Date- January 20, 2019
Location- Kissimmee Prairie
Elevation- 49 feet
Distance Traveled Today- 17.4 miles
Distance Traveled Total- 208.9 miles
Weather/Temp- overcast/windy/60s 70s
Pain level- zero
Spirits/Morale- Riding high
Wildlife encounters- tortoises, snakes, hogs, whitetail deer, gators, turkeys, otter, hawks, storks, burrowing owl.
Days without shower- 4
Days without laundry- 4
CatFox Status- Animal
Food Eaten – Beef sausage, beef brats, beef jerky
It began storming around 3 am last night and didn’t quit until around 6:30 am. When it was over, it was over – no more rain for the rest of the day, only strong north winds bringing tonight’s cold front down to us.
We got a late start around 9 am, hiked pretty slow, and still managed over 17 miles before dark at 6:30 pm. We weren’t hiking slow because we were out of it, but because of all the wildlife distractions. This was easily the best wildlife day of the trail, in terms of diversity.
Firstly, we came across a burrowing owl sitting on a fence post next to a field full of cattle. I got a somewhat distant shot of him, but you can tell it’s an owl. I have a soft spot for burrowing owls because when I was a very young child, there was a family of them living under our shed. The shed was up on cinder blocks, and every now and then I’d shine a flashlight under it and 3 owl heads would pop out of the ground and stare at me. I couldn’t get enough of it!
Secondly, about 3 miles in, while hiking down a short gravel road that lead into Starvation Slough – there was a literal vortex of swallows. There were thousands of them flying in these crazily looping, arcing formations that seemed to swirl and dive back towards the earth. One end of the vortex was actually diving straight towards the ground and disappearing behind some scrub trees before shooting back into the sky. It wasn’t until we got almost to the point where they were diving, that we noticed they were plunging down into a pond. Like kamikaze fighters, they were dive- bombing the pond, then pulling up at the last second and skimming the surface with their beaks. We were witnessing a mass water break by this enormous flight of swallows.
Not only that, but as soon as the pond came into view on our left, there was an otter lying on its back, halfway out of the water. As soon as it saw us, it flipped over, dashed into some tall reeds and disappeared. I’ve only ever seen another otter (while hiking) when I was on the CDT in Colorado.
After the gravel road swallows and otter, the trail stayed in the woods among the oaks and the palms. Hiking on the Florida Trail has never been as enjoyable as it was today.
While taking a break in the middle of the grassy trail in an oak hammock, a hiker named “Camper Dan” caught up with us. He’s not actually thru hiking, but running vehicle support for his brother “Chess Man” on his thru hike – both of them are in their 60s. Dan just hikes a few miles from the trailheads to meet him every now and then.
We talked to Dan for a bit. He told us he had dropped his brother off about 21 miles ahead, and that his brother was slack packing the 21 miles south to Starvation Slough to meet him. Dan was only going about 5 miles north from the slough, but told us to tell Chess Man how far from the slough he would be when we eventually ran into him going in the opposite direction. We told him we would.
21 miles wouldn’t be bad with a “slack pack” (a pack with virtually nothing in it). Usually no shelter, no sleeping bag, and nothing else heavy – just food, water, and maybe some extra clothing layers. Super light, so you can move fast and far.
I almost stepped on two different garter snakes – both of the same sub species. One of which I have never seen before. They had ridiculously long, whip-like tails – much like that of a coachwhip snake, but the markings were wrong. I didn’t bother catching them, and instead just spooked them off the trail so they wouldn’t get stepped on.
During another long break beneath another oak hammock, within a corridor of cabbage palms – I had the best luck I’ve had in a long time. We’d already been sitting for 20 minutes when I just happened to glance to my left at a random spot on the ground. Something caught my eye, and I focused in a little harder. “No way!” I thought to myself. Then I looked back over at Schweppes and said, “You’re not going to believe this!” while chuckling. “What? Another snake?” he asked. “Nope!” I said as I reached over and picked it up before holding it out for him to see.
It was a baby tortoise, smaller than an acorn. I’ve seen water turtles that small before, but never a tortoise. This thing must have just fallen off the turnip truck, because I can’t imagine one being any smaller without having just hatched out.
I couldn’t believe my luck! There is no way I would have spotted it if we’d been walking. It would have been impossible to identify it as a tortoise in all that grass, vegetation, and forest debris. We took some pictures before letting it go on the far side of the trail it was facing when I found it.
Quite frankly, this surprising encounter opened my eyes a little more. I had no clue there were turtles that small romping around in the woods. I couldn’t help but wonder… “How many of these little fellas have I walked by? How many have I maybe stepped on!?!” For the rest of my life, every time I feel an acorn crunch under my feet, I’m going to worry about baby turtles. And now you probably are too! This encounter was both a blessing and a curse, but I feel like I’ve raised a little more turtle awareness, both with myself and others. Keep your eyes peeled!
We found another tortoise about a mile further down the trail, only slightly smaller than the palm of my hand. These forests were crawling with them!
After spotting a small gator in a pond, and examining the handiwork of the snail kites – we crossed into Kissimmee Prairie State Park around 3 pm, and the animal sightings were on once again.
We ran into two separate herds of hogs running across the trail. Some were piebald and some jet black – but both with more than a half dozen piglets that couldn’t have been more than 5 pounds apiece. They were adorable, trailing after their parents into the longer vegetation. The last hog we saw was probably close to 200 pounds and all alone on the side of the trail. We got within 50 yards of it before it spotted us and bolted.
Collectively, we probably saw over a dozen whitetail deer throughout the day – the first deer I’ve seen on this hike. I guess when it rains, it pours.
About half an hour before dark, we ran into about 8 turkeys on the trail. They didn’t fly, but instead took off like Olympic sprinters down the trail until they were out of sight. I’ve seen turkeys on every trail except the PCT, but it was still a treat! Hogs and gators were the big animal to check off on this trail, but I still want to see a panther!
The day’s drama was not over. A few miles into the prairie, we met a southbound hiker named Treehouse. He was about my age, with a long beard and tatted up arms. When I introduced myself, my name rang a bell and he told me that I’d given him a ride in Fontana Dam on the Appalachian Trail back in March 2017. He remembered Schweppes too, who was with me at the time. Schweppes’s dad, Doug, had hiked 700 miles of the AT that year, and we’d driven down to Fontana to meet him before a bad snowstorm in the Smoky Mountains. While helping out hikers in the surrounding area, Treehouse had been one of those hikers we helped out by giving him a lift. Small trail world!
Treehouse let us know that search and rescue crews were looking for a lost hiker within the park. I immediately thought it might be Chess Man. We should have passed him going the other way hours before, but hadn’t seen him. There was no way to know right then, but I strongly suspected it might be him.
We made it to where we were aiming right at dark, and met up with the retirees we’d been hiking near for the past two days. I told them about the missing hiker, and they contacted Camper Dan to see if it was his brother – it was.
I don’t know the full story yet, but we could hear choppers flying around. The last thing I heard was they found him a little after 8pm, but that’s about it. This could have been much worse, given how he had no gear with him and the cold front hitting us tonight was going to drop temps into the 30s.
This is exactly why I never slack pack. You never know when something might happen when you need absolutely everything you have. I was almost in the same situation on the AT – the first and only time I ever slack packed. Never again, and this just confirms it.
The super blood wolf moon is blindingly beautiful tonight. I doubt I’ll be up for the eclipse, but I’ve enjoyed the moon as it is. A couple of screech owls are going crazy, laughing and hooting intermittently. It’s almost as obnoxious as a whippoorwill… almost.
No plans for tomorrow. Just gonna go and see where we end up. Bring on more animals!