Perhaps carried by residual adrenaline from the bear sighting, we plunged into the brush and emerged unscathed on open prairie. We had settled into single file on a narrow track when Denham nearly stepped on a coral snake. Mike Duplak, the second in line, and the snake both lunged. The snake smacked into his bare leg.
Thankfully, it didn’t bite, and slithered off leaving Duplak uninjured. From a distance, we verified its “red touches yellow, kills a fellow” pattern, confirming its poisonous identity. By the time we made camp, we felt fully immersed in the wilds of Florida.
Our days had a rhythm. While there wasn’t a rush, neither was it leisurely. We started hiking around 8 a.m. We stopped by 6 p.m. Along the way, we took generous breaks in shady spots. The moderate pace and easy company made the physically demanding trip pleasurable.
In effect, the entire experience was curated, and Denham was the docent of Big Cypress. As we reached the Sunniland pipeline, he explained it was built for the first oil well in Florida. At other times he pointed out remnants of cracker cowboy camps, canals dug by walking dredges and the area where Billy Bowlegs lived at the start of the Third Seminole War.
The route took us through pine flats, hardwood hammocks and cypress domes. Some sections were so overgrown it was hard to see a few yards ahead while the raised roads beside canals gave us long views of prairie and forest. We saw deer and wood stork, rattlesnakes and lubbers.
When we missed a cutoff, we gathered around Google Earth printouts, but in effect Denham was the map. Rather than backtrack he reflowed the multitude of possibilities in his head. “We’re up to Plan C,” Denham said. “All this to keep our feet dry — a worthwhile endeavor in my eyes.” If crossing a swamp weren’t enough of a challenge, Denham strives to find a way through the maze that doesn’t get his feet wet.
Dick Ward has been on countless hikes with Denham. “I get out here and all the stress falls away,” he said. “I’ve had a taste for new things lately. It was time to get out of my box of so many square miles around the house.”
At one point, Ward got up on his tip toes to peer through the brush at a basking alligator. After looking for some time he silently resumed hiking. That quiet eagerness to simply see what was to be seen gave the trip a feeling of young boys out discovering. That sort of innocence was all the more poignant when the men acknowledged realities that included cancer treatments and unexpected second careers to supplement underfunded retirements.
Our second night out, we camped beside a palmetto stand. The evening’s entertainment was a silent fireworks display as fireflies of many colors celebrated an unnamed occasion.
Early the next morning I had wandered off on my own when a flock of ibis passed over me just 20 feet up. Most were gliding. They were close enough that I could hear the whoosh of air on feathers. Two were flapping, which had an almost percussive sound. It struck me as a moment John Cage, the composer who challenged so many definitions of music, might have appreciated.
The youngest and fittest member of the group wisely pared everything he needed for four days into a backpack that weighed less than 15 pounds. Using a carefully calibrated system developed while hiking the entire Appalachian Trail, Duplak ate only select colors of M&Ms each day. His spartan snacks were supplemented with stories of near-mythic stops for meals, including swimming across the flooded Kennebec River in Maine, soon after Hurricane Irene had passed through, in order to reach a microbrewery.