Hiking with Sciatica

As many of you know, I have been dealing with Hip Dysplasia now for several years since finding out that I was actually born with this hip abnormality.  I have had hip pain since my 2014 thru-hike of the PCT, and subsequently, I’ve had several hip surgeries to correct the problem.  In June I had my last hip surgery to remove the hardware (screws) in my hip, and my hope had been to have the whole Hip Dysplasia saga behind me after this final recovery period, and be back in top hiking shape at this point.

Well, life is never so simple.  About a month before my hardware removal, I started experiencing the symptoms of sciatica: nerve pain down my left leg.  My PT helped to diagnose the problem, and I tried exercises to help it, and then hoped that some forced rest with my last surgery would knock it out.  It didn’t, and the pain persists.

It has been about 12 weeks since I first developed sciatica nerve pain, and let me tell you, it is hard and unrewarding to be in pain for 12 weeks after going through two and a half years of surgeries and recoveries in order to get to this point.  The pain itself is annoying, but what’s worse is the lack of a timeline, the lack of prognosis, and the need to constantly cancel or reschedule hikes and trips due to pain without knowing when or how this will ever go away.  The sciatica pain flares up sometimes making it hard to even walk around the house, and other times it subsides and allows me to do some less strenuous hikes.

After a lot of research, I decided that I would cut sitting out of my lifestyle and try to do some flat walking on a regular basis as pain allowed.  In general, this seemed to be the recommendation for sciatica patients.  I started using a standing desk, and I would lie down instead of sit whenever I wanted a rest from standing.

That was going well until last Thursday when I decided to go to the movies.  I sat for almost 2 hours.  Big mistake.  When I stood up I couldn’t walk without shooting pain down my leg.  That night my mental health plummeted.  I saw no hope.  I would have to cancel another hike I was supposed to guide on Saturday, and cancel my personal hike for the weekend too.  I had no other plans for the weekend besides hiking.  Nothing to look forward to.  Just another day of trying to stand all fucking day long.  It felt like no way to live.  So unfair and so demoralizing.  With every step I was forcefully reminded with an electric shock down my the back of my left leg.

On Saturday I spent the morning lying on my living room floor while Dirt Stew was out guiding a hike.  I decided to take a Gapapentin for nerve pain to see what effect it would have.  I was so bored and depressed, but I did feel somewhat better physically.  I decided I wanted to spend a night in the woods and try to catch up with our friends who had planned a backpacking trip through the Middle Prong Wilderness.

Dirt Stew came home and I told him I wanted to go backpacking..  He tried to talk me out of it, for fear that I would do more damage, but there was no way I was spending the rest of the day standing around annoyed and depressed.  If I was going to do that, I may as well do it in the woods.

We packed up and headed out on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  We decided to park at Devil’s Courthouse and find the MST and camp somewhere along it.  Once I started walking, I immediately started to feel human again.  It was so good to be outside and in such a beautiful section of trail.  The Hermit Thrushes were singing their mystic songs which echoed through the dense forest. It was surprisingly cool.  It had just rained, and the trail was full of puddles and mud and I was delighted to stomp through them getting my feet and legs dirty.  Sections of the MST were quite overgrown with brambles and the thorny bushes left cuts on my legs.  We wound up hiking for an hour and a half to Silvermine Bald which has some great camping spots.

View of Davidson Valley, Pilot Mountain, and the ridge that the Art Loeb Follows

We got to our campsite just after sunset and I sat on the soft forest floor rummaging through our food bags while Dirt Stew set up the tent.  My legs were covered in wet mud and scrapes and my shoes and socks were sopping wet and muddy, and I was hungry.  For the first time in weeks I felt alive again.

We ate and got into the tent just as darkness fell, and the minute I closed my eyes, I was fast asleep.  I woke up just as it started to get light out around 6AM, and I felt reasonably well rested.  We quickly packed up, knowing that we had to intersect our friends on the MST at Haywood Gap before they passed through there, and we didn’t really know when that would be.  We got up and packed up within 15-20 minutes.  “We’ve still got it!” I said with regards to how quickly we packed up.

