Patrice recently wrote an update about her book proposal process and rejections for her memoir of the hike she and Justin did on the Te Araroa trail two years ago. We have been chatting via email off an on over the last year about book writing and proposals, commiserating in the the frustration of the book publishing process. It’s been nice to have someone to share the ups and downs of all of this, though so far for both of us it has been mostly a ‘down’ experience! Patrice’s post spurred me to write something about my own experiences thus far so I thought I’d share them with you now.
So, refresher for anyone new to my blog. In 2011 Chris and I thru-hiked the Florida Trail after we thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2010. Sometime later that year I started to write a book about the hike and I finally finished it in early 2014. Then I had Forest later in 2014 and I didn’t get around to doing anything else with the book other than sporadic editing until early last year, in 2016. I briefly mentioned last spring that I was putting together book proposals but I haven’t done much writing here about what has gone on with it in the last year.
The short answer is there’s absolutely nothing going on with it right now and the long answer is much more detailed than that!
For those who are unfamiliar with the publishing world, and it isn’t like I’m all that familiar with it—I only know this small portion I’ve been dealing with, getting a book published is a difficult process. Back in 2002-2003, after we moved to Florida, I began getting interested in taking writing seriously. I was working in a microbiology lab and one of my coworkers liked to write poems and so we both talked about writing often. I tried to sign up for an adult education writing course at the local community college in Melbourne, Fl but the class ended up canceled before it began because not enough people had signed up. In all of my talks with my friend/coworker she gifted me a subscription to The Writer magazine so I came to understand some of the process of query letters and such when submitting a manuscript. Later on, writing got swapped around for photography and other creative endeavors for a long time so the subscription lapsed, and other than blogging I didn’t do much writing for a long time.
When I started writing my Florida Trail book I knew that it was going to be a fairly niche book market but I still wanted to write it anyway. As it came time to settle in to write query letters I realized that submitting non-fiction books was a little different than fiction books in that I needed to also write a book proposal. Typically non-fiction is pitched to publishers or agents before it is written, in the form of a book proposal. Memoir is more aligned like fiction in that you should have your book completed, or close to it, before submitting a query and proposal. So, say you want to create some kind of cook book or craft book, you put together this giant proposal, anywhere from 40-100 pages in itself, with information that includes not only the synopsis, but an outline of the chapters, target audience, similar books on the market, your marketing platform (because in this day and age you are the marketer), sample chapters, how you envision the book to look, and even a bio or resume. This is the basic information but it can vary depending on publisher.
Needless to say my eyes were opened to what was needed and it took me a good month to get everything in order and start formulating a proposal. The good thing was my book was written so I wasn’t just fleshing some idea out; however it was still a headache to research everything that went into it and then try to decipher how I should space paragraphs and making sure I paginate everything and put a header in here or a footer in there.
As for determining publishers, I began generating a list of who accepted submissions straight from the author and searching for book publishers who specialized in the outdoors. Amazon was helpful with this as was just pulling off outdoors books from my bookshelf and seeing who published them, and then looking the company up to find out if they accepted submissions from authors or if they only took submissions from agents. I had about 10 publishers last spring that I wanted to submit to, those who were small-to-mid sized publishing houses that would fit my book’s platform and began from there. Once I had one proposal formatted I began manipulating it and tailoring it for other publishers.
Ideally I thought that the two publishers in Florida I was submitting to, University Press of Florida and Pineapple Press, would be my best bet. And really, they probably would have been, particularly UPF, but I received rejections from both fairly quickly. The former had already published a book on the Florida Trail by another author and didn’t want to have two Florida Trail memoirs on their book list and the latter was shrinking how many books they published each year and it my book didn’t quite fit their current publishing themes. Bummer.
And then I’d slowly get a few more rejections here and there. For the most part all of those submissions last spring were via email with a few sent via the postal service. And generally all of the publishers I submitted to said it could take 2-6 months to get a response. Other than about three, I’ve heard from all of the ones I originally submitted to. However, it is pretty easy to assume that I won’t be hearing from the others after this long. Another bummer.
So, I had given it about six months and started resubmitting once again back in late October. I found another 10 or so publishers to submit to and began working my way through that list. This time I tried to find more regional publishers because the outdoor publisher list that had been most promising had been exhausted already. I was also looking for more university presses, including my alma mater. I heard back from a few publishers within days with rejections and got a slight bump in excitement when one university press responded that everything looked good and he’d circulate it around the office and I’d hear back in a few weeks. That was around early November and then the holidays happened. I never heard back from him and I sent a follow up email a few weeks ago but again, no response. So. I’m just patiently waiting now.
Right now I’m unsure of where the book will end up. It’s a wait-and-see game with writing and getting a book published the traditional way. I could continue to find small publishers to submit to or branch out and try working with an agent. I’m worried about both of those aspects because some of the smaller publishers seems so small that I wonder how much different it would be to have them publish it versus me just self publishing—is there much of a difference? And with an agent, if this isn’t going to be submitted to a reasonably sized publishing house with a national marketing audience, how much money am I going to be losing to the agent compared to just submitting it on my own? I mean, yeah, it would be awesome if some imprint of Random House or HarperCollins picks up the book but I’m not deluding myself here. If you have experience with very small publishing houses and/or agents, please let me know what your opinions are on this.
In all, I’ve submitted to 19 different publishers and have had 8 formal rejections. However, in talking with Patrice I can probably scratch off another four or five based on her submissions to those same publishers I haven’t heard from—she received rejections based on the fact some aren’t publishing memoir right now or the publishing house merged and there was another reason. In reality, I’m now only waiting to hear from just a few publishers.
