PICS & VIDEO: Summer's Last Gasp Hang, Ocala National Forest
The idea for the Summer's Last Gasp Hang came to me back in August. I wanted to do a north-central Florida hang before cooler weather required serious under insulation, but late enough in the season that folks didn't roast in their own juices on the hike in. So, I put up a poll for places within a hundred miles of Gainesville; the consensus wound up being for Hidden Pond, along the Florida Trail in Ocala National Forest.
My trip report begins about a month ago, when emcee expressed a desire to do a long hike into the hang. I about jumped for joy; I'd been wanting to hike from US 19 to Hidden Pond since February. It's a beautiful hike, minus the bugs and the heat (neither of which were too bad this time). I immediately agreed to do a shuttle so that neither of us would have to do a long hike out on Sunday. And, boy, is that a long hike.
About a week prior to the hang, I confirmed times with emcee and decided to meet at Pat's Island trail head around 9 or 10 in the AM on Friday. It was easy enough to drop Mrs. FLRider off at work Friday morning and drive on down from Newberry. I arrived around 9:30, and we quickly packed emcee's gear into my car for the shuttle down to the US 19 trail head.
Arriving down there, we unloaded from the car and I locked everything up before heading down the trail at about 10:10. I was having a little pack issue at first, involving some of the load placement--I've been meaning to replace my shoulder straps for some time now, since they're a little lopsided--but that was fixed easily enough just a couple hundred yards down the trail. At the same time, I took out my Picaridin spray and applied it to the portions of my legs not covered by my kilt or socks (yes, I finally broke down and got a pair of trail runners...what's the world coming to?).
Unfortunately, I didn't re-secure my ditty bag well enough before moving on. Crossing a deadfall later in the day, it decided to fall dead on the side of the trail. Fortunately, emcee saw it and retrieved the thing for me. Gotta add some keeper straps to my gear...
We stopped about three miles in, at the side trail for Buck Lake, and ate our morning snacks. After a little calculation, we figured out that we were making 2.8 miles an hour on the nose. Which is pretty good time for me: not too fast to continue for a full day, but also not so slow as to throw off my distance calculations.
Soon after heading back down the trail, we ran across a forest ranger working on marking trees for removal to avoid wildfire dangers. At least, that looked like what she was doing. Greeting her in passing, we continued on up the trail.
An hour later, we stopped at Farles Campground (avoid the side trail there; it's so overgrown that it's essentially bushwhacking; instead, take the road down to the campground) for our last water stop before Whiskey Creek. At this point, I was carrying my heaviest load of the day, about 23 lbs pack weight/26 lbs FSO weight, due to the five liters of water I was lugging. I don't begrudge the weight, though: both of my previous trips across this area involved 90+ degree heat and dehydration; one of 'em resulted in heat exhaustion bordering on heat stroke. I had no desire to repeat the experience on this trip.
That weight quickly dropped, though; leaving Farles Campground, we crossed Farles Prairie, which has virtually no overhead cover for three or four miles. I drank a liter and an half covering that ground, before we decided to stop for lunch at about 1 PM.
We ate lunch in a companionable silence along the north rim of Farles Prairie, looking out over the nearly-endless sea of grass and the oak hammock-crowned islands that thrust truculently upward out of the greensward. A moment of peace in a long day of repetitive movement.
After feeding the beast, we packed up and hit the trail again around 1:30. Our pace was good, and we enjoyed the hills that follow Farles Prairie as we wound our way through a sandhill pine forest. Beautiful area, even if the sightlines are shorter than one might like. The silence was occasionally broken by fighter/bombers screaming overhead as they did runs over the naval bombing range located to our northwest. Somewhere along here, my food bag came loose (again, need to add keeper straps to my gear), and I stopped to reattach it to the PALS array :blush:.
We exited the sandhill area down into semi-tropical jungle, where oak hammock and palmetto thickets dominated the ecosystem. I was surprised by the lack of spiders on this trip, and it was most pronounced through here and the patch of jungle just north of SR 40. On my previous trips through this area, I've had to fight the spiders off with a stick; every third step was, stop, knock down the web, step forward and look for the next one. This time, I only caught ten webs to the face--none of them full-up banana spiders--all day long. That's pretty low for Ocala before real cold weather sets in.
Soon enough, we came to the second set of ridgelines that run through that area. My last trip through this area was back in June, and I was suffering from the effects of heat exhaustion as I tried to exit the forest. Among other things, I lost my favorite hat along this stretch of trail.
So, imagine my surprise as we were walking along and emcee pointed at something hanging on a branch next to the trail. My hat! Someone had picked it up and hung it--and it stayed there for four months. It says something about the hiker community as an whole that no one took it home for themselves. Thank you to whomever did that.