We hiked back to our car and drove down the road to Haywood Gap.  We got out of our car and started getting our packs out of the trunk when our friends Donner (AT class of 2010) and company emerged from the forest on the other side of the woods.

“NO WAY!” exclaimed Donner as he saw us.

Good timing!  It was so good to see them again, and we donned our packs and followed the group into the woods to continue on the MST.  We chatted and caught up with friends we had hiked with before, and introduced ourselves to some new friends in the group, and all the while, I felt on top of the world.

We knew this section of trail, but the last time we had hiked it was in April, and the trail looked completely different now.  Back in April, the trail was covered in Trout Lily and May Apples, and now it was overgrown with stinging nettles, black berries and brambles.  It was still fairly flat and fast going, and with the distraction of talking with friends, the miles went by quickly.

We passed on intersection that obviously led over to the Blue Ridge Parkway, and then passed another intersection that we assumed did the same thing until we started going downhill quite a lot.  Dirt Stew asked me if I wanted to turn around at this point since I was going to suffer if I had to do much uphill hiking.  We looked at the map and decided that we would keep going until the intersection with the Fork Ridge Trail, which is where the trail would really start to go downhill, and our friends would be taking that route back to their cars which were parked on 215 at the bottom.

Well, eventually we figured out that we missed the turn for the MST at the junction with the Buckeye Trail, and we had been heading down the Buckeye Trail for quite some time now.  We knew exactly where we made the wrong turn.  I wasn’t keen on going back up, and I also was having a great time hiking with my friends, so we decided that we would keep hiking with them down to their vehicles and then get a ride back up to our car.  I felt bad inconveniencing our new friends, but I also knew we could probably hitch-hike if we needed to.  I just wanted to keep hiking.

We got to the bottom of the Buckeye Trail soon after which there is a stream to ford.  Since my feet were already wet, I just walked through it, but others took the time to take off their shoes.  The water was nice and cool, and the stream was beautiful.  Bee balm and Turks Cap and Carolina Lilies were blooming everywhere.


Eyeing a ford while the dogs lead the way through the cool water.


Stream with a nice waterfall

Do I look as happy as I feel?


Carolina Lily

Bee Balm

We finished the hike on the gravel road leading down to 215 and caught a ride with Lindsay and Taylor back up to the Blue Ridge Parkway.  We certainly owe them a favor for getting us back to our car!

Finishing the hike on a gravel road.  Dirt Stew is eyeing the lilies.

I can’t tell you how good it was to spend the night in the woods, spend a day with friends, and spend a good amount of time in nature walking.  It was the best therapy I could have asked for, and I plan on doing it again very soon.

In a week I will see a Spine Surgeon to hopefully find the source of my Sciatica Pain, and I now believe more than ever that the final cure for this will be another long distance hike.  I hope sooner rather than later I will find myself down that path.

Shining Rock and Middle Prong Wilderness

“An area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” -Wilderness Act, 1964

Trails within wilderness areas tend to be primitive and sparsely maintained.  The Wilderness Act does not allow the use of motorized vehicles or chainsaws, so trail maintenance in these areas is difficult.

Day 1: 12.5 miles-ish

We parked our car at the bottom of the Fork Mountain trail on Route 215 along the river.  If Dirt Stew hadn’t said there was a trail there, I would never have found it.

We first had to cross the freezing cold river, which came roughly up to our knees.  There were several people fishing along the river, and they watched us with skepticism as we staggered across the river seemingly randomly.  Once on the other side, I saw where the trail went up into the forest.   The Fork Mountain Trail is a 7-mile trail with about 3,000ft elevation gain.  Most of that gain happens in the first few miles.  The trail was steep and rugged and had I been going at a decent pace, I would have become exhausted quite quickly.  Luckily, wildflowers dotted the trail, and I stopped every few minutes to take some pictures.

Blood Root



Bird’s Foot Violet

It was obvious that this trail did not see many visitors.  There were downed trees every once in a while, vegetation encroaching onto the trail, and the tread-way was not well worn.


