We have about a 4 week winter break here as grad students at West Virginia University so my girlfriend Kristen and I decided we would take a trip to somewhere warm for the winter! Our ideas were Big Bend National Park, somewhere in Arizona or Florida. Well we decided to take the easy route for us and drive Kristen’s green, racing stripe Mini Cooper because it gets good gas mileage and has a surprising amount of trunk space, plus we pack light. We wanted to drive so we had the freedom to go anywhere we wanted to on a whim and I have to say that this was the right choice. We ended up going to all kinds of places that we hadn’t planned.
December 29th, 2015
We left early in the morning from Morgantown, WV with a goal to get to Kristen’s sister’s house in Jacksonville, Fl that night. It’s about an 11 hour drive there and then about 8 more hours the next day to Key West where we wanted to hang around for New Years celebration in a few days. When we got to Kristen’s sister’s we thought about going to Big Cypress National Preserve before going to the Keys because we couldn’t find a place to camp or stay.
The next morning we made our way down to Big Cypress and asked where we could backcountry camp and were told we could walk north from the Oasis Visitor Center but that finding dry ground to tent on could be difficult. Turns out the visitor center is also the southern terminus of the Florida Trail. We got a backcountry permit which was $4 a person and we decided to head out on the trail and see if we could find somewhere to camp for the night then walk back in the morning. Near the visitor center there was a deeper canal that was full of alligators in the 5-8 foot range and the trees on the edge of the water were full of water birds like Anhingas, Cormerants and Herons of all kinds. The trail was just how I had seen it from pictures of friends who had walked this section of the FT. It was very warm out, probably mid 70s to low 80s in the evening when we started walking. After half a mile of walking through thick grasses along an airstrip or something like that we met the swamp as the trail went into the water. Now when most people think of swamp water it is brown and stinky but this water is crystal clear and warm. Little minnows dart away from your feet and little plants like bladderwort bloom on floating rafts of greenery. In all directions it’s a sea of sawgrass with scattered Cypress domes and islands of pine trees and palmetto. We walked until it got dark and made it to a pine island where we put up our tent frantically as the mosquitoes emerges in full force as soon as the sun set. We got into the tent and so did about 20 skeeters in the 10 seconds it took us to crawl in and zip it up. All night there was the evil buzz of mosquitoes swarming the tent. That and the hot humid air made sleeping a challenge.
A nice big gator!
- Green Heron waiting to strike Great Egret with a feather in its mouth.White IbisWood StorkSnowy EgretDouble Crested Cormorant Anhinga
Cypress dome in the distance. Cypress trees are in the same family as redwoods and sequoias and grow in domes on the swamp because the water in the center of the dome is deeper than the edges, allowing the trees in the middle to grow taller and be more vigorous.
We walked the few miles out back to the Oasis Visitor Center and packed up for out next location. We decided to hit up Everglades West, which is mostly mangroves and salt water, compared to the freshwater plains and swamps at Everglades East. Our plan was to rent a canoe from the park and paddle out to a chickee, which is a raised platform with a roof in the water for people to camp on. Think AT shelter in the mangroves. Well when we got to the park most of the campsites and chickees were full but by good luck there was a campsite still available called Lopez only 7 miles by paddling. Though we were warned it is mosquito and no-see-um central. We booked it anyway! About $14 for the site and backcountry permit and we had a place to stay in the Everglades! Also this area is very easy to get lost or turned around because there are little mangrove islands and keys all over the landscape and they look the same at a distance so we made sure out map was safe and our phones were charged. We got our canoe for 2 days for $80 and then went to buy supplies before we launched. I went to the the library in Everglades City and bought a fishing license and then got some bait at a bait shop. I wanted to feesh. We drove the few miles back, loaded up our boat and took to the water! There was a Roseate Spoonbill around the launch site as we started out trip! What a cool bird!
As we got to paddling I started trolling a lure behind the canoe and it didn’t take long to start catching a bunch of little fish!
