Friday, September 19, 2014

Autumn Backpacking Along The Florida Trail

Sandra Friend's awesome trail guide
One of Florida's best kept secrets is backpacking in the wintertime.  When cold and snow drives everyone up north indoors, the Florida skies turn clear and blue, and the trails beckon.  Mosquitos and the other bugs also die down.
The section of the Florida Trail I plan to backpack runs through the Ocala National Forest, from Clearwater Lake to Salt Springs.  This 46.5 mile trail covers much of the varied Florida landscapes and provides many good camping and scenic opportunities along the way.
The original blazes along the Florida Trail were first painted at Clearwater Lake in 1966 by FTA Founder Jim Kerns and his hardy friends.  Of the 72 miles of non-stop backpacking within the Ocala National Forest, these southerly 46 miles are well marked, well maintained and well worn.  There are numerous bail-out points if needed along the route.  You will walk through thick palm trees in hydric hammocks, through the desert-like Juniper Prairie Wilderness, through open under story in tall pines and along the winding hills of the Hopkins Prairie.
Temperatures would be mild and cool at nights with little rain forecast.  By travelling ultralight, my pack would weigh around 25 pounds for the trip.
I will use the excellent Florida Trail Official Hiking Guide by Sandra Friend as my bible to plan and follow the route.  I plan to hike through this section (section 16) of forest in 4-5 days.  My expectation is to travel about 15 miles daily and to camp at specific sites along the trail.  I will check with my friends to see if we can create a trip together at that time, and if not I may hike solo.
Wish me luck in planning my trip over the next few weeks.  Some hunting dates may present scheduling problems as I would prefer not to backpack when people are hunting.  I am hoping to schedule my trip sometime during early December.  I'll post Florida hunting dates next week.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Jim Kern

Jim Kern
The Florida Trail is just one organization started by Jim Kern, a Florida resident, a photographer & filmmaker and real estate developer.  Jim came up with the idea of the Florida Trail after hiking on the Appalachian Trail.  "Why doesn't Florida have a trail like this?" was his question.  Aside from the high elevations which the mountainous states all have, Florida has a lot of scenic wonder, sometimes whole ecosystems pop up in only one inch or two of elevation.
So Jim went around, and asked his question and didn't take no for an answer.  He created the Florida Trail Association and served as its president the first dozen years.  Those orange blazes were first painted on trees marking the Florida Trail at Clearwater Lake campground in the Ocala National Forest in 1966.  Part of these trails you hike today were first surveyed and cut through the woods by Jim's friends and partners in the Florida Trail.  His organization has grown over the years to include many members, volunteers and supporters (yes, even trail angels) all over the state.  Nearly 150 people attempt a through-hike annually, hiking during the winter months, moving north with spring.
Jim's first Florida backpack trip was a 12-day slog through unmarked wilderness from the Tamiami Trail to Highlands Hammock near Sebring.  His publicized trip heightened the real need for a Florida Trail, hiking through waist-deep water, swatting flies and mosquitos just like the rest of us.
Jim Kern also created the American Hiking Society giving a national voice to hikers and backpackers in 1976, and Big City Mountaineers to mentor urban youth in the outdoors, and his newest development, the Hiker's Grand Slam.
What I like about Jim Kern is that he followed through with an idea he had until it actually happened. An Eagle Scout, Jim showed the courage to create what he felt was important.  He lived his dream and in doing so created so many other dreams for the rest of us.  That's a character trait I truly admire.


