27 Miles in Citrus County

Some outdoor experiences are worthwhile not because of your enjoyment, but because of what they teach you.

My dad and I hiked a portion of the Withlacoochee State Forest Citrus Tract which totaled about 27 miles over two days. We started at Mutual Mine campground and camped at Jackson and then caught a loop back to Mutual Mine to finish.

I have a bit of a love hate relationship with hiking in Florida because I love hiking but enjoy it a little less in the heat and pine flats. I was also weary of going on this particular trip because I’ve been having some ankle problems due to a ligament strain, but we’re preparing to hike the High Sierra Trail and being outside is good for the soul.

Suffice it to say I was quite miserable and spent a lot time crying while I was walking. Hiking 27 miles in bad boots with a bum ankle isn’t the best life decision, I’ll admit.

Life is crazy in that the really hard things are often a way we learn valuable lessons though. Once I limped my way to our campsite we built a fire and made friends with two women on a backpacking trip and a couple who were self-proclaimed “white trash” according to the sticker on their truck parked where the trail crossed the road. Its easy to make quick decisions about people, and that was a mistake we made.

The women seemed aloof and anti-social while we assumed the couple was your typical rednecks. The problem here are the words “seemed” and “assumed.” Dad started a fire and we set up our backpacking chairs and slowly our campsite-mates joined us. The two women, who were just tired from a long day of hiking, shared stories about their jobs and other outdoor trips and listened to my stories of my outdoor semester. The couple shared their food and chairs and water with everyone along with facts about the plants in the forest they were trying to learn about in order to know more about the land. We had a lovely evening of getting to knowing each other and sharing s’mores over the warm fire. It was a good reminder in not making assumptions about people before knowing them.

I also relearned another lesson about myself. On my outdoor semester I was put in many situations that required resolve and mental fortitude. Some were very hard and made me want to give up. But time after time I chose not to give up. I didn’t realize how tenacious I was until someone pointed it out to me. That realization changed my whole perception of myself because it showed me the strength I had in me and a steely determination I could tap into.


On this hike I wanted to sit in the dirt, take my boots off, and give up. But more than that I wanted to finish what I started, plus have something more comfortable than the dirt to sit on. So with tears running down my face and many sounds of discomfort and frustration I walked those 27 miles. At one point my dad turned around and said, “I was listening to NPR,” which was a phrase spoken often on this trip, “and they were talking about a new thing people look for in their employees and leaders. That thing is grit.” He explained grit to me as strength and determination, and then told me I had grit. I smiled and rolled my eyes a little, at first writing it off as a cheesy encouragement to help make the hike better. But once we finished walking I pondered that a little more and remembered being applauded by other people for not giving up and being told that I’m quietly brave. The reminder made me smile for real.

IMG_7221

Post-hike happiness

Theres something about the outdoors that compels me to push myself. I’m not sure if its a desire to say “Look what I did!” or a want to prove something to myself or grow or just do cool things, or maybe all of the above. But I often find that being outside helps me be the best version of myself. I feel closer to the Lord, less distracted, and strong, plus it absolutely is a confidence boast to do cool things.

So, even though my feet are still a little sore, my ankle is more swollen, and the cartilage in my heels is a lil crunchy it was still worth it.

The hard things usually are.

Advertisements

20 Miles on the Florida Trail

Citrus County Wildlife Management Area, Withlachocee State Forest, Taylor Campsite, 20 miles

——————————————-

On one of the coldest weekends of the year my dad and I set out from Mutual Mine campsite in Withlacoochee State Forest to hike part of the Florida Trail.

For this trip I wore long sleeves, leggings, a wool cap, Darn Tough socks, and Vasque hiking boots. I packed my sleeping bag, my poncho liner (also known as a woobie), a vest, mid-weight layer, sleeping pad, mug, and a short sleeved shirt (juuuuust in-case it decided to warm up.) (It didn’t).

We hiked roughly 13 miles the first day to get to Taylor Campsite, a primitive site with plenty of space for many chilly hikers and a fire.

The day was cloudy and the landscape relatively flat, minus a few hills and the Lizzie Hart sink. Our pace was about three miles an hour and we stopped for a ten minute break at the top of each hour.

Once we arrived at our campsite we were greeted by two hikers who had already set up camp for the night and, thankfully, had a fire going. We set our Big Agnes tent up as fast as we could and then put our backpacking chairs up in front of the fire.

After some s’mores and long exposure pictures of the fire, hikers midnight (9pm) rolled around and the cold had gotten to us, so we climbed into our woobie lined sleeping bags for a brisk night in nature.

