Big O Hike, a Lake Okeechobee holiday tradition



Every Thanksgiving week since 1991, a group of hardy souls — from elementary-school age to octogenarians — have embarked on a one-of-a-kind, nine-day hiking adventure circling Lake Okeechobee.

And this past holiday was no different.

More than 100 people signed up for all or part of the 2013 Big O Hike, which began Nov. 23 and concluded last Sunday, and was hosted by the Loxahatchee chapter of the Florida Trail Association.

Most walked for just a day or two, but 25 hikers completed the 94-mile route, shortened from the usual 109-mile circle because of ongoing dike work by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They received certificates with a color photo of the lake for their accomplishment.

“The hike was a little different because of the dike repairs,” coordinator Sandra Friend of Sanford said. “We don’t want to take people on roadways.”

The hike began atop the Herbert Hoover dike at the Port Mayaca locks in Palm Beach County and wound counter-clockwise to finish in Pahokee. To avoid speeding cars and trucks and make up for some of the lost distance, Friend arranged a couple of bonus hikes — one on the Florida Trail along the Kissimmee River and another to the Fort Center archeological site beside Fisheating Creek near Lakeport.

But participants spent most of their time following the dike’s paved path — singly, in pairs and small groups — the best way to view one of the country’s largest freshwater bodies of 730 square miles.

Beginning before dawn most days, hikers carried only day packs with basic supplies. Many captured glorious sunrises, panoramic landscapes of sugarcane and cattle lands, soaring birds and swimming gators, at least one unhappy cottonmouth snake, and a tiki hut chicken coop with their cameras. The group usually completed its daily segment by lunchtime and returned to local campgrounds under a car-shuttle system. Off-trail activities included a visit to the Clewiston Museum; daily happy hours at KOA campgrounds in Okeechobee and Clewiston; and a “semi-talent” show featuring poetry, stand-up comedy, and song and dance following Thanksgiving dinner at the Lodge at the Lake in Okeechobee.

Retirees Paul Cummings of Lake Worth and Gordon Johnson, who now lives at the Villages in north-central Florida, launched the Big O hike and have completed the circle 20 times. This year, they turned over coordination duties to Friend and her significant other, John Keatley, and took things easy, skipping a few segments.

“It really is a social event rather than a long hike intended to wear you out and test your endurance,” Cummings said. “We hope it’s a fun thing with a little exercise built into it.”

Gail Johnson, 62, and her husband, Dan — both veteran long-distance trekkers — travelled all the way from their home in Pickens, S.C., to join the Big O hike for the first time. The Johnsons previously had backpacked around the lake three times by themselves.

“It was fun that way, but a lot of road walking and you had to figure out where you were going to get water,” Gail said of the couple’s previous trips. “It’s hard to find a good campsite. I wanted to get out of town for the cold weather. It was 22 degrees when we left. I wanted to be out in the sunshine catching UV rays.”

Lolly Tharpe, 75, a retired nurse from Sebring, also is a veteran backpacker, completing the Florida Trail from the Big Cypress National Preserve all the way to the Panhandle; the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine; and the Camino de Santiago in France and Spain — all in the past 15 years. She embarked on the Lake O hike with two friends. When they left early, Tharpe stuck it out to completion.

“I’ve never been around Lake Okeechobee,” Tharpe said. “It’s a nice hike. You’re camping. It’s sociable. People are friendly.”

For several hikers, spending the Thanksgiving holiday walking around all or part of the big lake is an annual event that they hope to repeat next year. But Cummings said the future of the event is in doubt since Friend and Keatley are unable to continue as coordinators.

“Next year, we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Cummings said. “Unless we can find someone to pass it on to, we might have to take a little break.”

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