My next steps are maybe to research other publishers to submit to once again here in a few weeks or just bide my time for a little while longer and wait for a response from the last round of submissions. I’m crossing my fingers I will hear from the two university presses I submitted to back in early November. But in all honesty? I’ll probably be looking into self publishing through Amazon later this summer. This isn’t a bad thing—I just wasn’t hoping to go that route. There are quite a bit of hiking memoirs on Amazon and a ton of other books in different genres being self published there. It will just be another learning curve for me that I hadn’t wanted to wade into quite yet. It’s almost time to get my feet wet, though.
And that’s where I’m at with my book. In all of that I have also started writing another book (another non-fiction) and have ideas for two fiction books that I might start next year. Yes, the writing bug has hit me.
If you have any advice or connections (!!!) I’m open for suggestions.
A few days ago I received the fall issue of Footprint, the magazine of the Florida Trail Association. It was a big issue, at least to me, one where the call to protect to the trail and be a trail advocate was once again in the spotlight. The trail recently celebrated its 50th anniversary with a celebration at the first blaze in Ocala National Forest and the placement of a plaque to commemorate the historic blaze that began the Florida National Scenic Trail. In addition last year, a new monument at the northern terminus at Fort Pickens was erected. Two very exciting events!
This post is being published today on the 6th anniversary of the start of our thru-hike on the FT. I get a little somber about our AT and FT thru-hikes now that we’re firmly in a different life mode and look back with fondness of those months we spent hiking from Georgia to Maine and from Big Cypress National Preserve to Gulf Islands National Seashore. When we went for our little six mile hike a week and a half ago in Sam Houston NF I got the itch to get back into backpacking. The itch has been coming for awhile but with my recent purchase of a new pack and our intention to get out and try to backpack with Forest once or twice this spring, I’m really looking forward to it. With all of that, as I flipped through the magazine, and as I see updates from people in the hiking and outdoor community in Florida, I get a little wistful, wishing I could pitch in more to promote and help the trail. Alas, that’s hard to do when you are living in Texas! So, I have been doing my best to be a trail advocate from afar and cheer along the progress being made by others.
There’s definitely been an uptick in recent years in interest of the trail, especially from hikers who have been to other long distance trails but have found the FT to be something worth sharing to the hiking community. A little part of me also wants to keep it a secret, the little gem that only a few people know about—but I know better than that. If the trail is to ever be fully protected and off road connectors, it will take more people sharing about FT, pitching in with monetary donations, or volunteering time where they can.
I’m not sure where I want to go with all of this, just to say that the trail and its community is always on my mind in some manner and I’m always hoping for its continued success! Maybe this year I will do more to share news and tidbits I find out about the trail so that it can be passed on to others—I think that’s a good intention and goal to set.
With that, here are a few items of note:
‘Jupiter’ started the Eastern Continental Trail in Canada back in July and is currently somewhere around the Kissimmee Prairie area in Florida (I had to come back and edit—he’s already done! He finished 1/7/17 and as I type this I’m not seeing an update on his official time and if he is now the FKT holder.). Once he arrived at Fort Pickens in Florida he began a quest for an unsupported FKT (fastest known time) of the Florida Trail. Since he already had thousands of miles under his belt, he had trail legs AND the fact he was in his home state—well, I bet he can capture the FKT. You can follow him on his blog and via his Instagram feed. —-Ohh, ok, here we go, an update from Florida Hikes: He set the record!
While it seems like more trail keeps getting moved to the road due to land owner and easement issues, particularly in the panhandle sections of the FT, there was new trail added in Nokuse Plantation in the panhandle, eliminating a roadwalk in the area near Bruce. I remember that roadwalk! I liked the section that we did get to walk in Nokuse so that’s exciting more trail was added to the property!
I often write in my head and many things never make it out into the internet. However, I have had a few backpacking and long distance trail thoughts building up over the summer that I think about and then forget, but I think I’ve got enough of them now to do a random list-style post. Here we go…
Last fall Geraldine Largay’s, trail name Inchworm, body was found after having been missing for over two years after getting lost on the Appalachian Trail in Maine. When news broke in 2013 the she was lost it was easy to suspect foul play based on all of the circumstances. At the very least, maybe there was just some freak accident that occurred. When her body was found not very far from the AT on military land, of course there were even more theories. And then there was nothing, no information until this past May when it was made known that she survived for 26 days, lost, based on information in her journal. The more that I read about that situation the more it baffled me and others. Sure, the north woods are dense and terrain is rough, but wow, 26 days of survival and how come no one found her? How come she didn’t do this or that….all of the questions. I can pretty clearly remember the stretch of trail from where she went missing, not every detail of course, but the general terrain and some of the landmarks especially because I remember the day we hiked from Poplar Ridge Lean-To, had lunch at Spaulding Mountain, and Merf, Chris and I hung out for the afternoon at the Carrabasset River before heading up to the Crocker Cirque tentsite. I have a good memory of this section of trail.
Nevertheless, all of the unknowns and the sad fact she was prepared enough to survive so long really bothered me. I kind of put it to the back of my mind this summer until Patches wrote Lost and Alone: A Solo Thru-Hiker’s Perspective last week. In it there were graphics that I hadn’t seen. The snail trail map of the tracks that search and rescuers used to search for her is haunting because of how close they came to her final location. It’s also haunting in how much other areas were searched versus her final resting location. Patches touched on this, how knowledge and tips on where Inchworm may or may not have last been seen played a part in the confusing search area.
Read Patches’ post, it is well worth the time. I have a lot more thoughts but she wrote them all succintly and you’ll be better off reading from her than my rambling mess!