The next morning was beautiful because the sun was coming up, but convincing myself to climb out of my sleeping bag into the frosty air was a challenge. Nevertheless we packed up, had some oatmeal, said goodbye to our new friends and set off, hot tea in hand.

To finish off our loop we walked about seven miles, at a slower pace because we were out of hiking shape and my hiking boots betrayed me by accosting my feet with blisters.

The sun warmed us some even though the air was still chilly, but it made for a gorgeous hiking day.

All told we were back to the car around 11am and home in time for the Steelers game.

IMG_0160

OLDS: Sea Kayaking

For our last wilderness section the water and I met again. If you remember from my River post  the water is not my favorite place to be, and this definitely held true for sea kayaking as well.

IMG_0565

Prepping before leaving camp!

This section began with a ten hour roadtrip down to Florida, which was a blast. Once we arrived in FL we practiced wet exits from our boats and maneuvering in the water. Before setting off we also had to pack 7 days worth of food, our clothing, tents, sleeping bags, journals and bibles, camp stoves, etc and enough water to have a gallon a day per person into the two hatches on each of our kayaks.

We took this trip in the Everglades and camped on islands, ground sites (campsites attached to the mainland), and chickees, which are raised wooden platforms. The islands were by far the favorite places to camp. They were not as buggy or hot as the chickees and ground sites and it was fun to hang out on the beach and be able to shell hunt and build fires in the sand. On the islands you had to beware of raccoons though, as they are notorious for opening the hatches on kayaks and stealing the fresh water. Luckily, none of our water was stolen.

Sea kayaking was radically different from all the other wilderness trips we went on. Even basic things like packing and cooking were different. We had spent three months packing 100 liter backpacks, and now we had to pack the same items but into boats, and make sure no sand got into our stoves.

The environment was different as well; we spent all day paddling on the ocean rather than hanging out in the mountains under the trees. Instead of wondering if we’d run into deer and bears we saw sharks, turtles, lots of alligators, sting rays, manatees, and dolphins.

It was interesting to put our knowledge and previous experiences up to a completely different environment and activity.
It was challenging, really challenging, for all of us.
The ocean is tough; it pushes and shoves you and reflects the sun back up at you and makes you sandy and salty. Unlike when you’re walking in the woods, we were at the mercy of the tide, which could either help us along or push us back.

Along with the physical challenge, I found there was a mental and spiritual challenge as well. The whole atmosphere of OLDS was unreal: we were cut off from the realities and distractions of the outside world and as such could focus on our relationships with Christ and building community in a way that is difficult to replicate in the real world. I know that for the whole section having to go back to reality soon weighed on me. We were all a little apprehensive about going home and leaving that environment.

In total we spent 7 days out on the ocean. The first day we paddled out on a channel through mangroves to get to the open ocean. The mangroves produce these long green seed pods that we nicknamed cucumbers. I was in the back of the line everyday on this section with the sweep (which is the person designated to bring up the rear of the group) and on the first day we made a game out of seeing who could throw the most “cucumbers” into someone else’s boat. We camped on an island called Pavilion the first night, and it was one of my favorite campsites from the whole semester. On a walk around the island we found a dead sea turtle which had been preserved from the salty air and saw the bones of many horseshoe crabs.

IMG_0576

The undead turtle 

On day 2 I was Leader of the Day (LOD), which meant that I was supposed to stay in the lead and set the pace, but as previously stated I was in the back the entire time. For lunch we stopped off at an island and later landed at a campsite called Lopez River, which was a very swampy ground site.

10/10 would not recommend camping in a swamp.

On day 3 one of my friends noticed that I was paddling really ineffectively and showed me how to do it correctly, which served to fix some of my slow pace issues. This night we stayed on a chickee. This was a fascinating experience because we had to sit on top of our kayaks while they floated to unpack our things. Precariously balancing on top of water we knew was home to many alligators was quite thrilling. All ten of us were also confined to two small wooden platforms connected by a small walkway; we had to rub shoulders the whole time because there was literally no where else to go. Alligators also circled us almost the whole night, which again was both interesting and also slightly terrifying.

The next day we paddled to another island called Mormon Key to camp at. On the way we met up with the rest of our group for a game of frisbee because the tide was so low. We also saw a shark, sea turtle, and manatee, which for me was definitely a highlight. We had a lot of the day left after we landed so we were able to explore the island and have some time to relax and hang out on the beach. On this night we left our kayaks too close to the shoreline and had it not been for one of the instructors waking up in the middle of the night some of them would have floated away as the tide came up, which would have put a significant damper on the next morning.