John hiking on the Fork Mountain Trail

Once we got close to 5000ft elevation, we made a series of wrong turns. We made a wrong turn at an old railroad bed, and again a bit further where we wound up following a trail used by surveyors that dead ended at a survey marker.


We didn’t know it because we were lost, but we were on a trail that only existed because of this survey marker.

We also climbed part of the way up Fork Mountain by accident and hit a wilderness boundary sign before realizing our mistake.  Luckily by studying our map we were able to retrace our steps and find the trail, but we lost a lot of time, and did a good job scraping up our legs bushwhacking around looking for the trail.


We may be lost, but we’re lost in a beautiful spot!

Once we were back on trail and on the ridge, the trail was easier and we heard some voices.  We ran into a couple who had hiked in from the other direction, and we wound up chatting to them for a while while we hiked up to the Ivestor Gap Trail.

Once we hit the Ivestor Gap Trail, we had a lot of options, and it was hard to decide which way to go since we have done a lot of hiking in that area, and wanted to see new things.  We decided to take a very round about way to hit the Mountains to Sea Trail by walking on trails we hadn’t hiked on before.  We hiked toward Ivestor Gap and got water near there, and then took the Graveyard Ridge Trail, which turned out to be mostly a stream.  It was basically impossible not to get our feet wet.  I could see why most people don’t hike this trail.  It’s another old railroad bed, but none of the culverts actually work anymore.

Once we hit the Mountains To Sea Trail I was feeling pretty tired.  We decided we’d hike to Chestnut Bald where we had camped before on the Art Loeb.  This was a section where the Mountains to Sea Trail and the Art Loeb intersect.  My hips were a bit sore, and my leg muscles were tired from the big climb earlier in the day.

We ate a large pot of mashed potatoes and called it a night.

Day Two: 15.5 miles-ish

Our ultimate goal was to hike a loop in the Middle Prong Wilderness where Dirt Stew had seen an amazing wildflower display last year.  We had also intended on hiking Sam’s Knob, but somehow didn’t set ourselves up for it by camping where we did, so we decided to skip Sam’s Knob.  In any case, Sam’s Knob is an easy day hike from the Black Balsam parking lot.

We decided instead to just take the Mountains to Sea Trail (MST) over to the Middle Prong Wilderness to hike that loop.

Along the way, we decided to take a side trail to hit Devil’s Courthouse.  From there we got some beautiful views of the surrounding mountains.


John checking out the view from Devil’s Courthouse.  Notice Pilot Mountain poking up between the trees!


More views from Devils’s Courthouse

We hiked and hiked and hiked and hiked.  I started getting grouchy.  Why was this taking so long?  The trail was anything but straight.  It winded around practically in circles.  I had somehow thought of the MST as some sort of teleportation trail that would quickly get us over to Haywood Gap and Buckeye Gap Trails in the Middle Prong Wilderness.  We didn’t have any data on the mileage of this section of the MST, but it looked quite short on the map.  Well, it wasn’t, and I was grumpy about it.


Middle Prong Wilderness!

We stopped and ate lunch, and carried on hiking.  I vaguely remember passing the Green Mountain Trail, but we must have missed the Buckeye Gap Trail.  Slowly the MST started presenting clusters of wildflowers until they practically covered the forest floor.  My hips were aching a lot, and I stopped to take Advil.  By the time we got to the Haywood Gap Trail, it was probably 3pm.  The intersection of the MST and Haywood Gap harbored one of the most beautiful displays of wildflowers I have ever seen.  There were Trout Lillies as far as the eye could see, and Spring Beauty, May Apples, Dutchman’s Britches, all carpeting the forest as far as the eye could see.  Flashes of yellow, flashes of red where Trillium had just started opening up.


Trout Lilly and Spring Beauty as far as the eye can see


Just a narrow footpath lined with Trout Lilies


May Apples, more Trout Lilies and more Spring Beauty!

Dirt Stew was giggling, and I was stunned. I kept the camera in one hand and my trekking poles in the other and tiptoed down the trail trying not to step on any flowers.  They were growing in the middle of the trail at points!