On the same subject of the Appalachian Trail, in the last two years it has become very evident that the trail is facing some over-use, or at least perceived over-use. I haven’t been able to figure that one out because I only see what I read online and am not out on the trail to experience thru-hiker seasons as a hiker or volunteer. I’m very glad that we hiked just on the cusp of full-on social media and smart phones being prevalent on the trail. I suspect it is a very different trail just in this aspect than it was in 2010. And I’m sure people in 2000 would say the same about us in 2010…etc, etc. Which is why I wonder about the actual versus perceived. It definitely seems as if there is a huge explosion in trail and outside ‘lifestyle’ and I wonder at what the AT will become in the coming years. With the push for alternative thru-hikes (flip-flops, alternative starting locations) I do wonder how long this will sustain itself. Not only that, the increased use of other trails, especially the PCT thanks to Wild. I don’t know what I’m going for here, I guess I just wonder what kind of trail experience it will be in the coming years.
Kind of in this same vein was this post from Appalachian Trials that irritated me to no end. Part of me hopes it was just a mid-hiking-I’m-hungry-and-tired rant but part of me thinks it is also a narrow minded, entitled viewpoint that believes the trail should cater to the hiker. While I/we had our own beefs with some aspects of the Whites, I found this write-up demanding and shallow. And, come on, you’ve known for hundreds of miles, and probably as you planned your hike, just what New Hampshire and Maine had in store for you. This isn’t 1975. And this post makes me think that *this* is what is fueling the over-use frustrations. Entitlement.
The final little tidbit is about the Florida Trail. I had a backlog of magazines to read and one of them was the Winter Issue of Footprint. I was flipping through it on a road trip to DFW this weekend and was stunned to see a write-up about last year’s contest for grant money to repair a boardwalk on the trail in St. Marks. The FT was in the lead and doing superbly when all of a sudden after month one a lot of our votes were taken away and a new voting system was put in place. First off, changing the votes and rules mid-contest was crap. Anyway, as you see on pg 36 of the issue in that link up there, there is more information than I had on hand, but information I had suspected. The Florida Trail definitely gets a negative rap from people who have limited definitions of thru-hiking and backpacking but probably also from perpetuated myths and bad experiences of other hikers. I had suspected that that negativity had infiltrated the voting process and had been an influence but I didn’t want to think that. And by the sounds of that article that’s just what happened. I suppose there’s likely another side of the story and if there is, please inform me. It was good to see that funding was found and the boardwalk was able to be built. That contest left a bad taste in my mouth for any other future trail building funding opportunities in this manner.
And that’s my short rant on long trails for today!
It probably helps that Chris and I went to Florida two years ago, when I was just transitioning from my first trimester to the second, but it certainly doesn’t feel as if it has been five years since we left Loop Road and hiked through Florida. It doesn’t seem like nearly six years ago since we moved out of the state.
You know those bumper stickers that you see in Texas sometimes that say, “I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could”? Well, that would be me for Florida. And if it weren’t for family we’d probably still be there.
The Florida Trail is deeply ingrained into my brain. So is the Appalachian Trail, but I tend to shunt that to the back of my mind often because it was such a special experience that sometimes it just makes me sad to think about not being able to be near that trail. But, the Florida Trail, I think about it a lot because, well, I just keep a tabs on Florida as a whole. It’s such a special and unique state, and it doesn’t get the credit it deserves for being an outdoor playground. The Florida Trail especially.
I’ve spent some time recently editing my book. Yeah, I know, it’s taken me long enough. I’m getting there, though, and have actually made it clear through to Apalachichola National Forest! Still not sure or even have high hopes that it’ll be published. Either way I’ll be PDFing it for myself and maybe figuring out a way to get it printed for us. I have not come up with a catchy title yet. Maybe I’ll call it It’s Not All Wet! *snort*
We’ve only thru-hiked two long distance trails but I’d most definitely hike them both again! And for the record, Loop Road will always be the southern terminus in my heart…starting at the Oasis Visitors Center in Big Cypress NP just isn’t the same. Driving down Loop Road is such a treat and worth the bumpy ride!
Unless anyone has several million dollars to faciliate a corridor being accessed through there, or better yet whatever billion it’ll take to buy the whole area outright (come on, let’s make another National Forest!), for the current short-term outlook the Florida Trail won’t be going through this area.
Since the option of really helping that area out isn’t going to be something I or most people can actively do, you *can* help do something else.
You can help the Florida Trail win a $25,000 grant to work on trail that goes through St. Marks NWR. I know the section of trail they are talking about in there as it was accessible when we went through in February of 2011 but I know it has deteriorated since then. Closing this section of trail and adding yet another roadwalk is just not ideal for the Florida Trail in this area. So, go here and select the Florida Trail to win the grant! You can vote daily through the end of October. The Florida Trail has been winning since the contest started last week but the Continental Divide Trail is hot on our heels and I suspect it’ll be a close competition because the CDT has a lot more notariety with the outdoor community.
Bookmark it! Vote for the Florida Trail, it needs your support!
Whew, well, it finally happened last week. I recorded a short segment on the Trail Show about the Florida Trail with the crew on The Trail Show! I was very nervous about it but thankfully my nerves were eased by a: it was a phone Skype call and not video and b: the ease in which they had their questions lined up. They are excellent interviewers!
I actually haven’t listened to the episode yet, mostly because I’m not interested in listening to myself. However, Chris listened to it and said it was great. I’m not sure where exactly my part comes in at. You can either scroll through and listen for me or I suggest just listening to the whole episode anyway. And then go back and listen to all of their other podcasts for trail insight and humor—with some beer talk. I couldn’t help them out on any local Florida brews, but Suwannee Refugee pointed me in the direction of a map of local breweries.