Friday, September 5, 2014

Rocks In My Backpack

Rocks in my Backpack - Tom Sholes
My friends Nick and Mary from Colorado recently presented me with a small gift, the book by Scoutmaster-extraordinaire, Tom Sholes, Rocks in my Backpack.
Aside from the pranks with rocks the Boy Scouts played on their Scoutmaster, this book is hilarious, and was a fun and quick read.
Tom Sholes, an Eagle Scout from a small-town in Minnesota, moved to Colorado in the early 1960's and was asked (tricked?) into leading a small troop of Boy Scouts. Something about leading a previously experienced Scoutmaster into a 'Troop that has no Scoutmaster' was the catalyst.
This Troop 117 became a powerhouse of great scouts with high adventure trips monthly into the Rocky Mountains for almost 3 decades.  If you made Eagle Scout here, you sincerely earned it.  Even First Class rank had a test (not one in the Scouting manual) that was difficult, yet it challenged generations of boys to do better instead of slipping by half-involved.  As a Boy Scout, you actually felt pride from earning rank as opposed to getting rank advancement without working for it.
This Troop 117 actually climbed 14-ers to the peak, backpacked serious back country and wilderness area trails, canoed white water, followed the ancients in the canyons of the southwest, survived and thrived in snow/ice/cold Klonderees in Colorado's winter mountains.  If you were a backpacker, this was the troop to be in.
The boys Indian-danced with authentic costumes and face paint throughout the state with their prize-winning group the Wasechie Dancers, honoring and respecting the Lakota and Plains Indian history and culture with dance and ceremony.  The boys made their own costumes after careful study.
They also held backcountry and cross country skiing trips with girl scouts, which was unheard of in the 1970's.
On many backwoods trips, someone would get cut, caught, stuck or hurt in some way (as they always do), and the Boy Scouts would just take over, manage the emergency, heal the wounded, rescue the trapped, and would pitch in to help anyone needing help.  Now THAT was what was intended by Boy Scouting, to transform boys into leaders, who didn't really need any adult supervision or yelling at them to do something.
And that is what made Tom Sholes such an awesome leader in Scouting, and what makes a fine book for ex-Scouters, backpackers, river-runners, and outdoors people of all walks of life.  You will laugh, cry, become excited during the trail descriptions and canoeing, and find again that great love of the outdoors.  Thank you Tom!

Friday, August 29, 2014

All my blogs

If you didn't know, I also write two other blogs on a weekly basis.  Bryce Trips and Bicycling Over Fifty.  You can follow my hiker stick figure on both blogs : )

Bryce Trips
Bryce Trips is about travels I've made; road trips, bike rides, hikes, sailing and paddling trips, and it generally covers most of what I do outdoors.  I have always enjoyed traveling and feel a deeply personal need to share these places, trips and fine times with you.

Bicycling Over Fifty
Bicycling Over Fifty is about bicycles; bicycle touring, bicycle parts and bicycling, which I pursued heavily for over 35 years.  I still ride, though mostly now on paved trails.  It covers bicycling at 50 YEARS OF AGE, not at 50 MPH!  I hope to make a bicycle tour or join a multi-day group ride in the near future and write about it for you.
Please check out my other blogs and tell me what you think.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Florida Caverns and Three Rivers State Parks


Our loaded mountain bicycles at the corner of Where and Am I?
Walt Foy and I bicycled a back roads route through the farmland of northern Florida, riding a loop from Florida Caverns to Three Rivers State Park and back over a 2 day weekend.  The whole route can be driven in about 3-4 hours the same day and still leave time to tour the Caverns before you leave, but I suggest you try riding a bicycle instead.  Moving along at 10 MPH is the best way to really see the land and experience the topography.  You also feel a sense of "earning" it when you carry your camping gear along the route.  With the low amount of traffic and with only one hill, it was a pleasant ride.
We drove up on Friday, camping at Florida Caverns that night.  In the morning we pedaled out into the country and open farmland.  I remember it was cool weather, but not cold.  The clouds were few and bicycling on our mountain bikes was easy.  Walt didn't own a touring bike, so I left mine at home and we rode the mountain bikes instead.
In the afternoon, we reached the bottom of a large hill where we could see the campsites to the left in Three Rivers State Park.  However, we had to ride uphill to get to the entrance, then coast back downhill to pick a site by the lake.  The bathrooms were clean and the hot showers were welcome.
Waiting for the coffee to kick in the next morning
Walt was watching an osprey dive for dinner across the lake from our campsite when I returned from the shower.  After dinner a couple in a huge motor home bus parked next door to us invited us over to visit.  I think they were interested in us riding bicycles and camping in small tents that took less space than the closet did in their bus.  I know I slept well that night.
The next day was cool and overcast, and after barreling down the hill exiting the park, we rode along more back roads and beside farmland until we got back to Florida Caverns.  After a shower we enjoyed the excellent tour of the cave, delighted to be just a few feet underground in Florida.  I highly recommend the Florida Caverns tour with its interesting geology.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Devil's Head Fire Tower

