After leaving Buckman Lock we crossed S.R. 19 and into an area that as best we could tell was only used by ORVs. I’m not sure if it was public or private land, but we weaved through all sorts of dirt and mud roads that were completely destroyed by off roading vehicles. There was a lot of trash in this area, too, which is always disappointing to see.
We ended up following a fire break line at one point, another section of fluffy sand. *gah!* Eventually we found an old, overgrown railroad bed that we followed until we found what was listed a potential campsite in the guidebook.
Yes, our potential campsite was under the power lines! They were quite noisy, too, crackling and buzzing when perhaps it was a higher energy usage time. Speaker showed up and went back into a pine plantation to hang his hammock leaving us to sleep under the power lines. The potential rain an thunderstorms were to come overnight and into the next day so I was a bit nervous about lightning strikes around the power lines.
The next morning was overcast but did not seem such a heavy threat of rain. We finished our walk through the pine plantation and crossed a busy S.R. 20 with its morning commute around Palatka. Back into the woods we followed some old levees and roads before ending up in Rice Creek Conservation Area. We went from being on dry ground to getting into a wetland almost instantly. Luckily we found a long boardwalk, maybe a half mile or so long, to take us across the beautiful cypress dome. Crossing and walking down a few forests roads, we weaved in an out of the woods, past a beautiful clear running creek that was probably spring fed before the rain finally caught up with us. We stopped for a few minutes to put our rain gear on despite the humidity and heat and knowing we’d sweat ourselves to death if we kept it on all day.
Thankfully the rain stopped a few minutes after we started hiking. We found another boardwalk which led us to the 8th largest cypress in Florida.
Chris decided to jump the boardwalk and head over while I took a snack break at the bench at the end of the boardwalk. It looks like there used to be a nice sign about the cypress but it is now gone and plywood remains.
I would’ve loved to have seen more of this area but of course we had to keep moving. At this point the rain became a steady mist and rain gear was not going to help and would make things worse. Leaving Rice Creek we thought we were set for a road walk down S.R. 100 but when we arrived at the road we saw the blazes crossed the street and came out on top of the Palatka-Lake Butler Trail. The old rail bed was still in tact in some areas with the ties being visible and rough to walk on. What was worse were the rocks used in the rail bed, that felt like walking in Pennsylvania!
After about three miles of this we turned down a dirt road in the small community of Carraway. The community consists of a few homes and small churches, one of which we stopped at to fill up our water at a spigot on the side. If someone had been around we’d of asked permission but I suppose our just-due for getting water from the church was that it was sulphur water! Barf! If you’ve ever had water that had a high amount of sulphur you know that just the smell of it is gross but tasting it—ugh! The worst part is after swallowing the water and getting a burpy after taste! It was rough making it through lunch on that water!
We jumped a few gates to get up the road the trail followed before finally getting back into the woods again at Etoniah Creek State Forest. Immediately we began to follow the creek for the majority of the afternoon and it was spectacular! I wish we’d taken more photos but due to the mist we didn’t take the camera out much. We followed all sorts of bluffs, peering down at 50′ or more to the creek at some points, something we were definitely not used to in Florida. Not only that, the creek was spectacularly clear, a change from the tannin rich waters down south.
An afternoon break was had at the Etoniah Creek shelter, a very roomy two story shelter that would have made a great place to stay. Yet again it was too early in the day for a shelter day. We did find a log book in this one and flipped through it finding a few familiar names including Chuck Norris, Wee Willy the Prince of Whales (a well known AT hiker-bum who hikes around other trails often with Pirate), and L’il Buddha who’d started the ECT before we’d started the AT last year and was well ahead of us when we got started.
After we left the creek we came out into a pine area, some of it having been recently cleared. I’m guessing it was either logged or being managed in some manner, but it was a little annoying though I was glad it was cloudy and spitting rain rather than 90* and sunny. We were aiming for a designated campsite on the north end of Etoniah State Forest. After making it through the clear cut area we were finally back in some oak hammocks, walking along the outer rim of those on ORV roads. In the sand there we noticed bobcat prints, relatively fresh ones, and hoped to see one. Of course we weren’t that lucky!