Anyway, I know I didn’t cover some questions that some hiker friends asked me on Facebook so I thought I’d cover them here for everyone else to read too.
Joan/Rambling Hemlock: I did cover some of her questions but I’ll write them here anyway:
+ What season to hike it? You’ll want to hike the Florida Trail during the winter/dry season. Most people start sometime in early to mid-January but some start in December and I’ve seen folks start it in February. Starting too early in December might get you with more water down in Big Cypress if it hasn’t had a chance to dry up yet. February risks you running into April which starts getting warmer, buggier, and drier—which can be a problem finding water in some areas.
+ Any really great sections that can be done in a week-long trip? On the show I mentioned the Suwannee River section and Ocala National Forest, but really there are more sections than that I could recommend. I think stringing together the Aucilla Wildlife Management Area, St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and Apalachicola National Wildlife Refuge would be a really excellent week long to 10 days section.
+ Trail community? Kind of. Yes, there are definitely some strong, local FTA chapters. But it isn’t necessarily like the AT or even the PCT in regards to a trail community in regards to thru-hikers. It’s a small group of FT thru-hikers! There are some trail angels and big time FT volunteers that are around during thru-hiker season, but not all FT chapters are as involved in thru-hiker season as you might see on the AT. It’s there, you just gotta find it.
Matt: Length, difficulty, flora, fauna, water special spots, and history.
I think I covered the majority of the questions Matt asked, but I think maybe the only thing I didn’t was the difficulty. In comparison to mountainous trails, it is flat and easy walking. But, the road and levee walking can beat your feet up pretty badly. It isn’t easy—it is long distance hiking, but it isn’t up and down climbs every day.
Chel: How do you even get started?
+ This could have two meanings…getting to the trail head and any special permits/information. First, go to the FTA’s long distance hiker resource page and read through the links there and be sure to get the permits for the sections that require it (Seminole reservation, Eglin AFB). The other part, how to get to the trail head…well, if you start in Big Cypress it is 70+ miles west of Miami. In the middle of nowhere. You’ll likely want to talk to the FTA and get their trail angel list (only given to you once you fill out the paperwork for the Florida Trail), or find connections on White Blaze to get you to the trail head. It would work the same way if you wanted to start up north in Pensacola at Fort Pickens on Gulf Islands National Seashore. We lucked out in that we knew people in south Florida since we’d lived there for 8 years and then Chris’ dad and step-mom picked us up at the end.
+Trail conditions.. How much wading through water, how much road walking, how much shade, sun and rain? In a normal year there isn’t all that much wading in water. Yes, there is some in Big Cypress and the other big section would be Bradwell Bay in Apalachicola National Forest, but here and there you’ll run into areas of water that are relatively short to get through. It depends on recent rainfall usually. There are annoying areas on some forest logging roads, some wetlands you’ll skirt, but it really won’t affect your daily mileage, those parts. Big Cypress and Bradwell Bay will. Think of them as The Whites or Mahoosuc Notch…you just plan to be slower on those areas. As for roadwalking, it is estimated to be less than 300 miles. They are scattered about with the majority of them being in the Panhandle. Shade: In forested areas yes. Scrubby areas can be more open. Sun: Definitely more sun on the roadwalks and levees, but it will be winter so the sun isn’t so unbearable. Rain: During an average year there shouldn’t be too much rain. We ran into some rain in north Florida with only one really miserable day, but for the most part it is sunny and wonderful. This year is not a good year to be watching—those hikers have had a wet winter!
+ How many scary creatures are there!? I’d say your scariest creatures will be snakes. Yes, Florida has alligators but generally they are going to be in canals, streams and deeper waterbodies. You *could* run into them in some deeper swamp areas, but generally not. A good plant to keep an eye our for in swampy areas would be Alligator flag…because it will be in the deepest section of the ponded area. Stay out of that area if possible. Otherwise you can run into bears, primarily in Ocala or Osceola National Forests, and even more rare would be a Florida panther down in Big Cypress. You could keep in mind on the panthers that there has never been a documented case of a panther attacking a human in Florida…so I’d still be more cautious of snakes.
+How often are you forced to stay in town because camping isn’t possible? I think the only time this might be a problem is walking through Orlando. We did see a couple of places one could stealth camp, but really, just get a hotel in Lake Mary, it will be worth it.
+Any special gear required? Not really. Just have some camp shoes that double as water shoes. Something that will stay on your heel if the water is low and the terrain is more muddy in Big Cypress.
+Where do I get maps or how otherwise do you follow the trail? You can get maps from the FTA and there is a thru-hiker packet. Definitely get it! However, there is also a new guidebook out from Sandra Friend. Definitely get it too.
+Planning your resupply points. Any weird resupply logistics? Using the guidebook will help you plan your resupplies but you really don’t need too many mail drops. We had three: the 88 store in Ocala NF, White Springs, and Ebro. White Springs and Ebro don’t have grocery stores but White Springs did have gas stations and a Dollar General. Ebro only had a gas station. Check with the guidebook for updates. The weird logistics that we had to deal with was between Okeechobee and Christmas. There’s a very big stretch where towns are not anywhere near the trail. There are road crossings but no easy resupply. The only potential option is River Ranch, which has a ‘general store’ with not really backpacker friendly items. It is an option, though. River Ranch does have a post office, so a maildrop there might be an option. We had a friend meet us to deliver a box just after the Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area. He also met us back at the Seminole Reservation, which is another tricky area. The trail has been rerouted there since we hiked and now passes a gas station, which would probably get you the two to three days to Clewiston and a grocery store. Other than that I don’t think there were any other particularly tricky areas. Hitching or Trail Angels will be your best bet for the tricky areas.