View of Devil's Head looking west from Castle Rock, CO
Devil's Head is located in the Pike National Forest a few miles west (and above) Castle Rock, CO.  It has a National Forest lookout fire tower perched on top of the granite there at 9748 feet above sea level.

Originally used from 1912, then built in 1919, and updated in 1952 to the current lookout, the Tower has been in constant use for over 100 years.  For campers there is a campground nearby, LINK HERE.

The Fire Tower is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.  A tiny caretaker's cabin is located below the tower, the Ranger carrying food and supplies in by backpack weekly.  Still today, it is the last "manned" fire tower in Colorado, maybe in the United States, all the others being automated.  That makes it somewhat of a tourist attraction and a great place to take your kids.

The day we went, the parking lot off Rampart Range Road was packed.  The summer weather in the Rockies was awesome!  The trail was an easy hike, with lots of views and neat Pikes Peak granite formations along the way.  At the end our trip was rewarded with a card signed by the Ranger in the tower.
Pikes Peak Granite
The view from the top
I am a Squirrel : )
Those last 143 steps up the steel stairs were steep, but the 2.8 mile approach trail is rated easy.  The view is well worth the effort and you can see 100 miles in almost every direction.  It is like looking out onto a flat map before you, the hills and valleys seem all the same.
Counting steps
Getting there is easy, from Denver, go south on highway 86 to Sedalia.  Then go right at the light onto CO 67.  Turn left onto Rampart Range Road and follow the dirt road to the parking area on your left. Beware of weather closures.
Devil's Head Lookout Fire Tower

Friday, August 8, 2014

Venable

Venable Peak and the Phantom Terrace
Venable.  I still breathe a sigh of contentment from that epic backpacking trip I took with 2 friends in the Sangre De Cristo mountains in southern Colorado.  The friends were Owen Frey and Nick Rieth. We worked together at the time and had arranged for a short trip away before cold weather and heavy snows kicked in for the year.  We had camped overnight in a county park at the bottom of the mountain, just west of the small farming community of Westcliffe, Colorado.  We arose, cool in the fall morning air and backpacked up the mountain, all day long. 
Camping at the County Park
We followed the drainage that turned into a stream up to camp beside a mountain lake at 12,000 feet, just below 13,000 foot Venable peak that night.  On the way up, I remember sitting along the trail eating lunch when I saw a flash of color zip by me, it was Owen, who’s sleeping bag had come free of his backpack and was rolling down hill toward the steam.  He caught it right at the ledge, just before it tumbled down into the cold water.  Owen had never been seen moving that fast before or since.
The trail followed this stream most of the way up
Nick & I at the Wilderness Boundary
Taking a break along the trail
Seriously fast reactions to save the day
We entered a wilderness area and noticed the trail became more rough with lots of loose 6 inch rocks everywhere you stepped.  At 11,000 feet we reached an alpine lake where a fire was still smoldering beside the trail from someone who camped there the night before.  We put out the fire and wandered around the ruins of a mountain cabin there.  It was SO very peaceful with awesome views.  I found Nick following at the zig-zag line of the trail inching far above us on the right side of the mountain.  We looked at each other and smiled, then leaned in to it and climbed the beast.
Venable Peak view from Alpine Lake at 11,000