About halfway to our destination we stopped on an oyster bar to rest and walk around in the shallow water near Chokoloskee Island. We picked up the oysters and found lots of neat crabs and other critters among them. Some whelks were also cruising along the ground. I love finding animals I’ve never been around!
We continued paddling towards our campsite but the wind started to pick up and it was blowing our canoe in the opposite direction we were trying to go, making for some very tiring and frustrating hours. Eventually the wind started making the waves on the water large enough that they were almost splashing into the canoe and it made travel sketchy. We had to keep trying to point the nose of the canoe into the waves and around this same time we realized we started going up the wrong river mouth and our campsite was still very far away in into the wind. I got worried our canoe was going to get swamped and it and all our gear would sink and even though the water was probably only 4-5 feet deep, the soft mud would prevent us from flipping the canoe upside down to get the water out like you would in a river. So we started paddling back towards Chololoskee Island to get to less turbulent, shallower water. It was also getting late in the evening and we only had a few hours of sun left. We didn’t want to keep trying in vain to get to our far away campsite in the dark against the wind on a mosquito island. With this in mind we decided to head back to the canoe livery, put up our canoe and then camp somewhere. We’d come back in the morning and grab our canoe and go the opposite direction we went today to check out some little islands.
Once we got back around Chokoloskee the wind was hitting us sideways which was far less exhausting and we made it to the livery before dark. We got in the Mini Cooper and headed to a bridge where I fished for a little bit as the sun set. I caught a few hardhead catfish and tossed them back. Kristen got a really cool photo of the sunset in the meantime.
We had been told that there was a place to camp at Bear Lake if we took a gravel road 839 for 20 miles through Big Cypress. I was also excited for this because I always wanted to night cruise backwoods roads in the Everglades to look for snakes. So we took off down the road and it didn’t take long to find lots of frogs. Then after a few false snakes in the form of shadows, sticks or garbage Kristen said she saw a snake moving so we stopped quickly and I jumped out to see what it was! Sure enough it was a snake! And not just any snake, one of the coolest snakes in the states! A Scarlet Snake!!! First one I’ve ever seen! This beautiful little guy is a mimic of the venomous Coral Snake that also lives in Florida, but it’s not a perfect mimic. Coral Snakes and Scarlet Snakes both have alternating rings of red, yellow and black but only the Coral Snake has yellow stripes touching the red stripes. A Coral Snake’s rings also go all the way around its belly but Scarlet Snakes have a white belly. Though you should probably just not touch any snake you can’t identify.
As we were stopped holding the snake a car drove up and asked if we needed any help, and I said nope just looking for snakes and showed him the critter. The man said, “Ohhh!” In a slightly disgusted tone and quickly drove off. After some glamour shots I moved the little guy out of the road so it won’t be run over by another car.
We continued looking for snakes and other critters on our drive but just kept seeing frogs and about a dozen opposums. That was until we saw some large green eyes reflect just up the road. At the same time we said whoa did you see that?! That looked different from the opposums so we raced up to try and see it closer. As we did we see the occasional eye shine again! Holy shit. It’s a Florida Panther we both say. We’d been seeing panther crossing signs all over Big Cypress and now we were behind one of the endangered Eastern Mountain Lions. We sped up to try and get a good look but it matched our speed. We were so amped up about seeing one but somehow after 5 minutes of going 40 mph it was still ahead of us occasionally seeing the eye shine! It was like trying to catch a legendary Pokemon but in real life. Eventually we got closer to the shine and our excitement turned to disbelief. The eyes shine was just lights from a distant elevated highway… Allowing brief views of two headlights that looked to us like a cats eyes. We had a real good laugh at ourselves. We were so sure we were afternoon a panther. I’ll tell you what though, the adrenaline and excitement of the chase was so real. We had a blast anyway.
Just before we made it to the campsite we saw some orange eyes reflecting on the road that also didn’t look like an opossum. As we got closer we saw a big 8 foot or so alligator crossing the road!! I hopped out to get a closer look and to see what it would do. He stayed still until I was about 15 feet away and then he let out a big loud hiss to warn me. I took a couple pictures of him and then he was done and launched himself into the brush creating a loud thrashing noise so we ran back to the car with adrenaline pumping. I love alligators!!! They’re so cool! Hissy face
We made it to our campsite and drank one of our homemade Nut Brown Ales to celebrate New Years and hit the hay as the rednecks in their RV fought the next campsite over. What a long and eventful day.