+Will I get a free patch like for the AT or LT when I’m done? Yes, and a bandana! At least, we got that in 2011.
+Will I run into many annoying day hikers? Only in a few popular areas. You’re more likely to run into fishermen or hunters. Don’t worry, they are usually friendly!
+Will they fawn over me and give me food? Hah! No. What, you think this is, the AT? You might get some questions but they generally have no clue what thru-hiking entails.
+What makes this trial unique amongst all the other trails out there? It’s flat! And there’s sub-tropical landscapes in the mix, including a lot of unique ecosystems that are in danger of extinction due to encroaching development. You won’t see many habitats in Florida anywhere else in the U.S.
+How bad are the bugs/lizards, really? Not bad. Don’t hike in July unless you want the mosquitoes to carry you away.
That wraps up the questions…if you have more, feel free to ask them! Listen to the podcast, too!
Y’all. I have been slogging away on my Florida Trail memoir for 2.5 years. I swore way back when I started it in August 2011 that it’d only take a year and since then I had several ambitious moments when I said “I’m gonna finish it by such and such time” and those times came and went. But finally two days ago I wrote the last sentence. Or, well, the last sentence of my first draft. I have a feeling I’ll be adding an epilogue and reworking the ending. In all, the first draft is 111,100 words long.
I really didn’t go into our hike with the intention of writing a book, the same way I felt when we went on the AT. But, on the FT I ended up doing a voice diary on a small recorder on most nights, and after we got home I noticed that there were only a handful of memoir books—enough to count on one hand—about the Florida Trail. I knew I had to write it out, even if I had no idea what I was doing with writing and publishing.
And here I am now with a bonafide first draft of a book. Next is to sit down and run through a first edit. That will involve the obvious reworking typos and grammar errors, but also formatting the book into chapters and coming up with titles for the chapters. For this first draft I wrote mostly from memory with assitance from my blog posts to jog things loose in a few areas. Now I’ll go through my voice recordings to figure out tidbits I missed and add those in if relevant and beneficial to the book.
I am thinking of giving myself a deadline of two months to run through this draft so I can start sending queries out to publishers. I’m hoping the editing process is smoother and more entertaining than the writing part, but I’m sure that’ll backfire on me or something.
In the world of the Florida Trail currently it seems this year is a banner year for Florida Trail thru-hikers and section hikers. Sandra Friend at Florida Hikes recently posted, I think it was 43 or 46, hikers currently out on some section of the FT. I can’t find that post to verify those numbers, but it is an awesome number! She also linked to some of their journals which you can peruse. I’ve been following Acorn and Rainbow on Facebook as well as Balls of Balls and Sunshine fame. I’ve been really enjoying seeing their updates and getting their impressions of the trail. Rainbow has hiked the FT several years in a row now, and we met her when we hiked in 2011. I’ve really appreciated her perspective but maybe that’s because she’s used to Florida and knows what to expect.
On a follow up note, when I wrote my treatise on the Florida Trail earlier this month, I was nervous about hitting ‘Publish’. Was I going to be ranting to the web with no input? Was I completely insane for my viewpoints? It was nerve wracking. Or maybe I just over think things….quite the possibility.
However, I was thrilled with the reception it got.
There were some excellent comments from several people on the post itself and then through several other Florida Trail hikers and supporters on Facebook, whom also shared the post in their feed. A couple folks on Twitter re-tweeted it. I got the attention of Carlos Schomaker, the Florida Trail Association president, who sent me a message reaching out to connect sometime about my views. (Still need to do that!) And then things simmered for a few days until I got a comment from PMags one of the hosts of the The Trail Show, the podcast I’d mentioned in my write-up. We conversed a bit via email and before I knew it I was invited to be on their February podcast to help showcase the Florida Trail as their ‘Trail O’ Da Month’. Whaattt? So, yeah, I’m totally committed now, especially since they mentioned my post on their January show and told the hiking world I was going to be on the show! It looks like we’ll be recording sometime in late February so as soon as the podcast is up I’ll share the link so you all can listen! I’ll be thinking of some sweet things to say about the FT over the next few weeks. If you have any questions that you want me to address, send them on and I’ll try to weave in the information on the podcast.
In all, I think the Florida Trail has a good future despite some issues it might be facing now.
In other trail news, y’all should follow Joan on her first thru-hike, this one being the PCT! I’m so excited for her! Then, there’s the Tougas family, a family of five who will be thru-hiking the AT this spring. Should be two interesting hikes to follow!
This post I’ve been ruminating on for oh, probably eight months now a year now (can you tell this has been sitting in my drafts folder for awhile?). It first started out with me a little upset that a hiking blog I followed was lamenting that their hike through a section of remote wilderness ended up being on a converted rails-to-trails section of trail rather than up and over mountains as they had initially thought, therefore the trail had been flat which had equated it to being boring.
And then yesterday six months ago or so, the Facebook group ‘Thru-Hiking’ reshared a photo from the Florida Trail Association and asked if anyone had thru-hiked the Florida Trail. Being an advocate for the trail I replied that yes I had and wished more folks took an interest in it. And then of course there were the smart-ass remarks about the ‘climbs’ and elevation from others. Since when do trails require a significant amount of elevation change to be valuable and interesting?
So, this post is one part about hiking/backpacking on flat trail and one part about the Florida Trail. Yes, it all intermingles somewhere, so you’ll have to excuse any rambling I end up going into.
Recently (this is actually an accurate ‘recently’!) I wrote and submitted an article to the Florida Trail Association’s Footprint magazine, the quarterly that comes with a Florida Trail membership. Though, since it seems it is now online I guess the general public can read it as well. My article is on page 15.