Dutchman’s Britches

We decided that since we missed the Buckeye Gap Trail, we would just hike the Haywood Gap Trail to the end and take the gravel road from there to our car.  Hiking down the Haywood Gap Trail was hard.  The trail follows the stream the whole way down, and parts of the trail are washed out, and many sections are very steep.  There was at least one or two fords where we couldn’t rock hop, but the cold water felt good for my tired feet.

Despite my sore hips and tired feet, the wildflowers continued to put on a show for us.  As we descended into the valley, different flowers presented themselves at different elevations.  It was like each flower species got their turn to carpet an area, where normally I would have gotten excited to see one individual.



The trail ended at a gravel road and we walked the road down past a closed gate down to where we parked our car.  We went home a day early, but completely satisfied with the weekend’s adventure.



The Beautiful Smoky Mountains

What better time to go for a backpacking trip in the Smoky Mountains than on a random weekend in late February while the seasons are busy being confused about what time of year it is.

We left mid Friday to get in day’s worth of hiking on our first day out.  For me, a day’s worth of hiking is currently about 6-8 miles, given that I had hip surgery 4 months ago.  I’m constantly getting stronger and increasing my mileage, and this trip was no exception.

Somehow when Dirt Stew planned this trip, he failed to mention to me what the elevation gain would be on the first day.  I usually don’t care, but it turns out that from the parking lot at Big Creek Trail head to the top of Mt Sterling where we were going to camp that night is a 4000ft climb over 6 miles.  That must be one of the biggest climbs on the East Coast!

We got out of the car and I immediately had to take off my jacket.  It must have been almost 70 degrees out.  I was struck by how green the moss was next to the parking lot.  We snapped some pictures, checked our altimeters, and started climbing the Baxter Creek Trail.

Shorts and t-shirt weather in February!

We stripped down to shorts and t-shirts, and gawked at the many wildflowers that were just as confused about the weather as we were.  At low elevations, the Spring Beauties were out as well as Toadshade and Sharp Lobed Hepatica.  We hiked at a reasonably slow pace and took lots of pictures.


We saw two ladies maybe a mile from the trail head, and then not a single other person all day.  We climbed through entire ecosystems, from the wet stream valley covered in wild flowers to the drier rhododendron filled mountainsides all the way up to the magical land of spruces and huge rocks covered in moss.

Rocks covered in moss

Spruce trees growing on moss covered rocks

We took water at the last stream crossing, since we didn’t know about any other water sources.  It turned out though, that 0.4 miles from the top of Mt. Sterling, there was a sign pointing to a water source.  We didn’t bother checking to see if it was running.

My hip started to really ache once we got to about 5,000ft, and I started limping just a tad, and walking a bit slower, taking a break every so often to stretch out my hip flexors and adductor muscles.  The moss and fern covered rocks provided me with plenty of inspiration for photography.

By the time we hit the top at 5,842ft, the temperature had dropped maybe 10 or 15 degrees.  It was a pleasant temperature, but the wind was starting to pick up, and at the top of Mt Sterling, there is a very tall fire tower luring you to climb to a better view.

Scary-as-all-hell fire-tower on top of Mt Sterling


We took a few steps up the tower and instantly felt vertigo.  The stairs had small pathetic railings, and at the landings between stair cases, there was nothing to stop you from falling over.  Dirt Stew started cursing.  He was holding on to his camera in one hand, and gripping the railing with the other.

“Nope!”  He proclaimed.  “Not going any further!”

We got down from the scary-as-all-hell fire tower, and contented ourselves with taking pictures of the fire-tower instead of from it.

We set up camp, and ate dinner.  We knew that this night was going to be warm, and the next night was going to be very cold.  The forecast for Asheville showed 50’s at night for the first night, and 20’s for our second night.  We had decided the direction of our hike based on this information, since it made no sense to be on top of a nearly 6000ft mountain on the colder night.

I went off to water a tree, and when I got back, Dirt Stew was gone.  I called out for him, and heard a voice from up ahead.  He had climbed most of the way up the fire-tower on his own to get some more pictures.