We woke up at sunrise and got back to our canoe in the early morning. The bay this time was dead calm. It made for some beautiful and quiet paddling. Our first destination was a small group of keys a mile or two away. Once we arrived we tied the canoe to a mangrove tree and explored the small jagged patch of land. Many pelicans inhabited the trees on the island and big fish were jumping all around it so I started to fish, but to no avail.
Next we went to check out a neighboring key that was completely covered in mangrove trees. When we arrived the whole island was made of oyster and whelk shells and it was a tangle of mangrove roots but still open enough to walk around. However after about 1 minute an absolute swarm of mosquitos descended on us. How are they even alive on this saltwater, windy island?! We didn’t stay long.
After we had our fill of canoeing we paddled back to the livery and prepared to go to Fakahatchee strand, a bald cypress and Royal Palm swamp that a ranger told us to check out. As we were leaving Everglades City we saw an Osprey on it’s nest and I had to get a picture of it. Then as I was taking pictures the male swooped down and landed on the female! They weren’t mating, he just stood on her!
The Fakahatchee strand natural preserve has a 2000 foot long boardwalk through the swamp and allows some good looks at Royal Palm trees in their natural habitat, air plants, and some big cypress. Saw some turtles and a gator as well!
We then made our way to Everglades East with the plan to backcountry camp there. On the way to the visitor center we drove through lots of farmland and plant nurseries. There were many dragonfruit plantations which were cool to see. The dragon fruit grows on a vining cactus. A strange plant indeed. When we arrived at the park entrance we talked to the ranger there and told him we still had our back country permit and that it was good for another six days. For $2 each we were allowed to camp in a backcountry campground that was down an abandon road about 6 miles of walking. The man told us, “You know it’s SIX miles, it’s a pretty tough hike.” Yea like 6 miles on an old road with no elevation gain will be hard we joked together. We’re no soft city tourists! We started driving the Mini, which is now a dirty hiker mobile, down the decrepit roads in the backcountry of the Everglades and accidentally slammed into a big pothole. After checking for leaking fluids revealed no injuries we kept on until we reached a gate and double checked that it was the right spot to park the car.
We began our 6 mile walk to our campsite in the late afternoon and found lots of cool invertebrates and vertebrae along the trail. Lots of vertebrae from larges snake skeletons which I’d guess are the invasive Burmese Pythons that the park is trying to eradicate. Deer flies started to become a nuisance as we walked along the 20 foot wide strip of old, crumbling pavement with the infinite swamp to our left and a deep pool and then Everglades to our right where alligator slides were everywhere in the grasses. The ever present fire anthills towered up out of cracks in the pavement as well. Surprisingly the bugs weren’t too bad yet as we could see lots of dragonflies and damselflies literally snatching up the deer flies before our very eyes and devouring them on nearby leaves within seconds. We have our own little Air Force!