My reason for writing the article was mostly in response to some frustrations I encounter when I hear people talking negatively about the Florida Trail. This usually comes from people who haven’t hiked on the Florida Trail (FT) or anywhere in Florida before. Perhaps they hear something second hand from other hikers and draw their opinions based on that. Most recently on an episode of The Trail Show, the FT was briefly brought up as an alternative for a trek during the winter time when someone wrote in asking what adventure they could do in a narrow window during winter, but then it was quickly eschewed as uninteresting or boring due to its lack in terrain. I’d have to go back through the podcast to get the exact wording, but they certainly weren’t words that would entice anyone to hike the Florida Trail.
Let’s face it, the Florida Trail is the red-headed stepchild of the National Trails System.
While I certainly don’t believe the Florida Trail is going to be every hiker’s favorite long distance hiking trail, it doesn’t deserve the berating and belittlement by the hiking community that it gets. Moreover, I also don’t think that its thru-hikers, sections hikers, or its maintainers and the Florida Trail organization as a whole do enough to promote it as a thru-hiking trail. It is probably rough of me to say that, and I’m certainly generalizing on that statement, but it is a frustration I feel.
Or, maybe I’m not the only one. Also in the recent magazine was an interview with the Florida Trail founder Jim Kern. His interview begins on page 22 and continues to page 31.
He says, “One more thing, Carlos, that I wanted to get across. There’s the discussion that I know has been going on, at some time or another, about the emphasis on the Florida Trail corridor itself, and all the side trails that we’ve built over the years. I remember I was in Washington Oaks Gardens State Park, and I saw a sign there that said, ‘This trail built by the Florida Trail Association’. And I was very proud of that fact. But there’s a big caveat here; there’s only so much energy, so much time, and so much money. The thing that is going to capture the imagination of Floridians, whose vote we need for things that we want for the trail, ultimately, and also visitors who come to Florida and are into exercise and health and hiking, is the Florida Trail. They want to know where the Florida Trail is.
They don’t care so much about some little blue-blazed trail over in the Withlacoochee State Forest. When I drive north I want to set foot on the Appalachian Trail. You tell me there’s some little trail in Pennsylvania that goes from Blaine to Harrisburg, and I’m not really as interested. That’s my thought about that. Therefore I think the overwhelming emphasis ought to be on the Florida Trail. And I’m not so close to it, so I don’t know, but I have the impression that a huge amount of time and energy has instead gone into side trails.
There may be reasons for this, and maybe side trails are closer to population centers. So, you know, the wisdom of the Board has to figure this out. But obviously the money, which trails back to the Forest Service, is connected to Congress, which is connected to the Florida Trail. That’s where the money is. And that’s where the vision is. People, if they hear that there’s hiking in Florida, should hear two things: One, we have a winter trail. And two, it’s called the Florida Trail. That’s what they want to do, that’s where they want to go. And I hope the Board doesn’t lose sight of that. It’s very important.”
When I read those paragraphs I was a bit hopeful, that someone else was realizing what I was realizing. It was something I felt when we were thru-hiking ourselves and encountered people out on section hikes. There was no concept of what the trail needed from a thru-hiker’s vantage point. As for his mention about side trails (though the one(s) in Withlacoochee is very nice, we hiked a large loop in prep for the AT) I remember being in Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park near Naples once and seeing orange blazes on one of their old logging tram trails. It was the only one blazed out there and after inquiring with Mike Owen, the biologist and ranger for the park, I found out that at the time the FTA maintained that trail. It seemed quite odd to me then as the actual Florida Trail was many miles east of there. I have no idea if that is still maintained by them or not.
This is all probably easy for me to say as someone who first did day hikes and a couple of longer overnights on the trail before thru-hiking it, and as someone who has not done trail maintenance for the trail. However, I think I’ve tried to at least write about the compelling parts of the trail here on the blog. And its one of the reasons I’m still slogging away at the book about the trail…there’s just not enough coverage on thru-hiking the Florida Trail out there.
All of this is coupled with what has seemed to be some tenuous times for the FTA that I’ve noticed in the last year. As I’m not actively involved with the local groups since we now live out of state, I get most of my news about the trail through a couple of active members on Facebook and through Sandra Friend’s Florida Hikes! blog.
The first issue I noticed was last spring with the closure of the trail near Bluff Hammock close to the Kissimmee River in central Florida. When we’d gone through, now almost three years ago, the only issues with boardwalks in this area were easily avoidable, just skipping over a few planks or getting down and avoiding a few bog bridges that were in disrepair. When we finished our hike I wrote the FTA with a list of issues we’d noticed in an effort for them to reach out to their local chapters so they could figure out where maintenance needed to be done. I never received a reply so I figured it went out into the ether. So, imagine my frustration and anger when I heard about the closures when at that point it had been two years since we’d come through. I couldn’t help but wonder if attention had been paid to the trail during that time instead of postponing it, the trail wouldn’t have been in the situation it is in now. (Again, I’m writing this as an outsider with no clue as to the inner workers of permissions from landowners/funding etc. But at that point it seemed like only minor repairs needed to be made.) Now it is late December and that entire section of trail has been rerouted to stay east of the Kissimmmee River and go through Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park (KPPSP), bypassing Hickory Hammock and Avon Park Bombing Range, until it reaches the S-65A lock to cross the river. Which by the way, the lock isn’t quite ready for thru-hikers to cross….during thru-hiker season. What??? (Thankfully there’s a trail angel who has been kind enough to assist hikers with a drive around this to avoid a very long roadwalk. Her information is in the link a few sentences above.)
