Last month, forum member Naha posted about a possible hike through Ocala National Forest. Since it might actually fall when I had work off, I jumped at the chance. However, a fire right across the Florida Trail that closed Hopkins Prairie campground almost derailed the trip before it got off of the ground. After some discussion, we decided to head south from Juniper Springs campground rather than chance the fire to the north.
I arrived at Juniper at about 9:30 Sunday morning, confirmed my pickup the next day at Alexander Springs with Mrs. FLRider, and settled in by the FT trail head to wait for Naha and his coworker. I spent some time reading the various forest rules and enjoying the cool morning. Soon, a camper at Juniper came on down and we chatted about the wildlife (she was an avid birder) and hiking in general. Naha and his friend had waved at me on the way in to the campground around 10:00, where they were going to park for the four days they planned to be out, but it took a little bit for them to in-process properly.
We all said hello and introduced ourselves before heading out on the trail at about 10:15. I've hiked this section of the FT numerous times, mostly during the summer (which I don't recommend unless you're a masochist like I am), and I must say that this was one of the nicest trips I've had along here. We headed out into the golden morning light with birds singing along both sides of the trail and the occasional motorcycle gang roaring by on SR 40 (it was Bike Week in Daytona this past weekend, and that's one of the main throughways to Daytona). Spiders were at a minimum (I didn't see even one banana spider this weekend) and even the ticks weren't too bad (though I did get one bite on my shin the first day).
We headed south along the FT, soon crossing SR 40, about a mile into the trip. Heading south from 40, we re-entered the jungly portion of the trail, soon crossing the very nice boardwalk through that section. The swamp to the east of the trail was dry, though, so we didn't have to worry about mud clinging to us if we faltered dodging the occasional bowed plank in the boardwalk. There were a couple of blowdowns through this section, but apparently the FT is going to be rerouting to the east, so that shouldn't be too much of a problem for folks over the next year or two. None of the blowdowns were particularly hard to get around (either over or under), and we continued on at a pretty good pace.
Soon, we entered into the sandhill pine section of trail between 40 and Farles Prairie. A beautiful area, but we soon came across a small camp just to the east of the trail.
Someone had camped out for a while in the small clearing there and left some trash behind. The remnants of a blue-ish poly tarp, an hospital wristband, and a white shirt that had been used to...ahem...clean a person after their morning constitutional had been left near the remains of a campfire. I placed the shirt into a Ziplock that had contained my morning snack and rolled the whole thing up into the center of the tarp. As it turns out, my current pack configuration (where I clip a Camelbak holder to the top of my pack and the bottom straps holding my hammock in place) makes for a good flatbed hauler for bulky lightweight items. Go figure. I figured to pack it into Farles Lake campground, later in the day, and drop it off at one of the bear boxes there. I was deeply regretting the absentmindedness that meant I'd left my nitrile gloves at home instead of having them in my FAK; my hand sanitizer definitely got a workout that day.
We continued on in good time, only stopping for perhaps fifteen minutes there to clean up a bit. Soon after, we ran across our first hiker of the trip (and only the fourth hiker I've seen on the trail outside of a campground or designated campsite); he asked where we'd come from and was impressed with our pace. After a short exchange, he continued on northbound and we continued on southbound.
Around 12:30, we reached the north rim of Farles Prairie, approximately seven miles into the trip, and stopped for lunch. I made my lunch of summer sausage (I've tried various brands of this, and I still find that the Hillshire Farms one is the best tasting that I can get locally), sharp cheddar cheese, and chipotle Tobasco sauce on tortillas. Mmmm... Naha and his coworker fired up their alcohol stoves (having a bit of trouble from the gusting breeze across the prairie) and made some rice and noodle sides for lunch. I wandered a bit while their food was rehydrating to check the depressions around the prairie for water; the FT guidebook insists that there's water there, but I've not found it right at the north rim of the prairie since I've been hiking Ocala. There wasn't any at the north rim this time, either.
Naha's friend had been experiencing some foot soreness and hotspots, due to having very sweaty feet, cotton in his socks (not much, but it does add to that, even in a poly-cotton blend), and someone else's footwear. This was to be a theme for the weekend. So, during the break, both he and I took a shoe-off break--me to get some of the sand out of my shoes and socks (sugar sand and mesh top shoes are not friends) and him to let his feet relax and dry out some.
