Date- March 22, 2019
Location- Gulf Breeze
Distance Traveled Today- 15.7 miles
Distance Traveled Total- 1,113.7 miles
Weather/Temp- 70s, cloudless skies
Injuries- Split toe
Pain level- moderate/high
Wildlife encounters- redfish
Days without shower- 4
Days without laundry- 8
CatFox Status- None the wiser, but all the better
We couldn’t have asked for better weather on our final day!
After a night of raccoons patrolling and attempting guerilla raids around our campsite, we arose to another gorgeous Florida day – the last Florida day while in pursuit of completing the Florida Trail.
The toe was feeling a bit sore and throbby, but the gorilla tape was doing a fine job of holding everything together. Honestly, besides the first few steps this morning, the toe wasn’t even an afterthought today.
The first couple miles were spent traversing the maze of snow white dunes in the slowly brightening glow of early morning – watching Katana pick her way over and through the dune grass. It was just another day for her, it held no more special significance than any other day. But if we’re being truthful, dogs by default tend to live each day with a passion far more intense than our own, on average. So who’s the real winner?
After a little less than 3 miles, the trail reconnected with the beach road just outside Portofino and stayed along a paved bike path through Pensacola Beach for the better part of the next 5 miles.
Those 5 miles seemed to pass in a daze – seemingly taking forever, yet no time at all. I’ve never walked that stretch of Pensacola Beach before, but I’ve driven it countless times. It’s amazing what you notice when you slow down; it’s like seeing something you’ve known your whole life, for the first time.
After a trail-hearty breakfast of gas station hot dogs and “Grandmas Cookies,” we were soon past the hustle and bustle of the Pensacola Beach main strip. Now it was back to pristine beaches as we ditched our shoes in favor of bare feet and crossed into the Gulf Islands National Seashore in the late morning, with roughly 7 miles of our adventure left.
The water of the Emerald Coast was in good form for our last day, showing off its namesake with crystal clear views of the sandy bottom as dazzling shades of beryl and jade stretched away from the beach for 200 yards across the sandbar. Pompano streaked between the deep pools, poking around the shoals in their endless search for sand fleas while large redfish and black drum patrolled the shallows in their lazily slow fashion.
In the early afternoon we stumbled upon a large dark mass moving across the sandbar, looking like the shadow of a small cloud. It was a school of more than 300 redfish, all in the realm of 20 to 30 pounds apiece.
For five minutes I pitched my 2 oz swimbait at them as I followed the school back to the east. Working the lure slowly through the massive school multiple times, I unbelievably couldn’t provoke a strike. When they school up like that, they’ll usually frenzy after anything you throw at them. Not today. If anything, I think the water was just too clear, and my leader too heavy (it was geared for Cobia) – or perhaps they just weren’t that hungry and didn’t want what I was selling in the first place. Sometimes you just need a live bait.
The wind was gentle today, giving the uninterrupted sun that much more power over us. I spent a great deal of our final walk across the beach with my umbrella popped open, shielding Katana and I from its wrath – at least from above. The blindingly white sand and crystal waters did more than their fair share of sun reflection today. The heat wasn’t so bad beneath the umbrella, but the UV rays bouncing off the water and sand were more than enough to toast my face to a deep brick red.
Katana alternated from my shoulders to the sand throughout the afternoon – but only when we found ourselves alone. It almost defies the imagination that you could even find yourself alone in the middle of a beautiful day on beaches as perfect as these. But as I’ve said before, there are places out here where you can find yourself as the only human being for nearly as far as you can see – on any day of the year. I don’t know anywhere else like that, save for a deserted island.
I’ve spent more days on the beach fishing, doing nothing, catching or not catching anything than I could possibly count. So much time invested in the pursuit of simple pleasures, never accomplishing anything more than a tan and a few good stories to recount among friends or friendly strangers who might listen. Nothing else, really. Aside from the highlights that make up the best stories, all the days run together into one long day of memory. But I’ll tell ya – if you gave me the choice to take all those days back to relive and do something else with them… I wouldn’t change a thing.
We reached the end of the beach walk where the trail cut back towards the center of the island in mid-afternoon. As we turned away from the Gulf, we had 2 miles left of the Florida Trail. From here on, the trail was mostly a gravel path through scrub, oak, and slender pine.
A mile from where we’d turned off the beach, we came upon the Fort Pickens Campground – where Poet’s family had been camped for the past several days. We stopped for half an hour and had pina coladas prepared by Hippie Chick. This was our pre-celebration together, since Schweppes and I would be leaving soon after finishing.
The last mile was upon us as we slowly meandered through the rest of the campground and rejoined the gravel path. I set Katana down. All told, I carried her for more than 800 miles of this 1,100+ mile trek – and I would be damned if she wasn’t going to finish the last steps on her own.
As the tenths of miles slowly ticked down, the trail became a narrow levee for the last time – paralleled by narrow salt marsh canals lined with oaks on each side. A short wooden bridge with a gently sloping arch came into view as it guided us over the small confluence of the salt marsh canals.
Clunking over the quaint bridge, you couldn’t help but strain your eyes ahead in search of the inevitable finish line. However, in the anxious anticipation of sighting the end before you reach it, the end finds you. Without even realizing it… as you take your final step off the bridge and back onto gravel, you are taking your final step across the finish line. Tucked away, just off the path and parallel to the wooden railing of the bridge is the stone monument marking the northern terminus of the Florida Trail. It reads, “Northern Terminus” above a large, emblazoned emblem of the Florida Trail logo. Below the logo it reads, “Gulf Islands National Seashore, Fort Pickens, Established by Congress in 1983.” And just like that, it’s done!
The three of us (along with Poet’s family) celebrated, congratulated each other, and took pictures for the next 15 minutes. We’d done it!
I know my writing on this blog has probably not reflected the difficulty I felt throughout this trail, but this was an exceptionally challenging hike for me in every way I did and didn’t imagine. Out of all the thousands of miles on all the other trails (shared with or without Katana), my patience and perseverance were never tested as much as they were on this one – hiking with a blind dog. Never have I had to detach myself from so many moments in order to just grit through them without losing my mind or my spirits. This trail was something I had to do. I had to do it for myself, but more importantly I had to do it for Katana; had to do it with her. Every– Single– Connecting Step; From Start to Finish – SHE WAS THERE. This adventure allowed her to forge the confidence necessary to set her up for the highest quality of life possible, that a blind dog could achieve. In my heart of hearts I always knew we would make it, but I never knew what the overall state of affairs would be when we reached the end. Now that it’s over, I can tell you with the utmost pride and proud astonishment – the Little Dog did better than I ever dreamed.