The views with the sun getting low were amazing. There’s just something about being able to see to the horizon, unobstructed by and trees or buildings that makes me happy. I daydream about walking across flat deserts to the distant mountain ranges at the horizon. As we were walking along we passed right by a cute little 3-4 foot gator just laying in the grass on the roadside and I took some pictures before he slowly crawled into the deeper water and swam into the reeds. Killer views
We walked to where we thought our campsite was supposed to be and all we noticed was a small patch of grass on the left side of the road just large enough for maybe two tents and thought no way is this a campsite. Just as we walked up to it I saw a HUGE cottonmouth on this little path of grass! It opened its mouth wide and hisses really loud and before I could even get my camera in my hands it launched into the thick grass. How cool was that?! That’s the first one I’d ever seen in the wild. Well I guess we’re camping at cottonmouth campsite? We convinced ourselves that this could not possibly be the right spot so we walked on just until it started getting dark and then we ended up walking through water and muck in a dark forest of some sort and decided to head back towards the grass patch or to just set up wherever it was flat. As we were walking back the mosquitoes came out in full force since the dragonflies and friends went to sleep. Kristen was bitten so much that her body had a reaction to all the mosquito saliva in her and her arm swelled up and she felt ill. Each bite was leaving lemon sized raised area. We set up our tent right in the middle of the road and climbed in quickly. Once again the mosquitoes poured in after us. Once we killed all of them we went to sleep to the sounds of gators splashing a few feet away in the deep water and the buzz of the skeets. A few times during the night we woke up to the sound of something sloshing up out of the water and then walking in the grass around us. Hard not to think about gators all night! But of course they left us alone. Swamp sunset
We woke up to some crazy chattering noises in the nearby shrubs and finally it was revealed that a flock of birds were the culprit. We got out of the tent expecting to be swarmed by the mosquitos but they weren’t too bad. Maybe they know the dragonflies will wipe them out in the daytime. This time however the deer flies were not stopped by the dragonflies. We saw some getting snatched up and eaten but there were just too many and we were swarmed. Deer flies really like hair, I assume since humans aren’t their usual food source they are just tuned into locating and burrowing into any hairy animal to get at some blood. They rarely try other parts of your body, but I found out if I put out my hand they’d occasionally land on it and I sent them straight to hell with a smack from my other hand. They are fast but are pretty easy to kill once they’ve landed. But with four or five of these little bastards orbiting your head and burrowing through your hair you just end up smacking yourself in the head a lot and pulling out little pieces of flies. After about an hour of suffering through this we decided their quick deaths were too good for them and I devised a plan to deal with two pests at once. I smacked the flies with not enough force to kill them but for me to be able to grab one and then I kicked open a fire ant nest and threw the tribute on to the boiling pile of ants that emerged. They blamed the fly for the nest break in and punished it accordingly. I’m not a mad man I swear! You’d do the same if you knew what it was like!
When we finally made it back to the Mini we threw our stuff in and got in as fast as we could but some deer flies followed us in. We drove away from there with haste and went towards a hiking trail through some pines and prairies we saw on a map yesterday. We got out to see how bad the bugs were there and after a few minutes of no attacks we decided the hike was worthwhile. It was a beautiful place and there was nobody else around. Just us, birds and lots of wildflowers.
Sabatia A nightshade
After we had our fill of flowers and fields we got in the car and headed for the Florida Keys! Key Largo in particular as we knew camping was available at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. When we arrived there a big green iguana walked past the car and greeted us. These huge lizards were also brought in from South America and have established populations in south Florida.
Once we were in the park we went straight to the beach that we had been fantasizing about after our mosquito attacks. I remember visiting here as a kid with my family and being disappointed that there were no waves to ride and the beaches were all coral covered and hurt to walk on. This memory was just about spot on. We were still going to have fun anyway!
We set up under a palm tree and hopped into the water. It was just the right temperature. It didn’t take long to notice that the ground had lots of upside down jellyfish pulsing away. I remembered seeing these as a kid too and thought that they couldn’t sting you but I tried not stepping in them anyway just in case. As it turns out we stepped on plenty by accident and they didn’t no harm but felt rather squishy as you’d imagine.
We swam a couple hundred feet to where coral rocks come up out of the water and some people were standing around and they said they saw an octopus! Sure enough two octopuses not much bigger than your hand were creeping around the coral and plants catching little fish! I remembered my GoPro was in the car and I jumped back in the water and swam as fast as I could to go get it and swim back before they left! When I got back the little critters were still poking around and I was able to get some real nice video of them! You could get very close to them before they moved away from you. Although you can’t see real well in the videos the octopus would turn this bright blue color when they stretched out into an umbrella shape! What a cool experience! Other than the octopuses there were some small barracuda and little colorful fish around. At one point we even saw one of the barracuda catch and eat one of these poor fellas!
