With warmer temperatures and the onset of the wet season in the next month and half or so, time is running short for taking a hike in the South Florida wilderness in (relative) comfort. So don’t wait. The bugs and mugginess will be here soon enough.
Last week, I hiked a small section of the Florida National Scenic Trail through the Big Cypress National Preserve and found the trail mostly dry, with few mosquitoes and abundant breathtaking scenery. The trail, which is managed primarily by the U.S. Forest Service with considerable volunteer help from the Florida Trail Association, is well-marked with frequent orange blazes on the trees and a sprinkling of helpful signs. Hiking about four miles north from the Oasis Visitor Center on Tamiami Trail and back and armed only with a map, I needed neither compass nor GPS.
Leaving the visitor center and the adjacent airstrip behind, I tramped mostly through dried mud and exposed limestone solution holes. Because the ground is uneven, using a walking stick and watching where you are going are mandatory.
The landscape is mostly cypress and pine, but it is interspersed at irregular intervals with brilliant, blooming bromeliads and colorful wildflowers. Overhead, an Everglades snail kite swooped and glided on the thermals of an easterly breeze. I passed a cardinal and several songbirds rustling through the greenery and heard the tapping of woodpeckers in the distance.
I think I had gone nearly three miles before coming to a large puddle in the middle of the trail, ankle deep with minnows swimming around in it. I waded cautiously, looking around to make sure not to step on a venomous cottonmouth. With water levels so low in the swamp, wild creatures will take a drink anywhere they can find one.
I rounded a bend and came face to face with two deer staring at me from about 25 yards away. Wanting to snap a photo, I moved very slowly to take my camera from my daypack. One of the animals bolted, but the other obligingly waited for me to take a couple of shots before it, too, ran off.
Arriving at a small, primitive campsite shortly after midday, I stopped to eat lunch and drink some water, then headed back south toward the visitor center. I hadn’t gone far before I spooked two deer, which might have been the same ones I encountered earlier — or not. Continuing south, I nearly ran smack into a lone doe munching on a palmetto in the middle of the path. I backed up and she kept browsing, so I took a few photos. Then she wandered off unhurriedly into the forest.
I think I might have frightened a snake with my footfalls, but it disappeared into the brush before I got a good look. From its narrow slithering path, it was too small to be a python.
Picking my way through a muddy section of the trail, I spotted the distinctive track of a Florida panther — like my cat’s paw print but bigger. I hoped I would spot the cat that made it, but I knew the chances were slim.
The rest of the trip back was uneventful. Alone in the peaceful swamp for so many hours, I was startled by the roar of a cargo plane overhead as it approached Miami International Airport.
On the boardwalk that fronts the visitor center, tourists pointed excitedly to alligators in the canal. The sight made me wonder how many stop by in their cars, talk to the rangers, and visit the gift shop, but never venture into the back country.
They are missing one of the best parts of South Florida.