The numbers tossed around on Facebook was that the repairs were going to be upwards of a million dollars for all of the bridges and bog boards to be repaired or rebuilt in order get through a few sloughs in that area. Which…if you are doing maintenance on a regular basis, wouldn’t this be preventable? Or am I just far too optimistic? I don’t mind that the trail has been moved to KPPSP, that’s probably the red-headed stepchild of the Florida park system. It is freakin’ beautiful and is insanely quiet because no one goes to it as it is located in the middle of the state. However, losing the hiking in the Hickory Hammock/Bluff Hammock area is a big loss just as well.
And that’s just the start. As you will see on page 5 of the magazine is an announcement that Deb Blick, an integral part of the Florida Trail Association, was laid off from her position due to lack of grant funding and then lack of internal funding from the FTA itself. And it continues to be dire when you read on page 6 the message from the VP of Trails and continue on to the VP of Membership’s report. Of course the need is money, but what organization doesn’t need money. But, when the general hiking community continues to have a negative viewpoint on the Florida Trail, and the outdoor recreation users in Florida don’t even know there’s a long distance trail in their state, what do you expect?
There’s not much I can do living out of state. I can give more money as I have it available in my personal budget and I can write about it here in my blog, and hopefully via my book which is getting closer to being completed. I can be the Florida Trail’s cheerleader from afar.
(And the FTA is hardly the only trail association having money woes. The Continental Divide Trail’s CDTA dissolved in 2012. Now, there are other groups filling this niche, but I wonder what kind of clout they will have to get through red-tape?)
Now, to put to rest the fears or rumors out there that I think dissuade folks into thru-hiking it. They are: lack of terrain (which I think equates to lack of beauty), water and swamp walking, and finally the amount of road walking involved.
Lack of Terrain (therefore Lack of Beauty):
Florida is flat, or at least flatter in comparison to any of the other big three long distance trails. Get over it. Enough with the snide remarks about no mountains or flat is boring, the simple truth about the trail is, it is generally terrain deficient. But lacking in terrain doesn’t mean it doesn’t lack in beauty. Are some parts less stunning than others? Yes. I wouldn’t say that walking next to sugar cane fields is all that exciting, but on the other hand during that time of year there are a lot of migratory birds in the area which provides an opportunity to see these species. Call it looking on the bright side, but there is some beauty in walking adjacent to sugar cane fields.
Florida has a variety of habitats and the trail crosses many of these; wet prairie, dry prairie, cypress sloughs (with orchids!), hardwood hammocks, palmetto thickets, baygall/titi sloughs, cabbage palm forests, and dune scrub to name a few. The ecosystems present along the trail are often times in peril. Habitats endangered due to a variety of reasons, most often due to encroaching development. Not only that, Florida has a unique and interesting history, considering the state is the home to the oldest European settlement in the U.S. (St. Augustine), there’s a lot of history with tribes (Seminole, Miccosukee, Tequesta, Calusa to name a few), the destruction of the Everglades and its long trek to recovery, and many little facets of history unique to particular regions (such as the turpentine industry in the north, or the Florida cracker cattlemen).
No, there are not vistas at the top of a mountain, but there are subtle vistas mixed amongst the landscape. Sometimes it means appreciating the sunset through its rays that are scattered through the pine trees, other times it is appreciating the unique flora and fauna in the area, such as the resurrection fern adoring the limbs of live oaks in a hardwood hammock alongside drapes of Spanish moss. It’s seeing bromeliads poking up and blooming all over the state, finding a scrub jay in a scrub habitat, or encountering a bear in central Florida.
With the lack of terrain, you make up for in being able to hike longer and farther once you get your trail legs. Instead of going up and down mountains all day, you can set your cruise control and just walk, focusing on the trail instead of huffing and puffing along the way up a mountain. Maybe you cover more miles in the morning and take a longer break somewhere relaxing in the middle of the day, say next to a spring or a pond.
The Whole Trail is a Swamp:
Not true. Are there some wet sections? Yes. Do you have stream crossings? Yes, like any other trail. Maybe this can be equated to the ‘Pennsylvania is all rocks’ statement on the AT…are there some rocks? Yes. Is the entire AT in Pennsylvania rocky? No. (BTW, all of Virginia isn’t flat either.)
This is probably the biggest fear of anyone who has asked me about the Florida Trail. If the entire trail was wet, there’s no way we would have hiked it in almost eight weeks. Yes, Florida has wetlands but the trail doesn’t go through every one of them. There’s also a reason you hike the trail in Dec-March, this is the beginning of the dry season in Florida. Other times of the year you could encounter more water than you would in winter, and if you start too early in December you may end up with a bit more water than you would in January or February. Plan accordingly.
It helps to know these wet sections beforehand and to mentally prepare for them, but this isn’t 1,000 miles of water to cross the Land of Flowers. Maybe people just need to be more truthful about the wet sections, instead of either glamorizing the wet sections or freaking people the hell out about it. So, here they are, the ‘biggie’ wet sections:
Big Cypress National Preserve: You’re in luck, now that the official start of the trail is on U.S. 41 instead of Loop Road you get to cut out about two miles of wet trail. I thought that section was nice though, as you see an ancient cypress dome complete with orchids and bromeliads. It is pretty awesome…but now you don’t have to walk through it with the southern terminus changed. Then, the other part of Big Cypress to think about is last 8 miles of the trail, more-or-less depending on how soon the dry season starts.