As I returned, they were eating lunch and we soon packed up for the trail again. We headed south once more, probably around 1:00, and followed the FT through the "no overhead cover and sugar sand trap" portion of the prairie--probably my least favorite section during hot weather and my favorite section during cool weather. This trip split the difference: the prairie is very beautiful, but I was still sweating.
There is water just south of the north rim there, in a single pool a few hundred yards east of the trail. It looks like it might be a pain to get to, but with that section being so beautiful to camp in...well...
We covered the ~2.5 miles to Farles Lake fairly quickly, arriving around 2:00. By now, Naha's friend's feet had been hurting him some, and a couple of blisters were forming--particularly on his toes, which had been a bit crammed by his boots. He soldiered on without complaint, though. We grabbed water from the pump there (it's drinkable, but pre-filter with a bandanna nonetheless; there can be quite a few rust flakes that come out with the first fill) and spent probably another half-hour lollygagging and talking due to the heat of the day (it got up into the low eighties that day; I forgot my thermometer, too...that was to be a theme for this trip) before packing up and heading out. Unfortunately, I was still stuck with the tarp and its contents; the bear boxes had been taken out of the campground, probably due to the end of hunting season.
We continued on past Buck Lake, and I finally found where the southern terminus of the blue blaze to that campground is located--it isn't blazed but has the remnants of a sign indicating that it's a group campground requiring reservations stuck on a tree there. Wish I'd taken a photo...it might help someone come next year at the Fourth Annual Hang. I felt a little like a tour guide through this section, since I knew it pretty well, and even made a joke to that effect. Naha and his friend were kind enough to laugh at my poor attempts at humor.
Soon, we reached Dora Pond. There was a local gentleman (he lives about two miles from that locale) there and he asked if we knew who Dora was--the pond is dedicated to her. Unfortunately, none of us knew who she was, and my Google searches thus far have come up dry. If anyone has a resource to point me to, I'd be appreciative. Either way, we spent a short time chatting and then continued on to our campsite for the evening: Brook Pond (which doesn't have any water in it currently, so plan for that if you intend to camp there; there is water in Dora Pond, perhaps a tenth of a mile to the north, but you have to wade through ankle-deep black mud to get to it).
We found a trio of hang spots fairly close together that were easy to set up in, just off of the trail. I went to hang my bear bag and told my hiking partners that they were welcome to clip on. Well...as it turns out, they had nearly ten pounds of food and clothing to hang--I wound up using the marlinspike hitch for its original purpose on this trip (thanks, FireInMyBones, for that tip!) and had to tie off to another tree rather than use the PCT method for hanging, due to the weight of the bear bag and the thinness of my line. Fortunately, everything was still unmolested in the morning.
We putzed around camp for the next two or three hours or so, and I found a dog tick on my left shin, just underneath my Permethrin-treated socks! I pulled it off, killed it, and placed it in my FAK just in case I wind up contracting something. I doubt it was there for a decent period; the Permethrin should've killed it if it was. I really dislike ticks...
Naha's friend had some full-blown blisters by this point, and I gave him some of my Band-Aid blister ampoules. Those work really well on blisters, as long as they're not bigger than a nickle or so. He crashed out pretty early, having packed a fairly heavy pack and having had it be a bit small for his torso. He held up like a champ, with nary a complaint all day, though. I'm not sure I would've been as sanguine under the same sort of circumstances, for sure.
This trip, I'd expected ~50* F for the lows (more on that later), so I was able to try an ultralight trip. My skin-out base weight for this trip hovered right at 9.5 lbs, and I was very happy with that...during the day.
I made my field shepherd's pie for dinner, and it was definitely tasty. I probably should've added another tenth of a cup of water, though; the beef was a little crunchy at first.
I turned in at perhaps 7:00, well before dusk. I was a bit tired; I'd only gotten about four hours' sleep the night before. That night, things got to be a little colder than expected; Naha's thermometer insisted that it got down to 43* F. With only my semi-Garlington insulator under me, I was chilly the whole night. I slept well enough, though, only waking once every hour and an half to two hours to turn over and warm the cold side of me up.
I will say that Brook Pond is probably not the best campsite if you're a light sleeper, however. There are a few residences near there, and they have dogs that like to bark and howl all night long. It didn't bother me; I can sleep through just about anything if I have to. However, if you're a light sleeper...
