Date- February 26, 2019
Elevation- 3 ft
Distance Traveled Today- 23.4 miles
Distance Traveled Total- 764.9 miles
Weather/Temp- overcast, rainy, 70s
Pain level- zero
Wildlife encounters- gators, hog, cottonmouth snake,
Days without shower- 3
Days without laundry- 3
CatFox Status- Truckin
I woke up at 2 am last night to a tick crawling on my hand. After dispatching it, I checked over the rest of my body by hand and found another one attached to my chest. I did another check in the morning and couldn’t find anymore.
By 7:45 am we were meandering along the Aucilla River once again, eating more spider webs than I care to describe. The trail was still overgrown, but now there were massive sinkholes peppered throughout the forest, some filled with water, some filled with trees, and others filled with both.
We breezed through the 5 miles of overgrown river trail in under 2 hours, enduring a light sprinkling of rain in the process. In that time I got 7 ticks on me, 5 of them attached, and two of them smaller than ants. The super tiny ticks freak me out because when they attach, they normally burrow themselves almost completely in a pore, or hair follicle hole. They’re very easy to miss once they’re attached.
Once at the road and tick free, we began the 7 mile road walk. We ran into 4 loose barking dogs in one spot, but thankfully they didn’t leave their property. Five miles into the road walk we hit a small gas station called “JR’s.”
We ended up losing over an hour and a half here, but not really by choice. We ordered a burger and sausages when we first arrived, and it just took an hour and a half to get them. They ended up being worth the wait, but if I had to do it all over again… I wouldn’t have ordered them if I knew it was going to take that long.
It was going on 2pm when we finally began the last 2 miles of the road walk and turned into the St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge. The trail became a muddy, watery hell once again – more so than it had been in a while. I’m completely serious when I continue to say that the mud and water doesn’t faze me. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t feel like I’m on the Florida Trail if the trail is dry.
Up until today, we’d gone over 700 miles without seeing a single venomous snake. That changed today. I stepped right over part of the fallen palm frond where it had been hiding halfway under, while wading across a flooded section of trail. Schweppes prefers to avoid the water if at all possible, so he took a wider path around the worst of the water. As a consequence, he spotted the snake from his different vantage point and called me back to it.
As I re-approached the palm frond, he told me he’d seen a snake go under it. I flipped the frond over with my staff to discover one of the biggest, fattest cottonmouths I’ve ever seen. It held its ground and never opened its mouth, even when I attempted to move it out of the blazed path by nudging it with my staff. In the end, it left on its own terms, swimming away across the flooded trail. Super cool find!
After two more miles of muddy wet bushwhacking, we finally emerged onto another old railroad bed. It was also overgrown, but it was straight and mostly dry, making it easy going. I pulled another 4 ticks off. Schweppes only caught a few of them on himself.
The railroad bed stretched on for several miles through swamp, creeks, and marsh-like landscapes. Just before crossing a deteriorating wooden bridge, a large hog crossed onto the trail about 50 yards ahead of us and trotted down the path for a few seconds before disappearing into the brush again. It appeared to be alone.
Shortly after the hog sighting, we had one of the best wildlife encounters of the trip so far. While passing a small oblong pond, Schweppes spotted a gator in a shallow section close to us. The gator was 7 to 8 ft long and was lying there with its head, back, and some of its tail out of the water. I decided I would take this opportunity to get the closest I’ve ever been to a wild gator this large, while on foot.
I fully expected it to spook and shoot off into deeper water when I got close, but instead… it held its ground, remaining stalk still. As I traversed the mud and vegetation, getting closer and closer, the gator remained a statue. Finally, I was less than the length of the actual gator away from it – and it still hadn’t budged. I took some great pictures.
I’ll be honest with you, the thought of trying to catch the gator “Steve Irwin” style was in my mind. If ever there was a chance, this was it. The only problem was I would have to wade into the water to get within diving or reaching distance… and I was not about to do that. Instead, I settled for “counting coup.”
I leaned way forward and touched the gator’s tail with my staff, ready for it to explode at me or away from me. It didn’t react at all. “Is it dead?” I thought. “Or does this thing just have nerves of steel?” I leaned in again and nudged the tail once more, and the gator let out the longest, deepest, loudest hiss I’ve ever heard issue from a living creature. I’d gotten its attention. Katana (who was being held by Schweppes 30 ft away) started going crazy when she heard the hiss. She began to squirm and squeal in frustration at being restrained. This was exactly how she reacted when I caught rattlesnakes. These predator warning sounds seem to be deeply ingrained in all animals.
The gator slowly turned 180 degrees to bring its head closer to me and pointed towards deeper water. It froze again and just lay there. I left it alone and we continued on. I was on cloud nine.
We did another 4 miles across a railroad bed and levees. The levees gave us a very distant view over marshes and sloughs to the Gulf of Mexico several miles away. This was the first view of the coast so far on this trail and lemme tell ya… I can’t wait to walk onto Navarre Beach!
Speaking of which, some fishing buddies of mine that I’ve known for over 15 years caught a 10 ft great white shark off my home pier today. By the time you’re reading this, it will probably have become national news – as these sorts of things usually do. We catch a lot of really big sharks in that area (several world records), and they always seem to make national news. My personal biggest was a 13’9 tiger shark back in 2010.
We made camp on a bulging section of levee with palm trees, just before dark. When the sun disappeared, the biting flies and mosquitoes came out in force. Probably the most I’ve seen on this hike so far. At one point I had more than a hundred hanging out on the bug net of my hammock. Terrifying…
In about 9 miles we’ll hit the banks of the St. Mark’s river. That will be the end of the line. From there we will have to flag a boat down, or call one to shuttle us across the river to the town of St. Marks on the far side. This boat shuttle is part of the official trail, as it is recommended NOT to swim the river due to boat traffic, bull sharks, and swift currents.
The weather is supposed to deteriorate tomorrow. Hopefully it’s a lie…