Campsite at the upper Alpine Lakes

Smiling Nick has no comment
Owen tying a fly
At that next summit were another two alpine lakes along a bench with somewhat level ground where we setup camp.  No sooner than we had shed our packs the sky opened up and dumped hail and popcorn snow on us.  Clouds surrounded us, hiding the views.  The fall weather passed quickly and stayed cold.  It was near the end of the backpacking season and before a week we would need snowshoes and ice climbing gear just to proceed. Owen already had his fishing rod out and was casting for fish along the lake shore.  Nick and I setup tents and eventually got dinner ready while we watched the sun set on the Wet Mountains to the east of us.  When you sat here you could follow the way the tortured earth had folded upon itself in the ridge edges all around.  Fog rolled in and out.  When we could see the stars they were so intense, you could not make out the major constellations.  Our trail for the morning was called the Phantom Terrace, and we could see no sign of where it crossed the cliff face to our west, where the map showed we would go.

Nick at the Phantom Terrace

The view down

More of the Phantom Terrace
Owen leads off
Morning dawned bright and cold.  I’ll never forget the sunrise colors.  We strode along for another 30 minutes up hill before coming to the beginning of the Phantom Terrace.  It was a narrow path, cut 2-3 feet wide that followed a strata line across the east face of Venable peak.  It was 1000 feet above us to the peak and a 1000 feet below us to the alpine lake we passed yesterday.  The trail tilted downhill and clung to the mountain side.  At first it seemed wide and easy, but as the morning breeze picked up, I was gripping the rock wall with both hands, inching along with my backpack seemingly hanging over the abyss.  There was a place where the rock trail had fallen away, with a big stretch across the gap while clinging onto cracks in the rock. I made it, somehow and continued along.  A few feet later, I looked back to see Nick just walking along like he was on a sidewalk, his large, tall backpack swinging left and right with no apparent fear of falling.  I made it to the top, exiting the narrow trail by an old sign post, and picked up a broken sign that laid on the ground.  Nick finished OK, right behind me.  Owen strolled along, his internal frame backpack the better choice for balance along these ledges than our external frame, top-heavy packs designed for flatter trails back east.  Owen took a photo of us.
We reached the pass

Me, the Wet Mountains to the east are behind me
Owen taking a break
Salute!
The view south to Crestone Peak
Pika-ville and Marmot World
The view west across the San Louis Valley to the dark line of the San Juan Mountains
The break at the top was long and rewarding with clear views west across the San Louis Valley 3000 feet below us and all the way to the San Juan mountains miles away across the high desert valley.  We were north of the Great Sand Dunes and could see the ragged peaks of Crestone, Humbolt and Mount Adams south of us. Pikas and marmots squeaked from the rocks.  Birds coasted on thermals above and we listened to the never ending wind.  We followed the ridge-line south to another 13-er, Comanche Peak, then turned back east and downhill. 
The trail back down
Owen is lost in the Aspens along the trail
More aspens
On down, down and down
The hike down was fairly easy, passing a much larger alpine lake than the one we passed yesterday. We passed a pack train of horses coming up the mountain, with a man setting up a camp for next week's hunt.  He hunts here every year and was very friendly.  The fall colors were better here than on the other side of the mountain and we lost ourselves among the aspen during breaks.
We were all lost in Aspen Glow
Thanks to Nick and Owen for supplying some of the photos and for spending that great time outdoors together.  Venable will always be a favorite trail for me.  One day, I plan to go back, setup a camp at the 11,000 foot lower Alpine Lake and day hike the area above treeline for a few days with ultralight gear.  

