Monday, April 7, 2014

Where the Water Flows Uphill

On a brisk morning in late February, six outdoorsmen set out on an adventure through the Central Florida wilderness. The goal was to traverse 22 miles through the Little Lake George wilderness in Ocala national forest. The party was to hike and small game hunt along the way. Whoever’s genius idea it was to tackle such a feat is still unknown, though much of the party places blame on one individual in particular; especially when things began to go awry. The following is an account of the adventure through the eyes of one of the outdoorsmen…

February 28th, 2014. 09:30:
Today, myself and five friends (Hunter, Mitch, Kyle, Rob, and Ian) set out on an adventure through Ocala National Forest. It’s the last weekend of small game season and I’m hopeful that we can shoot some pigs during this trip. I’ve admittedly done very little research when it comes to the path I’ve chosen, but I imagine it ought to be alright. 22 miles round trip and hunting alongside the St. Johns River. We plan to have a drop off and a pick up vehicle between our start and end spots. If all goes according to plan, and I don’t know why it wouldn’t, we will start our hike this afternoon and finish it by around lunchtime Sunday. Everyone’s beginning to show up now. I’ll update this log as the trip progresses. 

We’ve made one final stop for supplies in Palatka at the Winn-Dixie. Though I brought plenty of food, I couldn’t resist the impulse buy of summer sausage, triscuits, blue Gatorade, and cheese. Everyone else is currently devouring rotisserie chicken and other pre-cooked food like it’s their final meal. Perhaps they know something I don’t. 

All the gear is unloaded and ready at our start point. Mitch and I are about to go drop off his car and Rob will follow to drive us back. It’s a beautiful morning. Though slightly chilly, I’m looking forward to this trip. I’m glad I brought my fleece jacket. I think I’ll leave this Gatorade here as a treat for when we finish on Sunday. 

It’s time to start our adventure. Last minute preparations are underway as some of the guys are strapping down the last of their gear to their packs. The shotgun is loaded, bag is packed, and I’m feeling great. Spirits seem high. 

We’ve stumbled upon what can only be a meth house. I’m pretty sure I can still see our car from here. We’ll cautiously try to make our way around this obstacle without getting shanked. 

The vegetation throughout Little Lake George wilderness is much…thicker than Google Earth led me to believe. We’re still currently stuck walking down this dirt road. Through the brush, I can see the tree line of the swamp. That’s where I want to be. I’ll find a spot for us to cross this water-filled ditch soon, and we’ll be on our way. 
The fleece jacket was overkill. I’m practically melting at the moment. And as if sweating wasn’t enough, we managed to walk through a peculiarly wet area, thus soaking my boots and socks to the core. If there’s one thing in the world I hate, it’s wet feet. Hopefully I dry out soon. I’m glad I didn’t pack more gear. I think my bag is the perfect weight. 

Progress is rather slow. Though the edge of this swamp is relatively open, cypress knees and fallen trees continuously make travel extremely difficult. To add, six full grown men trudging through the woods are about as stealthy as a stampeding herd of bison. The woods are noticeably absent of life. I worry we may find nothing to shoot. 

We shot something. Well…by we, I mean Mitch. And by shot something, I mean he defended himself against what can only be described as a boar-tadpole. It’s big enough that it should add plenty to our food supply. A supply that, oddly enough, is beginning to run low. As is our water. 

Given our current progress, my calculations suggest that we should reach the pick-up vehicle by mid-May. Ground needs to be covered much more quickly if we expect to finish this trip. We’ve decided to forgo the swamp edge for the time being and walk through the pines further up the hill. Travel will be quicker, and it should be a bit drier up there. 

The pines further up the hill are nothing like we expected. Somehow, there’s even more standing water here than there was in the swamp. To add, there’s fallen trees every few steps; forcing us to either climb around in the shin deep water, or trip wildly every few steps. My bag is beginning to feel heavier. 

We’ve lost Hunter and Mitch. I can only assume they’ve somehow perished in this watery hell and have met their fate. All attempts to contact them have been met with silence. For the good of the group, we’re moving on. 

I brought it to Rob, Kyle, and Ian’s attention that should we miraculously complete this journey intact, we’d make it to the pick-up vehicle with no keys and no way to get back. Mitch holds the keys and we at least need that if we expect to ever make it home. 

We found Hunter and Mitch. They apparently never heard our calls despite only being a few hundred yards away. This is a strange place. Sound doesn’t travel far, and I could’ve sworn I just noticed water flowing uphill. Perhaps I’m just tired. I need to drink more water and lighten this pack. 

