Hanging on the Florida Trail: Alaqua
With an upcoming section hike on the AT in North Carolina, it was time for some of our team to begin shaking down our gear. And since there is no way to replicate the terrain of the Southern Appalachians in the Florida panhandle, we settled on a 15 mile section of the Florida Trail across the NW corner of Eglin AFB; this section is called Alaqua, as it crosses Alaqua Creek twice. Of the six friends going preparing for the AT hike in September, three of us had the chance to get out this weekend: Slowdown, Quickdraw and myself. I am the most experienced backpacker of the bunch, but one of our little gang had never backpacked before, so a real shakedown was necessary. All of us were in hammocks.
We hit the trail at US 331, south of DeFuniak Springs at about 4:00 in the afternoon. The first part of the trail goes through pine forest, with occasion drops into wet draws with small stream crossings. The hiking was easy with gentle ups and downs, and not as flat as one would expect in Florida. Temperatures were in the lower 90s and the humidity was up, but there was just enough of a breeze and good foliage overhead, so it was not as bad as it could have been.
It took us less than 90 minutes to get to the Eglin Portal campsite, which was down near a draw, and only 100 yards from a small stream. It was cooler in the hardwood cover, but wet enough that mosquitoes were plentiful (three cheers for deet!) With only a short time before dusk, we helped Quickfraw set up his hammock (first time hanging), before Slowdown and I hung our own hammocks before we all sat down with our Subway sandwiches for dinner. Though it stormed near us, it only released a few drops where we were, and we didn’t get wet under the heavy deciduous coverage. We didn’t stay up too long after dark and settled in for the night.
Saturday brought an early start, and we had breakfast and broke camp by 7:45. Going forward, we did have a concern about crossing Alaqua Creek. Five years ago, I had hiked this section with the Boy Scouts, so I had an idea what to expect. Near the middle of the trek, there was a tree crossing Alaqua Creek, which is too deep to ford. This whole portion of the Alaqua section is penned as the main trail, but there is a high water bypass (same distance) which includes a 2 mile walk on a dirt road, across a concrete bridge. Though the water was not high 5 years ago, the branches to which the hand wire across the bridge had been attached were broken, making the section impassible, and we had to backtrack to the bypass. I had more recently read reports of plans for a more permanent bridge, but had not seen that it was completed. We completely missed the signs indicating the high water bypass, which I recall had been clearly marked. I suddenly realized we were hiking alongside Alaqua Creek and that the bridge must be a ¼ mile ahead, when, out of nowhere, we came across a log bridge, at a new crossing point. It was a 60’ long cypress log 18-20” across, with a 6” wide deck hewn flat on top. With the steep sided high banks alongside the creek, the bridge was easily 10’ over the water, well above any reasonable high water mark. There was a well secured hand wire 5’ above the deck. It was a significant improvement over the old bride.
Overall the morning of hiking was pleasant and uneventful. It consisted of a combination of low draws or pine forest with yaupon thicket. Most of the hike was well shaded, which helped, given the heat. The draws often had multiple boardwalks set up to traverse the wettest spots; these were made of a pair of side by side 8x8 timbers well secured with 10-bys as a base. Being that these were in heavily shaded damp areas, they were often covered with a thin layer of slime, making them quite slippery. These wet draws were buggier than the pine forests. The pine forests were on gently rolling hills separating the draws. Sometimes these were fairly open, but more often were flanked by thick yaupon limiting visibility. There was plenty of deer sign, as well as evidence of raccoon, armadillo, and even hog; but we saw little wildlife on the trek. Overall we made good time, averaging a 25 minute mile all morning, and strolling into camp before noon.
Alaqua campsite was very different from Eglin Portal. It was all in an open stand of sand pine forest, with a bed of needles, situated on the flat top of a low hill. There was a draw 75 yards further up the trail with a side flowing spring fed stream. Camp went up quick, as like the night before, we saw and heard thunderstorms building nearby. Also like the previous day, they built around us and missed. They did however provide a complete cloud cover, obscuring the direct sun for the entire afternoon, keeping the temperature down several degrees.
After lunch, we meandered down to the stream where we ended up immersing our feet and further cooling down in water was probably 75°. After exploring the stream up and back for a ways, we noticed some crawfish, and ended up catching several, which were boiling up for a nice snack before dinner. The afternoon in the creek was relaxing, and kept us from overheating. Overall, it ended up being a nice distraction and we all had a great time. As we all work for the same employer, we had quite a bit to talk about and stayed up late into the night.
We didn’t break camp quite as early on Sunday, but with only a little over 3 miles to the trailhead, we were in no particular hurry. The last part is by far greatest elevation change, with long ups and downs (though not steep), again just enough to fool you into thinking it is not what you expect for Florida.