Knowing that we had a short day of only ~6 miles on Monday, I slept in fairly late, only rising around 11:00. After "coffee" and some more putzing around camp, we finally packed up and hit the trail at perhaps 12:30. We saw two hikers headed northbound on the trail; one of 'em had an external frame that looked like he was hauling somewhere north of fifty pounds of gear. More power to him, but my back hurts just thinking about that. That brings my total of hikers seen on the FT outside of camp up to an whole six!
We left camp and headed south, soon reaching the SR 19 crossing. After making it across the busy road without incident (or even much in the way of traffic seen, oddly enough), we exited the closed-in scrub oak section of the trail and entered into longleaf pine scrub with wonderful views of low-growing turkey oak and rolling hills. I highly recommend this section during November to February; the turkey oak turns a beautiful red color and really brings out the greens and browns of the surrounding vegetation.
Naha's friend was hiking in his camp shoes, a pair of Crocs. He seemed much more comfortable in them, and I did my best to point out things that he could stub his toes on in the trail to avoid injury as we hiked along. Hopefully, he didn't suffer any more foot issues wearing them over the next couple of days.
Between dinner the night before, hiking through little overhead cover, and my morning "coffee", I was out of water when we left camp. I wasn't too worried; the temperatures were fairly low and if worse came to worst, both of my camp mates had water.
Still, I was very happy when we came to a road crossing about two miles from Alexander Springs and there was a group of FTA volunteers out doing trail maintenance. They offered the first trail magic I've ever received: sugar free (but cold!) drinks and fudge brownies. It was a little slice of heaven! They even offered to take the trash that we'd picked up along the way (Naha had made it his personal mission to grab every can and bottle left along the trail; he came out of it with eight or nine of the suckers) off of our hands. Very nice of them, especially after I explained that the tarp had some human waste wrapped up in it! I believe they were from the Clearwater chapter, but I'm not absolutely certain. Either way, wonderful people offering a wonderful service for everyone who goes into the outdoors!
They had a few questions about my kilt; one of their members was looking at them for hiking. I told him about the Stillwater ThriftyKilts (the brand I use) and how they dry exceptionally quickly without breaking the bank. Hopefully, we'll have another kilt user out on the trail at some point soon!
We parted company after maybe ten minutes of chatting back and forth and then headed south once more. At the road crossing there, it can be a little confusing, as it appears the trail follows a dirt road rather than its actual path--you do have to keep an eye open for where the blazes are rather than just trudging along. We didn't have any trouble, since I'd already gotten lost there once before and knew what to look for, continuing on south along the FT.
We soon hit the blue blaze for Alexander Springs and turned left to head to the springs. I pointed out the forks in the trail for mountain bike users to Naha and his coworker; they're hard to miss, but if you're not looking up, you can wind up on the wrong trail in a couple of points along there.
Something bit me on the shin through here; it was big like an horsefly but had a mosquito-esque body. It hurt--like I got stung, not like I got bit. I'm thinking it might be a gallinipper, after the thread that SilvrSurfr posted last week (sorry for non-donating members, but it's in the off-topic forum) about them. Supposedly, they're about that size and are big enough to hurt when they bite. I hope not...I'd really not want to have to fight the suckers if I can avoid 'em.
We made good time up the trail, arriving at the springs at perhaps 2:45 or so. We paid the entry fee (I'd forgotten to mention this in the planning thread, but all of the springs through the forest have a day use fee) and headed on in. My first order of business was to get water and use the restroom, followed quickly by lunch. I'd forgotten that Alexander doesn't have a pay phone, but Naha came to the rescue with his cell phone. I called Mrs. FLRider and left her a message to let her know that I'd gotten there safe and sound.
We hung out at the day-use area there for a little less than two hours, with Naha's friend using the showers and everyone making lunch. Much gear talk was swapped and goodbyes were said before I headed back up to the entrance. Mrs. FLRider was due just about the time I headed back up there, and sure enough, she pulled up to the gate just at the same time I did.
And so my tale ends, with the greatest wife in the world picking me up and driving me home for a shower, a change of clothes, and an evening out on the town with her. A wonderful end to a wonderful weekend.
Naha and his friend were going to hike back up to Juniper over Tuesday and Wednesday, after spending the night near Alexander Monday night. I hope to hear from them soon, and would go hiking with the both of them any time in the future. A couple new friends who are wonderful to hike with!