We found the campsite a few minutes too late. It’d started raining harder shortly before we arrived at the site. Even though the site was rather sloped we were able to be under the oaks which sheltered us from the rain a little. Speaker rolled in after we’d been set up for awhile and dinner already eaten. He threw his hammock up and not long before we all hit the sack the bottom really fell out!
It rained throughout the night and when we woke up the next morning I was dreading the inevitable walk in the rain. Ugh! We slept in a few minutes, listening to the radio for a weather update. Finally we crawled out with our rain gear on and headed out. We were settling in for another long road walk which was thankfully down fairly slow roads. Somewhere down at the end of the paved road walk I happened to look up and check a street sign. It was Christian Camp Road and I knew I’d recognized it from the map. We had to turn here, however there had not been a double blaze to turn!!! We even had to look down the road to see an orange blaze here. Someone really needs to fix this; in fact we were worried Speaker wouldn’t notice and would keep on walking before realizing it. Road walks aren’t generally labeled as well so sometimes we don’t pay as good attention as we should.
It’d been spitting rain for most of the road walk and had picked up a little bit as we got closer to Gold Head Branch State Park. By the time we reached the bathroom pavilion on one of the lakes it was coming down even harder. Chris threw out the idea of taking a shower in the bathrooms but they were being renovated when we went in and only the toilets worked. The maintenance guy told us bad news, that more rain was in the forecast for at least the next week. Not good! The day before had begun our week of clouds and rain.
Up the hill a bit was a soda machine at another building so we took a break there while Chris downed a soda and I kept mine for when we would have lunch. Just as we were leaving we saw Speaker heading up the hill but we kept going to move through the rain.
I’m sure the park would have been much nicer to see had it not been raining and chilly but we were focused on finding somewhere to eat lunch and hoped that would be at the front gate to the park. The trail wound around bluffs of the creek that runs through the park and finally through a scrub prairie near the front of park before heading for the headquarters. There we found shelter under an overhang where visitors would normally go to pay for their entrance to the park. At least we were out of the rain and could put something warm on while we ate. The rangers confirmed the nasty weather for the next few days. Speaker showed up a little while later having already ate at the last pavilion with the sodas. He also said he’d nearly missed the turn on the road but happened to look up at the right moment.
The rain seemed to have stopped by the time we left the headquarters. Our next goal was to get through Camp Blanding another bombing range that is open to the public in some areas and during particular times. I’d called the night before to verify the trail was open through there and was given the ok to go through but to fill out all the permits at the trail entrances like we were supposed to. At the campsite in Etoniah State Forest we’d heard the large artillery fire from the range even though we were several miles away. As we were approaching the camp we heard it even louder and debated whether it was ok to go in. There were no closures listed at the sign so we dropped our names in the register and went along the way.
We followed old ORV trails and then turned into the scrub as we followed the contour of Lake Lowry where we heard the artillery fire coming from a boat. Hope they weren’t shooting our way! We made it through the camp unscathed!
After leaving the base we’d planned on staying at a campsite at Camp Crystal Lake which we finally found after being disappointed that another camp with screened shelters wasn’t the place we were supposed to be. But, the bright side was crossing a small road and realizing that we could potentially order pizza for dinner! We did some homework by calling Chris’ dad and getting the number of some pizza places as well as 411 and after getting Speaker to agree on it we made the call. Thankfully Domino’s knew where we were and could deliver from Keystone Heights!
The next morning was cloudy but luckily we went the whole day without rain. We ended up back on the Palatka-Lake Butler Trail for the entire day and it would take us into Lake Butler the following day. Aside from some poor trail management at the very beginning where we had to cut through private property and some over grown fields to get to the trail, we didn’t have too much to write home about that day. The trail was an old rail bed again and no one was on it. In fact, we wondered how many people ever used the trail. Most of the time we were surrounded by woods but often we’d be behind someones backyard listening to dogs bark as we passed. A few people leaving their driveways gave us a weird look but other than that it was quiet.