The nightmare labyrinth of dead pines and shin high water has yet to end. We’ve turned south now and are following the St. Johns.... I think…Everyone appears exhausted, though no one seems to be complaining. Spirits remain relatively high despite current circumstances. Each of us are soaked to the bone and everyone either has, or has almost, fallen into the water at least once. Earlier, I heard Ian shout, “Wha…Well…Yep…I’m going down”, and I turned to see him falling. In this bizarre twilight zone of wilderness, I watched him gracefully fall for close to 30 seconds before hitting the ground. And as if that wasn’t surprising enough, he landed on probably the only piece of dry land within a hundred miles. There’s no logic in this place. 

If my body had to guess, we’ve been walking for days. The GPS claims we’ve come 3.2 miles, but I don’t trust it. It hasn’t seen what we’ve seen. We’re at the edge of the swamp again and have stopped to take a water break. Ironically, many of us are beginning to run low on water. There’s talk of blue Gatorades, but at this point, they seem an unachievable treat. The high spirits are beginning to wane. We must break free from this hell. 

A look to the south reveals no end to this misery. The same mysterious, and interminable mire stretches out beyond the vanishing point in the direction we need to go. The bugs are horrendous, and as the day stretches on, we’re shortened for time to find a suitable campground. I doubt the guys want to sleep in the water, so we need to find dry land before nightfall. The liar GPS says there’s a road 0.4 miles to our west. We’ll believe it when we see it, though given that all the water around us is flowing uphill (to the west), dry ground cannot be far. 

We’ve found the road! High fives all around. Now we just need a suitable campsite. My pack has gained 30lbs since we left, and I expect I will have shrunk 2-3 inches by the end of this trip. 

Everyone has decided on a campground. Though the land here is dry, all the potential fire wood surrounding us is soaking wet. To add, everything here was recently burned, and the woods are scorched. Our fire is absolutely pathetic thanks to the wet wood. Some of the guys began rationing water earlier today and while we sit around the smudge of a fire in a vain attempt to dry ourselves, it’s clear that some are becoming delirious with dehydration. We’ve watched the fire die twice now without any attempts to save it. Spirits are low. I can feel the group breaking. 

Summer sausage cooked over a fire is one of the greatest things in the world. I’m not sure what the suggested serving size is, but I devoured half of it in one sitting. Everyone seems to be in a better mood now that we’ve got some food in us. Kyle and Hunter have constructed some boot hanging mechanism over the flames in an attempt to dry their shoes. My old boots simply never dry out once wet, so I’ll keep them away from the fire. 

It’s been drawn to my attention that I’ve inadvertently covered my face in soot. I suppose dragging charred dead wood to the fire put soot all over my hands, and I have a terrible habit of touching my face. The coal miner and black lung jokes have begun. 

Hunter was busily taking pictures of the fire when we all suddenly noticed that it had gotten MUCH brighter around camp. Upon closer inspection, we discovered Hunter’s snake boots had burst into flames while drying over the fire. Unable to stomp out the flames barefoot, those sitting next to him threw sand in an attempt to smother the raging inferno. Delirious with a mixture of exhaustion and dehydration, Kyle and I could do nothing but offer hysterical laughter. Mitch’s boot laces were also torched in the flames. Much of my soot covered face is clean thanks to my tears. 

After discovering my headlamp has stopped working, I’ve opted to face plant. Just the thought of walking or carrying my thousand pound pack will surely put me to sleep. Ian, Kyle, and Rob are having an intense conversation about blue Gatorades outside my tent. 

March 1st, 2014. 07:10
Everything I own is wet. I will never again know the feeling of being completely dry. Somehow, even with the rain fly on, my tent gathered dew on the inside. This place continues to defy logic. Upon exiting my tent, I caught Rob licking the morning dew from his hammock. The water situation is becoming dire. I gave him a swig from my canteen. 

We just broke camp and are on our way back down the road. Our goal is to get as close to the pick-up vehicle as possible, then strike camp and hunt for the evening. First things first, we must escape this watery hell. The roads hold standing water, and it’s going to be another wet day. 

We’ve covered remarkable distance since leaving camp this morning. We actually made it to the road that our pick up vehicle is parked on. Spirits are much, MUCH higher and we’ve stopped for lunch on the side of the road. In an attempt to get my pack to weigh less than a ton, I’m eating as much food as possible. The land here is dry and with any luck we’ll not only find a good campsite, but also some game to eat. Everyone’s diving into their food reserves with ravenous hunger. We need to find some pigs. 