Day 5 was both the worst and the best day of sea kayaking. We left early in an attempt to go out with the tide, but the tide and the wind actually ended up pushing against us almost the whole paddle. It was very hot, I was very slow, and almost the whole pod had gone on ahead. It was me and the sweep, by necessity, in the back of the pod. One of our friends ended up waiting for us and the three of us spent the last 40 or so minutes of the paddle goofing off and having a good time and creating the Low Tide Paddling Pod (LTPP!). It ended up becoming one of my favorite memories of the whole semester 🙂
Once we landed on the island (Pavilion again) we were able to walk out where the tide had gone out and see all manner of marine life: starfishes, conchs, scallops, crabs, little fish, and many other things I couldn’t identify.

IMG_0572

The Low Tide Paddling Pod!

The next day we had a zero day and were able to explore the island, contemplate our semester, go swimming, and just relax and hang out before the impending end of our time together.

On the last day we began paddling at 4:45am to beat the tide. We paddled under the stars and moon, which was very eerie but also very beautiful. One of the most spectacular things I’ve ever witnessed was the sun rising over the ocean while floating on a kayak in the ocean. There was no obstructions from seeing the sky come alive and turn the ocean into a fire for a little bit. This was another difficult day, and it concluded a difficult but overall growing and fun section.

Shortly after we ended paddling one of my friends asked me if it was worth it, despite all the challenges. And it was, every moment of strife and frustration and feeling like I couldn’t do it was worth it, because these are the things that make us grow and help us realize our strength and potential. And much like on other sections, I learned again to not doubt myself so much, to lean on the people around me for strength and encouragement, to loosen up and have fun, and most of all to give my frustrations to God and let Him take care of them.

On this section we studied Ephesians 6:10-23, which is the armor of God. This was very fitting and uplifting because we were able to dive into the tools God has given us to live for Him most effectively right before going back out into the real world.

Some of the highlights from my notes are:

Asking how the enemy attacks me and becoming aware of that to better combat it.

“Forgiveness is easier when we see our sins and the sins of others in the light of satan and the flesh at work.” -realize that we are all fallen and broken and have things to work on.

We are most effective when we are wearing the whole armor, not just pieces of it.

IMG_0581

 

Wekiwa Springs

Taking a break from my wilderness semester blogging to catch ya’ll up on a more recent excursion!

From 12 May to 13 May my dad and I camped at Wekiwa Springs State Park, which is in the Orlando area. The park boosts paddling on Wekiva River and Rock Springs Run, camp sites ranging from RV hook ups, tent sites with water and electricity available, to primitive sites that can only be accessed by canoe or kayak, an educational nature center, hiking and horse trails, and a spring-fed swimming hole.

My dad and I arrived around 5pm, set up our hammocks at our campsite, and went for a swim in the spring water. The water was crystal clear and 72 degrees, which is where it stays year round. Because this park is so popular a small beach has been built around the water and there are steps that can be used to enter the water in order to make it more user friendly.

Our campsite was very populated with tents as well as campers and RVs, there was even one refurbished school bus. Every campsite had been reserved for the weekend so we had may neighbors.

For dinner we had Good to Go meals, which are dehydrated meals you add boiling water to and then eat! Not quite as satisfying as cooking over a camp stove, but definitely better than an MRE. After some chitchatting around a would be fire if not for a state-wide fire ban we each climbed into our bug netted hammocks for bed.

For breakfast we had tea and coffee courtesy of an MSR pocket rocket and oatmeal, which I made bearable with a handful of craisins and some Nutella.

Wekiwa struck me as a very family friendly and easily accessible place to camp and hike. People of all outdoors skill levels and interests could find something to do here. I cannot speak for the primitive sites, but the sites with water access and electricity hookup were perfect for someone looking for an easy car camping trip.

Though being very populated and therefore noisy with much artificial light it was a nice place to sleep outside for a short, quickly planned one night camping trip. However, for someone looking for a more authentic wilderness camping experience I would recommend a less popular camping area or checking out a primitive site.

IMG_8198

Underwater selfie game strong

Summer Camping

Camping in the summer? In Florida?

Definitely as crazy as it sounds, yup.

Although not terrible 🙂

//

27-28 May 2016
Withlacoochee State Forest, primitive campsite

My dad and I packed everything up on Friday and walked 4 miles into our campsite from the state forest parking lot.

