and hacking through a stand of saw palmettos to circumnavigate a sketchy lagoon.
The bloody legs are totally worth it. The place has a table and chair, screens, a privy!
All I have left in my food bag that is dinner-ish is some tuna, hot sauce, and a packet of mayo, so I make soup and sleep tentless on a dry floor listening to the comforting burble of Robinson Branch.
Walking into White Springs that final morning, I cross over the Suwannee on a bridge along the road bypass. Looking down at shoreline trees engulfed in its waters, I am relieved to have made it back safely.
There have been so many times in my life when the plans I have made have not turned out as I had hoped. For a while it seemed that everything I held dear – spouse, child, health – had turned to dust, and years passed overhung by a patina of grief.
Without his steady presence, walking alongside in threat of flood or snake, I would have certainly drowned.
He was with me all those long years, and he was with me these last long miles when adapting was the only way forward.
On the drive home, I hear a song and smile.
Let the waters rise
I will stand as the oceans roar
Let the earth shake beneath me
Let the mountains fall
You are God over the storm
And I am Yours
Maybe next year I will walk the Suwannee.
Until then, I’ll keep advancing, secure in being his.