With great attention being given to avoiding spider webs, which are plentiful on this infrequently used trail, Slowdown was not focused on the ground when he came within two steps of a nice sized Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake. When he jumped back with a deserving expletive, Quickdraw and I both expected a large banana spider, but were redirected to the stretched out snake, half way across the trail. Staying well out of striking distance, it took appeared to be sunning itself asleep. It was a full 30 seconds before it’s tongue began going in and out, and immediately after that, it began pulling back toward its tail into a coil and its rattle began tentatively then more vigorously vibrating. I estimate it was a 4½’ to 5’ long and probably 10 lbs; its coloring and pattern was strikingly beautiful. A very fine specimen. After it fully coiled itself up off the trail under a small bush, we had plenty of room to give it a wide berth, and as we walked away the rattling slowed and stopped well before we were out of earshot. This was probably about a mile from our exit point, and our attention was more focused down than before, we made it out without any additional incident.
The main purpose of the hike was a gear shakedown, and for that it certainly served its purpose. Here is a breakdown of how the equipment worked out.
Slowdown was going with a new pack. Last year, he had borrowed my son’s Flash 65, which had served him fine, but my son had replaced it as it did not fit him correctly. As a permanent pack Slowdown had gone with a (closeout) GoLite Jam 70, but sent it back, as he felt he need something with a bit more suspension and structure. He ended up with the new men’s Quest, and was very satisfied with its fit, features and size; and it was perfect for him on our trek.
Quickdraw, our novice hiker, had some issues with his backpack after about the first mile. He had a (closeout) GoLite Quest he had picked up new for $50. Fortunately, he had followed our advice and kept the load to about 20 lbs with everything. Slowdown and I quickly saw that his pack was simply not adjusted correctly, and we stopped and gave him a 5 minute lesson on how to wear and adjust his pack. After this, it proved to be a fine fit, and he had no more problems the rest of the weekend.
This was also Quickdraw’s first experience in a hammock. He was borrowing my Skeeter Beeter pro, which had served me flawlessly for almost 2 years. Quickdraw quickly learned how to set it up and was, for the most part, comfortable. Temps were in the mid 70s, and he felt cool in the evening, but he came with minimal sleep gear. Slowdown had comfort problems with this hammock the first night but a simple adjustment to the SRL and the hanging angle fixed that issue, and he slept through the night on Saturday.
Adendum to the good: My son has my regular tarp at Philmont, so I borrowed a tarp from one of the guys who could not make this weekend. He had recently purchased a Superfly; and though I had read good things here about them, I had not yet had the opportunity to see one up close. Wow! What a great tarp! I really like the doors, the size, the weight, and the finish. After I purchase my cuben, I hope I can pick up one of these as a backup-loaner. Very well made tarp!
The only real problem on the hike was Slowdown’s left foot (shoe). He had purchased a new pair of Merrell Moab Ventilator lows. His right foot was fine the entire trek, but his left foot is a ½ size smaller and the toe box on this shoe was just too big for his foot, which shifted constantly. He tried numerous things including mole skin between the toes, foam in the heel, foam in the toe box, and even sock liners and an extra sock on the left foot. He limped into camp 75 yards behind Quickdraw and me on Saturday. For the hike out on Sunday, he and Quidkdraw switched shoes (same size feet). Quickdraw had been wearing plain running shoes, and Slowdown had almost no problems that last day, while Quickdraw said his left foot was uncomfortable; for both of them, the right foot was just fine. We concluded that perhaps the left shoe was defective, and Slowdown plans to return them. He wants to try some trail runners, but the availability of that product locally is limited at best. We will see how that plays out in the near future.
For my birthday two years ago, my wife had bought me a Mountain Hardware Elkommando Hiking Kilt. I have hiked plenty since I bought it, but had not yet tried it out hiking. This seemed like the perfect time to give it a shot. I have to admit that I really liked it. It was very airy and comfortable. I did have a problem with chafing at first while hiking out on Sunday, but an application of Gold Bond Friction Defense put an end to that before it was an issue. With 2 more hikes coming up, I intend to stick with the kilt. It really was the most comfortable hike I have had, in spite of the heat. The only drawback was having to put up with the other two repeatedly bantering about “getting away from the women folk and being stuck with a guy in a skirt.” It was all in good fun, but it was worth suffering through as the kilt really is that comfortable. I only wish it was a few ounces lighter.
In two weeks, all six of the gang will be headed up to Cheaha for a 3 day hike to shake down our gear even more. We hope to do the whole Skyway-Pinhoti-Chinnabee loop. It is not far, but the terrain will be more comparable to what we will experience in North Carolina, even if the Cheaha hike will be with warmer weather. I will certainly report on that trek as well…