We stayed at a primitive campsite, meaning there was no water source or close neighboring sites. We had a picnic table, fire pit, plenty of space for a tent, and almost perfect hammocking trees.

IMG_1418

After setting up camp we hiked over to the river (Withlacoochee River) in order to cool off. The river had a nice sandy shore and down a little from where we were a rope swing hung above the water. The water was murky and had an orange tint from the trees. Lots of bubbles attached to unseen river life appeared on the surface mysteriously.

 

After swimming we came back to camp and had a dinner of MREs and a fire building lesson. After hanging out for a bit we went to bed. It was terribly hot, almost too hot to sleep, but our insomnia was awarded with the nostalgic sight of fireflies lighting up the night sky.

On Saturday we hiked a ten mile loop off of our campsite. Hiking in Florida in the summertime is not necessarily something I say I recommend. The heat was almost unbearable, making the hike a lot less pleasant than it could have been. I also got a number of blisters from my hiking boots…not the best day spent on the trail.  Following another lunch of MREs and some more hanging out in our hammocks (ha ha, get it?) we packed up camp and headed home.

//

2o-21 August 2016
Withlacooche State Forest, Crooked River campgrounds, site 63

For this camping trip we opted to stay in one of the tent only campgrounds, meaning each campsite was marked off with a number and came equipped with a potable water source, a place to park your car, a picnic table, a firepit with a removable grate, bathhouse access, and the potential for neighbors.

IMG_2942

On Friday afternoon we set up our tent and hammocks, but this time we had bugs nets for our hammocks as well. We hiked a trail right along the river, but I am unsure of the mileage. The trail was very canopied and the sky was a little cloudy and it was almost evening time, so the weather felt very pleasant.

After finishing the hike we attempted to build a fire. We started out with a cottonswab soaked in vaseline (it works, I swear), tinder, and twigs. Following that we added more twigs and then bigger pieces of wood, stoking the coals and flames along the way. All things considered, it should have been a great fire, but all the rain we’ve been getting had made everything damp so the flames never quite caught the bigger pieces of wood. We worked at the fire for almost an hour, adding lint, steel wool, more wood, trail maps, several more matches, and even toilet paper, but it never become a solid, roaring fire. However, we did manage to get enough flames to make a few s’mores and thats really what matters most.

After s’mores we had an MRE dinner and then played a couple hands of a card game called Spit that I learned at summer camp from some campers. Around nine we climbed into our bug netted hammocks for bed (the tent was set up incase it started to rain at night). After about an hour of reading Harry Potter with my headlamp I went to bed. In my hammock (ENO double nest) I had a small inflatable backpacking pillow and a woobie, which is a poncho liner that is standard issue in the army. Essentially, its a poncho liner that can also be a blanket, rain tarp, insulator, something to sleep on top off, etc. Its thin and light but also warm and rain resistant. 10/10 would recommend getting one off Amazon.

I slept very well in my hammock. The air was cool so I wasn’t hot, the wind was minimal, and it didn’t end up raining after all. The moon was so bright it practically lit up the whole sky.

RIMG0218

The next morning after an MRE breakfast and coffee and tea courtesy of a small portable camp stove we packed up camp and drove to our next hike location. We hiked a short 2 miles in another part of the Withlacooche. The heat and bugs were killer, so we hiked short and then drove on the dirt roads cutting through the woods before going home.

//

Camping in Florida in summer might be slightly insane, but, despite heat and bugs, not summer is complete without a camping trip.

 

Weeki Wachee River

Kayaking on the Weeki Wachee, 25 March 2016

The Weeki Wachee is located in Weeki Wachee, FL and boasts crystal clear spring-fed water that is 72 degrees all year round.  The clear water allows you to see the bottom of the river, swimming fish and turtles, and maybe even manatees.

The wilderness on the banks of the river is characteristic Florida nature- thick and swampy with many different bird species making it their home.

It is 7.4 miles in total, but most people do a 5.5 mile paddle, from Paddling Adventures (a canoe/kayak rental shop and launch site) to Rogers Park. //

Specs:

  • No manatees spotted
  • Lots of fish, turtles, and birds spotted
  • Photos taken on Ricoh WG-M1
  • Lunch of sandwiches, fruit, and pitachips
  • One rope swing swung off of (not by me)
  • One person dunked into the water (me)
  • Minimal sun and bugs
  • Two yellow kayaks, one red, one blue, and one hoopty blue canoe
  • Three college students, two parents, and one adopted parent

RIMG0220RIMG0222RIMG0234RIMG0211RIMG0229