Occasionally you can find more water than normal in Big Cypress, but in a general year, only the north section is really wet. And by really wet, it is mostly an inch to ankle deep, some muddy sloshing, one deeper slough of about knee to mid-thigh near Oak Hill campsite that is maybe a hundred yards long, and then returning to muddy sloshing. I’ve been in that north section when it wasn’t wet and you couldn’t even find water to pump, so take that into account for drought years.
Chandler Slough: 0.5 miles-ish, and you even get a pass here, with a white-blaze high water option routing you to a roadwalk. (Actually, looking at this on the trail map this section may have been removed.)
Bradwell Bay: 7 miles in the heart of Apalachicola National Forest. I can’t speak for this spot as we didn’t have to walk here due to a controlled burn closing the area to hikers, but from what I’ve read, I think this is another area that people are scared of. And I’ll be one to say I think it is a bad option for a thru-hike. When it is written that the depth of the water is waist deep and deeper on those of short stature, this scares people (I quote from the guidebook: “It’s not unusual to wade through water as deep as a tall man’s chest”.) Who wants to hike in deep water with a full pack of gear, and during the winter when the water is colder? No one. This leads me to believe that thru-hikers aren’t always thought about when building trail through these areas. This area sounds like a great day or single overnight adventure, but not thru-hike material.
Other areas: Um, that’s it for the major stuff. Yes, there are areas that are sloshy, places you have to cross streams and small creeks, but what other long distance trail doesn’t do that? The Appalachian Trail is often called the Appalachian River during rain events….come on folks! And often there are bog boards or small bridges to help you out in sloughs and creeks. If not, take your shoes off and go barefoot or put on your wading shoes. You shouldn’t be afraid of water crossing any more than you would be on any other long distance trail. Just be a bit more prepared for some of the other sections and know you will go slower than normal. Also, use your topo maps (buy the maps, they are worthwhile!) and see where any marshes may be located.
This will be a fact of life on this trail until agreements can be made with private landowners to reroute the trail off the roads. Unfortunately I see this as being a long time coming due to budget cuts and dwindling money within the association. Strides are being made, but they are slow going. It is still a developing trail after all. I think people who had done the AT and PCT in recent years are spoiled a bit by the fact their trails are all mostly in the woods. It would behoove them to remember that those trails were in development once as well and weren’t always in the forest.
Road walking can be interesting at times, and dangerous at other times. Often you’ll end up walking in the grassy shoulder which sometimes isn’t very level. Other times you might be lucky enough to have a wide cement shoulder which allows you to walk in relative safety from oncoming traffic. I say relative, there are idiot drivers out there and they don’t always see or expect someone on the side of the road.
I’ve never counted up the actual miles of roadwalking there is but I’d say the total might be around 300 (someone correct me with the total number if you have it). That number seems large by itself, but remember it is all interspersed. There are two longer roadwalks in the Panhandle where private lands are more interspersed between the public connector lands, and the problems here are the need to stealth camp. To break up a 40+ mile roadwalk from Apalachicola National Forest to Econfina Creek Water Management Area we stayed overnight in Blountstown and then did a 30 mile day the following day. (But, looking at the map again, I think they changed the route up a little to detour to an Upper Chipola River Water Management Area parcel, which would help that walk a lot!)
The Take Home Message
The Florida Trail is in development, and it needs more backpackers out on the trail enjoying it. There’s a diverse landscape to enjoy and it certainly isn’t a boring or uneventful trail. It is quiet, if you are looking for solitude. There are no crowds, no people around a shelter at night sharing stories. That took a little getting used to after months on the AT, but by the end of the FT and we encountered a couple of overnight groups, we were spoiled by nearly two months of camping alone.
It’s a great trail if you’ve only got two months to spare and are looking for something to do in the winter. If you live in Florida, start section hiking it. Don’t compare it to other trails and accept that it is a unique trail. If you don’t know anything about Florida, get a wildlife and plant guide to help you identify your surroundings, it will make you appreciate the hike even more.
I hope I haven’t gone too crazy here, and I know the post was long, but it has been bothering me for some time. I loved Florida—still love Florida, it is an awesome state that has much more than white sand beaches and the glitz of Miami.
Now, go take a hike somewhere near where you live and next time you hear about the Florida Trail, don’t bad mouth it without having a little bit of knowledge beforehand. (If you actually hiked the FT and hated it, I’d love to know why!)
At work yesterday Fleetwood Mac came on the radio, Gold Dust Woman, and I was immediately transported back to Ocala National Forest and our short stop at the 88 Store, where we picked up our maildrop, showered, and ate ice cream and drank sodas. Gold Dust Woman didn’t come on the radio but Gypsy did, but I think any time Steve Nicks’ voice comes on the radio I will think about Florida and backpacking.
Oddly enough when I went to pull up the photo on Flickr it said it was taken on January 31, 2011. How’s that for intuition?
Sunrise at Gulf Islands National Seashore, March 3, 2011….18 miles left until we finished.
Finished! We walked through Florida!
On top of Fort Pickens
How was this a year ago? It seems like closer than that. While the Appalachian Trail seems light years away now, I think the Florida Trail seems closer because of our closer relationship with Florida itself. While I am glad to be in Texas again, I sometimes wish I had done more exploring and had gotten to know Florida more intimately, exploring its other locales.
Despite the road walks, I do recommend hiking this trail. It’s a ‘quick’ trail, it’s flat and it offers up habitats that many people don’t get to see or appreciate. It is a different mindset and I’m hoping that with the book I am writing about our hike on the Florida Trail that I can sway more people to hike the trail. Not only that, I want the trail to become better. It has a vast amount of potential and it can only get better if people are out there appreciating it.
I hope we have more long distance trails for us in the future, even if we are a few decades older when that happens. Long distance trails are challenging in so many ways but worth it when all is said and done.