“It’s not so bad when you can hold both railings,”  he said.  I wasn’t convinced.

“Please don’t die,”  I begged.



Picture from up the fire-tower


He came down, and got ready for bed.  We hung our food on the handy bear lines provided, and crawled into our tent around sunset.  We dozed off, but were constantly awoken by the wind vigorously swaying the branches above our head and whipping at our tent.  Dirt Stew decided to use ear plugs.

I had another problem.  I usually bring an empty Gatorade bottle with me which I pee in at night so I don’t have to leave the tent.  I use my handy p-style, a magical device which allows women to pee like men.  This time I forgot my empty bottle, and I had to leave the tent each time I had to pee.  Bummer.

Hanging out in the tent

By 3AM I was woken up by flashes of lightning and crashing thunder.  It started to rain.  I snuggled deeper into my sleeping bag and tried to sleep.  I couldn’t.  I counted the seconds between lighting flashes and associated claps of thunder.  When they got to be 2 seconds or less, I decided to wake up Dirt Stew.  We were in a terrible location.  Why was the designated campsite on top of the tallest mountain around?  We never would have chosen to camp here had we been allowed to camp wherever we wanted.  I cursed the National Park and their rules.

We agreed that there was basically nothing that made sense to do but stay put and hope for the best.

Eventually, the storm died down, and we fell back asleep.

The next morning the rain was subsiding as we got up.  By the time we ate breakfast and our packs were packed, the last drops of rain were lingering on branches, teasing us with showers when the wind picked up, encouraging us to keep our rain jackets on to start our hike.



The sun making an appearance through the morning mist


The clouds lifted, but it never warmed up.  Our day was mostly downhill.  We hiked over to the Swallow Fork Trail to Campsite “37”, which was located in a stream valley.  We passed two sets of two hikers, and were surprised each time.  Water was reliable, and corresponded to where we thought it would be based on the map.  By the time we got to the campsite, there were some people milling around.  We were about 5 miles away from the trail head from the Big Creek Trail, where we were planning on hiking out and finishing our loop, so it made sense that some day hikers had made it in that far.

Stream Crossing

We decided to set up camp and continue to explore up the Camel Gap Trail.  We wanted to see what the ford looked like to get onto the Gunter Fork Trail, where there was a “high water caution” written on our map.

But first we took our time to select our campsite.  Again, this was not the ideal location to be camping tonight.  Tonight the prediction was cold, probably into the low 20’s, and all the available campsites were in a cold valley next to a creek.  Not ideal, but at least the elevation was nearly 3000 ft lower than the previous night.  We hoped that would make a big difference.  Given the forecast, we decided to take two sleeping bags each.  I guess you can say we’re wimps about the cold, or at least I wasn’t used to cold weather camping since last winter I was also recovering from surgery.

We picked the best spot we could, furthest from the stream, and then left our gear and took our empty packs containing just food and water and ventured up stream.  We saw a red salamander hanging out right in the middle of the trail.  I picked him up and moved him to the side.  The trail was easy despite some downed trees, and we hiked about a mile to the ford.  The ford was definitely a ford, not a rock hop.  We decided we didn’t want to get our shoes wet, so we just hung around taking pictures, and then wandered back to camp.



Cute Red Salamander


The temperatures kept dropping, and we struggled to keep warm.  This is the point at which I realized why most people don’t like going backpacking in foul weather (rain, snow, cold, etc.).  Most people aren’t willing or able to hike all day, and therefore they’re stuck shivering at camp at the end of their hike, huddled around a camp fire trying to stay warm.  Now I was in that boat too.   I’m used to hiking all day, and when you’re hiking, you can stay warm.  Now I was cold, bored, and uninterested in “hanging around camp.”  I had hiked a grand total of maybe 9 miles.  An easy 9 miles.

We decided to climb into our tent before sunset.  We got out our two sleeping bags and climbed in.  It was plenty warm, and we lay there staring at the ceiling of our tent.  I see why some people bring books now.