Continuing along, we descended into semi-tropical jungle again, skirting the edge of a swamp. Soon, we crossed a boardwalk across the last little finger of that swamp, and I knew we were close to SR 40. It was perhaps 3:30 at this point, which meant that we were going to beat the sunset. I'd worried a bit about hiking through Juniper Prairie after dark, though having an hiking partner definitely helped allay those fears.
We crossed SR 40 and descended into the most verdant portion of the forest; here, the water table was so close to the surface that it was a true jungle, overgrown with palmetto, lianas, and very closed in. Not much sunlight penetrated the double canopy to reach the ground, yet it was filled with growing things. Here, the spiders were at their worst; I had to stop every quarter-mile or so to knock down a web. Which certainly beats my average...
We soon exited the jungle and entered the beginnings of Juniper Prairie. After a short discussion on whether emcee wanted to stop and ask about water at Juniper Springs, we decided to press on to at least Whiskey Creek before refilling. We saw a lot of bear sign through the prairie; piles of scat and paw prints were everywhere. As were the bugs, now that it was getting later in the afternoon. Some kind of walking stick had its mating season going on, and I mistook a pair of them at first for a single insect.
Emcee was tiring at the end of the day, running a caloric deficit. Not once did he complain though; that man is a real trooper. We met a pair of gentlemen coming back from a day hike on the way out across the prairie and said hello in passing. We raced the waning sun across the prairie, reaching Whiskey Creek before 6:00, way ahead of schedule. We were less than a mile from Hidden Pond, and my spirits rose as I contemplated the end of our day. Perhaps too much: I mistook a ridgeline as the one just before Hidden Pond about a quarter-mile out.
Either way, we reached camp to find that Grinder had already beaten us there. He was in the midst of fiddling with his set-up as we arrived and his response to our hike in was unprintable but boiled down to, "You're crazy."
Soon enough, our hammocks were hung and dinner was served. Grinder had a small campfire going, and we hung out around that as lilricky arrived just after dark. Good companions, a long but good day, and beautiful weather were the order of the evening. The perfect end to the perfect day.
I soon turned in, my body having that fine washed-out feeling that I get after a good long day of work. Aside from my left calf complaining a little bit, a blister from my hip belt rubbing at the top of my kilt, and the balls of my feet being a bit sore, I felt great. I knew I would sleep well that night.
Emcee's report on the low-fifties temperature of the night before was a little worrying; I was testing out a new under insulation for the first time, and I wasn't sure it would go down to fifty. As it turned out, I needn't have worried; the Garlington insulator worked perfectly, despite a reported low of 55 F. I woke several times during the night, having my usual first-night issues with the different sounds around me. I always immediately fell back asleep, though, making for a wonderfully restful night.
The next morning I rose with the dawn, making coffee over by the fire ring, only to discover that zukiguy had arrived during my sleep. Greetings were exchanged across breakfast as I watched zuki succeed at baking a muffin for himself. The general consensus was that everyone wanted to go on over to the springs for the day, with the exception of emcee; he'd had enough walking on Friday to last him for a bit. Can't say I blamed him; I was a little stiff when I woke up myself.
I also discovered that chiggers had gotten to my legs on the hike in, despite having permethrin on my clothing and picaridin on my legs. No ticks this time, though; that's a wonderful change from my last adventure out in Ocala. The picaridin worked a charm, and my permethrin helped keep the mosquitoes away as well. I'll trade some chigger bites that'll last a month for tick bites that last me two or three months, for sure.
We decided to head up to Pat's Island and drive over to Silver Glen Springs, right across from the Yearling trail head. The springs were beautiful and a great respite from the mounting heat of the day. We stayed over there for a few hours, until threatening rain took away the heat of the sun. Feeling that the springs were a little too cold for us without that sunlight, we packed back up and headed over to Pat's Island once more.
Once there, we decided to take a small detour on the way back to see the sinkhole where the settlers that lived in and around the Yearling Trail got their water back towards the turn of the twentieth century. It was impressive; the sinkhole is perhaps thirty or forty feet deep and an hundred yards across. We also went past the small graveyard there, still kept in fairly good condition by the local trail volunteers. The sandspurs along that trail (and the northern portion of the Juniper Prairie portion of the FT) were less welcome, but it was definitely worth the stop.
Unfortunately, zukiguy had to leave early for other commitments, and we said our goodbyes at the fork in the trail. We headed back down the FT towards Hidden Pond, my body finally loosening up some from Friday's exertions. I felt good going across that prairie, and we reached the campsite in good time.
As we arrived, we found that emcee had been busy collecting firewood and that several folks had come in during our absence. There were two different groups that walked in, one of a pair of couples in their middle years, and one of five or so younger folks. Theflb and specialk198305 had also rolled in and set up camp around the corner.