We decided to go on some little hiking trails in the state park as well and learned quite a bit about the local native plants here thanks to some signs explaining what trees were what. I wanted to find some scorpions or other cool things so I flipped over a bunch of rocks and logs but only found snails and a bunch of these really cool millipedes.
Once we had our fill we packed up and left because there was no place to stay in the keys that didn’t cost a fortune. We booked a hotel online in Lantana, Fl as we began heading up north. We figured we’d seen lots of southern Florida’s wilds and we’re ready to escape the evil bugs. We promised ourselves another beach day tomorrow but it was too cold up in Jacksonville where we were going to stay the next night at Kristen’s sisters place again but they’d be home this time. When we got to Lantana we hit up an Outback Steakhouse and gorged on a bloomin onion and other goodies. Then we went to the store to buy more food. Then we finally made it to our Motel 6. It was in a pretty sketchy area. A dude loitering at a decrepit gas station in the area earlier was shouting at us that,”He had good weed!!!” Didn’t need any. The motel room had a smoky smell and we laughed at the deep cigarette burns in both of our beds even though this was supposedly a no smoking room. We showered our stank off, drank some alcoholic root beers and watched cops. Felt great.
We woke up, packed up and headed to the nearest public beach. Luckily for us it was just a few miles away and had ample parking. The area was really nice, a beautiful pale blue ocean with soft white sand. Now this is what I think of when I think of Florida beaches! We swarm around for a little while and picked up seashells. I went fishing in the surf for a bit and caught some pretty cool looking fish! I’ve always loved surf fishing. It’s what we always did on vacation in Hilton Head, SC or the outer banks, NC. Usually we’d just catch stingrays and sharks but here it was snapper!
While we tanned on the beach the tide was coming in and I warned that we should move our stuff before a wave soaks us unexpectedly. Of course we didn’t and 15 minutes later a big wave snuck up on us and swept all of our things up into a mixture of water and sand… Including Kristen’s poor new iPhone 6. After we found it under some sand and towels it miraculously had no apparent damage other than all of its ports being filled with sand which was easily removed.
In the afternoon we started our several hour drive north to Jacksonville. When we arrived we met Kristen’s sister and husband as well as their little 1 year old. The kid can’t talk yet but knows sign language to let you know when she’s thirsty or hungry or finished! Smart kid! I want to teach that to my kids someday! We eat a delicious meal and talk until it’s bedtime. We looked at what cool natural areas are on our way back to West Virginia and see that Congaree National Park is right on the way! I’d never even heard of the place but after reading about it, it didn’t take long to convince us was going to be cool. In the morning, to Congaree!
We woke up and began our 5 hour drive to Congaree National Park.
We got to Congaree in the afternoon and walked around in the pine forest that was near the visitor center for a few hours looking for critters under logs. I figured there would be lots of cool salamanders in this area because of the swampy areas near the boardwalk and the vernal pools of water randomly in the forest. Too small and isolated for any kind of fish which may eat their young. So these sort of habitats are just what salamanders need to breed in! First log I flipped over and low and behold a real nice Slimy Salamander! These guys don’t actually lay their eggs in water but still appreciate the moisture in this damp forest. We found a couple more slimy salamanders as we walked around and I said I bet that there are marbled salamanders here from what I know about what they like but I’ve yet to ever see one. So I really wanted to find one.
Under a dead pine tree Kristen found what at first she thought was a weird looking salamander but after further inspection she had found a ground skink all curled up for the cold weather. After a few photo-shoots of this little guy we put it back right up against the bark it was laying on.
Once we had our fill of Congaree we decided to head 4 hours to Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina for our next adventure. I was actually there just a few months ago over the summer for Buzz Lightyear’s (Jon) bachelor party. We had an absolute blast. Hiking, swimming in waterfalls, beer games, telling stories of our boy scout shenanigans. We went to the visitor center first in Pisgah to see what trails were around and which ones we could back country camp on. We decided that John Rock would be a nice hike and we’d arrive at the top just as it would get dark. Camping permits were about $4 each I think. Kristen bought a cute raccoon novelty hat from the gift shop to keep her head warm for the forecasted 14 degree night.