Hanging out in the tent again

After many hours of sleep, we woke up with the sun.  We slept plenty warm, we probably didn’t need the extra sleeping bag each, but we were better safe than sorry.

The next morning we we only had 5 miles left to hike to make it back to the car.  These 5 miles were probably the easiest 5 miles I could imagine.  Flat; very slightly downhill; wide trail.  We stopped at Mouse Creek Falls and Midnight Hole Falls, and there was one more waterfall that wasn’t labeled on the map.  They were all beautiful and photogenic.

Pretty waterfall

Midnight Hole Falls (awesome swimming hole if it’s warm)

The streams in the Smokys are so beautiful


Keeping warm while checking out waterfalls


Dirt Stew poses for a picture

Once back at the car, I was sad to drive away from the beautiful smoky mountains, but happy to be headed in the direction of a warm shower and a hot cup of tea!

Canoeing Ten Thousand Islands, Florida

Ten Thousand Islands is part of Everglades National Park, and you can spend weeks canoeing the waters around these islands.  If you look at a map of Florida, Ten Thousand Island takes up the entire southwestern part of the Everglades National Park, all the way from near Naples to the Flamingo Bay Visitor’s Center.

We drove to Everglades City where there is a visitor’s center and a place to rent canoes and get camping permits.  We stood in line to reserve a camping spot on one of the islands, but by the time we were helped, the only camping spots were a far canoe trip away.  We had all day to get to a designated island to camp, and given that you can canoe at least as fast as you can walk, we didn’t think much about a 10-15 mile canoe trip.

There is no fresh water out on the islands, so you have to bring enough water for your entire trip out.  It’s recommended to bring at least one gallon per person per day.  You can actually canoe a waterway that is 100 miles long, and you can imagine how many gallons of water you would need to stash in your canoe to start that trip.

We got most of our stuff into a dry bag and what didn’t fit and could get wet, we put in a backpack separately.

It wasn’t obnoxiously hot, but the sun was beating down, and once we were in open water, there was no escaping it.  We were so glad that we had stopped to buy sunglasses when we realized that we forgot them, but we also stupidly forgot our floppy hats.  We were canoeing right into the sun, and could barely keep our eyes open even with the sunglasses on.  I could feel my forehead burning despite the sunscreen.  If only we had SOMETHING to put on our heads!  I scanned the contents of the canoe and my eyes rested on our life-jackets which were uselessly discarded in a pile in the middle of the canoe.  I reached back to grab one and put my head through the hole and tightened the straps.  It wasn’t comfortable, but it worked!

I kept a compass around my neck and often checked the map, but since there are no hills and all the islands are simply covered in mangroves, it was impossible to tell one thing from another.  We were just moving around in the water, and all around us there were bodies of land covered in mangroves.   It was hard to tell if a certain land mass was an island or a peninsula, or whether an inlet was actually a boating channel or just a dead end.  Without a GPS, trying to keep track of where we were was almost impossible.

We were lost, but at least we knew generally speaking which way to go, so we kept paddling.  We kept drinking a lot of water to stay hydrated since we could feel the sun sucking up the moisture from our bodies.  Once we saw the horizon we knew to paddle towards open ocean, and we knew we could then figure out where we were.  The water started to get a bit choppy, so we headed directly to the closest island, which had a cute little beach.  We paddled against the wind to hit shore.  Once there, I pulled out my iPhone and looked at the compass app, which was very helpful, because it shows GPS coordinates.  I figured out exactly where we were (Turtle Key) based on corresponding those coordinates to our map.

Once we both peed, drank some more water and agreed which land masses we should be headed for next, we got back into the canoe and headed out.  The waves got worse.  It was so choppy that waves were breaking into the canoe, and paddling against the wind and the waves was exhausting.  I knew we had a long ways to go to get to our island, but given the conditions, we decided to stop at the very next island.

We pulled up onto the beach, and there were two guys already there.  They told us that they were the only ones on the island so far, but that the rangers allowed 2 groups to camp on Rabbit Key.  Apparently, there was one more group yet to come.  The island was big though, and given the conditions, we thought it would be best to call it quits here.  The two guys headed to a different side of the island and told us they thought we’d be fine camping there even though our permit was for a different spot.  There was room for another group if they showed up.