Speaker had to go into Starke to try to buy a new camera and was planning to try to hitch from a road in Hampton. We reached a road in the main town of Hampton and saw a gas station less than a quarter mile down so we detoured down for a mid-morning snack of a microwaveable hamburger for me and pizza for Chris. We dallied there for thirty minutes or so before deciding to move along and left Speaker to hitch into town. He’d decided he’d either walk back on another road out instead of getting back to where he got off on the P-LB-Trail.
On the map we’d been wondering about this giant U-shaped detour down roads and then back to the P-LB Trail and found out later when we had to detour because a bridge was out across a small river. We later learned that Love It or Leave It went down the trail anyway and found a way to get across the river without getting too wet. Now, I can imagine that if the water was higher this would be impossible and we’d considered doing the same but didn’t want to risk having to turn around and double back. So, off down the road we went, except we missed a turn off down a NW road. Again, poor blazing in this area! We ended up adding at least another mile to the day.
On S.R. 100 we found a dog that wanted to follow us for awhile, barking and running back and forth across the busy road. We managed to shake it but worried for its safety. People don’t understand that they need to keep their animals behind gates or tied up so they don’t become road kill! (And by tied up I don’t mean day after day after day on a chain!)
Back down an quieter road a woman pulls up next to us and asks us if we were doing some sort of reenactment. If she’d paid a bit more attention to our attire she’d of noticed we weren’t, but apparently there is a Battle of Olustee reenactment every year down the P-LB Trail and into Osceola National Forest. We were a few weeks away from that and obviously not dressed for it but we gave her the low down on the FT anyway. She warned us to camp further down the trail from some of the houses because of apparently some gun happy people who shot at rats! Grreeeat.
We did find a good campsite but knew that there was a high chance of rain in the late overnight hours and early morning so we tried to find a spot that wouldn’t flood. Speaker showed up, without his camera, though we’d been unsure if he’d catch up or not.
The next morning we got up and packed as quick as possible before the rain started, were on our way and within minutes the rain started. We stopped and put rain gear on and picked up the pace to get the four miles into town done. Two small road blocks were in our way, though, more bridges were out leaving us to scramble down the slope to a wetland, balancing on some logs and getting across and back up.
Following the trail into town wasn’t the best idea because we ended up at the west end of town and most of the services were on the east end. Looking a bit lost we walked the sidewalk of downtown Lake Butler for awhile before figuring out we would just find something down toward the library. Subway was our breakfast choice and it was good one. The workers gave us a few weird looks but didn’t ask questions. Another customer came in later and started talking about the rain and then told us it wasn’t good day to hitchhike! Um, sorry we weren’t hitching—we’re walking!
You know you are a little bit strange from having lived in the woods so long when you twist up a napkin and shove it in your ear, in public, to clean it out. Yes, that was me. But seriously, I need some q-tips and didn’t have any! Speaker joked about that with me several times the rest of the trip when the topic of manners and public vs woods came up. As in, what you do in the woods and become accustomed to. Like looking for a tree to pee behind or maybe doing snot rocks. Or using a piece of grass to floss. You know, those things.
We found the Lake Butler library and was pleased to see a long length of time set for the computers. We hadn’t been on in over a week or so and it was due time to check email and catch up. While in the library the bottom fell out even more and we were glad to be inside.
It cleared up a bit with even a little bit of sun poking out as noon-time arrived. We tried to hit an outfitter but it was more hunting than a true outdoor outfitter. The owner was very friendly and seemed interested in stocking hiking supplies but we told him there probably wouldn’t be that much activity from hikers other than early in the year. Chris and I had lunch while Speaker resupplied, then we resupplied at the local IGA and Dollar General and decided to get out of town before the next bottom fell out of the sky.
Next up we’ll go through the Lake Butler Forest, Osceola National Forest and into White Springs for a zero!