After sitting down to eat lunch, I decided to head back up the trail some and gather some extra firewood, just in case. Coming back, I found that both of the other groups of folks had decided to swim in the pond--occasioning a little joking about going elsewhere for water on Sunday morning from the HF folks. A couple of the folks over in the pond had even brought inflatable rafts...
As I was sitting around the fire ring, talking with everyone, a young man came in carrying a whole cooler--apparently containing adult beverages. After lilricky's last encounter with folks drinking out there, it made me a little nervous. Fortunately, this time, the only real result of the alcohol were occasional exclamations of "Go Gators!" from the far end of Crooked Sapling Pond. It almost felt like home...
The night passed too quickly, with great companions to share conversation with around the fire. Soon enough, folks were retiring to their hammocks for the night, and I followed suit. Saturday night was warmer than Friday had been, and I was almost too warm with the Garlington attached to the bottom of my hammock. It was okay, though; I was grateful for the warmth come the morning, since it got down into the low-sixties or even the high-fifties during the night.
I made "coffee" and then went around to do short video clips on everyone's set-ups. Grinder left soon after, headed out down the trail at perhaps 9:30 or so, and the rest of us followed suit by 11:30. Specialk and theflb both headed south to Juniper Springs, while lilricky, emcee, and I headed north to Pat's Island. We reached the trail head in perhaps an hour and twenty minutes, a leisurely pace, and said our goodbyes there. Emcee drove me down to my car, and we parted company at the US 19 trail head. The drive back to Gainesville was uneventful, and I spent the rest of the evening in the company of my wife, content with a great weekend.
I had a great time, and it was wonderful to break my string of dehydration experiences through that section of forest.
I tried out my new New Balance Minimus 10 Trail runners only a week prior to the trip. I hiked eight miles that day, and found them comfortable for wearing over long periods. I was still a little apprehensive at the beginning of my hike on Friday; twenty miles is very different from eight, in terms of how a shoe will wear. I was pleasantly surprised, both by the shoes' fit and by their quick-drying properties. They're still not quite as quick-drying as my old WallyWorld sandals, but they also don't fall apart after fifty miles. Aside from a little forefoot soreness at the end of my day, they worked perfectly. And the majority of that should disappear as my feet get used to the shoe.
It was also the first time I'd worn socks outside of work in...gosh, maybe four years? Heck, I got married in sandals. I've never been one for closed-toe shoes unless the weather or the work conditions required it. And, when I could get away with it, I wore closed-toe sandals even then. Still, since Wallyworld changed the lasts on their Keen-style sandals (making them more susceptible to pulling apart after less than twenty miles), I've been without a decent shoe that fit right and wouldn't disintegrate on me.
Since I decided to try the New Balance shoes, I was going to need a sock to avoid heel blisters. I tried out a pair of dress socks and a pair of Starter athletic wicking socks on this trip; both performed admirably, though the athletic socks by themselves were more comfortable overall than wearing either the dress socks or a combination of the two. I think I'll stick to those for now; they're cheap, quick drying, and comfortable even for big miles.
I tried out a basic Garlington Insulator for the first time on this trip; I'd used my DIY poncho as a weather shield for the bottom of my hammock before, but not as insulation. I added a crumpled-up space blanket to the poncho this time and was pleasantly surprised by the warmth of the thing. I didn't put it into a trash bag, the way that Garlington suggests, but it still blocked enough air movement for me to be warm down to 55 F. I think it'll be good down to 50 F, which is the lower end I'd expect out of something like that anyway.
I did have a bit of trouble with insensible perspiration from it, due to it being a vapor barrier. That wasn't too much trouble at the temperatures I was using it in, though. With my poncho liner being as moisture-insensitive as it's possible for insulation to be, I didn't have any trouble with insulation failure due to moisture. If I was using down, I'd be a bit more careful.
As I've noted before, my shoulder straps are...suboptimal. The left shoulder of the pack is always closer to my back than the right. Which makes it somewhat uncomfortable until I adjust things to compensate. Still, I need to redo my shoulder straps; that's on the DIY to-do list for the next month.
I also tried out a new attachment method for my day pack/water carrier. I used two pairs of mini 'biners to attach the straps to my pack's PALS array at the top and to one of the stuff sacks' cinch straps at the bottom. It worked pretty well, and it allowed me to carry my ditty bag on the outside of the water bladder--something that I appreciated, even if I do need to remember to secure both shock cord loops around it after rooting for what I need :blush:.
I also need to add keeper loops to my food bag; it squirted out on me once on Friday during the hike. Fortunately, I heard it hit the ground. Otherwise, it would have been a pain to run back and get it after however long it took me to notice its absence. So, that's also on the to-do list.
The view across Farles Pond from the trail:
lilricky, Grinder, and zukiguy standing on the rim of the sinkhole on the Yearling Trail:
Myself, zukiguy, Grinder, and lilricky at the junction on the Yearling Trail:
Sunset over Crooked Sapling Pond:
More to come!