In the end, no other groups showed up.  We set up camp, pulled the canoe onto the shore past the high tide line, and watched the birds.  As the tide came in, I sat on a sandy beach that separated two sections of the island and watched as the water rose and cut the island in two.  I sat there for at least an hour watching the birds on the beach move with the tide.


I then tried to cook dinner.  I use the word “tried,” because in fact, I totally failed. I pulled a “Dirt Stew.”  As I was draining the pasta, my hand slipped and all the pasta fell onto the sandy beach.  This is exactly how Dirt Stew got his trail name, only he spilled the pasta in mud.  I carefully picked each piece of pasta up off the beach and put it in a ziplock bag in order to carry it out and throw it away.  Ironically it was the shell type of pasta.  Luckily we also had instant mashed potatoes with us too, so we ate that instead.  I looked over at Dirt Stew as we ate our meal and asked him, “without looking at your watch, what day of the week do you think it is?”  “Uhhh, Thursday?”  He replied.  “Nope!  It’s Saturday!” I told him.  This was obviously a good vacation.

We got into the tent and fell asleep as the sun set.  I was probably before 7 PM.

The sunrise woke us up again in the morning, and we broke down camp and dragged the canoe over the isthmus to the other side of the island in hopes of having more sheltered waters for our return trip.

We canoed directly into the wind, fighting the tide for the first couple of miles until we got into more sheltered waters.  This time I kept much better track of exactly where we were with respect to the map, and we managed not to get lost.  We pulled out of a passage that we never would have found on the way in, because it was basically invisible unless you were on top of it.


As we entered into the larger bay close to the mainland, a dolphin sneaked up on us.  It swam beside us for a good 15 to 20 minutes as we paddled closer to shore.  I think it enjoyed our company.  Once it decided to take off, it was clear that it could swim much faster than we were paddling, and it had really slowed down to swim with us for a while.  I felt honored.

We pulled up onto shore and returned our canoes before heading out for more land-based exploring.  We felt the rocking of the boat lingering in our bodies as we drove off.


Florida Trail

There’s nothing like being on vacation…

Before Christmas, I found stupidly inexpensive flights to Florida for early February and knowing how much I long for warmth come late January, I jumped on them.  Winter was been disappointingly warm, but a nice warm vacation was welcome nonetheless.

I had brought some work with me on the trip, and because I got somewhat caught up with trying to close out some work issues followed by the fact that we had to stop and buy some food for our trip after we landed,  we wound up getting a fairly late start on the Florida Trail.

It’s been 3.5 months since I had my second hip surgery, this time correcting hip dysplasia on my left hip, and I only got off crutches just before the 3 month mark.  I was still using crutches occasionally for longer walks and hikes, and I hadn’t done anything over 4- 5 miles before heading out to Florida.  From the road crossing where we could park at the Southern Terminus, the nearest designated campsite on the Florida Trail was 7 miles away.  I had no idea if I was going to make it, but I was pretty nervous that I might not have a choice.

So we parked at the Southern Terminus, but because of our late start, we didn’t arrive at the parking lot until about 2:30pm.  So much for taking it easy, I thought to myself.

We packed up our gear.  Dirt Stew carried just about everything, and I packed my little Gossamer Gear day pack with just some water and a few snacks.  I have been grateful that Dirt Stew has been so willing to carry extra weight so that we can go backpacking together while I’ve been dealing with my hip issues.

It was warm out, but not as warm as it was last year when we visited in May.  Also there were fewer mosquitoes.  It was maybe in the high 70’s perhaps even 80 degrees.  The sun was strong though, and I was grateful that we picked up some sunglasses when we stopped to buy food (one of the several things we forgot to pack on this trip).  We registered for a back-country permit inside the ranger station, then walked past the canal full of alligators, fish and birds where all the tourists were leaning over the railing trying to get pictures, and signed the register at the beginning of the trail.  The last person to have signed in did so two days earlier.  We weren’t going to have company.