We saw a squirrel; something so rare that everyone but Hunter and Mitch stood around dumbfounded. Those two gave chase but were too late. The mythical beast had escaped. It was the first sign of life we’d seen since yesterday’s massive tadpole incident. We’ve high hopes that that wasn’t the only squirrel in the forest. They’d go great with blue Gatorades. 

By the grace of The Almighty himself, a suitable campsite has been found. There’s plenty of room for everyone, and enough firewood to have an actual fire tonight. The sudden lack of water is of slight concern as Rob and Hunter are dangerously low. How we ventured from a watery hell to this dry, barren wasteland, I’ll never understand. 

Everyone has broken up into small groups to look for game. I found a lizard, but doubted I’d find it should I hit it with the slug from my shotgun. It was too fast for me to catch. My hunger grows. 

I’ve given up on hunting for the evening and have decided to get the fire started at camp. I left Ian, Kyle, and Rob to continue looking for food. Hunter and Mitch are off somewhere…Hopefully not lost forever again. I did just hear a shot. Perhaps they’ve slain another tadpole. 

The fire is roaring and I’m busily eating every last bit of food in my pack. Somehow, it continues to gain weight despite my best efforts. My summer sausage is almost completely gone, as is most of my water. What little I have left I’m saving for the hike out in the morning. Ian, Kyle, and Rob are here and they too have begun to chow down. Kyle managed to kill a lizard with his knife. He, at least, won’t starve tonight.  Hunter and Mitch are still missing. 

Hunter and Mitch have made it back, and with food! A real life, honest to God squirrel. He’s currently cleaning it. He also brought water, though I’m unsure how safe it is to drink. Apparently pulled from a rotten stump, it still has the color of Jagermeister. I’ll just keep sipping my water and pretend it’s blue Gatorade. 

Even split six ways, that was the best squirrel any of us have ever eaten. Spirits couldn’t be higher. As I stare into the flames, I can’t help but feel thankful. This trip was almost over and today had been infinitely better than yesterday. I’m overly thankful not only for the chance to do such a trip, but for having good friends crazy enough to follow me through such a mess. Though the trip has been a little rough, everyone seems glad to be on it. The only thing that could make life better right now is some blue Gatorades. 

The fire has begun to die down and everyone has retreated to their tents. Tomorrow will be a short morning hike to the car and a relaxing afternoon in civilization. Everyone seems eager to get home. 

There’s talk amongst the tents of Gainesville. Promises that we’re within two hours of sitting happily at a bar with a tall beer, or even blue Gatorade. The debate on making a night hike out of the woods to the car is underway right now. 

The decision has been made. The night hike is a go. Camp is to be broken immediately. 

I’ve never seen a camp broken so quickly. Tents are packed back up and everyone’s ready to go. My pack suddenly feels like it weighs nothing. 

We were reminded that many of us had yet to fire their weapon during this entire trip. We took a brief moment to empty pistol clips into a nearby tree. One cannot simply escape the wild and still have all their ammo. 

I’ve never night hiked before. The sliver of moon overhead lights the path in front of me and the pale sugar sand of the road marks the way home as it glows in the night. My headlamp is still broken, but I can see fine without it. The stars are out and with the sun gone, it’s beginning to get cool. The chilly night breeze feels great and the soft rustling of the nearby trees are only broken by rhythmic swishing of boot steps in soft sand. We’ll be to the car before we know it. 

Never before have full grown men been more excited to see a Honda CRV. We all quickly crammed inside and are now on our way to find blue Gatorades. 

The Dollar General in Ft. McCoy is closed. Much like Little Lake George wilderness, there is no logic in this place. I’m not sure whether it’s the stump water talking, but Hunter seemed physically hurt to discover he couldn’t get blue Gatorades yet. 

I’m not sure how out of the norm it is for a group of disheveled, and grungy looking guys to stagger into a gas station in Palatka Florida at nearly midnight and empty the cooler of its blue Gatorades. But I fear it wasn’t too bizarre as the cashier barely blinked an eye at us. I think I can speak for everyone when I say that it feels good to be out of the woods. The ride back to Gainesville won’t take too long, but I doubt any of us will be going to the bar when we return. I think it’s going to be straight to bed. 

We survived Little Lake George wilderness and despite some troubles, honestly had a blast. Had it not been for the great group of friends, the trip would have been sheer misery. But with the right group of people, we managed to turn a trip like that into a great time and certainly a hunting trip none of us will forget anytime soon. I’m sure we’ll try something like that again soon, but next time we’ll be sure to pack a little lighter, walk a little easier, and stay a little drier. 

Oh, and bring blue Gatorades.