Friday, August 1, 2014


Haulover Canal Historical Marker
People have been dragging canoes and boats across a thin strip of land between the Mosquito Lagoon and the Indian River Lagoon for longer than these places have had names.  That thin strip of land is now called the Haulover Canal.
Drawbridge
The drawbridge you see today was built in 1963.  The Army Corps of Engineers took over the area in 1927, widening and deepening it to the size it is now.  The boat ramp, launch & parking lot were built.  Recently the ramp road has been paved with a Manatee Watching deck built on the north side of the canal.
The rules are simple, protect the manatees!
In 1887 the Florida Coast Line and Transportation Company started the canal at its present location.
In 1852, contractor GE Hawes dug a 3 foot deep, 14 foot wide canal using slave labor.  Heavily used by the riverboats and local traffic, it was completed just prior to the third Seminole War.
Going back in time, people pushed and pulled boats across mulberry tree bark which was laid on the ground.  They used logs later on to roll the larger boats and schooners across.
View to the southeast
This is a busy spot for launching small boats and kayaks into either lagoon to spend the day.  Part of the Intercoastal Waterway, large sailboats and motorboats pass through here daily.  I have fished there many times, catching nothing while watching paddlers unload their huge catches in front of me.  The place has a quiet appeal and the current makes paddling interesting as it changes direction with the tide.  I launched a canoe here a couple of times and spent a whole day around manatees while exploring the coastline.
How cool is it?
The new manatee watching area is nice with paved parking and a railed walkway above the water.  They have also added a thermometer to a sign so you can assure yourself the water is cool enough to attract manatees.  Educational signs have been added for children and there is school bus parking also.  The walkway has a plaque in memory of Wildlife Officer Joseph Oliveras, who served this area faithfully from 1971 to 2001.
Thank you and yours for many years of service
The Merrit Island National Wildlife Refuge surrounds this area with incredible bird watching opportunities all around.  Established in 1963 as an overlay of the Kennedy Space Center and containing 140,000 acres, it is a large place and since the shuttle program has ended, it is very quiet.  Pick up a pass at the visitor center every day from 9 am to 4 pm except Sundays and Federal Holidays, and tour Black Point Drive to see wildlife.  To fish here (for free) you need to pickup a free fishing permit.  If you want to watch large wildlife, look for turtles and alligators.  Yes, alligators seem to like the brackish salty marsh water so don't let them surprise you!
To get here, travel south on US 1 from New Smyrna, turning left onto SR 3 about two miles south of Oak Hill.  From I-95, take exit 220.  Drive east on SR406/Garden Street four miles and cross the Max Brewer Causeway Bridge.  The visitor center is 4 miles east of the bridge (stay right at the fork in the road).  To get to the Haulover Canal, take the fork in the road to the left.

Friday, July 25, 2014

River Breeze Park


The view looking south along the Indian River
River Breeze is a Volusia County park along US 1, south of New Smyrna.  The popular boat launching ramp is heavily used by fishing boats in the Mosquito Lagoon with access on the Indian River.  The 37 acre park offers restrooms, picnic tables and a playground.  The pier extends into the river along the Intercoastal Waterway along one of the most diverse water areas in America.  Check out the park brochure here..
This location is great for enjoying the outdoors, launching your fishing vessel or kayak, a picnic lunch or just spending a day with a fishing line in the water.  Canaveral National Seashore is across the lagoon and there is camping on some of the spoils islands you can see from the pier. Seminole Rest, a portion of the Canaveral National Seashore is just a couple miles down the road.
A few years ago, the Boy Scout Troop I was with camped in the woods on the north side of the property,  We visited NASA, fished and enjoyed being on the water and spent 2 nights beneath the clearest skies and stars I have ever seen in Florida.  A hiking trail runs through the old grove site there today.
If you are into birding, Merrit Island is just a short way down the road.  You can also reach the lower end of the Canveral National Seashore beaches there.
The park is not close to a large city and it is rural in nature.  I mention it because of the kayak launching, nearby National Parks and on-the-water-camping close by.  To get there, go south from New Smyrna or north from Titusville on US 1.
Shallow water by the dock and ramp