Southern Terminus – Dormouse

Southern Terminus- Dirt Stew


I started off using my hiking crutches (these are crutches called mobi-legs, but I took the top parts off so that I could use them more like hiking poles).  The trail was quite overgrown in some areas with saw grass growing waist high on either side of the trail and touching in the middle along with other plants, many of which looked suspiciously like poison ivy.  I tried to avoid touching them.  I knew that there was another poisonous plant called poisonwood, but I was not familiar enough with it to identify it while hiking along.  A lot of the plants there had oval shiny almost waxy leaves, and to me, they mostly looked a like.  This was obviously not my home turf.  I decided to switch to my hiking poles.  It was easier to navigate the narrow, overgrown trail with them, and since there wasn’t going to be any up or down, I figured I didn’t need the extra support.  Dirt Stew took my crutches and carried them in his hands the rest of the hike.

The ground was mostly quite dry, given that winter is the dry season in Florida.  I had been afraid that we would be walking through huge sections of swamp, but in fact it was easy to avoid the small sections that were wet.  For the most part the trail was covered in large rocks made of limestone or coral, and this wore me down because the stabilizer muscles in my hip weren’t quite there yet.


Rocky but flat trail



A short swampy section that was easy to walk around


An ibis in the swamp

I let Dirt Stew walk ahead of me, and I took my time, occasionally calling to him to wait up for me.  At one point I came across a snake right in the middle of the trail, and it wasn’t moving.  For a moment I thought it was dead, and I shouted ahead “did you step on this snake?”  It wasn’t dead.  I guess it was just very afraid.  I don’t know how Dirt Stew didn’t step on it- I guess he probably somehow stepped right over it without seeing it, but this snake was really taking up a lot of space right in the middle of the narrow trail.  It didn’t want to move either, and so I wound up picking it up with my hiking pole and placing it into the grass next to the trail.

We passed one or two ATV trail junctions and then passed an actual trail junction that indicated that we had hiked about 3 miles.  Just past this intersection, Dirt Stew jumped backward and then laughed.  There was a statue of an alligator right next to the trail.   I don’t know who thought this would be a funny joke, but it definitely scared the bejesus out of Dirt Stew.


Who puts a statue of  a gator on a trail??

After maybe 5 or 5.5 miles, we found a somewhat flat spot in the grass where the grass was compressed in roughly an area the size of a tent.  Someone had obviously used this site before, and since the sun was setting, and there was certainly no way we were going to make it to the designated camping spot before sundown, we decided to call it home for the night.  The sunset was beautiful.  I took out my sleeping pad and rested next to the trail while Dirt Stew set up the tent.  We had somehow forgotten to pack the tent stakes, so I was happy that we weren’t setting up past sunset so that we could find some sticks to use instead.


Beautiful sunset from our camp spot

That night it got quite cold.  I thought it was only going to drop into the low 60’s, but in fact when we checked the weather for the area later, we saw that it had dropped into the mid 40’s.  Dirt Stew had only a sleeping bag liner and a thin down blanket, and half way through the night we tried to share the one sleeping bag we brought.  I had based my research on towns that were closer to the coast where the variation in day and night-time temperatures were much smaller.  Luckily this was the only night we were going to spend so far inland.

Neither one of us slept well.  I found it hard to sleep on the hard ground with my sore hips, and trying to share a sleeping bag in the middle of the night was less than ideal.  When the morning sun hit the tent we were glad to get the warmth of dawn.  We got going around 8AM, and it was warm by 9AM, and by 10AM it was already uncomfortably hot.  Luckily by 11AM we were already back at the car.  By then I was sore and cranky and wanted nothing more than to buy a soda from the vending machine in the visitor’s center and sit in the car relaxing in the air-conditioning.  I was happy to have successfully hiked 10-11 miles on the Florida Trail only three and a half months after serious hip surgery.


Slightly forced smile… ready to sit down and drink a soda!

If you want to read more about my hip surgery and recovery, visit my PAO blog (PAO is what my hip surgery is called) at http://www.screweduphips.wordpress.com.